The greatest metal album of all time turns 40 today! That distinction goes to Iron Maiden’s 1982 release; The Number of the Beast. While the band’s two prior releases are special in their own right, TNOTB saw them reach their full potential and kicked off a run of classic albums that would dominate the rest of the 1980’s.
Featuring the genre’s best bass player, founding member Steve Harris, this record saw the band go from supporting act to headliner around the world. It would be the last one with drummer Clive Burr but the first with former Samson singer Bruce Dickinson. The album is Burr’s finest accomplishment on the sticks and Dickinson’s voice transitioned the band from more of a amateur hard rock outfit to something entirely different but meeting Harris’ vision for the group. Soaring vocals that rivaled those of Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford took them to new heights. Childhood friends Dave Murray and Adrian Smith traded off guitar solos on the record and again combined with Harris to form the signature “Maiden gallop” that their songs are still known for to this day.
The frightening album art, along with it’s title, unfortunately led to the record being pigeonholed as some sort of devil worship. Perhaps the creative lyrics went over the heads of many critics of the time, but the stigma was attached to the band for several years. The record led the band to fall victim to folks burning and smashing their albums and protesting their concerts in the United States. Nonetheless, all of the extra attention caught the eye of teenagers looking for something different and was a commercial success. It became Iron Maiden’s first record to reach the Top 40 on the U.S. Billboard Charts. It produced two iconic singles in “The Number of the Beast” and “Run To The Hills” and was certified Platinum in the U.S. and virtually everywhere else in the world. This band has sold over 85 million records and 20 million of those were just this album alone. Its staying power and longevity speak for itself.
I discovered the record as a thirteen year old coming of age moron in roughly 1999, while going through my dad’s old cassette collection. Remember cassettes? I was immediately drawn to the cover art; as any thirteen year old boy probably was back in 1982. Upon placing the cassette in my stereo I was greeted with the heaviest thing I’d probably ever heard to that point. Invaders doesn’t have some melodic, build up intro like the more modern Maiden songs do. From the first note, it is an in your face metal onslaught. Most metal bands in the 80’s were making songs about girls and parties. Not Maiden. Invaders tells the tale of some ancient Saxons being invaded by and falling victim to Norse Vikings. Probably not the type of music that was popular with the chicks but nevertheless the type of music that would inspire future metal titans like Amon Amarth and Sabaton.
The second track is one of the album’s absolute gems and has the aforementioned type of intro that the band would become known for. Children of the Damned starts off with a melodic intro and was inspired by the TV show Village of the Damned. The song starts out nice before transitioning into a heavy metal classic that showcases the band at their peak. Rarely played live, I was able to hear it performed in Detroit on the Book Of Souls World Tour in 2016.
The next track is The Prisoner which was based off of the British TV show of the same name. It’s another song that is rarely played live, but I was fortunate enough to catch it in Indianapolis in 2012 during the Maiden England tour. The song was inspired by a character in the show who is taken hostage in a village that might seem to be too perfect, but in actuality is a prison as there is no free thought or freewill.
22 Acacia Avenue is another underrated masterpiece that is probably due to it’s lyrical content; but as a song it flat out jams. The song is a sequel to an earlier song about the band’s favorite made up (or was she?) lady of the night. First appearing in 1980’s Charlotte The Harlot, this song tells the third person view of her life before the narrator ultimately rescues her from her life of sin. In Charlotte the Harlot, the song is much more upbeat and has a very punk rock vibe to it. However, in 22 Acacia Avenue, the corner she works on and the song warns of the dangers of the lifestyle she has chosen on the streets. I hope that someday I will hear this one performed live.
Then comes the aforementioned, controversial title track. Contrary to popular activist beliefs at the time, the song is not an ode to Lucifer. Rather, the song is the reflection of a nightmare that Steve Harris had after viewing the sequel to The Omen. A quick look or listen to the lyrics could have calmed a lot of the outrage that this song created. Rather than running from it, the band embraced it, and rode the momentum of this moment all the way to the bank and then some. This was the second single released on the record and it has become one of the defining songs in the history of heavy metal. They’ve played this song on every tour I’ve seen them play.
Run To The Hills was the first single from the record and is probably the most popular and well known song from the band, at least here in the States. On the very rare chance that a radio station will play any Maiden music, you have about a 95% chance of it being Run To The Hills. From the catchy intro and piercing vocals the song was an instant hit and is usually in the set list when the band tours. The song is a back and forth tale from the perspectives of both the Native Americans and their conquerors from Europe. It’s an absolute metal classic.
Arguably their most popular song is followed by the “weakest” track on the record. Gangland isn’t necessarily a bad song but it doesn’t seem to fit. Written by drummer Clive Burr and guitarist Adrian Smith, it is from the perspective of life dominated by organized crime. Again, it isn’t a bad song, but when placed next to the song that it replaced on the album you can see why Steve Harris now believes they made the wrong choice. However, now knowing that this would the last album to feature Burr on the drums, I believe he delivers one of his all time best performances in this song. So, while the song isn’t catchy nor all that memorable in the Maiden catalog, it does show Burr going out in his prime with one of his best performances.
Total Eclipse was initially left off of the album and was instead used as the B-Side for the Run To The Hills single. This was the decision that Harris regretted. It’s a much stronger song than Gangland and would have been better served on the record. When the album was remastered and re-released in 1998, it was added as it should have been to begin with as it is a great straight ahead metal jam. I’d love to hear this one live.
The finale, as is common with this band, is the strongest track on the album. I’ll go further. I will opine that this is the greatest heavy metal song ever written. Throughout their career Iron Maiden have been known more so for their massive “epics” than their singles. They’ve released some doozies, like Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Phantom of The Opera, and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. The crown jewel of them all, though, is Hallowed Be Thy Name. It is the one that closes most Maiden shows. I assume this is because it is too good to follow with something else. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a man that is awaiting death at the gallows and the reflection of his life during his final moments. The song has everything that a heavy metal song should have. It’s got a build up intro. It has, arguably, Dickinson’s finest vocal performance. It features the classic Maiden gallop and twin guitars trading off masterpiece solos. Burr’s drums and Harris’ bass play are out of this world as well. All metal songs since and in the future should be measured against it and THAT alone is the deciding factor in making this the greatest metal album of all time. It would still be considered an all time classic without Hallowed, but its presence elevates it to the #1 slot in my not so humble opinion.
Cheers and Happy Birthday to The Number of the Beast.