With Bruce Dickinson replacing Paul Di'Anno as vocalist, The Number Of The Beast was a huge step upward for Iron Maiden, launching the band into fame and controversy.
It began the second phase of Maiden, what could be called the "golden years", spanning five studio albums through the rest of the 1980s.
Dark, introspective, and violent themes dominate the album, which incited controversy and unfounded charges of devil worship. There were rumours of strange occurrences during the recording of the album, such as lights turning on and off by themselves, strange noises, and such. Here's what Bruce Dickinson had to say about it during the heavily bootlegged 1982 concert at the Palladium in New York :
While we're on the subject of strange goings on, a few of you might know we had a few weird things happen on the album right, that one or two people have attributed to be the work of Satan or the devil or this kind of nonsense, right? Just want to say to all the people who play records backwards and burn albums out in the streets, they can go and get... stick their heads up their arse or something like that 'cause... we ain't interested.
Bruce Dickinson, New York, 29th June 1982
It is possible that these rumours might have been merely a publicity ploy... "satanic" was popular in the 80s, just as "gangsta" was popular in the 90s. Many such rumours are embellished and even fabricated by religious bigots, for the purposes of their own propaganda campaigns. However, regardless of whether or not they actually happened, the one thing that isn't a possibility is the actual existence of Satan, who is merely a symbol of evil. Nevertheless, The Number of the Beast is among the very best of Maiden's albums, along with Piece Of Mind and Powerslave, and today remains a heavy metal classic one of the best and most influential metal albums of all time.
This fast and energetic track is an excellent opener for the album. It graphically depicts the violence and horror of a defence against a Viking invasion, starting with the sighting of the longboats and culminating in a last bloody stand against the invaders. An evolution from the early song 'Invasion' which appeared on The Soundhouse Tapes EP, 'Invaders''s driving power compensates for a somewhat weak chorus, and begins a tradition in battle songs that will later be followed and improved upon by 'The Trooper' and 'The Duellists'.
Тhis dark and compelling track is inspired by the 1963 film of the same name, which is about six children with psychic abilities who are forced to battle for their survival against an inferior human race. The song describes the death of the last of the children, as he steps out to face the humans which are intent on destroying him by burning him at the stake. It is a deep and thought-provoking film, worthy of the song which it inspired.
Musically, 'Children Of The Damned' is superb. The slow beat and mix of acoustic and metal guitar creates a mood of sadness and loss, which is perfectly matched by the hauntingly beautiful guitar solo. The description of the child's last moments while burning ("melting his face, screaming in pain, peeling the skin from his eyes") is particularly vivid and will send a shiver down the spine of anyone who has enough imagination to picture what's going on. Bruce once said that he had been heavily influenced by Black Sabbath's 'Children Of The Grave' when singing this song. This is in any case one of Maiden's most memorable songs.
Inspired by the 17-episode British TV cult-series of the same name starring Patrick McGoohan, 'The Prisoner' begins with the famous spoken dialogue that also constitutes the introduction of every episode of the series. The full transcript is:
Where am I? In The Village.
What do you want? Information.
Which side are you on? That would be telling.
We want information... information... information...
You won't get it. By hook or by crook we will.
Who are you? The new number two.
Who is number one? You are number six.
I am not a number! I am a free man!
A great drum rhythm and heavy guitar lead into this relatively fast-paced song of individuality, defiance, and freedom. While the song itself is fairly average (by Maiden standards), guitar solos in this song are absolutely inspired.
Mick Wall explains in the authorised biography of the band how they managed to get permission to use the intro dialogue from Patrick McGoohan himself:
.......the recording of Number Of The Beast, like any Maiden album, also had its lighter moments, none more memorable than the evening Rod sat down to phone actor Patrick McGoohan and ask for his permission to use a recording of his voice on the album. Taking its title from the name of the cult '60s TV series, the band had come up with the idea of prefacing 'The Prisoner' with McGoohan (who played the central character, known simply as Number Six) uttering his famous catchphrase from the show: "I am not a number, I am a free man!" DJ Tommy Vance had helped out by lending them an original recording of the quote from the show, but they still needed McGoohan's permission before they could go ahead.
Steve recalls how, for once, their unflappable manager looked almost star-struck as he nervously dialled on the phone. "Oh, bloody 'ell," Rod moaned later. "It's alright dealing with these arsehole rock stars, but he's a real bona fide superstar actor. I was fucking terrified!" The rest of the band watched and laughed as Rod hesitantly began explaining the details to the actor, who was speaking from his home in Los Angeles. "What was the band's name again?" he asked. "Iron Maiden," Rod replied. "A rock band, you say," McGoohan mused. "Do it!" he snapped in the most imperious manner of his TV character and hung up the phone. So they did.
Mick Wall (2001) Run To The Hills The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden Revised Edition p. 227.
Ironically, the Prisoner manages to escape from the Village at the end of the song ("Not a prisoner I'm a free man, and my blood is my own now, don't care where the past was, I know where I'm going"), only to find himself back to square one in the 1984 song 'Back in the Village' on the Powerslave album. This particular twist of the tale is reminiscent of the seventh episode of the series, where Number Six escapes only to find himself tricked into returning to the Village.
This is the second instalment of the ' Charlotte the Harlot' series of songs, which began on the very first Iron Maiden album. It is a complex and non-standard song, with several parts which differ radically from each other both in lyrical perspective and musical style. Yet these individual parts combine well into a cohesive whole, making this one of the most creative and unique songs in the metal genre as well as one of Maiden's classic tracks.
'22, Acacia Avenue' is originally an Adrian Smith song, from the time he was playing in his own band, called Urchin. Adrian recalls years later, in an interview with Mick Wall, how it all started and what triggered the birth of the song as we know it:
"One of the first things I wrote was '22 Acacia Avenue', which of course ended up in a slightly different form on the Number Of The Beast album. I wrote that when I was 18, but I ended up working on it over a period of years with various different line-ups I had of the band. But it was weird how it came to end up as a Maiden song. Urchin did a gig in the local park and we played '22 Acacia Avenue', and it probably sounded completely different than the version we would later do in Maiden, but the weird thing was, Steve Harris was at the gig. I didn't even know him then, but he remembered it when I joined the band, years later. We were getting stuff ready for Number Of The Beast, and out of the blue Steve turned to me and said, 'What was that song you used to do in Urchin?' and he started humming it and it was '22...'. I mean, it had changed quite a bit since then, and we probably ended up changing it quite a bit again by the time we did it in Maiden, but it was weird how he'd remembered that one song all those years. We probably didn't even play well that day, and were probably really down afterwards, but because we had a go and did our best someone in the audience remembered. That's why it always pays off to do your best. Even if it feels like a dismal disaster at the time, you always come away with something from it."
Mick Wall (2001) Run To The Hills The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden Revised Edition p. 167.
This song was loosely inspired by the 1978 movie Omen II, and a Steve Harris nightmare. It begins ominously with quoted text from the Bible:
Woe to you, oh Earth and Sea,
for the Devil sends the beast with wrath,
because he knows the time is short...
Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast
for it is a human number, its number is Six hundred and sixty six.
The reference of this quote is however not entirely correct, as only the last sentence corresponds to Revelations 13:18 , the first one being found in Revelations 12:12 . There are several English translations of the Bible, but Steve Harris seems to have used the quotes from the Revised Standard Version:
Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!
This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon he number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
The first sentence corresponds to the description of Satan's eviction from Heaven after a battle with the archangel Gabriel and his legions (the legend states that Satan used to be also an archangel), whereas the last sentence actually refers to the second beast of Saint John's Apocalypse and not to the Devil himself, which is probably why the verse was modified into "the Devil sends the beast with wrath" in order to give some cohesion to the whole quote.
Still on the topic of the song intro, Bruce mentioned during a Radio Scotland special 2-hour Download Festival programme that the band had asked the famous horror films actor Vincent Price to read the text. However, still according to Bruce, Price refused to do it for anything less than ?25,000. They had heard of someone who reads ghost stories at the Capitol radio station and got him to do it. The man was a thespian (a theatre actor) who had no interest in Maiden, but they asked him to put on a Vincent Price kind of voice and he was amazing.
In the Number Of The Beast video, Steve mentions that the song was somehow also inspired by Robert Burns's poem Tam O' Shanter.
In any case, this is one of Maiden's most powerful and memorable songs. The mid-song instrumental riffs are particularly good. Bruce's vocal range is also showcased by a huge scream after the song intro. The band received much flak from various religious zealots, very few of which even bothered to actually listen to the song and understand its meaning. And as is often the case, the controversy only served to bring more publicity to Maiden.
Here is Mick Wall's account of the controversy that occurred at the time:
In America , where the title of the album had caused a storm of protest from the emerging so-called "moral majority", a right-wing American political pressure group ludicrously accused Maiden of being Devil worshippers and of "trying to pervert our kids". As Steve says, "It was mad. They completely got the wrong end of the stick. They obviously hadn't read the lyrics. They just wanted to believe all that rubbish about us being Satanists." Nevertheless, the resulting publicity kept the band's name in the news in every town that they visited that year, as kids everywhere were desperate to check out for themselves this band that was putting the fear of God into their parents.
Mick Wall (2001) Run To The Hills The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden Revised Edition p. 228.
Perhaps Maiden's most publicly recognisable song and their first big hit single, 'Run To The Hills' describes the Indian wars of the American west, first from the Indian's perspective and then from the white man's perspective. It is a fast-tempo song with a drum beat that is reminiscent of gallopping horses. Although it is a Maiden classic, it is a bit too short. Nevertheless, the song was critical in opening the way for Maiden's invasion of America.
In the lyrics, the sentence "the only good Indians are tame" probably refers to the infamous American proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian". This mindless and absurd proverb is said to stem from the following anecdote that took place in January 1869: Old Toch-a-way (Turtle Dove), a chief of the Comanches, on being introduced to General Philip Sheridan (18311888), desired to impress the white man and managed to say in English "Me, Toch-a-way; me good Injun." The General, a known bigot and Indian hater, just smiled and answered: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.". Although Sheridan later denied having made such a statement, the sentence became quickly a saying that is still used nowadays.
This short song describes the fear and uncertainty of life in a 1930s Al Capone-style gangland, or maybe in London 's EastEnd of the '60s when the Kray brothers were about. For the album, the band had to choose between this song and 'Total Eclipse', and since that time they have felt that maybe 'Gangland' was the wrong choice. Although many people don't like this song, it is actually not too bad maybe just not so good by Maiden standards. Both songs ('Gangland' and 'Total Eclipse') also share the distinction of being the only Maiden songs that were ever co-written by Clive Burr.
'Total Eclipse' is a doomsday song, describing the catastrophic end of the world by ecological distaster. It is possible that the lyrics are making a subtle political statement for the conservation and protection of the Earth. Before The Number Of The Beast album was released, the band had trouble deciding whether this song or 'Gangland' should be included on the album. They eventually chose 'Gangland', relegating 'Total Eclipse' to b-side status, but later regretted that decision. Consequently, 'Total Eclipse' was added to the album when it was re-mastered in 1998. This is an excellent song, whose mood fits well into the dark and brooding themes of The Number Of The Beast album.
This is what many fans consider the best Iron Maiden song ever, and perhaps the best song of all time. 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' describes the thoughts and emotions of a condemned man on his way to the gallows. There is a striking similarity with the lyrics of 'Rainbow's Gold', a song by a band called Beckett that was later covered by Maiden on the B-side of the 2 Minutes To Midnight single.
And though the end is near I'm not sorry
Catch my soul, it's willing to fly away
Hallowed Be Thy Name
And your bird she's singing
Catch your soul, he's willing to fly away
The unfolding story of the song is seen through the eyes of a man who, facing imminent death, experiences first anguish, then terror, and finally hope that he will return.
There is actually no way to describe this song other than absolutely inspired and brilliant. The long instrumental section that dominates the last half of the song is rivalled only by 'Phantom Of The Opera', and the lyrical depth and emotion stand alone, unapproached by anything else that can be heard. This is probably the best song ever written