It’s a Good Record, Man: “The Number of the Beast,” by Iron Maiden — a music (and documentary) review

IronMaidenBeast

This post is serving double duty. It’s a track-by-track review of the Iron Maiden album The Number of the Beast, with the associations of my ill-spent youth. But, it’s also a review of the documentary Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast (Classic Albums), which I watched on Amazon Prime Video.

As is my custom, I’ll listen to each track as I write about the song. Music is meant to be heard to be truly appreciated, after all. If you’d rather read my words while I wax rhapsodic about the songs, that’s okay with me. I’ll still be listening to the album.

I can recall the time period in which I first heard this album, if not the exact place. I became a rock music fan early on. One of the first 45s I owned was “Hanky Panky,” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I recall listening to most of the artists and groups you can still listen to on classic rock radio stations while I was in grammar school and junior high, and into high school. The Eagles, Bad Company, The Beatles, Rolling Stones,Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, Heart, Thin Lizzy, Blue Öyster Cult, AC/DC, The Who . . . you know the groups I’m talking about. KISS was like bubblegum metal, I guess (I bet Gene Simmons would hate to hear it called that). During high school, my listening tastes grew a bit heavier and darker. It seemed a natural progression from The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. It was Sabbath that was really the gateway to other British rock bands such as Judas Priest, Motörhead, Def Leppard (before they went glam), and, of course, Iron Maiden.

I may have listened to tracks from the two Iron Maiden albums featuring Paul Dianno as lead singer when they were released, but I don’t remember doing so. I do remember the artwork from the album covers, though. Both featured the Maiden mascot Eddie, a ghoulish monster with a corpselike skull of a face, and he is a memorable character. Iconography is important in heavy metal music (perhaps an idea for a future post), and Eddie features prominently in all of Iron Maiden’s output, including albums, singles, t-shirts (naturally) and posters, and even a video game and pinball machine. Eddie is often described as a zombie, but his image changes based on the album theme: demon, mental patient, cyborg, soldier, Egyptian mummy . . . Eddie is a versatile guy.

So, I was aware of Iron Maiden as a group, and of their mascot Eddie, before I knowingly listened to any of their music. The Killers album cover itself is iconic and, believe it or not, made me initially wary to listen to the group’s music. I had to discard the Satanic hype surrounding heavy metal music before I could actually listen to it and appreciate the music itself. Yes, dark imagery such as the Devil and demons and lurid images of Hell were a big component of some heavy metal acts, as were depressive, dark lyrics and subject matter. And, at that time of my life, some of that was just what I needed. At the time, I was feeling a lot of pent-up aggression and depression, and needed an outlet for my wildly swinging emotions. I felt like an outsider, even though I was a active member of many different groups. As I grew older, I discovered that most of the people I knew felt like outsiders as well. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? I knew a lot of fans of metal, but I’ve never known any Satanists that I’m aware of.

When I first began actively listening to Iron Maiden, it was this album, which was released in 1982. Nearly four decades ago as I write this.

When the album was released it included the blue coloring you see in the album cover image that leads off this post. The artist had intended this to be gray instead and it was later re-released that way. I owned the blue version, so that’s what I posted.

I once saw Iron Maiden in concert. I thought it was the Piece of Mind tour, but it may have been the Powerslave tour instead. I can’t be sure. I do know that it was at the old Charlotte Coliseum. I remember crossing the floor during one of the encores and feeling the bass pummeling my ribcage. Seems like there was a pretty gnarly fistfight between two longhairs then as well, but that may have been the Ozzy concert. As I recall, my friends and I were all drinking PJ that night and were feeling pretty good.

Classic Albums is a British documentary series showcasing many iconic music albums. The episode about this album offers interviews with members of the band and features Marty Birch, the album’s producer, in the studio at the mixing board, demonstrating the different tracks. Everyone seems perplexed by the American demonstrations against the band because they were rumored “Satanists.” The band also implies that, in the ’80s, American girls were easier than British girls and they had a lot of fun in the States. I have no basis for comparison. Pre-AIDS, it seemed like American girls were pretty easy to me as well. Perhaps that’s not a politically correct thing to say now.

The bass player, Steve Harris, was responsible for writing much of the band’s music. Harris has a unique galloping style of playing that’s showcased in songs such as “Run to the Hills” and “The Trooper.” The fact that he wrote much of the music means that most of the songs are built around the band’s rhythm section, Harris and whoever the drummers were along the way. This added to their unique sound.

Bruce Dickinson replacing Paul Dianno also allowed a different style of songwriting. Dickinson has a huge range and a near operatic tonal quality to his voice. Number was Dickinson’s first record with the band, and it was the one that catapulted Iron Maiden into the stratosphere.

* * *

Side One

Invaders” Machine-gun drums and bass guitar. Fast tempo. Bruce is singing fast and furious and holding soaring notes. Seems to be about Vikings invading. This is speed metal. Upbeat in tempo and melody. Not a minor chord sludgefest. Bruce’s voice is strong and theatrical.

Children of the Damned” Slow, melodic start. Kinda somber music. Based on a 1964 British horror film, sequel to Village. Music builds to a crescendo and then begins to speed up. Sounds like the drums are rolling down a steep hill. The guitars wind up and begin to wail.

The Prisoner” After the British television show. Begins with a clip from the series. Fast tempo, not doom metal. The chorus is almost poppy. I’m not a prisoner. I’m a free man.

22 Acacia Avenue” Second song in Adrian Smith’s “Charlotte the Harlot” series. Has kind of a sinister sound to it, but it’s about going to see a hooker.

Side Two

The Number of the Beast” The song and album cover that helped fan the flames of the Satanic Panic. Somber-sounding intro, fast-paced song. Dark subject matter about a nightmare, apparently. But, you mention 666 and Satan in a song, you’re gonna get whipped by the Bible Belt. Seems pretty innocuous now.

Run to the Hills” My absolute favorite Iron Maiden song, of all time. This one is about the sad plight of the American Indians. I don’t know how Steve Harris keeps from breaking strings on this one. Women and children are cowards, Attack! Definitely pro-Native-American. I got no problem with that. Driving drums, and Bruce’s moaning wail in tune with Harris’s bass. Metal doesn’t get much better than this. Bruce hits an impossible note at the end.

Gangland” Drum solo starts off the song, and it sounds like a Motörhead song to me until Bruce begins to sing. Harris had nothing to do with writing this song. This was Adrian Smith and drummer Clive Burr (explains the opening solo). Seems to be about a crime-infested neighborhood. Dead men tell no tales.

Hallowed Be Thy Name” The chiming bell and the scary music. About a man about to be executed. A lot like the Styx song “Renegade” to me. Then it speeds up with whorling guitar rhythms and Bruce begins to scream.

* * *

The documentary takes the viewer through each of the songs as well. Most of the trivia I’ve written here came from that source.

That’s it. Just eight tracks. But, these eight tracks hugely influenced metal music made after this.

And, it’s a good record, man.

Firewater’s Let-Him-Who-Hath-Understanding Report Card: A

A

This grade is for the album and the documentary. If you’re already a fan of metal, you’ll love this. If you’re not, you just might become one.

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