Reckoning the Number of the Beast - The 30th Anniversary Part 3
Continuing my conversation with author Chris Colavito about Iron Maiden and "The Number of the Beast." To see part 1, click the link at the bottom.
DREW: In a circular way though, aren't we essentially debating just how awesome (and awesomely overshadowing) “The Number of the Beast” is? I mean, I think we're essentially in agreement about the overall quality of that effort (the focus of this tribute,) and so we're talking about how that pinnacle achievement had shaded the rest of Maiden's career. Essentially, we're dooming Iron Maiden to an embarrassment of riches, and I don't think any member of Maiden, past or present (perhaps Di’Anno excluded) has any regrets about releasing such a titanic, memorable album. I would go so far as to place “The Number of the Beast” in the top ten most influential metal albums of all time (which in itself is a glorious debate for another day.)
And so, I think the question that we're overlooking is what is it that makes “The Number of the Beast” so memorable? What was the superior quality that catapulted this album forever to the fore?
As to your postulation from earlier about whether there will another Maiden, it's not impossible. Certainly, it is highly improbable, but there is always a non-zero chance, just like there could always be another Led Zeppelin or another James Brown or another Public Enemy. To conceive of the individual talents making up Iron Maiden existing somewhere else in the world is far from unbelievable. What's tougher to predict is when or where those talents will coalesce, and what form they will take when they do. It's entirely possible that the next Iron Maiden may sound nothing like Iron Maiden, but still have a dynamic and far-reaching effect on the genre. There is one danger here that must be faced, and one reality that any such act will be up against. The danger lies in the loose, irresponsible naming of the "next Maiden" in an attempt to boost interest or sales, just as we as sports fans suffered through several "next Michael Jordan" iterations, including Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and for a confusing, inexplicable ten minutes, Harold Miner. The danger here lies not in anointing bands to a legacy they can never live up to (though there is that,) but in the possibility that so doing, and associating Maiden with unworthy names, will dilute the importance and impact of Iron Maiden.
The unfortunate reality of the next Maiden, if and when that happens, is that with the segmentation and specialization of audience that is currently so pervasive in music, they might come and go and only a few people will notice. This is particularly true in the destructively combative world of metal fanhood, where games of "undergrounder than thou" are commonplace and fans think that "funeral black metal" and "funeral doom metal" are two wildly different genres.
COLAVITO: What I think stands out about “The Number of the Beast” is the role timing plays in success. I don't say that to slight the album, merely to run a thought experiment. What if, when Bruce Dickinson joined the band, they had released “Piece Of Mind” first, instead of “The Number of the Beast”? All the same qualities would be present on that album, it would still have a couple of legendary metal anthems to rely on, so I can't help but believe the impact would have been similar to what we've been talking about all along. As great as “The Number of the Beast” is (and I will agree with you about its place in the pantheon of influence - and would welcome the discussion), the thirty years that have passed make it impossible to completely separate the music from the legend. Being the first time anyone had heard that lineup playing that kind of music adds even more to the appeal, though exactly how much is impossible to say. While I will say I personally find the second Dickinson era to be more enjoyable, I will also say that “The Number of the Beast” deserves to be what the band is remembered for.
You recognize the reason I don't believe there will ever be another Iron Maiden: the times have changed. The audience is indeed fragmented beyond belief (remember when metal embraced diversity?), and nothing can unite them. Metal has become more polarized and more extreme as the years have gone on. What used to carry the banner as heavy metal can now barely be recognized as such. I've even seen fans claim with a straight face that Iron Maiden isn't really a metal band because they don't fit with the increasingly uncommercial nature of the genre. Once metal became popular, largely thanks to Iron Maiden, the outsider mentality kicked in, and the "true" fans raced to find music so extreme no larger audience would ever embrace it. From my experience, it has become far too common among metal fans to deride any music that doesn't embrace anger as the only emotion, that doesn't consider heaviness the most important aspect. It's aggravating not only on a personal level to see such foolishness, but also because it tarnishes the very idea of heavy metal that Iron Maiden helped to define.
Iron Maiden was able to be all things to all people. They were heavy, but melodic. They were fast, but played with restraint. They were epic, but never sounded pretentious. Iron Maiden could appeal to the masses and be loved for it. Those days are gone now. Bands that have appeal to fans across the metal spectrum are labeled sellouts, and I don't see a desire among metal fans to change, at least not until that generation of bands is gone, and no one is left to fill the void.
That reason alone is enough to hope “The Number of the Beast” is as influential for another 30 years.
DREW: See, I don't think that "Piece of Mind" would have had the same impact, and I say that for a couple of reasons. First, because "Killers" was a pretty good record, and although everyone found out later that it marked the ceiling of the Di’Anno era, no one knew that at the time. While I grant that the music on that album is in a different idiom than it is on “The Number of the Beast,” "Killers" nevertheless didn't breakthrough like the later album did. I guess what I'm driving at in a roundabout way is that if an album as solidly decent as "Killers" didn't break the mold, "Piece of Mind" wouldn't have, either. The community would have waited it out, assuming that somebody, maybe Maiden but maybe somebody else (Venom?) would have released the breakthrough that the fans instinctively perceived over the horizon.
Secondly, “The Number of the Beast” is a journey, and I know that probably sounds strange considering it isn't a concept album. Even so, that album takes the listener on a ride from beginning to end, pinballing between the surging, high speed glory of "Invaders," the anthemic "Run to the Hills" and the complicated, deeply intertwined "Hallowed be Thy Name." It is the complete effort, including albums cuts like "The Prisoner" that make such a complete journey possible. "Piece of Mind" is more a short story than a novel; it possesses bursts of interest punctuated by stretches of less remarkable music. "Powerslave" has the same kind of construction.
Perhaps, in effect, this is the indefinable quality that makes “The Number of the Beast” so compelling three decades later. The idea that this is not just one or two isolated works on a good record, but a woven tapestry of ideas that, mostly through ingenuity, songcraft and talent but probably owing a little to luck, created this perfect storm of ideas and sounds that made the listener want to travel on a journey with the band. For the first time, metal had an album that could both rock hard and carry emotion and thought at the same time, and could maintain it for the duration.
In thinking about it abstractly, it's a strange thing to say considering the bazillion albums they've sold and tickets they've parceled out and documentaries that have been made about them, but I think without “The Number of the Beast,” even if you kept everything else the same, all the other albums, all the other tours and songs and paraphernalia and Eddie, Iron Maiden's legacy would be incomplete. The breakthrough of that one album and its success has become synonymous with the band. Everything they've done since is a product of that.
COLAVITO: I'm not looking to argue that “Piece Of Mind” is equally as good an album, because it isn't. I suppose much comes down to the defining characteristic of “The Number of the Beast” that allowed it to break through in a way no one saw coming. There was a confluence of circumstances that came together in that perfect moment in time, but from my perspective, Bruce Dickinson was the catalyst that made Iron Maiden's ascension possible. What metal needed at that point in time was a defining voice. While Ozzy had his very limited charms, and Halford was a huge figure, Bruce was the first metal singer who showed the true power the music could have in a communal sense. While many (possibly most) would argue Halford to be the better singer, he was less inviting to the layperson. Where he stretched his voice to shriek piercing notes, Dickinson was able to turn melodies into events. Singing along to a Judas Priest record was impossible for most fans, but even when Dickinson stretched his range, it was something that sounded possible.
So when I say that Piece Of Mind could have been just as much a breakthrough if it had been released first, I do so because the qualities I think made Iron Maiden the phenomenon they were are equally present on that album. It may have been a slower growth without the calls of satanism that drove more rebellious teenagers to seek out the music, but I believe the essential sound of the new incarnation of Iron Maiden would have won over fans in due time.
But I stumbled upon a point in that last sentence I'm shocked took this long to unravel. “The Number of the Beast,” in addition to its more tangible charms, was also given a mystique that came along with the conservative backlash of the 80's. In that environment, a song many assumed to be about Satan was like dangling a piece of bacon in front of a salivating dog. While I wouldn't give much credit to the appeal of the underworld, it can't be completely ignored either. It may in fact be the tipping point which brings me back around to disagreeing with myself. Even if all other things were equal, which they weren't, little things like this are inseparable from the larger picture, and do make it less likely that any other collection of songs would have had the same impact.
I think I've learned from this discussion that even I, someone who listens more to later Iron Maiden, have a greater appreciation and affection for “The Number of the Beast” than I thought. I'm not ready to reverse course and say I'm wrong for liking what I do, but the album is so ubiquitous it's easy to forget the impact it's had on our lives. The things under our noses are often the hardest to see.
DREW: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what made Iron Maiden stand out in the pantheon on metal and establish itself differently from metal of other eras. The fundamental question that always seems to get ignored when discussing the long and for-granted legacy of "The Number of the Beast," which is a slightly different angle, is what set it apart from the albums that surrounded it and came before it? This speaks to the same issue as what you discussed earlier, that after so many years, an album becomes one and the same with its assumed image.
But truly, what made (and continues to make,) Iron Maiden's 1982 release so much better than those that came before? Certainly, Judas Priest's "Screaming for Vengeance" is a great album, and so is Venom's "Welcome to Hell," but while those two albums are certainly held in high regard, Maiden's effort soars above them all. No other album in metal at that time approaches that level of respect and admiration, and the argument can be made that even includes the heady debut albums of the American trash movement that began with the Big Four (and to a lesser extent, the Medium Four of Testament, Exodus, Overkill and Nuclear Assault, who always get overlooked,) who largely hit their stride more toward 1986 or '87.
Moreover, "The Number of the Beast" was released right in the wheelhouse of "Van Halen I" and "Van Halen II," which both, in retrospect, are considered the forefather of heavy metal guitar work (although it attracted a different audience.) Yet, amidst that company, not only does Iron Maiden stand out, but they dominate the conversation whenever heavy metal of that era gets brought up.
So what was it? "The Number of the Beast" shares many qualities of all of those albums, but seems to be a culmination of what made all of those other albums notable. For example, "Screaming for Vengeance," also possessed the hard, driving beat, but it lacked the Steve Harris gallop, and didn't press the issue of the subject matter (specifically, with regard to the devil.) "Welcome to Hell," has the gallop and speed metal chops, but lacks the legitimacy of a singer like Bruce Dickinson to make it seems serious or believable, and the craftsmanship of Adrian Smith to make it catchy. "VH 1" and "VH 2" have the craftsmanship and the versatility to rival "The Number of the Beast," but lack the proto-metal influence and are inappropriate for headbanging.
Which, from a corollary standpoint, brings another point into the conversation; "The Number of the Beast," and by extension Iron Maiden, are at least partially remembered for their association with demonic themes and music, and yet only one song on the entire album, and in the two albums after, directly deals with anything even remotely close to that. Could that one moment of narration and reference to sacrifice really be so powerful? Was it a product of the arguably repressive 80's? Would anyone notice now?
Even with all that, my examination on its face feels incomplete. What was it, what inexorable quality, made "The Number of the Beast" triumph over its contemporaries?
COLAVITO: What made “The Number Of The Beast” stand out at the time, I believe, was that it was the first album to come along and crystallize in people's minds what heavy metal was supposed to be. There were of course many classic albums coming out around the same time (though I might argue the worth, not influence, of Venom), but all of them existed outside a framework of expectation. Everything we think about metal today is a direct result of the work Iron Maiden put in during the 80's.
When Eddie Van Halen first came onto the scene, "Eruption" was so revolutionary it stopped people in their tracks. No one thought that kind of playing was possible (except for the jazz players who had been doing it for decades), and he redefined the way guitar would be played for every rock and metal band of the next decade. “The Number Of The Beast” falls into a similar category, piecing together the various offshoots of metal Sabbath had created, instantly changing the game as far as how metal albums were thought about. You mention the driving beats, galloping rhythms, and legitimate singers; “The Number Of The Beast” had them all when no one else did.
It also happens to be true that few of its contemporaries can stand up to it on a song-for-song basis. The late 70's into the early 80's were a wildly creative time, as metal was beginning to blossom, but with that kind of freedom comes an understanding that not every experiment would work. It wasn't until the influence of Iron Maiden and that generation was felt that metal musicians would grow up considering themselves professionals. That's not to say the first wave didn't put pride in their work, but there is a different level of pressure to produce consistently quality songs and albums when there is a legacy already in place to live up to.
As impressive as “The Number Of The Beast” is, it did have a rival when it comes to quality. In any discussion consisting of metal musicians who came of age during that time, Black Sabbath's album “Heaven And Hell” is given similar reverence. The difference in impact on the fans and the genre stems from the fact that Black Sabbath was considered old and stodgy by that time, while Iron Maiden was fresh and exciting. “The Number Of The Beast” was the only album that came out in that time-frame that was both unquestionable from a quality standpoint, and also a shot in the arm to the scene. It was, whether by luck or design, the perfect blend of everything metal needed to be.
No, the aura of the music being demonic was not powerful, nor would it cause anyone to blink today. I think we, by being too young to remember much of the 80's, don't really understand the culture of the time. I don't even think it was so much the satanic undertones of various music that was truly upsetting. People were afraid, they were afraid because life and technology as they knew it was changing, and they didn't know what to make of it. Surely, Reagan and Thatcher had a hand in fostering a sense of nostalgia for a time that never really existed, but heavy metal in particular was a target because it was something only the youth understood. The PMRC and other groups were looking for any legitimate reason to oppose this new music that was replacing what they grew up with (which they forget was equally as intolerable to the previous generation). Satan was a convenient excuse to protest the changing of the times.
The only reason the influence of those aspects of the music exist today is because of the organized effort to purge all music of them. Few kids truly wanted to embrace Satan, they wanted what kids have always wanted; something new and shocking. They may have come to Iron Maiden because of the hushed whispers and unspeakable rumors, but they became lifelong fans because of the music.
To answer your final question, I think the inexorable quality that elevated “The Number Of The Beast” above all its peers is foresight. “The Number Of The Beast,” in addition to a great collection of music, was the moment in time where people could see the future of heavy metal.