In the summer of 1981, Iron Maiden had reached a crossroads. The East London band, who were at the forefront of the exploding young scene known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), had two acclaimed and reasonably successful studio albums behind them: 1980’s groundbreaking Iron Maiden and 1981’s Killers. However, singer Paul Di’Anno was starting to struggle due to burning the proverbial candle at both ends. The rigors of touring combined with his hard-partying personality had sapped the tall Cockney bloke of his energy to the point where he would be listless as he was about to take the stage. The band, who had ambitions far greater than UK success, had a tough decision to make about their future.
Another NWOBHM band, Samson, were flaming out in an even worse way. Record label Gem, who released Samson’s 1980 debut LP Head On, had gone out of business, and RCA, who had picked up the rights to the follow-up Shock Tactics, couldn’t be bothered to offer any support to this unknown band. Featuring a young singer named Bruce Dickinson who could hit the high notes like Ian Gillan did with Deep Purple a decade earlier, Samson still managed to score a mid-bill set at the 1981 Reading Festival in late August despite being on the verge of imploding.
Iron Maiden bassist/songwriter/overall visionary Steve Harris was not a fan of Samson’s quirky take on heavy metal, but he dug Dickinson’s sound and stage presence. If Maiden were going to break through internationally, the band would need a singer who could handle the ambitious songwriting ideas swirling in Harris’ head. Paul Di’Anno, a fantastic singer in his own right whose street-level grit was crucial to the debut album’s brash energy and confrontational tone, was already having a hard time keeping up with the vocal acrobatics that Killers songs like “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Purgatory” demanded. Having a hunch that Dickinson was precisely the guy who could pull the band’s new material off, Harris and Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood flew from France – where Maiden was them touring – to scout the singer’s performance at Reading.
“Paul was still in the band, but I think everybody was aware that there was a problem,” Dickinson told biographer Mick Wall. “And when I came off stage at Reading that day, everybody knew that something was up.
“Now at Reading, there’s this quadrangle of beer-tents and stuff, and right in the middle of it is a bloody great pole with arc lights and spotlights on it. [Smallwood and I] were the only two people in the whole place standing in the middle of the quadrangle, under the spotlights, with everybody at the Reading Festival staring at us, and I was looking at Rod going, ‘Do you really want to do this here?'”
Smallwood did and immediately offered Dickinson a chance to audition with the band. Dickinson and Iron Maiden got together the next day in a studio in Hackney and jammed on such older songs as “Prowler”, “Sanctuary”, and “Remember Tomorrow”. The group – Harris, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, and drummer Clive Burr – knew immediately they’d hit the jackpot, while Dickinson was astounded by the band’s professionalism. “Right, there will be no more smoking dope in the back of the tour bus anymore then,” Dickinson joked to Wall.
On September 26, Sounds magazine announced Dickinson had been hired as Iron Maiden’s new singer. What seemed like a risk at the time would wind up forever altering the trajectory of the band and the heavy metal genre as a whole.
By 1982 the NWOBHM wave was starting to crest, and many bands who released pivotal albums – Diamond Head, Angel Witch, Tygers of Pan Tang, Witchfinder General – were already starting to fizzle, partly due to poor management decisions. The bands that managed to make it past 1982 showed a lot more vision than their peers. Venom’s raw, cheekily Satanic sound and image had a tremendous impact on the burgeoning American metal underground, while the hard-working Saxon started to experience success outside Britain. Two bands, however, had bigger plans, which included attempting to crash the fickle and seemingly impenetrable American market.
Sheffield’s Def Leppard had their sights on American radio from day one, their 1981 classic High ‘n’ Dry produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, on the heels of his phenomenal success with AC/DC and Foreigner. Iron Maiden, meanwhile, knew that American radio wasn’t as responsive to their edgier and more aggressive sound. They needed a third album that could turn heads, which The Number of the Beast would do, both musically and visually, beyond their wildest dreams.
Prior to The Number of the Beast‘s release on 22 March 1982, Iron Maiden had all the right ingredients for a major breakthrough: an ambitious mix of gritty, progressive, energetic, highly melodic heavy metal (“UFO meets Jethro Tull” would’ve been an apropos elevator pitch at the time), a marketable band logo, an even more marketable mascot in the form of Derek Riggs’s character Eddie, an uncompromising manager in Smallwood, a big record label in EMI, and now, that new lead singer. The final product would be 39 minutes of fury that would turn the genre on its ear and introduce the metal’s new superstars to the world.
At that moment producer Martin Birch was on one hell of a run. In addition to helming Maiden’s Killers album the year prior, he played a pivotal role on Black Sabbath‘s Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981), as well as Blue Öyster Cult‘s resurgent Fire of Unknown Origin. Going back to Deep Purple‘s landmark 1971 album In Rock, Birch spent the 1970s capturing heavy rock bands’ live ferocity on tape, making him a perfect fit for Iron Maiden, who had built a strong word-of-mouth following based on their ferocious live shows. In contrast to the rich but singles-devoid Killers, primarily comprised of material cut from the debut album, the band were now armed with an exceptionally strong collection of new material as Birch and the boys entered London’s Battery Studios in January 1982. The progressive side exhibited on “The Phantom of the Opera”, the aggression of “Wrathchild”, the menace of “Killers”, and the hooks of “Running Free” now coalesced on every new song.
One needn’t look further than the opening track on The Number of the Beast to notice how immediate Dickinson’s impact was on the band. Early on, Harris’s songs were never the easiest for singers to sing (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”, anyone?) and Dickinson has handed a very daunting task when it came to singing the logorrheic opening verse of “Invaders”. “Longboats have been sighted the evidence of war has begun / Many Nordic fighting men their swords and shields all gleam in the sun.”
Backed up by Iron Maiden’s fast, complex playing, Dickinson was forced to phrase those lines within a highly unorthodox vocal melody. He was up to the task, belting out the lyrics with authority, speeding up and slowing down his enunciation for dramatic effect, capping off with his memorable delivery of, “Gleeeeeeam!” It takes world-class chops to pull off a song as complex as “Invaders”, and Dickinson immediately puts himself in the same league as his formidable peers Rob Halford and Ronnie James Dio.
Curiously, “Invaders” is the least interesting song on the album, stacked with tracks that would become perennial live favorites. Those six tracks exemplify just how big a creative leap Harris and the rest of the band made in such a short time span. Each song is unique from the other yet relentlessly catchy, their lyrics telling stories that range from movies and television programs, gritty street life, nightmares, genocide, and first-person character sketches. Those concisely written yet instantly evocative lyrics capture the listener’s imagination. Most crucially, though, is Iron Maiden’s newfound mastery of dynamics. Riveting on record, utterly explosive in concert, the new arrangements married complexity and accessibility in a way never achieved before. It is bracing, escapist, empowering, theatrical. Heavy metal music made for the masses, not just a local pub in East London.
Inspired by the 1960s British horror classics Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned, “Children of the Damned” is the first masterclass in heavy metal dynamics The Number of the Beast. Starting as a morose ballad – not dissimilar to Black Sabbath’s 1980 track “Children of the Sea” – it steadily builds and builds to the climactic final verse in which the misunderstood telepathic children are burned alive. Smith kicks into a searing solo, followed by Dickinson’s stadium-ready chants of the climactic final melody. In contrast, the rampaging “The Prisoner” takes the listener to the cult dystopian TV series of the same name, even including Patrick McGoohan’s famous intro line from the show, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” Iron Maiden lean right into a speedy riff, its brisk verses complemented beautifully by a strong, melodic chorus. “22 Acacia Avenue” is more progressive in structure; its tempo changes and stop-starts accompany the surprisingly compassionate tale of a man desperate to liberate a young prostitute from her hard life.
However, Side Two is where The Number of the Beast makes its leap from revelatory to revolutionary. Opening with actor Barry Clayton’s chilling narration of lines from the Book of Revelation (12:12 and 13:18 specifically), the astounding title track kicks into a percussion-less opening riff by Harris, Smith, and Murray, Dickinson dramatically reading the two lines that take the listener right into the demonic nightmare scenario the song is all about. “I left alone, my mind was blank / I needed time to think to get the memories from my mind / What did I see? Can I believe that what I saw that night was real and not just fantasy?” That intro builds and builds, the tension increases until Dickinson’s iconic, 13-second scream launches the song straight into hell. Harris’ tale is as vivid as any Hammer horror flick as the protagonist beholds a Satanic ritual and is torn between refuting the blasphemy and embracing it. One of the most enthralling uses of Satanic imagery in the history of heavy metal music, it is a bonafide classic. This one song generates the biggest audience “pop” at any Iron Maiden concert.
Every bit the title track’s equal, “Run to the Hills” is Iron Maiden’s most enduring single, made memorable by Clive Burr’s instantly recognizable drum intro. A quirky, descending riff kicks in as Dickinson sings of the bravery of the Indigenous people in the face of mass slaughter: “We fought him hard, we fought him well / Out on the plains we gave him hell / But many came, too much for Cree / Oh, will we ever be set free?” Bluntly condemning the settlers by putting the audience in the antagonists’ minds (“The only good injuns are tame”), the song explodes into a chorus that’s equally elegiac as it is empowering, highlighted by an explosive chorus that becomes an instant sing-along in concert.
The guys save their very best for last with “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, arguably the most beloved song by Iron Maiden fans worldwide. Harris’ narrator is a prisoner on the day of their execution, the tone fittingly mournful: “I’m waiting in my cold cell when the bell begins to chime Reflecting on my past life, and it doesn’t have much time.” The song picks up into somber march as Dickinson sells the hell out of the verses, the band punctuating his singing perfectly, Smith and Murray utilizing twin-lead harmonies to bring more pathos to the story. Dickinson sings the final verse with gravitas and passion as the narrator begins to find peace in his final moments (“Mark my words, believe my soul lives on Don’t worry now that I have gone I’ve gone beyond to seek the truth) which then launches the song into its final movement.
Shifting from a march to a double-time jam driven by Harris’s fleet-fingered, upper-register basslines, Smith and Murray trade solos before Dickinson re-enters to bring the song to its goosebump-inducing climax. The way “Hallowed” steadily builds from melancholy to transcendent would become a hallmark for Iron Maiden. While the band would follow that formula for the rest of their career, this is still the finest example of that tried-and-true template. Often imitated by other metal bands over the decades, no one has ever come close to achieving this kind of majesty.
As a side note, what has puzzled fans for decades is the “Gangland” versus “Total Eclipse” issue. There was not much time for the band to complete the album in early 1982, and the band had a hasty decision to make. Mid-tempo rager “Total Eclipse” was released as the b-side to “Run to the Hills” in February 1982, but Harris and the band decided to go with the lively “Gangland” instead on the album. With its rambunctious drumming by Burr, “Gangland” is a fun little track but sorely lacks the drama that “Total Eclipse” has, and over the decades, Iron Maiden have expressed remorse about the decision. As recently as 2015, Dickinson told yours truly that he wishes the band would bring “Total Eclipse” back to their live performances.
Making things even more confusing, Iron Maiden would add “Total Eclipse” on subsequent CD reissues, yet vinyl reissues would stick with just “Gangland”. Needless to say. the savvier Maiden fans out there have a burned MP3 of “Total Eclipse” on their phones to make up for its absence on streaming platforms.
Commercially The Number of the Beast did very well out of the gate, charting in the UK at number one for two weeks. International success grew, the album quickly certifying gold in Canada in 1982, and Iron Maiden’s first headlining shows in North America would be five Eastern Canadian dates in June 1982. While America was a little slower to catch on, three things helped the band immeasurably. First, they played the hell out of the country that year, opening for the likes of Scorpions, Rainbow, .38 Special, and their chief UK rivals Judas Priest. Secondly, heavy metal was going under a generational change in 1982, as more and more Gen-X teenagers were being drawn to harder, more provocative sounds than what they heard on the radio. Heavy metal was on the cusp of exploding among youngsters, and The Number of the Beast, along with Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance, released in late 1982, would be that year’s two biggest metal albums.
Better yet – although at the time it felt more troubling to Iron Maiden compared to how quaint it seems 40 years later – the band found themselves embroiled in one of the early heavy metal “Satanic panic” scandals of the 1980s. Right-wing Christian groups caught wind of the title track and especially Derek Riggs’ cover art and started demonstrating at the band’s shows. Never mind these were perfectly nice Cockney lads who would only want to kill a pint of bitter. The music frightened a lot of people too narrow-minded to use critical thinking skills and figure out that although the Devil is on the cover seeming to control mascot Eddie with puppet strings, the real Eddie is grinning facetiously above said Mephistopheles, controlling him like another puppet. It mocks Satan rather than deifying him.
Either way, no press is bad press, and Smallwood’s management team pounced on the opportunity. After dozens of shows in America, The Number of the Beast ultimately peaked at number 33, certifying gold in October 1983.
As Dickinson would go on to say, The Number of the Beast would mark the moment Iron Maiden hit the top of the rollercoaster ride. After that, it was off to the races for the next decade, the band hanging on for dear life as they became one of the biggest concert draws in the world. Six more highly successful albums would follow in the next decade, live shows would become more bombastic, tours would become longer, the pace relentless. Clive Burr would leave the band in 1983, replaced by former Trust drummer and now beloved mainstay Nicko McBrain. 1983’s Piece of Mind and 1984’s Powerslave would be smashing successes, and 1985’s Live After Death would be one of the finest heavy metal double live albums ever recorded. Burnout would take its toll on the band: Smith would depart after touring for 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, while Dickinson would controversially quit the band in 1993.
Not until 1999 would Dickinson and Smith would return to the fold, and in the decades since that reunion Iron Maiden would experience a late-career renaissance that any band would kill for. Iron Maiden is exponentially bigger now than they were in 1982, and every fan has their favorite LP (this writer’s fave is Powerslave), but no one will deny the band owes everything to that one record that changed the heavy metal landscape, not to mention their lives, forever.