40 years ago today, legendary British metallers, Iron Maiden released their third studio album. 1982’s The Number of the Beast is proof that the “difficult third album” doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad one – sometimes you just happen to strike platinum.
Iron Maiden? Isn’t that some sort of coffin?
Iron Maiden, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never heard of them, is an utterly legendary band amongst a pantheon of legendary bands. With 47 years in the industry, 17 studio albums, and awards to spare, Iron Maiden has remained uncompromising in their delivery of unforgettable tunes.
Beginning in the early new wave of British heavy metal, Iron Maiden and their contemporaries offered a heavier, edgier alternative to the hair metal and glam rock that was making headway in North America. The 1980s brought unprecedented success to Iron Maiden, and the band became one of the most commonly cited influencers amongst thrash, speed, and power metal bands.
Today, Iron Maiden sell-out arena tours, headline festivals, and still release well-received, if not slightly milquetoast records. Iron Maiden’s first two records featured vocalist Paul Di’Anno and have subsequently gone down as classics. However, it was only when vocalist Bruce Dickinson entered the fold that the band reached its true potential as an all-time great. All that began 40 years ago with a little album called The Number of the Beast. So let’s listen to it, shall we?
The Number of the Beast: Does it hold up?
The frenetic Invaders kicks the album off with impassioned war cries, and now-iconic bass lines punctuated by playful stabs of guitars and drums. Before you even manage to process the anarchic romp, the band launches into a power-chord-filled ballad.
During Children of the Damned something becomes very apparent, and this must’ve occupied the minds of Iron Maiden fans in 1982: there is absolutely no awkwardness about Bruce Dickinson’s entry into the band, no trial, no settling in period. Dickinson arrives at the scene with enviable confidence and instantly completes the band’s transformation into heavy metal legends.
After a rapid-fire outro, the album settles into a spoken-word intro for The Prisoner. After a verse not dissimilar from songs found later in the album, we are treated to one of Iron Maiden’s first attempts at a heavy metal anthem. We’re only three songs in, and Maiden has already set the blueprints for three distinct heavy metal songwriting styles. The Prisoner features something tantamount to a breakdown, which builds into a staggeringly grandiose guitar solo. Tony Iommi would be proud.
After a conclusive double-chorus, we arrive at 22 Acacia Avenue. The song sets off as an upbeat banger which has become a staple in Iron Maiden’s discography. The band continues with their intriguing approach to song structure, departing into a lengthy halftime midsection reminiscent of the future hit Where Eagles Dare, which matures into a bluesy guitar solo.
However, it’s this lack of direction that makes 22 Acacia Avenue one of the weaker songs on this album. The midsection is so different and goes on for so long that it loses the context of the very entertaining intro. It’s by no means a bad song, but probably not what I would’ve chosen to close out Side A.
Side B begins with an ominous voice quoting from the book of Revelations; even with the cheesy 80s spookiness about its every second, the speech still manages to be hauntingly malevolent. It’s a perfect introduction to the song that invented heavy metal. While recording the vocals, legendary producer Martin Birch made Bruce Dickinson do so many takes of the intro that something snapped inside him.
The frustration of having to repeat the first verse so many times is released as a monumental scream before the song properly begins. There’s really not much more to be said about The Number of the Beast: it’s just perfect. Pure heritage for anyone who picks up a guitar and turns the overdrive up to eleven.
After one of the most iconic metal anthems, we are immediately swept away by one of the most iconic intros. The intro to Run to the Hills is a sympathetic lament, preceding the galloping onslaught of British cavalrymen.
The twisted snarl in Dickinson’s voice as he delivers the savage war cries of sick-minded invaders really lends a certain authenticity to some of the song’s more controversial lyrics. Ultimately, while some of the language used is sure to cause some confused double-takes, I don’t think this song acts as anything other than a furious scorn of the genocide of Native Americans.
Gangland offers us a great drum intro, followed by a shuffle-time beat which leads to punctuated shredding. Gangland is probably the weakest song on the record, but the cosy dynamic range, and the swinging, lightning-quick drums make this song a great breather before Iron Maiden’s final gift to us.
Hallowed Be Thy Name begins very contemplatively with a dramatic intro more suited to musical theatre than rock music, but it works magnificently. After a lengthy demonstration of Bruce’s lung capacity, we’re offered a short overture of the song’s main riff.
A chugging verse is contrasted with a wordless chorus, which transitions smoothly into a breakdown, bridge, and back to the second verse. The verse is followed by a total break, featuring epic chords and very 1980s drum fills – and then all hell breaks loose. The double-time finale is interwoven with grandiose solos. It continues to rise before settling into the song’s initial, main motif, and culminating in yet another series of powerful chords and drum fills.
The Number of the Beast leaves one feeling drained and completely satisfied. Every second drips with breathtaking gravitas. It’s not my favourite Maiden album, but it’s certainly their most iconic.
Why is this album so important?
Besides being an utterly ferocious piece of art, The Number of the Beast fell victim to an acutely 80s phenomenon: The Satanic Panic, a chapter in the neverending crusade against “dangerous” youth culture. Amongst the casualties were horror movies, neo-pagan religious movements, rock music, Dungeons and Dragons, and especially The Number of the Beast.
The album’s cover and lyrical content were subject to much scorn from social conservative movements. Public burnings of the record, pickets at concerts, and hundreds of strongly worded letters from the religiously concerned were meant to be the death of this album and all other forms of divergent art. Luckily, when social conservatives get up in arms about something, they tend to expose it to a lot more attention. So of course the controversy did nothing more than cement The Number of the Beast as the most important album of the 1980s, the 20th century, and possibly of all time.
To put it in simple terms, The Number of the Beast is so crucial to rock and heavy metal because every single part of it is completely and utterly badass. Loud, rebellious, and surprisingly cerebral, it embodies everything heavy metal was at the time, and everything it would grow into afterward.
The 40th Anniversary Cassette Edition: How physical media shaped the way we listen to music
As a treat for the 40th anniversary of this monumental record, Iron Maiden has unveiled a special cassette edition of The Number of the Beast. I won’t go into the usual sanctimony of explaining what a cassette is to the spoiled youth. I will however make a confession:
I grew up in the early end of Generation Z, in a country that was still developing in its post-Soviet sunrise. As such, I grew up listening to cassettes on outdated tape decks (colloquially, and slightly offensively referred to as Ghetto Blasters). However, I genuinely don’t remember ever actually playing a cassette, rewinding it, or flipping it over.
There’s an episode of Cowboy Bebop in which the protagonists find an archaic Betamax cassette. The show is set in the 2070s, so naturally, the first instinct of the protagonist is to pull out and crease the film. That scene made me feel genuine pain, and that pain is why I feel that Iron Maiden’s cassette re-release is something more than just a gimmick.
Physical media is inherently finite and very fragile. I have a CD copy of Metallica’s Master of Puppets that has been played so many times it’s near impossible to listen to. However, it’s that precariously fleeting nature of physical media that makes it so special. Every scratch on a vinyl record tells a story, and our fear of ruining our album helps us develop a deeply intimate relationship with music.
Even the slightly distasteful term “Ghetto-Blaster” is kind of important here. It offers us a very uncompromising look at music’s influence in shaping and informing culture. The image of African American youths beatboxing, freestyling, and breakdancing around a comically large boombox is crucial to the grassroots growth of hip-hop culture in the 1980s. There’s a specificity to anachronistic technology that informs culture in a way that hundreds of near-identical smartphones, all loaded with the same three music apps, just can’t compete with.
You might’ve noticed in my review that I referred to “Side A” and “Side B” whilst discussing the midpoint of the record. This is because my latest few listens to The Number of the Beast were all lovingly facilitated by the great audio storage technology that is vinyl.
Back in the 1980s, there was a very hard limit to the amount of music you could put on a record. Vinyl discs, and indeed cassette tapes, were usually split into two “sides” in order to maximise the amount of music stored on them. This created the now completely alien rigmarole of flipping the record over to listen to the next side.
The thirty or so seconds of silence provided a moment to reflect and to prepare for the next half of the album. Eventually, artists figured out that this was something that could be played with. The midpoint of a great album is like the midpoint of a great movie; it’s essential to pacing. The pace of a record used to be a crucial factor in its quality, since it was a lot more difficult to simply skip a few lackluster songs.
The Number of the Beast is one such example of a very well-paced album, featuring two distinct halves, with an exuberant musical narrative on each side.
So if you haven’t ever given this masterpiece a listen, perhaps you should take its 40th anniversary as an opportunity to delve into it. Maybe you haven’t listened to it in a little while, and are looking for an opportunity to revisit it. Perhaps you’ve never listened to music on anything other than Spotify, and want to see how your parents used to rock out! In any case, The Number of the Beast is a timeless classic we should all be grateful to for giving us an inexhaustible supply of excellent music. Long may it rule as king!