Blaze of glory
Former Iron Maiden frontman Blaze Bayley returns to perform in Belfast next week for the first time since his wife’s tragic death two years ago. Andrew Johnston speaks to the heavy metal singer
Blaze Bayley is living up to the title of his last album — The Man Who Would Not Die. The ex-Iron Maiden singer was engulfed by tragedy in 2008, when his wife Debbie suffered a brain haemorrhage and passed away days before a scheduled Belfast concert, which was understandably cancelled.
Many artists might have thrown in the towel at that point, but Blaze returns to the fray this month with a new album and tour, including a show at Belfast’s Limelight next Thursday.
The 46-year-old heavy metal stalwart is seeking therapy through singing yet, as he admits, there were a lot of dark moments.
“It was my family, friends and band that got me through it,” he says. “They stuck behind me, and I had actually had a conversation with my wife before she passed away — before she was even ill — and she said she wanted me to carry on with my music if anything happened. So that’s what I did. Those first few months were horrible, but I’d made a promise to her.”
Blaze also credits his fans for helping him through. “I’ve had people who’ve supported me for such a long time, people that have believed in me, so I didn’t have much choice but to carry on,” he says. “It would have been easy to give up and use Debbie’s death as an excuse for everything going wrong.”
Instead, Bayley poured his emotions into creating new music. “The new album is about Debbie,” he says. “It’s about loss and grief and depression, and coming to terms with that. I had these words — I didn’t really think of them as lyrics at the time — that just seemed to fit with the music we were writing. The second half of the album really tells the story of love and loss and trying to find your way to survive.”
Blaze is certainly a survivor. Born Bayley Alexander Cooke in Birmingham in 1963, the musician has had a long and eventful career. The title of his new album, which was released earlier this month, says it all: Promise and Terror. From the much-hyped underachievers Wolfsbane, through the highs and lows of the Maiden years, to being fired by the metal legends, the period 1984 to 1999 was a roller coaster ride for the Tamworth-based star.
In 1994, Blaze was picked from hundreds of auditions to front Maiden, yet even that was tinged with disaster. After injuring his knee in a motorcycle accident, Blaze’s debut album with the band was delayed by a year. Ultimately, 1995’s The X Factor and 1998’s Virtual XI sold relatively poorly, and in February 1999 Blaze was let go. Maiden immediately reunited their classic line-up, including vocalist Bruce Dickinson (who, ironically, recently interviewed Blaze for his BBC 6 Music show).
Bayley remains on good terms with his former employers and still goes to watch his old group live with Dickinson.
“I get the absolute top-bollocks passes, so I can go anywhere I want. We’re still friends.”
After Maiden, Bayley released four albums under the band name Blaze. In 2007, the singer assembled a new line-up featuring guitarists Nico Bermudez and Jay Walsh, bassist David Bermudez and drummer Lawrence Paterson.
On the two albums by the revamped group — renamed ‘Blaze Bayley’, because, Bayley says, “nobody knew who ‘Blaze’ was” — the frontman has adjusted his decades-old writing style. “The lyrics are a lot more personal,” he says. “I always used to hide behind a character. Now, there’s no question I’m talking about myself and what I’ve been through.”
Blaze feels people identify more with the new material and believes his comeback has served as inspiration for fans in similar situations. He says: “A lot of people have shared their tragedies and said that because I carried on it made it easier for them to carry on. You never think you’re going to help people in that way, but it is a really wonderful thing.”
The singer has always made the effort to take his music to the people. He has come to Northern Ireland since the days when the Troubles kept many artists away. “Many of our contemporaries in Wolfsbane didn’t even go to Scotland,” he says. “But we were determined to go everywhere we possibly could. I was quite nervous the first time I went to Belfast, because you only know what you see on TV — and it’s all bad — but the people of Belfast made us feel so welcome. It was wonderful, and we were so glad that we went.”
Bayley recalls an incident that happened after one of Wolfsbane’s first Belfast shows at the Rosetta Bar in the 1980s.
“I remember we went to get food in the Chinese takeaway after the gig,” he says. “There was an armoured car going past and nobody batted an eyelid. It wasn’t unusual at all for the people we were with, but we were looking at each other and saying, ‘You’d never see that in Tamworth!’.”
Blaze has recently begun to perform with the reformed Wolfsbane, ending the bad blood caused by the frontman’s defection to Maiden. “I put that down to my wife,” says Blaze. “She got in touch with everybody and actually engineered us getting back together. I’m so glad she did, because we were friends for so long, and we had so many laughs together.’”
After leaving Maiden, Blaze nixed the idea of joining an established group à la Judas Priest’s Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens. “I had a couple of offers, but my gut feeling was to get my own band together.”
Opinion about Bayley’s Maiden output has softened of late. “A lot of people have listened back to the albums and realised they never gave them the time when they came out,” says Blaze. “There was a lot of emotion — their favourite singer had left their favourite band.”
Blaze blames the general turmoil heavy rock and metal was going through in the mid-1990s for the relative lack of success of Maiden at that time. “People were saying Maiden were over, yet we were playing to 10,000 people a night in the rest of Europe. Grunge was all over the place. Metal was unfashionable, and I was very disappointed in all the bands who tried to tip the hat to grunge.”
Original Maiden vocalist Paul Di’Anno has made some harsh statements about the band in the past, yet Bayley never comes across as bitter. “My attitude going into Iron Maiden was that I was a fan of Iron Maiden,” says Blaze. “I loved Iron Maiden, and I’m very proud of the work that I did with the band.”
He adds with a smile: “I don’t mind being associated with the biggest, most important heavy metal band in history.”
Blaze Bayley plays the Limelight in Belfast on March 4. Tickets are £16 and are available from all Ticketmaster outlets