Retrospective Review: Iron Maiden - The Number of the Beast

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

The album that kickstarted Maiden's global dominance.

There had been a sale on jeans and leather jackets in Matalan.

It's 1981. You've just fired your much-loved singer, the voice of the band, and hired a replacement whose style could not be more different. You're also about to record the final album of your current record deal, and for the first time you've got no previous material to fall back on. Your label and ever-growing fanbase are awaiting your next album with high expectations.

It was just as well, then, that the new singer in question happened to be Bruce Dickinson, previously of Samson, whose operatic style would gel perfectly with the increasingly complex songwriting of Steve Harris. The arrival of Dickinson, who soon came to be known as 'The Air Raid Siren', opened up new opportunies for the band, areas to explore which Di'Anno's punky voice had previously not allowed them to.

They took full advantage.

This album has everything. Energy. Fire. Talent. Fun. Pace. It's a powerhouse, a glorious forty-minute lesson into what heavy metal should be. They've had stronger starts than this album's opener 'Invaders', but it nonetheless introduces Bruce well; his voice belts out the stories of the viking invasions, showing off more range in one song than Di'Anno managed in his two albums. He also shows that he's not afraid to use the gruffness of his throat, guttaraly screaming the word "raping" to get across the horror of the act. As a song that welcomed many fans to the new singer, it does the job well.

There are more standard songs on the album. 'The Prisoner', based on the TV show of the same name, is fun but nothing to write home about. '22 Acacia Avenue', which is a continuation of the story of Charlotte the Harlot whom we first encountered on their debut album, follows in that same vein. It's a reworked version of an earlier song written by guitarist Adrian Smith, and despite Harris' best efforts it fails to stand out.

Derek Riggs' imagery remains iconic...but who's really in control?

But let's get to the good stuff (we'll gloss over Gangland, it's fine). 'Children of the Damned' is beautiful. The delicate side of Iron Maiden is one we don't hear often enough, but once again it is Bruce who really elevates this piece to another level. His voice shows true passion and emotion; he's not singing, he's acting, putting us in the situation and making us feel what that character feels. To this day it remains one of his personal bests; it's rather a unique number in Maiden's catalogue, and it gave him the rare opportunity to put raw emotion into his singing. Gorgeous.

The album's singles are song numbers five and six on this album, which is unusual but certainly means it doesn't fall into the trap of the mid-album slump. 'Run to the Hills', one of Maiden's most commercial songs to date, gallops along at pace and never lets up, offering Maiden a route into the UK's top 10 singles chart without having to compromise on their ideals. It's brilliantly executed, but not as much as its preceding song and the album's title track. Bruce's scream, allegedly stemming from his pure rage at producer Martin Birch's never-ending requests to have him sing the first four lines of the song, really does sound like it's from Hell itself. And as impressive as this song is as a whole, it sounds even more so when split up. The multi-tracks can be found on the Internet and I'd highly advise you listen to them. The scream becomes even more outrageous when heard solo, and you also get to hear Steve's bass playing; his fingers move at the speed of light. He plays it almost like a lead bass; the drummer, Clive Burr, must have had his work cut out for him to keep up.

Finally, we come to the album's closer. Is it the greatest heavy metal song of all time? That will be debated for eternity, but it's certainly up there. The stars aligned for this one. Bruce's arrival, Harris' songwriting, the band's collective talents all came together to create one magnificent piece of true art. Hardly ever out of the setlist, it still stands today as the greatest of Iron Maiden's many 'epics', and helped Iron Maiden enter their golden period. It's iconic, and along with the album as a whole, solidified Iron Maiden's status as one of the greatest bands in the world.

It's 1982. You've just released your new album with your new much-loved singer, and hit #1 on the UK album charts for the first time. You're about to become to biggest heavy metal band in the world and achieve worldwide success for decades to come. New singer, no material, strict time limit? No problem.

Mission accomplished.