Revisiting Iron Maiden's The Number of The Beast

We take a look at the 1982 album that inspired a wave of bands (and a cult mockumentary), exploring how Iron Maiden and their collaborators created a thrilling, vibrant and distinctive heavy metal bestseller

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Geddy Lee once said that the beauty of Rush was how his band got its huge, symphonic sound from just three musicians. Iron Maiden took a different approach to deliver a mammoth physical presence, using nearly twice as much musical firepower. The band’s third studio album, The Number of the Beast, saw the unique line up of vocalist Bruce Dickinson and twin lead guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, underpinned by the bass and drum engine of Steve Harris and Clive Burr. Together, they delivered overblown, bombastic hard rock that laid down the template for modern heavy metal music.

Recorded at Battery Studios in London, The Number of the Beast was over-the-top in practically every respect, from its songwriting to artwork and marketing. The album blended various influences with a high energy punk tempo to create a new sound that inspired groups from Guns'n'Roses and Megadeth to Metallica and Nirvana. As Japanese rock critic Masa Itoh once noted: "The moment I saw them perform, I just knew this was a band to change history, and with this album they managed tell the world what metal is all about."

While Beast was Iron Maiden’s third studio album, it was their first with Dickinson, who had previously fronted heavy metal group Samson. Producer Martin Birch was delighted with the change of personnel, as Dickinson's unusually wide vocal range let him push for a more cranked-up, histrionic sound in the studio. For Dickinson, joining the band presented an opportunity to explore new ground and develop a distinctive sound: "I remember thinking, if I was singing for that band, we could do something really different. It could go somewhere else!" he later said.

The band came out of a close-knit rock scene that had been bubbling under in British pubs and clubs since the late 1970s

It wasn't just Dickinson's arrival that made this album special, however. The rest of the group's musicians were right at the top of their game. As Adrian Smith once noted, "It [the album] was different. It was unique from anything else that was around. Bruce coming in let us go where we wanted to go. From the seed of an idea, it became a big sounding record." Martin Birch, who had previously produced Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, said: "I wanted a certain atmosphere to be set-up, and there was real excitement, because we all felt there was something special about that album."

Upon its release on March 22, 1982, The Number of the Beast went to number one on the UK album chart, and reached number 33 on the US Billboard 200. At that time, the British charts were dominated by so-called 'new romantic' bands, which made Iron Maiden's commercial success all the more surprising. Yet the band came out of a close-knit rock scene that had been bubbling under in British pubs and clubs since the late 1970s - one that Sounds magazine famously dubbed "the new wave of British Heavy Metal".

The genius of Beast was that it brought together so many differing musical elements in a striking yet accessible package. Lead songwriter Steve Harris grew up listening to a mix of early Genesis, Yes, Floyd and Jethro Tull, as well as Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin and Free, UFO and The Who, and his writing managed to convincingly distil these diverse influences. This, combined with pitch-perfect performances from the band, and top-tier production work from Birch, created a very special end result.

To anyone hearing Beast for the first time in 1982, it sounded strikingly powerful and vibrant

While the band were pleased with their work during production, none of them had any idea the album would become so successful. "We thought it was a good album, a strong album, but that’s about it. You don’t walk out of the studio and think, 'wow we’ve just made history,'" Harris later recalled.

To anyone hearing Beast for the first time in 1982, it sounded strikingly powerful and vibrant. "It’s not a complicated album, but it’s just right," Harris said. "Some of the simpler songs, they were written in only five minutes." While its production work wasn't particularly tricksy, its technical quality was excellent for the time - the textbook rock recording that you'd expect from Martin Birch. The clean sounding, late period analogue studio tape recorders, effects and mixing desk delivered a crisp, clean and open sound, yet one with a touch of warmth. This was bolstered by Birch’s clever use of the band’s twin electric guitars, which are doubled up and overdubbed to create a strong, impactful soundstage. Bruce Dickinson’s vocals assume a rock-solid presence in the centre of the mix on most tracks, which is where Burr also locates most of the guitar solos.

'Invaders' kicks off the album as if in a hurry, its fast pace dictated by a pile-driving Harris/Burr percussion machine. 'Children of the Damned' begins with a slow, melodic intro that builds into an epic, crunching chorus—"It’s a strong song, and Adrian was able to impose himself a lot more with his playing on this", Birch later explained. 'The Prisoner', meanwhile, kicks off with an excerpt from the cult 60s TV spy thriller of the same name, then ploughs on with an unusual swing time beat from Burr. '22 Acacia Avenue' lightens the lyrical tone slightly, but adds ballast to the album’s sound with its distinctive duelling electric guitars.

This heavy metal anthem is quite a thing to hear on a serious hi-fi system, with faux operatic vocals by Dickinson and firecracker drum work from Burr, alongside seminal guitar solo playing

All of which brings us to the album’s iconic title track and second single. This heavy metal anthem is quite a thing to hear on a serious hi-fi system, with faux operatic vocals by Dickinson and firecracker drum work from Burr, alongside seminal guitar solo playing. It sounds visceral and gripping, full of drama and bombast. The song’s lyrics have an occult theme, which caused Iron Maiden records to be burned in the southern USA. "We were never going to sell out and start writing songs for American radio", Harris later joked.

The album's first single 'Run to the Hills', is no less frenetic, with its galloping drum and equally fast-paced guitar. 'Gangland' is best described as a solid album track, slowing the pace a little for the magnum opus that is 'Hallowed Be Thy Name', which became the album’s third single. The lyric sees Dickinson narrating the scene of an execution, almost in falsetto mode, bolstered by moody vocals, crunching bass guitar harmonics and massive sounding guitars. Chiming bells round off this kitsch song, which is widely thought to have inspired Rob Reiner’s brilliant 'mockumentary', This is Spinal Tap.

Everything from its huge sound to the occult iconography and over-the-top lyrics inspired a new generation of bands

The plot of Reiner's cult rock parody film is peppered with superstition, a direct reference to The Number of the Beast. At the time of its recording, the music press reported various unexplained goings-on, including the producer crashing his Range Rover into a minibus full of nuns, upon which he was presented with a repair bill for £666. Dave Murray later explained: "We didn’t think there were any outside forces – but a lot of stuff was breaking down for technical reasons!"

Bruce Dickinson was certainly superstitious though, albeit perhaps in a more romantic way. Reflecting on his Iron Maiden debut, he once said: "When astrologists talk about a planetary line up, this conjunction only happens once in a blue moon sort of thing, what you have in [The Number of the Beast] is the musical equivalent."

And so it was that this early 1980s rock album went on to achieve massive commercial success, selling over 15 million copies worldwide. Yet it was more than just a best seller. Everything from its huge sound to the occult iconography and over-the-top lyrics inspired a new generation of bands, and it became a bridge between the classic heavy rock of the 1970s, and the new metal of the late 80s and early 90s. The band’s manager Rod Smallwood later said: "It started a train that kept on rolling for the rest of the decade. Before The Number of the Beast, we were just another part of what they called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. After it we were a worldwide, major act."

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