Suffering health woes that have left him wheelchair bound for the last few years, Paul Di'Anno has had a tough few years. He may have been knocked down, but he's not out, and with the same gritty determination that has seen him through thus far, he's looking to the future and a return to live action. In the mean time, he has a new album; 'Hell over Waltrop - Live in Germany' which is due for release in January. We sat down with the former Iron Maiden front man for a chat about the disc, his early days with Maiden, and reconnecting with Steve Harris. Another life; Eamon O’Neill.
How are you today, Paul?
I’ve been better, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely!
It’s been a little while since we’ve heard from you, due to some recent health issues.
Yeah, I was constantly on tour up until 2015. I finished a couple of shows up over in Japan and in Argentina, and as both my knees had given out, I had to use a wheelchair here and there, and I felt very, very ill. I can tell you the exact date; it was May 5th 2015. I was coming back from Argentina on British Airways, and everyone’s going to me; “are you alright?”, all the stewards and everything, and I was getting annoyed really! I got back to my house, and within about 10 minutes of getting home, I just collapsed. It was unbelievable, really. I had my phone with me lucky enough, and I called up an ambulance, and just passed out. They kicked the door down, took me to hospital, and I was dying of sepsis [a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the body's response to an infection]!
What brought that on?!
Well, sepsis is a blood infection, and apparently I had an impacted tooth. I didn’t know anything about it; I never had toothache or nothing! So I ended up getting really ill. You get sepsis, and then you’re on loads of medication, but when you’ve got it really severe like me, you’ve got 45 minutes to get to the hospital, and they pump you full of antibiotics and all that, and it basically saves your life. And then they’ve just got to treat you for ages. So I spent eight months in hospital there, and then another three months in a care home. I came out about two years ago, and it’s taken me this long because you can’t have your knees operated on until you’re completely sepsis free. I haven’t stood up in four years, but they’re going to operate on that as soon as they can.
You’re obviously keen to get back out on the road again, and the new live album must be a great way to remind people about that.
I ain’t ready to retire, no! When you’ve got kids, mate, you’ve never got enough money! No, there are plans ahead, and there’s loads of stuff to do. I’ve been offered work left, right and centre; it’s just that I can’t do any of it at the moment. Everything’s on hold; it’s in limbo, which is quite frustrating. But this live album, this ‘Hell Over Waltrop’ thing, we did this years ago, and it was quite a good show, actually, because it was really not what we’re used to doing. They had all sorts of pop people on there as well. I’d never heard of most of these before, like Sydney Youngblood, and a few others, so we thought it could be a bit of a hostile audience. There were quite a few metal fans there as well, so we went out, and they crushed it!
So the show worked out okay, and you've not got a new album to show for it!
Well, I thought “that’s alright!”, but the thing is, the recording was so bad! Well, the stage sound anyway, because the monitor man was a fucking idiot, apparently! But my out front guy, Thomas, he found the tapes recently, and he called me up and said; “I’ve done some work on this; come and listen to these”. And there were one or two tracks, and I thought; “this is great!” It sounds alright; it’s rough, it’s raw, there’s no overdubs on it, and he managed to clean it up, and I thought; “right, this would be a good stopgap”.
The album was recorded in 2006, and it features a health dose of Iron Maiden tracks.
I mean, I am a bit annoyed, and it’s down to the promoters more than anything else; they want you to play a sort of Maiden-heavy set, and I thought; “what’s my own fucking songs then, chopped liver? They don’t count for anything?!” I got quite angry, but you know, my management at the time was booking them, and I went; “hang on a minute, I’m becoming like the ultimate fucking, cover band”. But it comes to something when your own fans are coming up to you and they’re saying; “stop playing the Maiden stuff and do some of your own!” But now, I’m in control, and I’ve got all new management and everything.
Speaking of solo work, one of the heavier releases was 1994's ‘Menace to Society’.
That was just a bit of frustration coming out there. I write how I feel at the time, so you never know, some day you might end up with an album full of love songs! But yeah, that one, I was a bit angry at the time with our previous record company, which was BMG. The Killers ‘Murder One’ album came out and we done so well for them, and for us, because that sold huge amounts and it was like No. 1, but we just couldn’t get on with what they wanted us to do. I don’t know what it is about record companies, but they make you change; you have like a hit record, and then they try to sort of change to get into the charts. We weren’t going to sacrifice anything, so we sort of fell out with the record company and left, and then joined up with the other lot to record ‘Menace’, which I’m really happy with. I like that album.
Going back to your very first recording, and there’s been some debate about the line-up that went in to record Iron Maiden’s ‘The Soundhouse Tapes’ in 1979; was guitarist Paul Cairns there?
He was on it, yeah, he did play on it. I don’t really know what happened. I’m not playing stupid on it either; he was in the band one minute, and out the next, as far as I know, but then again, there was a lot of people could have done that! I think he was in the band for the time of the recording, but then I think Steve had a plan for somebody else, which became Dennis [Stratton] in the end.
What do you remember about the recording of ‘The Soundhouse Tapes’?
I’d never done anything like that before. We’d rehearsed and everything, but I’d never made a record before at the time, so I was a bit bewildered. I was getting annoyed, because I hate studios, I really do. I wanted to get it all over and done with as quickly as possible, but obviously, the engineer is going; “no, go on, try it again; do it again, do it again”, and I’m going; “fuuuuuckkk!”. So, that was about it, but I remember it passing by really quickly, because I was a bit overwhelmed by it all. But our biggest worry was where the hell we were going to stay that night after, because we were too late to get back home and we had nowhere to stay!
Next was the recording of the band’s debut album with Wil Malone, whose production Steve Harris is famously unhappy with.
No, and he’s not the only one! I love the songs, but can’t stand the fucking recording of it! It’s the overall sound of the thing itself. The songs are fantastic, but to do it any justice, it would have to be rerecorded, not remastered, rerecorded. Wil Malone, I think he was Mike Oldfield’s triangle engineer or something! It pissed me off, because it lacks; it’s like painting a picture that doesn’t give it’s full glory, because that album, the songs on there are absolutely stonking. As a first album it was brilliant, but the production just let it down.
Where were you when you first heard the album?
We heard it overall in the control room, and it sounded alright then, but when it’s pressed and mastered and put out… I think it’s all a bit too exciting, and I think in the cold light of day a couple of days after we thought; “the production is not that great, is it?” But it was too late to do anything about it then.
The album reached No.4 in the UK album charts, which must have been amazing at the time.
Well it was a bit, and I remember [manager] Rod Smallwood come up, because we were on tour somewhere, we were going north, and they were going south, and we ended up somewhere in Yorkshire or something, and Rod came into the dressing room and said we’d come in at number 4! It was amazing!
What did you think of the cover art, the first time you saw that?
Me and Steve looked at it and we thought; “fucking hell, look at that; this is great!” I said to him, can you imagine, when you’re going through the records in the record shop, and that one just jumps right out at your face! So we decided to keep it, and if I remember rightly, I was the one who nicknamed him ‘Eddie; Eddie the Head’, because we kept going; “it’s an ‘ead, it’s and ‘ead!” It was brilliant. I love it. Derek’s artwork was fantastic.
You have a couple of song writing credits on the album too, with both ‘Running Free’ and ‘Remember Tomorrow’ bearing your name.
Yeah. It comes to something, because the first two albums are absolutely pivotal in Maiden’s career. I mean, obviously they’ve gone on and they’ve done a lot better and bigger things as well, which is absolutely fantastic, but it’s great when you’ve got your peers coming up to you; big name bands like Pantera, Metallica, Sepultura and the like, all sort of saying; “if it wasn’t for you guys, we wouldn’t have got into this”. So, it makes you proud.
In between the first album and its follow-up ‘Killer’, the band released the ‘Women in Uniform’ single, which Steve Harris also famously dislikes.
Well, they [record label EMI] asked us if we’d do it, because I think at the same time, Skyhooks [the Australian band who wrote and recorded the original version of the song] were on the same label as us. I know Skyhooks, and I don’t think anyone else in the band ever knew them, but I’ve got family over in Australia, and I know them quite well. But I think it was a management and Steve Harris and EMI sort of decision to do it. But I hate the song as well, to be honest with you! I like it by Skyhooks, I don’t like it by us, and I tell you what, it’s a bastard to sing live! It’s a bit of a nightmare. I think we played it live a couple of times. I remember playing, I think it was Reading University or something that we played it once, when Steve and a couple of us looked over at each other like; “oh fucking hell”… It quickly got dropped!
It’s one of those rarer tracks from that period.
Kids keep saying to me; “why don’t you do ‘Invasion”, and yada yada ya, but I’m trying to get away from that. I’m not trying to get away from my heritage with Iron Maiden; I’m very proud and I’m very honoured to have been in the band, but, I want to do my songs.
With your dislike of the production on the debut, you must have been delighted with the choice of Martin Birch for ‘Killers’.
Yeah, and I wish Martin had produced the first album, I must admit. But what’s done is done now, and that’s one of those things. It’s so sad, because I still think that on the first album the songs are much stronger. The second album though, it depends; some fans are sort of split down the middle with that one. I wrote ‘Killers’ with Steve as well, but I didn’t get any more songs on there because it was pretty much taken over by Steve then.
What, in your opinion, did the addition of Adrian Smith add to the band?
Having Adrian in the band was absolutely brilliant. It was an absolute godsend because him and Dave Murray had played together in other bands back in the East End. They’d played as a two-guitar partnership in Urchin and other things, and grew up together, so it was alright. There was a difference in guitar sounds; Dave’s got his sound down, and Dennis and Dave were good together to be honest with you, but Dave and Adrian’s sound is just perfect for Maiden.
Lead single ‘Twilight Zone’, was left off the 'Killers' album.
That’s another one I can’t stand doing. It’s not the high notes of it; I can do the high notes, still, even today. I ain’t got a problem with that! No, you’ve got to pace yourself. Recording it’s fine, but when you’re doing six nights a week, it can suffer a little bit because you can’t get enough breath in there. Steve’s a rotten bastard when he writes songs like that!
There’s perhaps a greater contrast on ‘Killers’, with heavier songs counter balanced with the likes of the acoustic ‘Prodigal Son’.
I tell you what baffled me when we were doing that song; I kept asking; “who the fuck’s ‘Lamia’?”! I didn’t know who it was, so I had to go and read up on it, and yeah, it was quite interesting! But Steve came up with some great songs and ideas. He’s right out there sometimes, that boy! But I enjoyed singing that. I can sing a good sort of ballad-ey song. I can sing quite well, apparently, so I’ve been told.
There seems to be no definitive story on how you eventually came to leave the band in 1981; how exactly did it go down?
I’ll tell you what it was. The second album as I said, I like the album and I liked it a lot, but it didn’t have as much impact on me as the first album. Some of the songs on there were a bit… and I couldn’t give 100% of myself, which was not fair on the band, on the fans, or on me. And yeah, I was trying to find other ways to make if exciting for me when I was on the road, and yeah, there was a few problems with a bit of cocaine now and again. It wasn’t as bad as what most people say it is – it was nothing like that! But no, all it is at the end of the day is, when you’ve got such a fantastic working machine like Iron Maiden, if one little cog goes a bit wrong, the whole thing falls to bits, and I wasn’t prepared for Maiden to go through that, and I wasn’t prepared for me to go through it as well. So I sort of mentioned that I was unhappy, we had a little chat and all that, and that was it. We all sort of parted ways amicably.
You must be incredibly proud of what you left behind though, with the legacy of those early years.
Oh, very, very much so, and I still am of the band today, because they’re still soldering on, and especially in some countries around the world, where they build you up to knock you down, and England’s like one of the biggest ones of that, but Maiden have stayed constant around the world, regardless. Some albums aren’t as great as the others and that, but then again, what do you expect? Most bands are like that, And it’s high quality always and really good, and this last show that they’ve done [the ‘Legacy of the Beast’ tour] has been fantastic!
Have you actually stood in a room and caught the band live since you left?
I went to seem the first time when Bruce sang with them, and I took my mum. We had to leave early because people kept shouting out for me, and I thought; “no, I ain’t having all of that!” So, we left early. But on this last tour they just done, Steve was fantastic, because my wife and my boy over in the States wanted to go and see the show, and I got hold of Loopy [Steve ‘Loopy’ Newhouse’, former Maiden road crew member], and he got hold of Steve for me, and Steve gave them VIP passes, backstage, went out and met my wife Maria and my son Christian. So she’s put him in touch with me, and it’s great. We’ve had a little chat, and as soon as I’m up and have got myself together again, we’re going to meet up for a drink and a dinner again. So yeah, he was really kind, and that was really good of him.
That’s nice that things are coming full circle, and you’re back in touch.
Yeah, I’m really pleased. Look, I’ll tell you what; one of the saddest days of my life will be when Maiden stop. Indirectly, with me as well, how much joy do fans get by hearing Maiden songs, whether done by me or done by Maiden, live around the world? I can attest to that. They are absolutely awesome, and they bring so much joy, and I don’t want to see that stop. That could happen at some stage, but I hope it’s not for quite some years yet.
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Paul Di'Anno's 'Hell Over Waltrop - Live in Germany' is released on 31st January 2020, via Metalville Records.