How could any Classic Heavy Metal blog have a ‘songs’ section and not feature Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast’? Well Classic Metal Hawk isn’t going there. It’d be like having a blog about Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and not including The Terminator – not a mistake Arnie himself would make. Now over 40 years old, it remains one of the most iconic Classic Heavy Metal songs of all time. Like The Terminator, Number of the Beast will always be back, and with good reasons.
The Double Inspiration
From the moment that voiceover intro kicks in, we all know what’s coming, and the hairs start to raise in anticipation – the music, the storyline, the way it all comes together.
The song was written by band leader and top songwriter Steve Harris, and was inspired by 2 famous ‘devil’ pieces from popular culture. First, there’s ‘Damien: Omen II’, the second part of the famous Omen horror trilogy and the one where an adolescent Damien starts to realize (and indeed revel in) his destiny as the Antichrist. Harris had nightmares after watching that, and who can blame him?
Then there’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter‘, a poem by the Scottish classic poet Robert Burns. The poem tells the story of a hard-drinking farmer who sees a bagpipe playing devil and is chased by witches on his way home from the pub one dark and stormy night.
By the time the song was released in 1982, heavy metal already had a relatively long association with these types of devil / horror themes, led from the top by Black Sabbath who were particular fans and weren’t at all averse to including occult themes in their songs. So, this would have been natural subject matter for Steve Harris by the time the band came to write and record their 3rd studio album.
Air Raid Siren
Ever the perfectionist, Harris wanted to do better than contemporary bands whatever the subject matter, and now had a new weapon at his disposal to make that happen – recently recruited lead singer Bruce Dickinson who had just replaced previous vocalist Paul Di Anno. Di Anno had personal problems when he was fired, but anyway, Harris and producer Martin Birch thought his voice would not have stood up to the strains of some of the music Harris now wanted to explore with Maiden. Dickinson could easily handle it, although he immediately divided opinion among the band’s fans after joining. Of those in the anti-Dickinson camp, one went as far as to write to Maiden’s manager, Rod Smallwood to complain that he didn’t want his favourite songs played through an air raid siren.
Never one to let a good idea go to waste, Smallwood immediately dubbed Dickinson the ‘Human Air Raid Siren’ and encouraged him to work on that soon-to-be-legendary scream. You know where this is going, right?
‘The Number of The Beast’ was of course the title track of the album of the same name, and so the song was written as part of a period of song writing that spewed out all those legendary songs – ‘The Number of the Beast’, ‘Run to the Hills’, ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’, ‘The Prisoner,’ ‘Children of the Damned.’ Even the lesser known / performed numbers stand up well to scrutiny 40 years later.
All that was churned out in a matter of weeks, which is a tall order, and more impressive still when you think that most of Maiden’s back catalogue of songs had been put out on the first 2 albums. They had to start pretty much from scratch by this time, and third album-syndrome meant no guarantee of success. But in Maiden’s case, the depths of creativity turned out to be pretty much bottomless for the time being.
Is it Vincent Price?
But back to the main event. The voiceover intro to ‘The Number of The Beast’ is a bible passage from the book of Revelations (12:12 and 13:18 spliced together), and it’s a common misconception that it’s read by horror legend Vincent Price, but that’s not true. The band did consider using Price, but Smallwood balked at the quote price tag for his services – minimum $10,000. Maiden had a big fan base by then, but were still a bit niche commercially – so ten thousand bucks for a few seconds of voiceover was probably a bit steep, especially when you consider the alternative. Barry Clayton was doing ghost stories on London’s Capital Radio at the time, and was happy to help at a much lower cost. A consummate professional, he did a few takes and that was that. The fact that many people still mistake him for Vincent Price himself suggests Smallwood’s penny pinching was justified in this case.
Dickinson’s vocal intro to the song (I lived alone / My mind was blank…) is probably just as famous as the Clayton voiceover though, and in this case, it took more than just a handful of takes. As he discusses at some length in his autobiography, ‘What Does This Button Do,’ Dickinson came in thinking that the part was no great challenge and could be hammered out quickly, but Birch made him do it again and again. Furniture / coffee mugs went flying against the wall in frustration.
Birch wanted ‘Your whole life in that [first] line. Your identity as a singer.’ He saw that you had to strip back a singer’s ego, get him to open up and tell a story to the audience through the words. Classic Metal Hawk listened to that same intro in a whole new light after hearing this – but this was Martin Birch’s talent, at least as much as any work he did at the mixing desk – to get the absolute best performances out of his bands for posterity. That was the motivation that caused all the furniture to go flying.
And maybe that scream after the line ‘…And brings me to despair.’ This is the first true outing for the Human Air Raid Siren – and very likely given a little extra impetus by the frustration of all those failed takes.
The drummer Clive Burr also found ‘The Number of the Beast’ difficult. For one thing, the drumming almost sounds like an extension of the vocal melody. For another, the Hawk challenges any fan to listen to the song and figure out what time signature it’s in. No plodding along in boring old 4/4 time for Steve Harris. The Hawk makes the intro a 10/4 but is not at all certain. Anyway, it stretched Burr to the limit, but like Dickinson, he managed it eventually.
On The Road
More fun and games were in store out on the ‘Beast on the Road’ tour, during which Smallwood wanted to record the video for ‘Number of The Beast,’ as the song was due to be released as a single. Ever the taskmaster, the manager had the band up and on the road before dawn travelling from Edinburgh to Newcastle (distance – 103 miles) so that the video could be filmed at Newcastle’s City Hall, right before Maiden played their gig at the same venue on the same day.
Filming was duly completed (remember those ballroom dancers), but not in time for a prompt start to the gig. The door opening had to be delayed, and a tired, bad-tempered performance followed. Tensions were to the fore anyway at those early Dickinson shows because of disagreements over who should stand where, and other aspects of stagecraft. Dickinson wanted to be front and centre for his vocal parts, and there were collisions a-plenty as Harris often charged into the same space.
So that all came to a head at the Newcastle show. Smallwood had to physically separate Harris and Dickinson afterwards, and in the heat of the moment there was talk of ‘He’s got to go.’ Fortunately, emotions calmed down, stagecraft was improved over time, and if nothing else, everyone agreed that they had something special on their hands. The single hit the top 20 in the UK chart (and with a great B-side), unheard of for a heavy metal band, and although Maiden weren’t yet a massive international force, the ‘Beast on the Road’ tour went some way to establishing them as one.
And there was controversy of course, especially in the US, where Iron Maiden were accused of being a Satanic band and devil worshippers. Religious groups organized protests where they burned or smashed up copies of the album, and gigs were picketed so that leaflets could be handed out to warn fans of the impending evil they were about to experience. It was good publicity, but the band were not entirely without superstition on the subject, or at least not Martin Birch. After having a minor crash in his car involving a group of nuns in a minibus on a day trip, he took his car in for repairs only to be presented with a bill at the end for £666.66. He insisted the garage round this up to an alternative figure before paying. Like so many Classic Heavy Metal records, ‘The Number of the Beast’ has been re-released any number of times – live versions, remastered versions, anniversary editions, you name it. But as far as Classic Metal Hawk is concerned, the original is the best. It kicked off a whole stream of classic albums from Iron Maiden with Dickinson at the microphone. They’ll be back, indeed.
Let’s remind ourselves how it kicked off.
The Hawk was always in the Dickinson camp, preferring the Air Raid Siren to Di Anno as the voice of Maiden. What did / do you think? And is Number of the Beast still THE all time Maiden classic, or has it now been overtaken after all the years of new material that followed?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.