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‘The Number Of The Beast’: How Iron Maiden Figured A Metal Classic
In Depth

‘The Number Of The Beast’: How Iron Maiden Figured A Metal Classic

Iron Maiden’s storming third album, ‘The Number Of The Beast’ transformed the group from NWOBHM league leaders to global superstars.

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Iron Maiden’s third album, The Number Of The Beast, has repeatedly been lauded as one of heavy metal’s benchmark releases. First issued in early 1982, it swept to No.1 in the UK and brokered the band’s international breakthrough, rewarding them with their first US Billboard Top 40 chart placing on the way to moving over 20 million copies worldwide.

Yet, while it’s now regarded as the most pivotal title in Iron Maiden’s canon, The Number Of The Beast’s success was by no means preordained. Prior to its creation, the band had notched up two Top 20 hits, with their self-titled debut album and its follow-up, Killers, but bassist and bandleader Steve Harris was still concerned about the group’s future. Most specifically, he felt frontman Paul Di’Anno lacked the commitment needed to take Maiden to the next level.

Listen to ‘The Number Of The Beast’ here.

“I felt that I might be letting people down”

“We knew that it was a big deal to change our singer, but we also knew that we couldn’t carry on with Paul,” Harris told Classic Rock in 2016. “When he first got involved with the band, Rod [Smallwood, Iron Maiden’s manager] asked me was there any potential problems that might crop up in the future that he should know about. And I said: ‘I’ve got to be honest. There may be a problem with Paul, because sometimes his attitude is a bit weird.’”

Di’Anno’s own lifestyle choices – which by this time included a predilection for brandy and cocaine – also worried his bandmates. In retrospect, however, the singer readily agreed that he wasn’t up to the task at that point in time.

“By the time of Killers the band was getting a bit more technical… and I started losing interest,” Di’Anno reflected. “I felt that I might be letting people down by voicing my doubts, so I said nothing. But then it built up to the point where I was rubbing Steve up the wrong way.”

“Bruce Dickinson was one of the first people I thought of”

Iron Maiden appreciated that replacing Di’Anno could easily have backfired. The brash, 23-year-old East Londoner was highly popular with the band’s ardent fan base, whose unyielding support had helped Maiden emerge as front runners of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal scene in the early 80s. Yet, even before Di’Anno played his final show with Maiden, in September 1981, Steve Harris had a possible replacement in mind.

“I’d never been much into [NWOBHM contemporaries] Samson, but I’d always thought their singer was good,” he later admitted to Classic Rock. “I thought, Yeah, the bloke’s got a really good voice, and he knows how to work a crowd. I thought he sounded a bit like Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, actually. When the shit really hit the fan with Paul, he was one of the first people I thought of.”

As it turned out, the feeling was mutual: the singer in question, Bruce Dickinson, already believed that he could be a good fit for Iron Maiden.

“I was looking at Paul, thinking I should be up there”

“Samson only played a few gigs with Maiden on the same bill, but I was acutely aware that they had a big following,” Dickinson told Classic Rock. “I checked them out when Samson were headlining above them at a venue called the Music Machine [now Koko] in London. I got goosebumps watching them. It gave me the same feeling I got as a kid listening to Deep Purple In Rock… I was looking at Paul, thinking I should be up there.”

After an initial meeting with Rod Smallwood at the Reading Festival, followed by a successful try out, Dickinson was installed as the band’s new frontman. He made his live debut with Iron Maiden in Italy, at the Palasport Arena, in Bologna, on 26 October 1981, and then held his nerve at a big UK show at London’s Rainbow Theatre. Yet, while Dickinson’s commanding stage presence immediately made a difference, the band hadn’t yet finalised the material that would make up The Number Of The Beast.

“Pressure helps to make you come up with the goods”

“There was a lot of pressure,” Steve Harris recalled. “The first album was like a ‘best of’ of the songs we’d been playing during the band’s first four years. The second album was mainly early stuff as well, apart from maybe four songs. When we got to the third album, we had nothing. We had to write from scratch. Pressure helps to make you come up with the goods.”

It certainly did where The Number Of The Beast was concerned, with not only Harris, but also the band’s new recruits, Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith, coming up with impressive new ideas. These soon translated into tough yet highly melodic hard-rock anthems such as The Prisoner and 22 Acacia Avenue.

The Prisoner came together after Dickinson – a self-confessed “frustrated drummer” – sat behind the kit when the band’s then drummer, Clive Burr, went out for a break. After Smith and Harris fell in behind the singer’s beat, the song soon fell into place. With an entirely different starting point, 22 Acacia Avenue – a sequel to Charlotte The Harlot, from the group’s debut album – actually pre-dated Maiden, and was originally written by Smith for a band he had been in called Urchin.

Other songs derived from unlikely influences. Scarf-waving ballad Children Of The Damned was based on the sci-fi horror film Village Of The Damned (itself adapted from John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos), while Steve Harris’ lyric for The Number Of The Beast’s storming title track was influenced both by the horror film Damien: Omen II and Robert Burns’ 18th-century supernatural poem Tam O’ Shanter. The bassist also penned the lyrics for the epic Hallowed Be Thy Name. An evocative tale of a prisoner about to be hanged, it supplied the perfect album closer.

“It was the record for the time”

Due to the time spent composing the material, Iron Maiden were forced to capture their new record in its entirety in just five weeks during sessions at north-west London’s Battery Studios, in the winter of 1981. Despite working to a tight deadline, it was obvious the band’s new line-up had clicked and they were creating something special.

Indeed, even before the band had put the final touches to the album, its lead single, the rousing, Wild West-themed Run To The Hills, crashed into the UK charts. The perfect curtain-raiser, it quickly became the group’s first Top 10 single, peaking at No.7, and it remains among the best Iron Maiden songs to this day. Profile-raising TV appearances on Top Of The Pops and even UK children’s show Tiswas followed, and the exposure rapidly paid off. When The Number Of The Beast was released, on 22 March 1982, it sped all the way to the top of the UK charts.

“We were on tour in Wintherthur, Switzerland, when we got the news about the album,” Bruce Dickinson recalled. “We got a telegram on the Sunday morning… and we went: ‘Fantastic!’ But at that time, we were pushing a 30-seat coach to jump start it, because the driver had let the battery go flat.”

Thanks to The Number Of The Beast’s success, Iron Maiden’s days of budget digs and dodgy transport would soon be behind them. Indeed, over 40 years after its initial release, it arguably remains the metal titans’ most enduring musical statement, and most definitely the record that transformed them from an exciting young British band to full-blown global superstars.

“It was the record for the time,” manager Rod Smallwood told Classic Rock. “There was a lot of interest in metal worldwide, and this was the album that focused everybody. Before The Number Of The Beast, we were part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. After The Number Of The Beast, Maiden was a worldwide major act.”

Check out our best Iron Maiden songs and find out which ‘The Number Of The Beast’ songs made top ranking.

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