If you only listen to one Iron Maiden album, then make it The Number of the Beast.
On the face of it that's probably a lame argument to make, but it needs defending - this is only the third album for the band's soon-to-be fifteen album run, and the fact that it's twenty-eight years old could be casue for concern. Are we meant to believe that after this it's a case of diminishing returns?
I don't think so. But Beast remains a landmark for the band, and is justifiably regarded as a landmark British album, moreover a landmark rock/heavy metal album. It's tight, punchy, and it has an energy that still can be felt today. Put simply it's the sound of a band hitting its stride in a new and exciting way, with only one more change of personnel before its 'classic' line-up is ushered in.
In September 1981 vocalist Paul Di'Anno was dismissed and replaced by Bruce Dickinson, formerly of Samson, a band with a promising future, but going nowhere due to serious managerial and contractual issues. Dickinson's vocal performance and ease of place as a frontman will solidify Maiden's place as the forerunner of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, with an operatic, libretto style far removed from the East End bark of his predecessor. Lest we forget that Iron maiden do not 'do' backing vocals or full-band vocals - the lead singer is usually the only singer, so the job is a serious task. Dickinson's range is a young man's, and he seems to possess an innate ability to judge a line's weight, stretching out notes and pushing the accents to do more than simply accompany two seriously talented guitarists and a formidable rhythm section. Exhibit A, the underrated album opener Invaders, written thus:
Longboats have been sighted and the evidence of war has begun
Many Nordic fighting men, their swords and shields gleam in the sun
But delivered stacatto thus:
Longboats have been SIGHT-ed and the EV-i-dence of WAAR - has be-gun! Many Nordic FIGHT-ing men their SWORDS-and-shields GLEEEAAM - in the sun!
Try as I might to avoid Scansion 101 there's an obvious picking out of the internal rhymes in the lyrics and an unconventional breaking up of the expected rhythm of the vocals: the first stress is on 'Sight', not 'Long', and the the carefree way Dickinson teases out the 'glee' in 'Gleam' while the rest of the band drive on behind him is so very self-assured. Di'Anno may have been a front man and a good one at that, but Dickinson is a genuine lead singer where the role hadn't previously existed. Even beyond the obvious change in sound, Dickinson's contribution to the dynamic of Iron Maiden's songs is significant. Vocally he rides over the top of a concrete rhythm, reinforced by the drumming style of Clive Burr, whose characteristic crisp style often follows the rhythm guitar, giving the song's riffs extra weight. The song is fast, too - not quite speed metal fast, but to my mind can be easily grouped into the songs off the album the likes of Megadeath's Dave Mustaine and Anthrax's Scott Ian admit to having pored over in the early days of their respective bands for inspiration.
'Invaders then kicks off what turns out to be a highly British album, covering for the most part subjects close to the band's home; from the Viking invasions to the East End with its tarts and local mobsters, there are literary and pop culture themes from The Midwich Cuckoos/Village of the Damned, The Prisoner and of course the title track, borrowing equally from Robert Burns' Tam O'Shanter and the Hammer Horrors. The obvious exception is the album's greatest commercial success, the Native American clearance Run to the Hills, to my mind suffering a little through overexposure, but by God back in the day was it a scorcher. In all it's a broad sweep of local influences without the threat of being a flag-waver - it celebrates its origins without drawing attention to them, and why not when the real spectacle is on stage?
So much for the fast tracks then, the remainders are Children of the Damned, Steve Harris' nod to the Midwich movies with some lovely and economic arpeggio work by Adrian Smith, and the closer and live favourite, Hallowed Be Thy Name, the testament of a condemned man whose faith is challenged on the scaffold. Charlotte the Harlot follow-up 22 Acacia Avenue is a split-time composition, but the lyrical content was something I used to stumble over (I'm a little more... forgiving now). Genuinely sexist or male rescue fantasy? Perhaps a bit of both, and there are a couple of wince-worthy oines in there, but it bounces along like a mini-musical and lyrics set aside is very strong. Overall the album's work is a great step up from the previous two releases, with better lyrical content and compositions that favour and flatter all members of the group; this is Maiden's first all-band album, and with the possible exception of the 1998 Remaster addition of Total Eclipse there's no filler here, and for the first time no instrumentals.
Thinking of adding an Iron Maiden album to your collection but shying away from a Best Of? I can only quote Patrick McGoohan when called by a star-struck manager for permission to use the star's TV show's opening sequence on his band's record: "What did you say the name was? Iron Maiden? Do it!"
The songs - all live 1982 or studio versions
Children of the Damned
22 Acacia Avenue (vocals low on the mix - they're better here)
The Number of the Beast
Run to the Hills
Total EclipseHallowed Be Thy Name
Hard to beat, and easily in the top three covers. Here is the now iconic Eddie triumphant in Hell, pulling the strings of a caricature Satan, in turn the master of a puppet Eddie, but we know who's really in charge. It's a deliberate poke at the growing attention the band was getting from religious conservatives (notably but not solely in the US) and it won't be the last. Compositionally it's fantastic - Eddie's long legs (denim or leather-clad?) stretching over a flaming wasteland and spectral sky that Derek Riggs would revisit in a few single and album covers to come; our hero is grinning with his hellfire eyes but you can't believe he's truly evil, and so the transformation of Eddie the lad rather than the bogeyman continues. It's the last album cover where he has his shock wig hair, and the t-shirt and jeans ensemble is also soon to go. The only aberration in the artwork is a weird black overbrushing in the middle left field, highlighted all the more by the original album printing which rendered what should have been a black and grey sky deep blue (this was rectified in the 1998 reissue). On the back the new line-up. They look young. So so young...
Optional bonus decent cover version: Skid Row's Sebastian Bach does Children of the Damned