1982’s The Number of the Beast is one of Iron Maiden’s best selling albums, and saw the band re-assert their place as one of the prime heavy metal acts of the era. That they did this on the album that saw Bruce Dickinson replace Paul Di’Anno as their vocalist shows just how hard the whole band had been working in recent years. Simply put, previous album Killers had not performed as well commercially as the band’s self-titled debut and the Di’Anno was getting burnt out. While certain elements of Iron Maiden’s fanbase still consider Di-Anno the band’s definitive vocalist, few will argue that Dickinson, although not as unique a vocalist, was much more versatile, and far closer to the classic heavy metal prototype vocalist. In that sense The Number of the Beast was very much a do or die album for Iron Maiden. They could have sunk, but instead they managed to swim.
And they are still swimming.
Not that things wee that promising when you consider The Number of the Beast’s opener “The Invaders” is one of the album’s weakest tracks, and one that not even band leader Steve Harris has much love for. At least it confirmed that Iron Maiden had retained all the musical elements that their fans had grown to love, with Harris’s galloping bass lines, the double guitar attack and Clive Burr’s drum wallop. The thing is, “Invaders” just isn’t a particularly interesting Iron Maiden tune, and anyone listening to it in isolation might have walked away from the band at that point. It’s a good job then that “Children of the Damned” is a much more interesting number, as Maiden adopt a Black Sabbath-esque glacial pace until the second half of the number. Yes, this is much more like it.
As NWOBHM albums go The Number of the Beast really benefits from a strong core of songs that make up the bulk of the album. From “Children of the Damned” through to “Run to the Hills”, there’s a run of five solid numbers, which still stand up today as 80s metal classics. Sure, lyrically it sounds a little more dated these days, but as a ‘definitive’ NWOBHM album, The Number of the Beast stands alongside Pyromania as probably the key releases by the movement. Sure, a song like “The Number of the Beast” may sound a little cliched these days, but as a number to throw devil-horn shapes to, it still packs a very NWOBHM wallop. Ronnie James Dio would be proud.
Of course, The Number of the Beast is home to Iron Maiden’s break-out hit, “Run to the Hills”, a song which hit the top ten, and despite it sounding a little dated these days, manages to squeeze everything that most Iron Maiden fans love about the band into a pop-metal classic in just under four minutes, complete with instantly recognisable rhythmic gallop and huge chorus. Arguably “Run to the Hills” is the number that cemented The Number of the Beast’s success, and if it hadn’t been as commercial, the album might not have gained the commercial traction it needed to establish itself.
The Number of the Beast closes with “Hallowed Be They Name”, a heads down rocker which many heavy metal fans consider to be Iron Maiden’s greatest closing track, putting the cap on an album which halted the band’s commercial decline and saw them forge forward into the decade with a renewed vigour.
Since its release in 1982, The Number of the Beast has been re-released a number of times, with several tweaks being made, most notably on the 1998 reissue, which is still the version most readily available. These changes range from the generally understandable, such as the artwork tweaked so that the blue background (apparently a mistake) being darkened to black, to the vaguely annoying, where a track originally intended to be on the album, but removed due to run time issues, was reinstated part-way through the album’s run time. While I wouldn’t argue that “Total Eclipse” is a decent number, as fans had been so used to the eight-track sequence, sticking it in before “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, instead as a bonus track added to the end after a few seconds of silence, is a questionable move.
Following the tour promoting The Number of the Beast, Clive Burr would be replaced by Nicko McBrain, the arrival of whom finalised what many would consider to be Iron Maiden’s definitive line up, remaining in the band ever since, is generally accepted to be one of the most affable men in rock music, and arguably ties with frontman Bruce Dickinson as Iron Maiden’s most charismatic band member. All this means that what many consider to be Iron Maiden’s definitive album, wasn’t recorded by their definitive line up, which often means that the debate over which of their 80s albums is their key album is a matter of frequent debate among Iron Maiden fans.
At the end of the day, who cares? The Number of the Beast is a classic Heavy Metal album, and one that any fan of the genre should listen to at least once.