One of the cool things about having an older brother — once you get past the beatings and mental torment — is you often get exposed to music you normally wouldn’t hear. That’s how I, at the tender age of seven, got my first real exposure to bands like AC/DC and Iron Maiden, among others. To say that my brother was a Maiden fan is an understatement. I don’t think there was a t-shirt, poster, album, EP, or single of theirs that he didn’t own.
And so it was that my quickly growing interest in music shifted from the likes of Hall & Oates and Toto to Iron Maiden, the flag-bearers of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal. My introduction to the band couldn’t have been a better one either — the seminal 1982 album The Number of the Beast.
From a purely historical standpoint, it’s impossible to overstate the impact The Number of the Beast had on metal. And its reputation is richly deserved, for it is one of the greatest albums the genre has ever known. A lot of factors contributed to its greatness, but none was more important than the addition of new vocalist Bruce Dickinson.
Dickinson, late of the short-lived metal band Samson, joined Iron Maiden in September 1981. He replaced Paul Di’Anno, whose more gruff, punk-inspired vocals worked well on the band’s first two albums but were quickly becoming a liability to bassist and main songwriter Steve Harris. Producer Martin Birch credits Dickinson’s superior vocal abilities with allowing Harris to broaden his songwriting ambitions.
With heavy involvement from Dickinson — as well as some from guitarist Adrian Smith and drummer Clive Burr as well — Harris wrote a whole new set of songs that left little time for recording and mixing. But it’s hard to argue with the results, as The Number of the Beast shot to the top spot on the British album chart upon its March 1982 release. It peaked at #33 in the United States, easily the band’s best showing to date.
OK, enough with the background, what about the music? Well, judge for yourself. The album opener, “Invaders,” is the aural equivalent of having your head used as a speed bag. Harris has since stated that he thinks they could’ve done better, but I don’t see how. Dickinson makes his presence felt immediately, to say nothing of how the rest of the band smokes on this one. Honestly, I’m not sure that Maiden has ever sounded fiercer.
It only gets better from there. “Children of the Damned” is the best realization yet of the mellow verse/heavy chorus type of song Harris had been writing from the band’s beginning, while “The Prisoner” was one of the band’s many excellent lyrical adaptations of TV shows/movies (Harris drew from the well of The Prisoner again for 1984’s “Back in the Village.”).
Side Two of the original album contains three of the best songs Iron Maiden has produced, as well as three of metal’s all-time best. The title track is not only a classic song showcasing Iron Maiden’s heightened melodic power, it was also one of a few videos from the album to display the band’s unique sense of humor.
(Fun trivia — that’s future Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain in the devil costume.)
And what else really needs to be said about “Run to the Hills” or “Hallowed Be Thy Name”?
If there is one bone of contention among Maiden fans — and the band themselves — on this album, it’s the Burr/Smith composition “Gangland.” It came down to this song and another recorded during the Beast sessions, Total Eclipse, as to which one would make the album and which one would be the B-side to the “Run to the Hills” single. Harris has stated his regret over choosing “Gangland” for the album, and I can sort of see his point, but I still love it. It’s the type of song Maiden didn’t really write too much of anymore after Burr left the band.
I might as well go on record at this point as saying this short-lived Iron Maiden lineup is my favorite. I love Nicko McBrain as a drummer, but I always found Burr’s drumming to have a little more swing and nuance to it. This song is a good example of that.
But dig this — here is “Total Eclipse,” the song that didn’t make the final cut onto the album. Listen to this and think about how many bands would sign a deal with the devil to have one song as good as this.
That’s how good The Number of the Beast is — this song didn’t even make it in. Scary.