Rumours were afoot of a dramatic and exotic development – an undiscovered continent. Iron Maiden world was about to go Brazil nuts. We were headed south, to Rio de Janeiro. I had never heard of Varig Airlines or held a Brazilian banknote. I had no idea where Copacabana Beach was or the Corcovado or Sugarloaf Mountain. I had never met the Girl from Ipanema and never tasted a caipirinha. Brahma was an Indian monk, not a beer, and I had no idea that wiggling your bottom could be a national sport. I also had no idea who Frank Sinatra’s lawyer was.
Rock in Rio, the first one ever, was a 10 – on any scale of 1 to 10. I suppose I could get picky about the band, or my performance, but actually that isn’t the point. It was a show that broke Iron Maiden in an entire continent overnight.
Initially, we turned it down. In the throes of selling out American shows back to back, a two-week break in Brazil seemed like madness. Yet the Rock in Rio offer seemed too good to be true. At every turn their lawyer just said yes.
‘We want you for two shows in two weeks.’ ‘We only do one.’
And so it went on. First-class travel, a massive fee, merchandising equivalent to a week of sold-out US shows, personal spending money, luxury hotels, guaranteed air freight for 30 tons of equipment – the answer was always, ‘Yes. Anything else?’
On arrival in Rio, our clothes were almost torn from us by screaming fans, many of them extraordinarily good-looking females. We were pursued to our hotel on Copacabana Beach, which itself was surrounded 24 hours a day by hundreds of fans.
For the next week we would be prisoners in the hotel, along with several other artists, until the moment we were released to go to the festival, and what an incredible enterprise the whole thing was.
Three full stages had been created with a railway track laid down to rotate them before a specially designed and constructed festival set-up with a capacity of 300,000 people.
The biggest stars from the international music world, plus all the biggest local talent, were playing in a non-stop orgy of entertainment for two weeks. The TV rights alone were worth a fortune. Cynics might say the whole operation was a huge money-laundering operation. One thing was for sure: there was certainly a lot of it washing around.
We just enjoyed the ride, quite literally. The last time I had been in a helicopter was when I was chucked out of the side of a Westland Wessex in a tick-infested forest in Thetford. Today was somewhat more luxurious as we climbed aboard for the 10-minute ride to the festival site.
We were not yet headliners; that honour belonged to Queen, who were on stage after us. Even so, it was clear that there was massive expectation for Maiden.
The festival site itself was a chaotic blur. Tempers and tension were running high backstage. There was a barely visible sense of order, and a sense that disorder might break out at any time.
Two rival security firms were at each other’s throats. Both had dogs and both had guns. They were involved in a standoff outside our dressing room. Leashed, fanged beasts with spiked collars were being held at bay at opposite ends of the corridor.
We waited in our dressing room for the signal that the stage was ready, oblivious to the commotion. In the hallway outside, guns were brandished and there was much trading of insults, and presumably aspersions cast about family members in Brazilian Portuguese. Once it all cooled off and the guns were holstered, we got the green light.
Rio was the biggest crowd I have ever played, and probably ever will. It seemed to disappear beyond the horizon, past the hazy floodlit pools of colour and into the blackness.
The surge of adrenalin as we ran out was immense, like a dozen Olympic 100-metre starts rolled into one. All these people, all that emotion, and … the sound was awful. We had brought our own monitors, but some of the gear was local, and the monitor engineer was a stranger. I waved my arms, trapped between a rock and a hard place. You can’t stop in front of 300,000 people and do a soundcheck.
By the time we got to ‘Revelations’ I had put on my rather natty electric-blue Ibanez guitar. It matched the rather stylish electric-blue acoustic Ovation that I still have. The anger built as I tried to communicate with the engineer at the side of the stage. Hot and bothered, I wrenched the guitar off, over my head, and split my forehead open on its wooden edge.
My head was bleeding profusely as I approached the monitor board.
The engineer saw the blood and looked horrified. ‘Fucking fix the sound – don’t fucking stand there like a goldfish,’ I ranted.
I expect I looked like a raving lunatic, which at that moment I was. To prove a point, I smashed my guitar across the mixing desk, and broke it halfway down the neck.
‘FIX IT!’ I screamed.
Read more: 40 pieces of wisdom from Iron Maiden lyrics
The sound did not improve, so I threw all the wedge monitors off the front of the stage. Crowds love this sort of thing; they think it’s show time. Sometimes it may be, but sometimes it’s not. This whole spectacle was being shown live on TV across millions of Latin American households.
I did a bit more singing and then went behind the amps to calm down a bit. A roadie gave me a towel to wipe the blood away from my eyes, and then another member of the crew showed up, very excited. He looked carefully at the wound.
‘Rod says can you squeeze it and make it bleed some more,’ he said. ‘It looks great on the telly.’
Next day, the picture was front-page news: sweaty, blood- stained me, and 300,000 new Iron Maiden fans.
We relished it all, and the comedown from the show lasted all night. It was a late show in any case, so it was four or five in the morning when we got to the hotel. Our ears were still ringing and alcohol seemed to have no soporific effect; the adrenalin rush was still overpowering the body’s efforts to sleep.
I walked into the hotel lobby at about 6 a.m. There were no fans. The road was deserted out to the beach, and the sun was deliciously eyeball-roastingly warm, just before it would become scorchingly unbearable.
It was a strange feeling to be free after six days under siege. I indulged in the forbidden fruit of escaping without a minder and slowly crossed the road, took off my shoes and sat down on the beach, wiggling my toes in the hot sand.
Not long now, and then back on a plane to the middle of winter. What a fucking weird life this is, I thought to myself. I looked to my left. There was Brian May, eyes closed, face towards the sun, probably thinking something similar. I left him to it. Funny old world, really.
What Does this Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson (HarperCollins) £20, is out on Thursday 19 October. Buy on Amazon here