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Paul O’Neill of The Bolton Iron Maiden: Interview

The Bolton Iron Maiden recently announced that they have a new album in the pipeline which is slated for an October release. Having delved into the background of the band a little, we caught up with Paul O’Neill about the forthcoming project.

Plenty of people will have special memories of The Bolton Iron Maiden, but, as the sole continuous member, what are yours?

The queues to see us at BIT (a venue in Bolton that played host to many great bands). Our tight fan base who all seemed to wear overcoats and beanie hats! Playing alongside amazing acts like Procol Harum, Supertramp, Mick Abrahams, Caravan, Juicy Lucy and Glass Menagerie. 

One night Norman Hood and Tony Iommi came to see us at the FAG Club in Wigan, with a view to a management deal. Unfortunately, the DJ played a song by newcomers Focus. Derek and Beak realised I had nicked the Crawl Crawl Night-time intro from Hocus Pocus. We fell out and played like a bag of poo that night. Never saw Norman or Tony again.

On this day in 1971: Thin Lizzy released their debut album | Hotpress
This Lizzy, 1971, in their Rivington Barn-playing days.  L-R: Brian Downey, Phil Lynott, Eric Bell

We also played support to the bloody WONDERFUL Thin Lizzy at Rivington Barn on one occasion.  We were supposed to be support to Fairport Convention – who didn’t show. Instead, the agency sent a new band just landed from Ireland – it was the three piece Thin Lizzy who played their new EP – “Remembering Part II – A New Day.”  The lineup was Phil Lynott on bass, Brian Downey (a brilliant drummer) and Eric Bell on guitar – who really impressed Beak.  I had the privilege of standing having a pint with Phil at the bar. I had heard them on Radio Luxembourg, listening through the night with my insomnia, so I knew the songs. Phil was really impressed. We chatted for about 20 minutes – a highlight of my life.

We also supported Bedlam (including a young Cozy Powell) at BIT, Blodwyn Pig in Manchester, and Camel (Pete Bardens version, not Peter Frampton’s) at Mr.Smiths in Manchester.

What were your favourite live venues?

BIT, Salford Tech (now Uni) and The FAG club in Wigan, The Cavern, The Magic Village in Manchester, the Thursday rock nights at Wigan Casino. Anything we ever did with Bruce Mitchell and Music Force in Manchester. Silloth Lido (near Carlisle) and playing the girls’ school at Ambleside were always memorable!!!

In late 1972, you went into Sirius Studios in Farnworth to record a set of demoes.  The tapes from this session did the rounds of the Bolton clubs and eventually saw release in 2005 when you compiled the Maiden Flight album.  The four songs recorded at that session still sound fresh and invigorating today and they would, without doubt, have graced a full-length contemporary debut album.  How far did you push the demoes at the time?

Not much at all – I always felt was our biggest failing – not courting the press, not banging on doors demanding to be heard. We did a couple of BBC radio shows, but nowhere near enough. We always thought we would find a manager who would do all that for us – problem was – we never had a real manager!

I know Beak and Derek tried hard to push things forward, but we could never quite break through.

The Bolton Iron Maiden’s first photo

When Beak passed away, that was the first contact that most of us had had with mortality and his passing knocked everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him for six.  He was, of course, a phenomenal guitarist and a wonderful and well-loved character.  Did you ever contemplate trying to replace and to carry on the BIM project?

We toyed with the idea of Rick Pilkington from Black Cat Bone (Ed’s note – now one half of the magnificent Blackheart Orchestra) – to my mind he was a fine guitar player and had really long blond hair – just like Beak! He was the closest thing we had to Beak.

Very sadly, 1976 was a lousy year, I lost my Grandmother in November ’75 and my mother in February 1976. On 14th May, my wife Sue as viciously attacked and nearly murdered in a shop in Bolton. She recovered; thank God; but then on 23rd June, Beak died.

I had a call from the Teenagers In Love singer – Paul Neon to join a band down south, we decided it was a good idea to escape from Bolton, and one night – packed up and moved to St.Neots – where we still are today.

The Music Bench in memory of Beak at The Christie in Manchester; presented by Beak’s sisters.

Teenagers in Love started life as a BIM side-project but quickly became the main focus of the band members.  Do you feel (with the benefit of hindsight) that the commercial viability of Teenagers pushed BIM into the sideline?

Almost certainly. It was not the money – it was that Rock music was not as in demand as a 1950’s Rock N Roll band. We were just booked solid with Teenagers, but it was all very “tongue in cheek” We had a great singer in Paul Neon, and we put on a good show, but our real love was heavy rock and continued to play it alongside Teenagers.

Paul and Noel got me in to play some gigs with Teenagers In Love in 1974 and I remember the experience well. It was first time I’d ever done a real tour and stayed in hotels! A couple of years before that I also remember watching The Bolton Iron Maiden rehearse in the basement of the Sea Cadets Building at the bottom of Chorley Old Road in Bolton. I must have been 13 and that afternoon totally blew my mind as we used to say. It was probably THE MOMENT when I decided that all I ever wanted to do was play in a band. I’m sure at that point I hadn’t even been to a gig, but I pretty much idolised those guys after seeing them that day.

Rick Pilkington; now of The Blackheart Orchestra

What was your motivation for setting up The Bolton Iron Maiden website in 2005?

It was my wife Sue. She came into my little home studio one day in 2005 and said – “Do you realise it will be the 30th Anniversary of Beak’s death in June 2006?  Why don’t you make a CD from your old tapes of ‘your’ Iron Maiden. You can give a copy to our children, so they know what you were like”

That was the inspiration!  At the time, I was working on some songs with a guitarist called Rob Harris (now with Jamiroquai) He told me if I was going to do a CD the FIRST thing to do was to let the new Iron Maiden know and get their OK.

Well, I had no idea how to contact them, but finally got in touch with their lawyer and their manager Rod Smallwood. I was expecting **** Off!!  But in actual fact, they were really kind and very helpful. The message came back – “…of course you can do it – but to avoid any confusion with the then famous “Iron Maiden” they asked us to use the name…

1970 – 1976

The Bolton

Iron Maiden

…using three separate lines.

Rod Smallwood - Wikipedia
Rod Smallwood

So in truth the new name of ‘The Bolton Iron Maiden’ came from Rod Smallwood and his team.

I told them I was going to do about 20 CDs for family and for the old fans, and charge a donation for Cancer Research, and for Macmillan Nurses who were so kind and helpful to Beak’s Mum, Dad and sisters when he was ill.

They (Iron Maiden’s management) came back to me and said – make 500 – and we will advertise it on Iron Maiden’s website, because you will be giving the proceeds to Cancer Research and Macmillan Nurses (now Macmillan Cancer Care). 

In fact, Sue made the management decision to do 1000 – (it was only £200 quid more).  We have now sold all but 25 of the CDs – which I have retained – I don’t know why? I love physical products.

But, of course, it’s now downloads and streaming – We have made money EVERY year since 2006 for our charities – something I never envisaged. We have sold our music on every continent (except Antarctica) and have a healthy following in Australia, South America, North America, Europe, (especially Greece???) and the odd sales in Asia.

We have t-shirts and other merch we sell, so it’s been a great thing to do in memory of the wonderful Ian Boulton Smith.

Paul O’Neill on stage at The Bolton Iron Maiden’s reunion in 2006.

You’ve been working on a new BIM album, Puppet Master – The Rise and Fall of Slick Dandy.  What’s the significance of the album’s name?

In Truth – Slick Dandy is about our Iron Maiden – if Beak had not died – I feel sure we would have made the album and gone on to tour the world. Slick is my imagination gone mad.

In The Bolton Iron Maiden – the majority of songs were what we dubbed ‘Science Fiction’ songs. The title track was called Maiden Flight, and told the story of the Time Traveller – who never returned to tell the tale of his time travelling.  The new record – Puppet Master – is my story of what happened to the Time Traveller.

Puppet Master tells the story of ‘Slick Dandy’ who starts his life as ‘Norman Normal’ – a nobody. Slick is a star – but only became a star because of the help of the Time Traveller, who  picks out Norman Normal and shows him what he became in a different time line – both Norman and Slick exist in parallel time lines. One became a nobody – one became a Star.

 The time traveller tries to set Norman on the path to stardom. He first guides Norman to meet impresario Matthew L Fox – MLF – The Maker of Legends and Fame – if you like, he is the Larry Parnes or the Simon Cowell  of his timeline. – MLF shows Norman how to be a star – first….change the name from Norman Normal to Slick Dandy. But all at an ultimate cost…!

Don Airey of Deep Purple recording his parts for the new BIM album

Who plays on the new album?

All the main guitar work and solos are Rob Harris who I mentioned earlier. He also composed two tracks with me for the album; I play drums, tuned percussion, keyboards, guitar, woodwind and lead and backing vocals.

I was lucky to have Rob with me, who created the sound of Puppet Master with his remarkable guitar skills and writing talent.

I also managed to rope in one of my friends from a nearby village – Don Airey – who is the keyboard player with Deep Purple – he plays a remarkable moog solo on the title track ‘Slick Dandy.’  My other main musicians were friend Garry Cutress who has played bass for me many times and good friend guitarist Martin Low – who played on quite a few tracks for me, and my daughters Rachael and Victoria who do some amazing backing vocals for me.

Where was it recorded?

I actually recorded it all at my small home studio in St.Neots. Its small and cosy and handy to get to for the mates who play for me.

Do you have a target release date?

I did – in 2018, I had all the tracks mixed by Toby Hulbert at Abbey Road, then a family tragedy forced me to put everything on hold again. I started again in 2020, when the world stopped me – and everyone else. There is a track on the album – again tongue in cheek called “The World Isn’t Ready For Me Yet.”  It’s my anthem to being stopped by circumstances from getting this thing off the ground!!!

How many tracks will be on the album and do you have any particular favourites?

There are 16 tracks and the puppet master theme tune that recurs throughout the album.

Favourite tracks are “Gone Are The Days” – sort of a personal look at a struggling musician, “Slick Dandy” The title track – I love the feel of it, and “Rock N Roll Star”, the cry of every one of us who wanted fame and didn’t quite make it, but with a “Matthew L Fox” behind them may have had a chance.

I was mightily impressed when I heard that you were mixing the album at Abbey Road Studios – what was that like?

A dream come true really. Sue had booked me on a London bus trip a few years ago and it took us to Abbey Road. I stood outside with Sue and dozens of others, wondering if Paul McCartney was in there, and watching people who actually went into the Studio – wow!  So, when I was looking for someone to help me mix the album I went on line – and the first studio was under ” A” –  Abbey Road – so more for a laugh than anything I rang them. They were so nice, and told me it was £600 a day. “OMG Sue- I have £600 saved up – lets go and do it”

We did – but we had not realised they only did one song A DAY! – I found the money by robbing from Peter to pay Paul – and a lot of help from Sue.

Just being there – walking across the zebra crossing and walking through the gate! Getting in a cab and saying “Abbey Road Studios please” was magic in itself!  But the sheer overwhelming talent of the staff…! I used the ‘Front Room Studio,’ but was able to walk into Studio 2 and kiss the floor (a la Pope John Paul), dashing up the studio 2 staircase I have seen in the pictures of Abbey Road – The Beatles…! Pink Floyd…! – Seeing the mic used by Frank Sinatra on a session there….! Unforgettable!!

Oh…. and a brilliant mix by Toby was magic too!!

The proceeds from all the other BIM products that can be obtained via your website are donated to Cancer Research and Macmillan Cancer Support.  Will the proceeds from the sales of the new album be similarly donated?

I am going to donate royalties and sales  to Cancer Research and Macmillan from sales of the title track “Time Traveller” – which, if you know your BIM, is the continuation of the track Maiden Flight written by Derek, Beak and myself.

One sad thing is – due to distances and technical difficulties (like Derek does not have the IT technology to record at home) – I was hoping to include Derek Austin and Noel Pemberton-Billing in the album.  That wasn’t possible, but I am still hopeful – if we are ever allowed to play live again – to ask them to guest at gigs.

I would love that!

Rob Harris

Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us about the new album?

A Crazy fact – I have been thinking about and writing this flipping thing since 1992 with Rob. I had written many of the songs, then got this silly idea of trying to weave the songs into a story about Maiden Flight.  I didn’t know it would take the best part of 27 years to get it all together!

I doubted the idea would ever come to anything until 2006 when I released the Maiden Flight Album and then Boulton Flies Again, that gave me the impetus to actually finish some songs and write some new ones and create a new BIM album. It’s taken a long, long time – I only need to get it mastered when Abbey Road allow the mastering sessions – I have spoken recently to engineer Alex Wharton, he is hopeful it may be in October

Fingers eyes and toes crossed – it will be released in 2020!

It’s been fantastic to speak with you Paul – we give you our very best wishes for the success of your project, and we can’t wait to hear the finished item!

Listen to Cracked Path from The Bolton Iron Maiden, below.

The Bolton Iron Maiden: Website / Facebook / Twitter

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