Iron Maiden’s career-defining The Number Of The Beast turns 40
Though now long considered the biggest heavy metal band in the world, Iron Maiden entered 1982 with a lot to prove.
The first self-titled album was critically acclaimed, and it’s follow-up Killers had sold well. But the press had turned against them, and whole the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement seemed to be floundering. Maiden had just amicably parted ways with singer Paul Di’anno–and replaced him with another Paul–Samson vocalist Paul “Bruce” Dickinson.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The third album is a crucial juncture in most bands’ careers, especially a group like Maiden that was perfectly poised to become an international headliner, or begin a long slow nosedive into the Atlantic. Thankfully, bassist and lead songwriter Steve Harris had a vision, and the support of the band’s savvy manager Rod Smallwood.
I will always argue that Killers is the best Maiden album, but after decades of consideration, I have been swayed to believe that there’s no way the band could have continued on its trajectory with Paul Di’anno. He’s said as much himself, and was relieved when Smallwood let him go. Di’anno’s rock and roll dream involved pulling birds, drinking endless pints, and collapsing into a stupor when it was all over. Unfortunately for him, Maiden’s grueling schedule meant the work was never done. Di’anno’s voice couldn’t keep up with his party regimen, and the band was forced to cancel a number of shows in 1981. Years later, when asked if he wished it had been him in that position, Di’anno said, “It was me. I just didn’t want it.”
To make matters more potentially dire, the well of songs Harris and Maiden had written over the early years of the band had run dry. EMI gave them just a few months to write an entire new body of work, and five weeks to record it in early ’82. This put a serious burden on Harris to pen the majority of the album, especially since Bruce Dickinson was still in a legal quagmire with the former managers of Samson, and was not allowed to contribute to any writing until the Piece of Mind album a year later.
With all these factors in place, it’s a minor miracle that Number of the Beast was not only made, but that it went on to be such a successful and influential album. As the first record with Bruce Dickinson, and the last to feature drummer Clive Burr, it’s a transitional, career-making album, even if a few of the tracks remain quite forgettable.
The album kicks off with a quickie called “Invaders.” There are three problems with this song. First and least, Judas Priest had a superior track called “Invader” on their 1978 Stained Class album—a song which finally made its live debut in August of 2021.
Second, the passable lyrics about a Viking attack employ Bruce “the air raid siren” Dickinson to shout “Raping!” which, sure, it’s a loose depiction of historic events, but feels callous in the lead track of a major label metal album. Lastly, and most damning, the chorus is weak, with that little guitar bit that seems to say, “I’m running up the stairs… I’m running down the stairs!” Having said all that, the rest of the song is strong enough, it rocks, and it gets out of the way quickly.
Now please don’t think I’m down on this album. Bear with me. Number Of The Beast is an all time classic for good reason, not the least of which is that it boasts five of the greatest metal songs ever written. Surely that’s more than enough to justify its enduring status.
The ship rights itself immediately with another Harris-penned stunner, “Children Of The Damned.” Maiden had a history of giving nods to horror film fare, beginning with “Phantom of the Opera” on their debut, and “Murders In the Rue Morgue” (not to mention “Twilight Zone”) on Killers. Simply put, this is one of the best Iron Maiden songs. It’s a track based on a lurching monster riff that pairs favorably with Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Sea.” After all, both tracks were produced by Martin “Headmaster” Birch within a few years of each other.
Maintaining stride, “The Prisoner” follows. It’s safe to say that, outside of the UK, most of us learned about Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant, uncompromising, surrealist 1968 spy/thriller TV show thanks to this song. Maiden knew they’d need permission to include the “I am not a number, I am a free man!” sample and contacted the BBC. Turns out that McGoohan actually owned the rights to his own material, so manager Rod Smallwood was tasked with phoning McGoohan and explaining that it was a heavy metal band called Iron Maiden who wanted his blessing. “Do it,” he exclaimed before hanging up the phone. Author Frank Herbert was far less charitable, hence the song “Dune” on Piece of Mind became “To Tame A Land.”
VIDEO: The Prisoner, S1 E1 (1967)
Side One concludes with “22 Acacia Avenue” the sequel to the first album’s ode to Eddie’s favorite lady of the night “Charlotte The Harlot.” While it seems clear that Iron Maiden were nowhere near the misogynists that Mötley Crüe, Led Zeppelin, or countless other rock bands were, the lyrics to this one still piss in the schoolmaster’s soup more than a bit. Yes, it’s a fantasy, and no, I don’t think that video games and heavy metal albums turn young men into murderers or abusers. But how necessary is it to sing lines like this?
Beat her, mistreat her, do anything that you please
Bite her, excite her, make her get down on her knees
Abuse her, misuse her, she can take all that you’ve got
Caress her, molest her, she always does what you want?
Musically, though, the song is quite fantastic. This was a tune that guitarist Adrian Smith had written in one of his earlier bands, either Urchin or Evil Ways, depending on which source you trust. Bruce Dickinson recalled seeing Smith play it several years before either had joined Maiden and requested that it be unearthed, especially as the band was short on material. Smith was flattered, and obliged.
Side Two kicks off in timeless, spectacular fashion with a more affordable Vincent Price-clone reading a bible verse, and gifting the album with its title. “The Number Of The Beast” is another perfect metal song, giving all of us the opportunity to sing along with the chorus “six six six!” and upset parents and pastors, particularly in America during the then-burgeoning Satanic Panic. I’ve owned the 12” 45 of this song for decades, and particularly enjoy listening to it on the 33rpm setting on my turntable. The song’s detuned riffs are heavier, and Bruce sounds particularly manly.
AUDIO: Iron Maiden “The Number of the Beast” 45-RPM slowed down to 33rpm
“Run To The Hills” follows, which of course was released as the first single from the album, paving the ground for much chart success. Dickinson’s harmonies were something Maiden lacked on the first two albums, and played no small part in helping the band reach the top ten in the UK. The lyrics were very sympathetic to the plight and genocide of Native Americans, and go a long way to assuage concerns about some of the band’s aforementioned transgressions. “Run To The Hills” is just a killer tune, even if it’s become somewhat abused by corporate FM radio. The fact that it’s the only Maiden song that remains in rotation is a serious head-scratcher.
With “Gangland” though, the waters grow choppy once more. It’s a fine song, originally conceived to be the B-side of the first single. It was also a rare contribution from drummer Clive Burr, in collaboration with Steve Harris, of course. What happened was that this was the first song recorded by the band in January ’82, and they were so excited by the sound they’d gotten that they all cheered something to the effect of, “it sounds bloody great! Too good for a b-side. Save it for the album!” Both Harris and Dickinson have publicly stated that they regret this decision.
And here’s where we pause to discuss what did end up as the B-side of “Run To the Hills” a minor masterpiece of atmospheric metal called “Total Eclipse.” Sure, having this, “Children of the Damned” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” might not have kept the overall album tempo in the range demanded by young punters at the time, but as musical statements, they’re all much stronger than “Invaders” or “Gangland.”
AUDIO: Iron Maiden “Run To The Hills / Total Eclipse”
When Bruce Dickinson came to town on his spoken word tour in early 2022, he left comment cards in the lobby, and answered questions at the end of his set. I asked why they left “Total Eclipse” off the album in lieu of “Gangland.” He answered my card from the stage, and completely agreed with me. Not long after, I read his autobiography and he shared the same sentiment in its highly enjoyable pages. If you haven’t heard “Total Eclipse” do yourself a favor. It’s prime era Maiden, and deserved better.
Once again, Harris comes to the rescue with the album’s perfect conclusion, “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” a predecessor to later story tale epics like “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The song was cinematic, played very well live, and took the listener on a journey that begins heavy on atmosphere, then builds into a fevered crescendo over its epic seven minutes.
Now I know there are some of you just seething that I have offered criticisms of any of these songs, despite the fact that I absolutely bless The Number Of The Beast as an all-time heavy metal classic (though I do think Piece Of Mind is even better).
So please let me leave you with a few quotes from the band visionary leader Steve Harris himself.
In veteran scribe Mick Wall’s authorized Iron Maiden biography Run To The Hills, Harris says, “I think if ‘Total Eclipse’ had been on the album instead of ‘Gangland’, it would have been far better. Also, I think ‘Invaders” maybe could have been replaced with something a bit better, only we didn’t have anything to replace it with at the time.”
I’m glad we agree, Steve. Up the Irons!
VIDEO: Iron Maiden “Run To The Hills”