Heavy metal wouldn’t be what it is today without Iron Maiden, and despite the English ensemble’s quality ebbing and flowing a tad over the past 40-odd years, they’ve remained one of the genre’s most reliable and revered acts.
While predecessors Iron Maiden and Killers were certainly important – and they still kick ass – it’s their third LP, 1982’s The Number of the Beast, that was truly seminal to their sound and success.
Beyond seeing them reach new creative and commercial heights in general, the record found them joining forces with perhaps the greatest frontman in all of heavy metal. Thus, virtually everything that came afterward owes a debt to it.
Back in 2016, we decided that it’s still Iron Maiden’s crowning achievement (and no, last year’s stellar Senjutsu wouldn’t have dethroned it). Honestly, there are dozens of reasons for why that is, but we’ll just stick to the following 10 to demonstrate that The Number of the Beast totally eclipses the competition.
It Gave Us Bruce Dickinson
This fact alone makes it a monumental part of heavy metal history. Sure, Paul Di'Anno did a fine job on Iron Maiden’s first two LPs, yet there’s no doubt that Dickinson immediately gave their music a more enticingly idiosyncratic and iconic presence.
Longtime producer Martin Birch famously surmised that Di’Anno wasn’t “capable of handling lead vocals on some of the quite complicated directions” that they wanted to explore, whereas Dickinson “opened up the possibilities for the new album tremendously.” From the frenzied gruffness of opener “Invaders” to the limitless wails of closer “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” Dickinson proves Birch right.
It's a Fitting Farewell to Drummer Clive Burr
They say that when one door opens, another closes, but that doesn’t mean that the departure of drummer Clive Burr was any less bittersweet (even if Nicko McBrain remains an outstanding replacement.)
It’s hard to imagine Burr getting a better send-off than The Number of the Beast, though.
His compelling approach to building tension during “Children of the Damned” is just one example of his consistent resourcefulness, with the complex and inventive syncopation of B-side “Total Eclipse” being another. Indeed, the LP features many of Burr’s superlative moments in the band, so he definitely departed on the highest note possible.
It's Comic Book Inspired Cover is Badass, Biblical and Controversial
Iron Maiden are known for their edgy cover art and iconography, and The Number of the Beast earns favor not only for Derek Riggs’ boldly cyclical depiction of mascot Eddie and Satan puppeteering each other, but for the circumstances surrounding it, too.
Riggs created the painting – which was initially presented for the “Purgatory” single, taken from Killers – as an homage to a 1960s Doctor Strange comic book, and he looked to “medieval European Christian art” for further stimuli. Predictably, offended Christians used the image (as well as the title track) to support their absurd claims that Iron Maiden were Satanists.
It Contains At Least Three of their Most Legendary Songs
Every selection here is awesome yet lead singles “Run to the Hills” and “The Number of the Beast” triumphed over the rest to become two of the group’s biggest calling cards. The former is an anthemic gem that led to their first Top 10 placement in the U.K. Singles Chart, whereas the aggressive title track was ranked at No. 7 on VH1’s “40 Greatest Metal Songs” list. Both tunes are synonymous with ‘80s metal as a whole, and although it may not be quite as well-known in the mainstream, epic finale “Hallowed Be Thy Name” also is an essential composition.
It Has Superb Sequencing
The record flows with impeccable pacing, showcasing the band’s varied temperaments in wise ways.
“Invaders” is the perfect in-your-face rocker to get listeners familiar with Dickinson; then, things calm down a bit with the semi-acoustic ballad “Children of the Damned” before “The Prisoner” brings gravitas and “22 Acacia Avenue” brings hyperactive storytelling.
Obviously, “Run to the Hills” and “The Number of the Beast” are catchy as hell centerpieces (that also initiate Side Two), while “Gangland” is an enjoyably punky preempt to the heroicness of “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”
By the end, you feel like you’ve genuinely been on a journey.
It Was a Huge Hit Commercially and Put Iron Maiden on the Map
The troupe did well with their initial two albums, landing at respectable places on album charts and sharing the stage with Judas Priest and KISS.
However, The Number of the Beast took them to a whole new level.
For one thing, it got them their first No. 1 spot on the U.K. Albums Chart, reached the top ten in other countries – including Sweden – and peaked at No. 33 on the Billboard 200. As mentioned earlier, its singles were big hits, too, plus their concerts got more elaborate and “the Beast” became a habitual designation, reappearing many times on subsequent releases.
It Instigated a More Diverse Approach to Creative Collaboration
Bassist Steve Harris penned the vast majority of material for Iron Maiden and Killers (with the other members helping out a tad here and there). That changed with their third LP. In fact, it’s their only studio collection that features a songwriting credit for Burr (“Gangland”), as well as the first to see guitarist Adrian Smith contribute (to three tunes, no less).
Naturally, Harris still had substantial input, too, and even Dickinson chimed in on “Children of the Damned,” “Run to the Hills” and “The Prisoner” (although he couldn’t be credited due to “contractual problems” with his former group, Samson).
It's Ripe with Songs About Freedom and Liberation
Iron Maiden have always been intellectual and outspoken regarding their historical commentary. The Number of the Beast exemplifies that wonderfully. For instance, “Invaders” details “a defense against a Viking invasion” and “Run to the Hills” similarly centers on “the colonization of America from the viewpoint of both the indigenous people and the invading forces.”
As its name implies, the penultimate “Gangland” investigates “the fear and uncertainty of life in a 1930s Al Capone-style gangland, or maybe in London’s East End . . . when the Kray brothers were about.” Prior to that, “The Prisoner” contains lyrics such as “Not a prisoner, I'm a free man / And my blood is my own now”; despite alluding specifically to a popular science fiction TV series from a couple of decades past (more on that in a moment), its rallying cry is universally relatable.
Clearly, the band had a lot to say about sovereignty and subjugation.
It Was Influenced by Other Forms of Pop Culture
Whereas some songs were motivated by actual history, others were derived from beloved pieces of literature, film and the like. In particular, “Children of the Damned” drew from Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Sea,” John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos and the movies that it inspired (Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned).
Along the same lines, “The Prisoner” arose out of the 1960s British television program of the same name (it even begins with audio from the show, and Iron Maiden’s manager – Rod Smallwood – was starstruck when he called series creator Patrick McGoohan about using the clip).
Likewise, It’s Impacted Many Bands and Other Aspects of Pop Culture
Unsurprisingly, several tracks from the collection have infiltrated pop culture. There’s Dream Theater’s 2002 rendition of the whole record, and Iced Earth paid tribute to “The Number of the Beast” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” on 2001’s Tribute to the Gods album.
Both Cradle of Filth and Machine Head put their own spins on that closing opus as well. As for “Run to the Hills,” it appeared in a few video games (SSX On Tour, Rock Band and Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City), as did the title track (in Guitar Hero III and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4).
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