Reckoning the Number of the Beast - The 30th Anniversary Part 2
"The Number of the Beast" is not an album, it's an experience. Not just for the music it contains, but for what it means to the heavy metal genre's past, present and future. The textbook example of heavy metal's evolution from a rough-around-the-edges marginal grouping of musicians to a hard-charging, mother-scaring, school-administrator-nervous-sweating phenomenon, "The Number of the Beast" not only changed the face of heavy metal, but helped change what was possible for it.
The new face of heavy metal was versatile, displaying a propensity for both thundering gallops and precise arrangement, with literary themes and clean, airy, pronounced vocals. The new face of heavy metal in 1982 looked an awful lot like Eddie.
No album of this size and stature can be paid tribute properly by a single man. To help me try and fit the effect and immeasurable legacy of "The Number of the Beast" into words, I needed the help of another Maiden fan, one who had a gift for words and strong opinions on the subject. I enlisted the help of longtime friend, co-conspirator and author of "Unemotion," Christopher M. Colavito. Chris was the natural choice for this conversation, as he is a fervent fan and defender of the latest albums in the Maiden catalogue, so I needed his insight to help me nail down exactly what "The Number of the Beast" meant for not only metal as a whole, but specifically for Maiden themselves.
The transcript of our back-and-forth (in an idea blatantly stolen from Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell,) can be seen in two parts, the first today and the second tomorrow. Read on and you'll see our opinions on the impact of one of heavy metal's cornerstone albums, its ongoing legacy, its comparison to other works of the time, and a host of other, not always germane topics. Let it begin!
M. DREW: We are in the midst of the 30th anniversary of Iron Maiden releasing their iconic and genre-defining album “The Number of the Beast.” This album saw Iron Maiden replace Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson and rise out of the din of punk metal bands to become a conquering, worldwide force to be reckoned with. What, in your opinion, are this album's contributions to music as a whole?
CHRIS COLAVITO: Iron Maiden's contributions to music as a whole, as an esoteric question, results in a simple answer; almost none. But we're not talking about the vast history of music as it started in the early days of human development. Within the scope of modern popular music, Iron Maiden has made the kind of impact every band wishes they could, but knows the odds say they never will.
The “The Number of the Beast” isn't remembered for being a great record, although it certainly is a very good one. What stands out the most is how the album not only transitioned the band out of whiskey-soaked clubs and onto a larger stage, but also served notice that the still-emerging heavy metal scene was something musicians would have to take seriously.
It was easy for music snobs to write off Black Sabbath as plodding blokes who fell into success. The early Sabbath albums were indeed primitive, and while fans considered that a badge of honor, it didn't help metal earn respect. Even Judas Priest was unable to conjure that mass appeal at first. They were making albums that would endure, but not music that would be immediately accepted.
“The Number of the Beast” was the turning point. It was the album that gave heavy metal its first true anthems, the songs that cried out to be chanted in stadiums, all of which can be attributed to the addition of Bruce Dickinson. His voice was big enough to grow the stature of the music all on its own. His operatic wail couldn't be compared to Paul Di’Anno's raspy shout, nor written off as talentless yelling. Bruce was the force, and “Run To The Hills” the rallying cry (with a title the old-guard took literally) that turned metal into something new. Instead of being the music people listened to in secret, alone, Iron Maiden was able to tap into a new spirit and make metal a communal experience. Listening to “The Number of the Beast” made you want to sing, made you want to share the energy captured in the music with anyone who would listen.
But the album also made it harder to dismiss metal as nothing more than ham-fisted kids playing noise. The combination of Steve Harris' exhaustive playing with Adrian Smith and Dave Murray's melodicism upped the musicality in a way only Ritchie Blackmore had done previously. Their galloping rhythms and twin-guitar leads were ripped from classical playbooks, fed amphetamines, and let loose on the verge of chaos. Iron Maiden wasn't playing noise, they were as musical as anyone playing a more mainstream genre, and they changed the way heavy metal was looked at. Metal could come out of the shadows because it finally had a voice. It had Bruce Dickinson's air-raid siren, and it had Iron Maiden.
Perhaps a question that needs to be addressed is; can an album be too influential for the band's own good?
DREW: No, I don't think a band can be too influential for its own good, and I don't think Iron Maiden is guilty of that, either. Besides, it serves only a band's base interest to establish a legacy of impact on any and all musicians that come after, as sometimes this ends up being the band's only legacy. For heaven's sake, look at Diamond Head. No metal fan of any particular appreciation has any fond memories of Diamond Head except that bands like Metallica cover their work.
Regarding one of your cursory points, are you making the argument that “The Number of the Beast” has a greater impact on the mainstream emergence of heavy metal than Judas Priest's "You Got Another Thing Coming?" That's largely credited as the genre's first mainstream hit, but if you've got points, I could easily be persuaded. Counter to that, how much of metal's rise to respectability (of a sort) can be credited to the rivalry between the two bands? Did they drive each other to make superior music, thus better for the genre?
Maiden's influence on the world of heavy metal is undeniable, as they figuratively gave birth to the conventions of power metal, melodic metal and even, when viewed through the proper lens, progressive metal. Maiden remains, in my eyes, one of the cornerstones upon which metal's haunted throne continues to sit, by sheer virtue of the fact that nearly every metal band not directly tied to doom metal draws some kind of inspiration from Dickinson, McBrain, Smith, or whatever.
But this all ties into your point on Maiden granting metal a certain modicum of legitimacy. I think the other, often overlooked fact that ties into that legitimacy lies in the knowledge that Iron Maiden truly explored some of the most literary and high-minded lyrical ideas in the genre to that point. Dickinson's scholarly (or near to it,) examination of themes from literature (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,”) and ancient mythology made Iron Maiden more than just another band singing about the devil or the generic concept of "evil."
Now, the question to my mind is, with all of this influence on so many other prominent genres and bands, plus their own individual established legacy, why isn't Iron Maiden enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
COLAVITO: I asked the question about influence because, while establishing a legacy is absolutely something every band wants to do, it creates problems later in a career. While the entire 80's output of Iron Maiden etched their place in history, the perception of that era also doomed everything they have done since. While few would argue the 90's were good for the band (including myself), the second era with Bruce Dickinson fronting the band has been a perfect lesson in metal orthodoxy.
Starting with “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” and continuing to this day, Iron Maiden became a different band. They had done what they could with four minute bursts of speed, and moved along to making music that was more involved, as songwriters. Each time one of these albums is released, the group-think that emanates is the same; it's not the same as the old days. Much of the criticism doesn't come from the quality of what Iron Maiden is still producing, but the form it takes. “The Number of the Beast” set a blueprint for what people thought Iron Maiden to be, and once they deviated from the script, their legacy ensured anything else would be looked at as a disappointment in the eyes of fervent fans.
The rivalry with Judas Priest was a huge part of the development of heavy metal, but I'm not sure how much credit to give "You've Got Another Thing Coming". There's no denying it was indeed a hit, but it can also be written off rather easily (and often is) as being a roughed up pop song, and not truly metal. It wasn't until "Can I Play With Madness?" that Iron Maiden could have the same said about them. I don't think it was so much a case of being driven to upstage the other, like it was with The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as it was a case of the debate enlarging metal in the eyes of fans. Having two bands finding success at the same time let the music become interactive. Instead of merely asking if someone had heard the new Iron Maiden record, they could have an argument whether it was better than the last Judas Priest record. The creation of an involved fan base cannot be overstated for the health of the metal community.
Iron Maiden's lyrics were a revelation at the time, and still are for any band that lives in the mainstream. While there are fringe bands that explore literary and intellectual themes, no one on the scale of Iron Maiden has ever achieved a level of depth with their words that would enable them to be looked at as more than mere lyrics. Others have tried, as when Megadeth entered the political sphere, only to show a shallow understanding of issues that couldn't move beyond sloganeering. Iron Maiden opened the door for progressive music, not only through their musical efforts, but also by expanding the palette of topics metal could cover, and welcoming intelligence instead of screaming "Narc!" at whoever dared embrace knowledge.
The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame can be explained easily. Iron Maiden is not the prototype of what they want rock music to look and sound like. It's a very American institution, and for as deep as metal blood runs in this country, the genre doesn't belong to us. Metal started in Europe, and we tend to refuse to accept things that aren't our own. There are exceptions that can't be ignored, but I believe it to be true most of the time. Even Black Sabbath, from whom all heavy music originated, didn't get in until Ozzy became a celebrity on American television. What you have in that institution is a selection of people who consider metal foreign, both by birth, and by convention. They worship the Billboard chart, either directly, or through the bands influenced. Whether we like it or not, no metal band (with the exception of Metallica) has ever had a deep influence with top 40 radio. It's a sad fact, but one that shouldn't be of much concern. While a nice honor, Iron Maiden won't be much benefited by having their name placed next to ABBA in a building in Cleveland, Ohio.
Coming full circle to the issue of influence; “The Number of the Beast” is the definitive Iron Maiden album, but is it the best?
DREW: There is no doubt in my mind that “The Number of the Beast” is the pinnacle album of Maiden's career. As you said, it set the foundation for their legacy is solid cement, and has characterized all of their releases since. More than that though, the album doubles as Maiden's most complete album, and one of the most complete for that era of metal as a whole. Only Slayer's "Reign in Blood," and Metallica's "Ride the Lightning" rival the kind of A-Z metal experience provided by “The Number of the Beast.” Almost every track (yes, almost. Take that, "22 Acacia Avenue,") is a memorable Maiden storytelling adventure, even a three minute kickstarter like "Invaders." By comparison, the other prominent Maiden albums of the era have their hits, but none are as epically complete as their 1982 opus. "Piece of Mind" has "The Trooper," arguably one of Maiden's most famous songs, and some other notable tracks like "Die With Your Boots On," but also has some truly forgettable or ill-advised songs. I enjoy "Quest for Fire," but I admit that I enjoy it predominately for the wrong reasons. Even the vaunted "Powerslave" boasts "Aces High" and "Two Minutes to Midnight," but also has cuts that just aren't worth it time. If you took all the songs on those three albums and placed them on a basketball court and told two captains to pick rosters, more songs from “The Number of the Beast” would get picked than any of the others (this same principle applied to the players on the starting five of the Spurs and Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals. But that's neither here nor there.)
Conversely, the Di’Anno albums, while awesome in their own right, do not feature the kind of robust, complete storytelling gravitas that the Dickinson albums do, and I don't see any album after "Powerslave" giving “The Number of the Beast” a serious run for the money. While the newer albums have their fans, I don't think any of those albums feature the kind of hook riffing that could claim the kind of fame that "Run to the Hills" is afforded, not even a crowd favorite like "These Colours Don't Run."
Speaking of the later albums, it bears mentioning that those albums, regardless of the dichotomy they cause amongst Maiden aficionados, help to further establish the career of Iron Maiden in this fourth act of their being a band. You're absolutely right that Iron Maiden is now a different band than they used to be, but I don't think that's a detriment to their long-term impact. As the sands of time wash over a band, critics and fans alike tends to remember fondly the different phases of their favorite musician's existence. As an example, The Clash are largely remembered in two acts, and mostly by the same group of people: they were the fiery, rebellious band that took the world by storm with "London Calling," and they were also the crossover, damn-near reggae band that fused disparate styles into good time rock and roll. No one detracts from Joe Strummer's image because of his digressions; in truth, quite the contrary is true. Iron Maiden's move toward being a more full-bodied progressive metal band reflects the same kind of desire to not stagnate and play the same thing over and over. While there are fans (myself included,) who do not enjoy those later albums as much as the early ones, I don't think anyone argues that Maiden's evolution makes them less of a band. Critics and fans alike appreciate reinvention and rejuvenation late in a career, and while Judas Priest couldn't succeed on this front, Iron Maiden has maintained, if not the same level of carousing songwriting, at least a high level of viability. This never would have happened with Paul Di’Anno at the helm, and I think that “The Number of the Beast” set the stage for Iron Maiden's versatility later on. In between all the other catchy, four minute romps, there stood "Hallowed Be Thy Name," which not only made playlists longer, but was more exploratory than any other track Maiden had produced to date. Thirty years later, they are attempting to evolve and fulfill that promise.
But that legacy, in all parts, bears the question: just how many genres of heavy metal did Maiden spawn, and what are the farthest reaches of their legacy?
COLAVITO: You bring up an interesting point about all the 80's Iron Maiden albums. In fact, I would expand the thought to include most of the albums we have given the "classic" label. They are all good albums, but our deification of a time when we were first falling in love with music has resulted in a whitewashing of what really happened. Iron Maiden put out a string of classic songs during that time, but in the context of albums that were still wildly inconsistent. All the bands of that era, whether we're talking about Sabbath, Priest, or Metallica, were guilty of the same thing. Guilty isn't the right term to use, because there's nothing wrong with certain songs not living up to an imaginary standard, but I'm going to use it for the sake of the discussion. If the classic bands were guilty of inconsistency, and still loved for it, we need to acknowledge the fact that no band is perfect. Those who drew influence from Iron Maiden and the bands of that time are held to a different standard because of the power “The Number of the Beast” had. Any band that's putting out albums with any tracks at all that aren't of the highest standard are immediately knocked down a peg for letting the quality dip, even though every band in history has done the same thing. No band is perfect, no band can be perfect, and our nostalgia for our youth makes it extremely difficult for us to remember this simple fact. If we call one of these albums classic enough times, it morphs into an unquestionable bible of heavy metal.
I wouldn't say that the later acts of a band necessarily affect the way their legacy will be remembered, it's the converse I'm concerned with. Iron Maiden will be remembered as long as there is heavy metal because of their work in the 80's, but that very string of albums that made them known has made it impossible for the current incarnation of the band to be seen for what they are. Anything they put out these days is immediately compared to “The Number of the Beast”, even though thirty years have passed, and none of the members are the same people they were back then. Iron Maiden has, as you pointed out, taken the artistic path and moved in a different direction than many fans wanted them to. This is where the legacy of classic albums can impact the band's legacy as a whole. If the fans are unwilling to accept the new material as a vital part of the Maiden canon (which I think has much to do with the tempo's not being as frantic - a reasoning I find incredulous and insulting), the legacy of the band can never grow. While there are factions of fans and critics who support the current direction Iron Maiden is traversing, the throngs of fans who refuse to accept anything other than the rapid gallops of the past do partly negate the impact of what may very well be the most vital and important late-career arc by any band in the history of heavy metal. If that comes to pass, “The Number of the Beast” and Iron Maiden's prior greatness will be indirectly responsible for stunting their current and future greatness.
Iron Maiden's impact and influence is undeniable. Their fingerprints are all over traditional metal, power metal, and progressive metal. They extend further than one might think. Bruce Dickinson's operatic wail gave rise to a generation of doom metal singers who imbued Maiden's melody with Sabbath's sheer weight. Thrash metal was a natural extension of Iron Maiden, speeding up the traditional metal sound the same way that Maiden sped up the proto-metal sound. Melodic death metal owes a great deal to Maiden as well, with the twin-guitar leads and fluid soloing tracing their roots directly back to Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. Even some aspects of black metal can be considered influenced by Maiden, especially the lyricists who like to portray themselves as more intellectual than the normal metalhead. It's only in the far extremes of metal, those who make music intended to be as atonal and disturbing as possible, that the influence of Iron Maiden isn't readily apparent. Perhaps I've simply never heard enough of that music to find it.
In the end, the impact Iron Maiden and “The Number of the Beast” have had cannot be overstated. That album set the stage for generations of new bands that would come up worshiping the sounds they heard on those early records. Everything we know as heavy metal today owes some debt to Iron Maiden, as do we as fans. They, along with Priest and Sabbath, made everything we love possible. There's no denying that.
I would ask here whether or not there will ever be another Iron Maiden, but I think it's obvious there won't.
We'll be sure to pick it up here tomorrow, so make sure to come back and read Part 2!