(M) Denim and Leather Remembers: Number of the Beast, by Iron Maiden (30th Anniversary)

"A generation which ignores history has no past and no future." Robert Heinlein

By Sam Graham

To celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, we’ve decided to give this album its due, and what better way than to discuss the entire album in detail? This is likely going to be a long one, but hey, it’s Iron Maiden.

Released on March 22nd, 1982, Iron Maiden released this, their third studio album,
Number of the Beast. It featured a new singer after their previous one, Paul Di’Anno, departed for a medley of reasons that all culminated in him being deemed unfit to perform. This new singer, freshly poached from London-based band Samson, was none other than the white cloth-wearing, rapier-dodging Bruce Dickinson. His first order of business: ditch the Kate Bush attire and buy a leather jacket.

At this point in Maiden’s soon-to-be mammoth career, they were already popular in England, with their previous entry, Killers (1981), reaching #12 in UK charts and their self-titled debut going straight in at #4, but it wasn’t until Beast… came to be that they had their first number one. It became popular in other countries too, #13 in Norway and #33 in the US. In short, they became massive. The album received some flak in the US due to the title and album art, with some of them thinking the band were Satanists, but who haven’t the Americans thought were Satanists? When asked about it once, bassist and band founder Steve Harris had this to say:

“Am I a Satanist?.. No.”

And that’s that settled. Now, on to the album.

It doesn’t waste any time building up; instead it goes straight for the throat with Invaders. This was the first time the world heard Maiden with Dickinson on vocals and it gets off to a good start. The verses have a similar staccato rhythm to Di’Anno’s parts in Phantom of the Opera (1980), but it’s the lift in the chorus that cements Dickinson as being a superior singer in terms of range. Coupled with fast guitar riffagery from both Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, this song is quick and sounds enjoyable; even though the lyrics are about a Viking invasion, which is, I imagine, a gory sight to behold. The guitar solos (played by Dave, then Adrian) feature all the paunch and precision that would become a trademark of Maiden-style soloing. It’s fairly short, but then so is the song, and it’s got enough notes crammed into it that it doesn’t feel lacking.

After Invaders comes the slower Children of the Damned. It’s my belief that this song is the format for most metal songs that start off clean, then get heavier as it progresses, like One (1988) by Metallica for example. That being said it starts with some clean guitar and bass, with the drums (played by Clive Burr) keeping it simple, saving his energy for later on. The echo of Dickinson’s voice, coupled with the slight hint of gruff he has gives this song at eerie atmosphere and sounds to me what it would be like if Hammer Films decided to write a rock song. The chorus is simply the title wailed repeatedly and it helps add to that eeriness. After the second chorus the build-up begins, crafted mainly by the guitars and the drums as Dickinson sings about someone being burnt to death, then the solo kicks in straight after. Adrian takes the reigns with this one and as such, it features less emphasis on widdly notes and more on construction. That’s not to say Mr Smith can’t lay down some frantic licks, because the part after the bends proves that. After the solo Dickinson peaks the song off with Burr’s help and by the sounds of it, it was that strenuous it almost made him throw up at the very end.

For those of you that were around in 1967, the next song, The Prisoner, will make you feel old. It features some dialogue from the old telly program about ‘number 6’ not wanting to accept his lack of freedom, and the ‘new number 2’ essentially bitch-slapping him with his laughter. The song begins with a tempo that’s mid-way between Invaders and Children of the Damned, and keeps interest for a while until the riff can come in. While simple, it’s a good headbanger that continues through the whole verse. The chorus is probably one of the most memorable that wasn't released as a single and is a good cheer-up kind of chorus. Actually, during the course of this review I’ve noticed that a lot of Maiden’s lyrics seem to be quite dark, masqueraded by fairly cheerful sounding music.

The solo is my favourite one on the album. It’s longer than the previous two songs’ and is an expert blend of class and flash, which is a short way to describe both the guitarists at this point. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that Adrian starts this one off, then hands it over to Dave. In fact, The Prisoner is my favourite song on this album, aside from the single tracks, because of its catchy chorus, heavy riff and the fact that the intro makes it unmistakably British.

22 Acacia Avenue is the second in what became a trilogy of songs about a charming young lady who lives in the east end of London. People often frequent her home and come away feeling refreshed and not too out of pocket. Her name is Charlotte and is in fact a dirty little harlot. This song starts will less punch than Charlotte the Harlot did, but is definitely catchier. The verses create a tension that lets rip in the choruses and the lyrics are so tongue-in-cheek, it’s hard not to like.

The best part of the song is probably just before the breakdown when Dickinson tells you all that Charlotte will let you do, and from the sounds of it she’s one dirty girl. It’s interesting to note that Dave Murray actually plays a solo here that isn’t full of trills. It’s quite sombre and fits the slowed-down mood really well. The ripping solo is passed on to Adrian later on in which he opens with his signature bends and carries the song through to its end. An interesting factoid about this song is that Adrian wrote the majority of it when he was playing in his old band, Urchin.

OK, we all know this next song, and to say otherwise would be a stark lie. Even my mam knows this song. Actor Barry Clayton (narrator of Count Duckula back in the day) precedes this song with a quote from the book of revelations then begins the effortlessly popular title track, Number of the Beast. At the end of the intro Bruce Dickinson lets his vocal chords rip before heading into the meat and bone of the song. Inspired by Damian: Omen 2 (1978) in which Lucifer’s son learns about his unholy heritage (funny how nobody tells him his mother was a jackal though), this song is about the number six hundred and sixty-six. It’s famous for its energy and is a fan-favourite. Murray takes the first solo while Adrian gets left with sloppy seconds this time around, but I think that while I normally prefer Adrian’s lead-guitar work, Murray fills this slot better. They’re both brilliant solo’s, but it wouldn’t have been as good if they’d swapped the order around. Every wildly successful rock band has that ‘one song’ and in the eyes of a great many, Iron Maiden’s is this one.

Next comes their other popular fan-favourite. Run to the Hills has definitely got a better intro though, with Clive providing a marching beat to the hook played on both guitars and the bass, while Dickinson sings about how white guys suck and only exist to consume other cultures and pinch their land. This song is perfectly placed to follow Number of the Beast because it has exactly the same kind of energy and comes off just as effortless. It’s this kind of music that had made Iron Maiden such a popular favourite over the years. As for the guitar solo, Dave takes this one and provides us with enough widdly notes to placate us. To match the scream at the start of Number of the Beast, Dickinson ends Run to the Hills with something similar. It’s not as blood-curdling, but it’s an impressive feat none the less.

The song that comes next is my least favourite on the album. Gangland’s not a bad song, but when compared to the sheer amount of skill on this album, something had to be at the bottom. I can’t pick out anything particularly wrong with it; it has a strong opening, a very good verse that has one of the fastest riffs on the album. The guitar solo by Adrian is what you should expect from his particular playing idiom and the whole thing is spot on. I think it’s because it’s in the wake of Beast… and Hills…that brings it down. Taking Maiden’s whole career into consideration, I think Gangland would sound best placed on Fear of the Dark (1992). It suits that albums calibre a bit better than this one.

If you have a more recent copy of the album, the next track will be the song Total Eclipse. Originally the band had to choose between this song and Gangland to make it onto the album. They chose the latter, but now with the advent of better technology than cassette tape, they stuck it back on. Apparently the band regret choosing Gangland over Total Eclipse, but what can they do about it now? From the opening chord to the last one, Total Eclipse is a strong song, much better than the predecessor. It follows the standard Iron Maiden features and the lyrical pattern reminds me somewhat of the one in Can I Play with Madness (1988).

Now we come to the last. The final song on this album and perhaps one of Iron Maiden’s most epic. It’s up there with Fear of the Dark (1992) and The Evil That Men Do (1988) and has been covered by folks such as Cradle of Filfth, Iced Earth and so many more that ‘covers’ has its own section on this song’s Wikipedia page.

Hallowed Be Thy Name, the third single (released as a live version in 1993) from the album, although I don’t know if eleven years after the album release still counts. It starts with a gong and a few harmonised chords here and there while Bruce tells the story of someone about to be hung. The vibrato in his voice holds for a really long time then the songs main hook comes in, played by Murray and Smith. The music stops to accentuate the first few verse lines, then comes in fully for the rest, then takes us back to that hook every time.

After a few verses the song takes a breather before plunging into some Maiden-styled speed. This is when the solo’s come in and like before, it’s a shared duty. First Dave, then Adrian, then that original hook harmonized over Clive Burr’s faster beat. Over that beat Dickinson wails out the song’s title. It’s at this point the song becomes impossible to not headbang to, but as quick as this part comes, it then goes out with a bang.

And there ends Number of the Beast and along with it, drummer Clive Burr’s career with Iron Maiden. He was replaced by Nicko McBrain, a strange man with a strange surname, for their next album, Piece of Mind (1983).

It’s at this point where I feel it necessary to find a fault on the album; otherwise the review would be compromised. It was a difficult search, but I have to come back to Gangland. It just didn’t suit the aesthetic of the album and ended up coming off as a filler track. At least with hindsight, the band realise they should have put Total Eclipse on instead.

Has this album stood the test of time?

Well here I am, thirty years on, writing a review about it to celebrate its thirty year anniversary, so what do you reckon? This album has been reissued too many times to be worth counting; such is its lasting popularity. It’s been called one of the best heavy metal albums ever released by some and is mentioned in the book 1001 Albums you must hear before you Die (one of two credits Maiden get in it, the other is their debut). Number of the Beast was an instant hit back in 1982.

The band was already known at that point and the addition of Bruce Dickinson on the pipes was definitely one of the defining factors that tipped the scales in their favour. Dickinson has become a topic of quite a few conversations. Some people love his voice, others find it too shrill, and prefer the punkish style of Di’Anno. I don’t think anybody preferred Blaze Bayley.

Not only did this album become a benchmark for songwriting, but for the recording quality too. Even though it’s thirty years on, the album doesn’t sound dated, which can be a problem with older music such as 70’s Judas Priest or Saxon, especially when it comes to the younger crowd nowadays. Number of the Beast still sounds brand new, whether you own one of the remastered versions (like I do), or a cassette copy from the eighties (like I also do).

While not their most memorable line-up (that didn’t kick in until Piece of Mind), it is the sound of Number of the Beast that has made the band famous. Every album following this, from Piece of Mind to The Final Frontier (2010) has some elements of this album in it, while also retaining its originality. Maiden have tried concept albums, simplistic albums, darker themed albums and lately, more progressive albums, but it all comes back to this, their ‘one’. While their trademark sound was prevalent on Iron Maiden (1980) and Killers (1981), it wasn’t until this album that it became perfected, the rough edges sharpened, and let’s face it, when 14 million people buy your album, you know you’ve done something right.

While this album might not be my personal favourite (that honour falls on Powerslave (1984)), I can’t deny this album.

Up the Irons.

Devil-Horn Rating (out of five): \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/

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