Over the years there have been two camps of Iron Maiden fans: Those who prefer Bruce Dickinson, and those who are ride or die for the band’s original vocalist, Paul Di’Anno. Such a debate should easily be answered with a look at what Bruce’s addition to the band did for the scope of their overall sound and songwriting. While Di’Anno has a more punk attitude, the group ultimately fired him for his self-destructive behavior. But the band became more aggressive, musically, with Bruce Dickinson on the mic, as he possesses a more powerful set of lungs that bombards the songs like a Wagnerian opera. This more theatrical approach allowed bassist Steve Harris to write epic sagas of songs that drew from his love of the progressive rock bands of the ’70s. Rather than employing guitars with a melodic but straightforward attack, the band brought a more symphonic complexity after Dickinson joined the fold, making Iron Maiden the kind of band that could bring progressive rock fans into heavy metal.
Forty years ago Dickinson made his debut with the band on their third album, The Number of the Beast, ushering in a turning point for the band. The album was their first album to break Billboard’s Top 40 in the States, where it peaked at 33, and it topped the charts in the UK—eventually selling more than 20 million copies worldwide. Which likely had a lot to do with Dickinson, whose powerhouse approach allowed Harris to write songs with a broader range of dynamics to cater toward Dickinson’s voice. What’s more, Iron Maiden recorded and mixed The Number of the Beast in only five weeks, proving to be a case where a change of frontmen played to the band’s favor.
The newly inspired Iron Maiden sound reinvigorated from the jump. “Invaders” opens the album, one of their classic battle anthems which would have been coveted by countless Viking metal bands by now if not written from the perspective of the Saxons. There’s an argument that “Children of the Damned,” which follows, would have been a better introduction for Bruce as an opener for the album but the bulk of the Maiden albums follow a solid formula of having a short punchy opener, and “Invaders” fits the bill. “Children” is darker, more richly melodic, and leaves plenty of room for Bruce to open up and sing. Based on the horror movie of the same name, the song is a flawless Maiden dirge.
There’s more rock ‘n’ roll in the drum-driven grooves of “Prisoner,” a song lyrically based on the British Television show of the same name, which they would later revisit with a sequel of sorts on the Powerslave song “Back in the Village.” Meanwhile, there is a dark tension to the opening riff of“22 Acacia Ave,” a song that continues the story of the band’s 1980 song “Charlotte the Harlot.” Harris had seen guitarist Adrian Smith play the song with his band Urchin, so when the group began woodshedding ideas for the album that would become The Number of the Beast, Harris inquired about the song and eventually worked his magic on it. Two other songs following Charlotte would be penned after this album’s release, though “22 Acacia Ave” is the most impressive, with much owed to the solo section in the middle of the song, slowing the tempo and featuring some of the album’s best guitar work.
The Number of the Beast is an album where the b-side dominates the a-side, however, particularly as it opens with the immortal title track. Actor Barry Clayton reads the quotes from the book of Revelation after Vincent Price, who the band originally wanted, proved to be too pricey. Harris, who also served as the band’s lyricist, claimed the song was inspired by the sequel to The Omen, which cast a controversial spot light on the band as it was released during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. The band found themselves accused of being devil worshippers despite none of them actually being actual occultists. And while Venom was already waving the band of Satan for their gimmick at this time, they were not attaining the same level of mainstream success which put Maiden shoulder to shoulder in infamy with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne. Over the years since the release of the album, Dickinson has taken an increasing interest in the work of Aleister Crowley. Yet from the perspective through which the lyrics were written, it is more of a dire warning from someone who stumbles across an occult rite taking place. When this first came out, I was just a kid, and it was my first exposure to the band, and the exclamation of “6-6-6 – the number of the beast!“ during the chorus felt new and dangerous. Immediately I wanted to hear more.
The hits keep coming with the band’s most well known song, “Run to the Hills.” The song was the lead single and garnered a lot of buzz for the album, and dispelled any doubts their already sizable European fan base might have had about the new singer. It’s metal’s biggest, most anthemic chorus, one that has stood the test of time and became the band’s calling card.
“Gangland” is the band’s only regret, as the darker, more apocalyptic “Total Eclipse” was relegated to being a b-side for the “Run to the Hills’ single. Harris has said “Total Eclipse” should have been on the album and “Gangland” should have been the b-side for the single. Yet there is a streetwise swagger to “Gangland” that recalls the grittiness of the first two albums, so on some level it still feels as if it’s in the right place. Granted, I grew up with the cassette of this album so listened to it as such for perhaps 30 years before getting a Japanese version of the CD with “Total Eclipse,” which almost sounds more like what was to come on 1983’s Piece of Mind instead.
“Hallowed Be Thy Name” closes the album in the most grandiose fashion imaginable. The story of a man condemned to be hanged reflecting on his life, it might not be as catchy as the title track or “Run to the Hill,” but certainly among the best songs of the band’s career, and a staple of their live show. And for those not initially sold on Bruce replacing Paul up to this point, the note he holds at the beginning to the song to transition into the build would make anyone a believer. Harris’ gallop does define “Run to the Hills’ ‘ but on the instrumental passages that break up the call and response of the verses, really shows you what makes him metal’s best bassist.
Given the impact that Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast had when it came out and still holds over metal music today, it raises an argument for being the greatest metal album of all time, even packing a bigger punch with more fire than what either Black Sabbath or Judas Priest were doing at the time. Number of the Beast opened new doors for what metal could be capable of, exploring its progressive side and pushing its most theatrical and epic limits—which the band would continue to explore on later albums like the conceptual Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Number of the Beast vaulted Iron Maiden to new heights, cementing their status as metal gods.
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