Number of the Beast, by Iron Maiden
Reviewed by Michael Sylvian
For a year or two back in the early 80s I thought Metal was super-cool. Guitars! Hair! Shouting! Cool. Was I right? Well, that’s a different question…
Let’s examine the evidence of the time: the record Number of the Beast knocked off the top of the album Charts back in April 1982 was Barbara Streisand’s Love Songs; in at number 3 was Pelican West by Haircut 100. Sadly, neither the Haircuts (as they were never known) nor Bignose Babs were cool enough to prompt concerned parents across the centre of America to set records alight in album burning parties, believing it was the only way to stop the devil-worshipping Satanists of Iron Maiden from Destroying America.
Spoiler: in the 1980s nobody knew that all it would really take to demolish the place was a petulant Orange Narcissist. Anyway.
So far, so cool. But then you remember that, prior to joining Iron Maiden, their devilishly-hirsute warble-man Bruce Dickinson was going by the name of Bruce Bruce and fronting Samson, a band whose drummer wore a mask and played in a cage. And that’s the fundamental nub of the Is it Cool problem. For every Iron Maiden there were three Tygers of Pan Tang, an Angel Witch and two Venoms, in which bands monobrowed, blood-vessel bulging, red-faced shoutists strained their cut-price leather waistcoats with sweaty-metal dirges about Viking Sex War. For every Def Leppard there was a Marillion, doing keyboard prog in needless, 48 hour, up-themselves multisyllables. And don’t even try and imagine the smell of the crowd at any given Saxon gig. Just don’t.
To be fair, part of the charm of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) was exactly that it wasn’t all acoustic, middle of the road miserywits writing about How They Felt, punks gobbing on skinheads, or po-faced post punks documenting with postmodern authenticity how bleak it was outdoors. The ludicrousness was never too far away from the point for Maiden. Looking now at the puppet beast – and Eddie the puppetmaster – leering cartoonishly out from the front of the cover, you’d have to be somewhat hard of thinking to mistake it for a serious proposal for demonic uprising. In short, the 80s were weird. And of course this ludicrous cartoon nonsense is cool, if only in context.
Kudos to Craig – it’s definitely a cool first album to buy (mine was ZZ Top and I’m clearly a fool). But I’ve not listened to this record since around 1986, at which point my hair went down to my 14 year-old navel, my glasses were less stylish than Barbara Streisand, and I had an unforgiveable love of Pink Floyd. Times change, so how does it sound now?
Bombastic. Theatrical. Ridiculous. Because of course it does. Because Iron Maiden.
Number of the Beast is one of the Biggies of NWOBHM. It’s the first album with Bruce “Bruce” The Bruce “BRUCE” Dickinson on it, the one that moved away from a more up front and straight-ahead direction into wonderfully twiddly, multipart nonsense, and the one that regularly makes it onto the Heaviest Heavy Records of Heavy Metal charts as a result. As well as all that, it also sports a couple of bona fide top 40 pop hits. Did I mention how insane Top of the Pop was in the 1980s?
At its worst, like with album opener Invaders or Gangland, it’s a little plod-along by numbers, the dual guitars making it sound like a tetchy Thin Lizzy. I hate Thin Lizzy. But that’s only a fraction of what the band are starting to offer with this record, and where they’re going.
Take Children of the Damned, starting like a low-watt, chorus-pedal Black Sabbath, with Bruce BRUCEY Bruce cranking out his proto-Axl Rose warble. Then the fast bit happens. Then the other fast bit. THEN ANOTHER ONE. Then one of seventeen dual guitar bits. THEN MORE WARBLING. It’s bloody ace, I thought, even in my 40s. I wish I was a children of the damned. HURRAH FOR BEING DAMNED. (But not The Damned. They were rubbish).
The singles are simpler but have a whole bunch of thump and drive, and are as good as they ever were. The harmonies squeak, the guitars riff, the whole thing is a wonderfully note-heavy and theatrical presentation of, say, the genocidal destruction of native culture in America. Whereas the kindest thing to say about 22 Acacia Avenue is that attitudes to women who work as prostitutes have hopefully moved on from the lyrics lots of beery men used to shout out in chorus when they played live. Definitely a song where the music is far more intricate and clever than the lyrics. And my third favourite, Prisoner, starts with a sample – a sample, in 1982! – of the old TV show, and is just as wonderfully over-the-top as Children of the Damned.
But my absolute favourite has to be the closer, Hallowed Be Thy Name. Bong! goes Hallowed Be Thy Name. Bong! Because at five o’clock, you see, they’re taking him to the gallows pole. This, if nothing else, is a waste of the wonderfully operatic Bruce BRUCEY BONUS The Bruce Bruce Dickinson’s voice box, which has every bit of operatic flair you want without that grating, nasal whine of Axl Rose, or the desperate plagiarism of Robert ‘Poundshop Janis Joplin’ Plant. Why are they taking him to the gallows pole? Don’t care. Too distracted by seven minutes of absolute enormously daft METAL. The fast bit. The fast bit but only with stabby chords! The slow bit again! The dual guitars again AGAIN! Operatic moaning! BONG. It literally couldn’t even be better with a cannon on it.
The surprise for me is how little I remembered from 34 years ago but how at home I felt. Well, that, how much chorus there was on the guitars, and how the production sounds like it was recorded in a half cup of broth. But even that aside, this record is easily a 7/10, and a complete and totally stupid joy. Is it cool? Hell no. Absolutely yes. Might play it again. METAL!