10 Facts About Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast’ Only Superfans Would Know
Today, Iron Maiden's third album, Number of the Beast, celebrates its 40th anniversary. Their first to feature the vocal talents of Samson's "Bruce Bruce," who graciously shed both the mustache and superfluous Bruce, Beast afforded the band some further firsts.
The record would mark the first of five times topping the U.K. album charts, their first time cracking the Top 40 of the Billboard 200, and give the band their first Top 10 U.K. single in "Run to the Hills." The album managed to strike a nerve with fans and fanatics of a different stripe. Derek Rigg's perfectly flawed (no really, read on!) album cover fed the fever dreams of parents, principals, pastors and probation officers alike, while being received as "sacrilicious," molten mana from heavy metal heaven by true believers.
Whether blasted from a Triple Black 1971 Plymouth 'Cuda, cast upon the protest pyre of an overzealous youth pastor, or smashed with hammers by those wary of inhaling the fumes of Satan's burnin' vinyl — the Beast commanded a visceral reaction. And much to the delight of EMI, Harvest, and Capitol Records... to act upon any of the aforementioned impulses, you had to buy it first. Despite my own Puritan ethic, I have yet to find the means to burn an MP3.
The legendary Beast on the Road tour brought Maiden's live onslaught to 12 countries on four continents over the course of 181 performances in just under 10 months. With nearly 20 million units sold worldwide, Beast regularly tops all manner of lists — not just era or genre-specific charts. It’s indeed a rare and singular beast that has achieved mainstream adulation without sacrificing one iota of underground credibility.
There’s damn good reason we’re still bewitched by the Beast 40 years on. Here are 10 that you may not have known... UNLESS YOU'RE A SUPERFAN!!!
1. That’s Not Vincent Price at the Beginning of the Title Track
While it was the band’s intention to enlist the horror icon to voice the apocalyptic intro, he demanded a hefty… price. Balking at Vincent’s £25,000 fee (about $32,909), they instead hired English actor Barry Clayton to do the dirty work. Clayton would later lend his spectral parlance to the occult exploits of Count Duckula, narrating the British cartoon from 1988-1993 as Dr. Quackbrain.
Clayton’s introduction coalesces Biblical passages Revelation 12:12 and Revelation 13:18, setting the stage for a Steve Harris composition of infernal proportions… which brings us to our next fact.
Count Duckula, "Town Hall Terrors" — Full Episode
2. “The Beast” Has Origins in Damien: Omen II
That heavy metal has often drawn inspiration from films is no secret, from Black Sabbath taking their name from the 1963 Mario Bava horror anthology to the Hammer Horror aesthetic informing endless examples of metal imagery, to Harris’ many instances of appropriating themes from the silver screen (more on that later!).
As such, the song “The Number of the Beast” was inspired by The Omen II, which chronicles the growing pains of adolescent Antichrist Damien Thorne. The film, in tandem with a particularly macabre poem by the name of “Tam O’ Shanter” were the nightmare fuel that gave birth to our beloved Beast.
The poem, penned by Robert Burns in 1790, weaves a morbid tableau of wanton witches and wicked warlocks dancing to the Devil’s bagpipes (as the B.C. Rich Warlock wouldn’t be conceived of for another 179 years, His options were limited...) amid open coffins displaying the deceased, and unbaptized babies mingling with relics of murder upon the altar of a derelict church… amongst other obscenities, which Burns felt legally prohibited from mentioning.
Dickinson's scream at the conclusion of the intro verse is commonly celebrated as the culmination of a torturous, hours long session in which producer Martin Birch demanded take-after-take from the singer. In a July 1983 interview with John Stix, Harris volunteers that, "the idea was to get a blood curdling scream like the one on ‘Won't Get Fooled Again.’ It worked quite well."
Damien: Omen II Movie Trailer
3. Eddie Was… Ed-ited… Out of the Video for “The Number of the Beast”
Given the horrific inception of the song, it’s fitting that the music video doubled down on the premise. Clips from Nosferatu, One Million Years B.C., How to Make a Monster, The Crimson Ghost, War of the Colossal Beast, Mothra vs. Godzilla, The Return of the Vampire and The Angry Red Planet are peppered throughout "The Number of the Beast'' video.
If the scene showing The Goat of Mendes looks familiar, it probably is, as The Devil Rides Out happens to be one of the most heavily referenced films in the metalverse. Just check out Danzig’s unholy homage that is the “Am I Demon” video! Maiden have often used the Goat as a stage prop for live performances of the song.
When the video was initially shown on MTV, Eddie's final appearance was edited out due to the complaints of sensitive simpletons. Sorry, Eddie — the Goat stays in the picture!
Iron Maiden, "The Number of the Beast" Music Video
4. Derek Riggs Created the Album Cover in Two Days… But for Something Else
According to Derek Riggs, who created Maiden’s Eddie mascot and served as the band’s exclusive artist throughout the ‘80s, “Usually I just got the song title and some idea of what it was about. The manager [Rod Smallwood] phoned me up and said they wanted a picture for a single cover that was about the devil and witchcraft and was called ‘Purgatory.’”
Amazingly, the classic artwork was completed in two days — two days and two sleepless nights, to be precise. “They phoned me on Friday night and it was delivered on Monday morning. Nearly all of the albums and singles were done at that kind of speed. Deadlines were tight, and I had to work fast,” Riggs has claimed.
As for the spark of inspiration behind the piece, Riggs says “There was a Doctor Strange comic which had some big villian with Doctor Strange dangling on some strings like a puppet, it was something I read as a child back in the 1960s I think. The picture came to mind right away. I thought I could do a very effective Heaven and Hell thing using Eddie.”
As for the Devil, Riggs confesses, “It was supposed to be a portrait of Salvador Dali, because I thought that would be funny, but I don't think anybody noticed it. It wasn't that good a portrait (laughs). It was along those lines. It does look a bit like him, without the mustache (laughs), if you compare it to some pictures.” He continues, “Most of those Hell backgrounds were taken from my knowledge of medieval European Christian art, which was full of such scenes.”
Because of the immediate deadline, the artist was forced to make due with layers of black silhouettes separated with layers of airbrushed mist to portray a modicum of depth. “I was going to do a lot of figures, like Margaret Thatcher and stuff, in the flames, but there just wasn't time.” While the Iron Lady didn’t make the cut, he did manage to work in an H.R. Giger Alien! Fair play.
“I took it into their office and when he [Smallwood] saw it, he smiled and said: “That will be great for the album.” He put it away into a cupboard and locked the door and asked me to do another one for the single. I asked him if I could take it home and do some more work on it, it was really a bit rough, having been done so quickly. But he was adamant that it was okay, and so that was what you got.”
Only that wasn’t what we got; at least until a remastered CD issued in 1998 corrected an issue with the coloration. In the 2001 Classic Albums episode devoted to Number, manager Smallwood explains “This [the original artwork] is actually a dark and gray sky. The album, when it came out, was a blue and light blue sky and it basically looked crap, because EMI managed at the factory to completely screw up the printing process.”
“I wish I had more time to paint it, I could have done a much better job,” the artist concludes.
5. There Were Spooky Goings-On in the Studio
Reports of supernatural occurrences surrounding the recording process have gained considerable traction over the years. “Everything went wrong right from the beginning,” Bruce Dickinson told The Sun’s Nina Myskow for the paper’s March 2, 1982, issue. It has been said that lights began turning on and off in the studio without human intervention, recording equipment would inexplicably break down and unintended noises began emanating from the band’s gear. The proverbial “things going bump in the night.”
Things came to a ghastly head one Sunday night when producer Martin Birch wrecked his car en route to the studio as the band were working on the diabolical title track. The other vehicle was a van full of nuns and the bill for the damage came to £666. Bruce and Birch corroborate this in the Classic Albums episode. Harris elaborated in Garry Bushell’s out of print Iron Maiden: Running Free book, “We were all shaken and Martin was terrified. He made them put the bill up to £667.”
6. “Children of the Damned” Is Another Movie Reference
Another track Dickinson would-have-if-he-could-have taken a credit for, “Children of the Damned” was inspired by the 1964 black and white sci-fi horror film of the same name, along with its predecessor, Village of the Damned. A simple glance at either movie’s iconic promotional posters will immediately put the song’s ocular references in their proper context.
Like “The Prisoner,” the song interprets the film’s plot, which concerns a group of virgin-born telepathic, extraordinarily intelligent and mentally coercive children and the government’s subsequent attempts to destroy them.
Harris elucidates, “It was kind of based on the movie, I suppose… loosely, as most of our things are loosely based on anything. We just take a basic idea and then develop it from there, really, and try to put our own little twists and turns into it.”
Musically, the song takes inspiration from Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Sea,” as revealed by Dickinson while paying tribute to the (then) recently departed Ronnie James Dio during his final radio show for BBC Radio 6 on May 28, 2010.
Iron Maiden, "Children of the Damned" — Live in 1982
7. “22 Acacia Avenue” Was Recycled From Adrian’s Previous Band Urchin
Beast marking Adrian Smith’s second album with the band, it was the first to showcase his writing talents. One of four contributions, “22 Acacia Avenue” was originally written by a teenage Smith for his old band, Urchin.
He explains in the Classic Albums episode, “It was one of those first songs you kind of write. I had this band Urchin, and we did this song, ‘22’. Six or seven years later, when I was in the band, he [Harris] said ‘Hey, I remember seeing you over at this festival, and you played this song ‘22 Acacia Avenue.’ Let’s do something with that.”
Steve volunteers that he “Maidenized it with all different time changes and this-and-that.”
Smith continues, “It ended up being on the record and being part of our live set for two or three tours, and it was a song that I wrote when I was 18 and had sort of forgotten about it. Just shows — it ended up on a platinum-selling record. Incredible!”
Confirming the somewhat obvious, Harris affirms that this ribald tale of questionable brothel etiquette is “an extension of ‘Charlotte the Harlot.’ This is where she's living in London's East End.”
Iron Maiden, "22 Acacia Avenue" — Live in 1982
8. “The Prisoner” Is an Ode to an Esoteric Classic English TV Program
The album’s third track found its inspiration in the cult British television series of the same name. The Prisoner was a surreal mindfuck of a program that spanned 17 episodes and ran from late 1967 to early ‘68. A way out avant-garde, allegorical sci-fi spy fiction psychodrama, it’s impossibly British.
The song begins with the narration that opened the second episode, The Chimes of Big Ben. In the Classic Albums episode detailing the Beast album, Dickinson explores the show’s otherworldly village location — Portmeirion, a tourist village in Gwynedd, North Wales — and explains “When I was a kid, I used to watch this series, The Prisoner, and I wondered what on Earth it was trying to say, because when I was a kid, I didn’t feel as if I really had anywhere that I belonged. So when the prisoner turns around and says ‘I’m not a number, I’m a free man,’ I want that to be me.”
Iron Maiden, "The Prisoner" — Live in 1982
After explaining how he, as a frustrated drummer, conceived of the opening drumbeat while Clive was off having tea (one of many contributions he was legally unable to receive credit for — a matter of ongoing contractual issues with his previous band, Samson), Bruce discloses, “Obviously, we wanted to be really sort of dramatic with the intro, so we thought, well maybe we can snip the intro tape off the TV series.” While the tapes were owned by Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance, the band had to gain the approval of the show’s creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, who held the rights.
Dickinson continues, "Now Rod Smallwood, you see, is probably… well, I wouldn’t call him a man who is easily intimidated by anybody. But I’ve never heard him so nervous in all my life as when he had to phone up Patrick McGoohan.”
Dickinson goes on to reveal how the manager completely botched the quote with McGoohan on the line. Smallwood confesses, “I was terrified… After explaining, there was a pregnant pause for about five seconds and then he said ‘DO IT!’ Which, if people know McGoohan, that’s very Patrick McGoohan.”
Harris relates, “So, we’re all ‘Why were you so nervous?’ and he goes “Well, he’s a real superstar – not like you arseholes!”
Maiden would pay further tribute to the show two years later with Powerslave’s “Back in the Village.”
The Prisoner, "Arrival" — Full Episode
9. “Invaders” vs. “Invasion”... A Fine Opener, But Not Fit For Live
In a July 1983 interview with John Stix, Harris revealed that “Invaders” is an extension of the earlier track “Invasion,” which appeared on The Soundhouse Tapes as well as the b-side to the 1980 “Women in Uniform” single.
Iron Maiden, "Women in Uniform" + "Invasion"
While it may have been a perfectly cromulent album opener, the track doesn’t necessarily hold great favor with Harris. Speaking with Eddie Trunk in 2019, Harris admitted “I don’t think — and I can say it because I wrote the song — I don’t think it’s one of me strongest songs, really. I think it’s all right, it’s not a bad song — but it doesn’t stand up, really, to the rest of the album.” He elaborates, “I think it’s because it was a fast-paced song and we just felt it opened the album well — it’s sort of in your face, really… But I suppose it’s not as strong as some of the others.”
When asked if Maiden has ever played the song live, Harris claims, “Yeah, we did. We opened up with it back in the day. It’s not a bad opener,” contradicting his July ‘83 claim that “‘Invaders’ felt like a great rock 'n' roll opener. Funny enough we've never played it live.” While I’d be inclined to believe Steve over the anonymously sourced and zero-accountability internet, the great resource and repository setlist.fm shows no record of the band ever having performed the song. Now… which Steve to believe?
10. The Band Wishes “Total Eclipse” Made the Cut Over “Gangland”
The Number of the Beast was by all accounts a rushed affair, with only five weeks to record and mix. Having exhausted their supply of previously-written material, this period marked the band’s first time writing an album from scratch. Despite five of the album tracks having been performed after Dickinson’s conscription at the tail end of the Killer World Tour in November and December 1981, the remainder of the songwriting ate into their studio time.
Having tracked nine songs with a running time that exceeded the standard 40 minute album format of the day, the band had a surplus of music. With “Run to the Hills” being released as a single on Feb. 12 — two weeks in advance of Maiden’s U.K. tour; a run that would conclude with the recording of the troubled Beast Over Hammersmith a mere two days prior to the album’s release — the band had to make a quick decision on which song to relegate as a b-side — “Gangland” or “Total Eclipse.” They chose “Total Eclipse” for the b-side, and according to Dickinson, they chose poorly.
“The one mistake we made was putting ‘Gangland’ on the album instead of ‘Total Eclipse’,” he confided in a 2020 interview with Metal Hammer. “We picked ‘Gangland’ because it was the first thing we ever recorded together properly. But the rest of the album was fantastic.”
Iron Maiden, "Gangland"
When asked by a fan during a Q&A session in Orlando, Florida on Jan. 20, 2022, what he felt was Iron Maiden’s most underrated song, Dickinson said, without hesitation, "I'm a really big fan of 'Total Eclipse.’” Lending further credence to the notion that Beast was a rush-job, Dickinson elaborated, "'Gangland' went on the album, and we actually forgot to mix the guitar solos. There's a bit in there, and there's no guitar solo. To this day, I think we forgot."
Not that “Gangland” is without its own superlative, as Bruce earns his nickname of The Air Raid Siren with the high scream in the middle of the guitar solo ("Ah, come on!" @ 2:43). At the pitch of B5, it’s the highest note he ever hit on record. By way of comparison, the closing scream in “Flight of Icarus” and the "Then down in falls comes the rain" line from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are both one step lower, at A5.
Additionally, the U.S. version of the 1995 reissue incorrectly gives Paul Di'Anno a songwriting credit on "Total Eclipse," though the song had actually been written by Harris, Murray and Burr. And while the band has never played “Gangland” live, “Total Eclipse” has been enthusiastically performed.
Interestingly, “Total Eclipse” appears on the aforementioned Beast Over Hammersmith — the full, proper release of which was held in limbo for over 20 years on account of shoddy lighting. Originally intended for VHS release around the time of its recording, a truncated version of Hammersmith can be found on The History of Iron Maiden – Part 1: The Early Days DVD.
Iron Maiden, "Total Eclipse" from Beast Over Hammersmith