Wednesday 17 July 2013

IRON MAIDEN: The Number Of The Beast

(#261: 10 April 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Invaders/Children Of The Damned/The Prisoner/22 Acacia Avenue/The Number Of The Beast/Run To The Hills/Gangland/Total Eclipse/Hallowed Be Thy Name

(Author’s Note: “Total Eclipse” was not part of the original album, being the B-side to the single of “Run To The Hills,” but was added to the 1998 CD reissue)

After being endlessly invoked in this tale, it was inevitable that Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner would make a direct appearance. Not so easy to predict was that when the real thing materialised, it would be within the context of that seemingly rarest of beasts, a heavy metal number one album from the early eighties. It is tempting to look at all the people represented in Then Play Long as sometimes unknowing citizens of a dramatically expanded and inflated Village, all keeping themselves imprisoned to a greater or lesser degree. But the song which the familiar dialogue prefaces is so assured in its courage – its repeated cries of “Fight!” presage Muse – and so artfully performed that it is easy to believe that Iron Maiden, of all number one acts, actually could muster the chutzpah to break down the gates.

For many people in the early eighties, The Number Of The Beast, the third Iron Maiden album and the first to feature Bruce Dickinson as lead singer, broke down a lot of gates; there was, in 1982, a slightly younger and slightly more displaced demographic who saw the record as their Never Mind The Bollocks, a sort of rebirth of hard rock. Iron Maiden, despite having existed since “Bohemian Rhapsody” was first number one and having gone through impenetrably multiple personnel changes, even by 1982, initially broke through in 1979 as part of what then Sounds editor Alan Lewis called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, together with the likes of Def Leppard, Diamond Head, Saxon and Dickinson (and then Maiden drummer Ciive Burr)’s old group Samson. The rationale was simple – and the group’s shoutout to “Kiss, Priest and UFO” on the sleeve makes it explicit – in that heavy metal was going back to basics, influenced by the example, if not the music, of punk. Bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead obligingly settled into their predestined John the Baptist roles, setting the stripping down of rock’s framework into motion, but the likes of Iron Maiden were perceived as different, something not umbilically chained to the past. A band which a new generation could claim for themselves.

And it may well be that claiming followers for itself is what heavy metal does best. In May 1982 (not 1981 as Ask: The Chatter Of Pop misleadingly states), Paul Morley was sent to interview Dickinson and Steve Harris, bassist, originator and chief songwriter of Iron Maiden, for the NME. Morley was not a fan, and did have reasonable devil’s advocate questions for the two musicians; Maiden’s music as a fancy dress emasculation and simplification of evil, an ironically bland approach which did nothing but unite various stray people under the guise of light entertainment. In fact Morley’s approach, as demonstrated elsewhere in the interviews collected in Ask, now reads as increasingly didactic and self-suffocating (and, with Harris’ responses being printed in a mock-Cockernee accent, also patronising), with people being derided for what they are not, rather than what they are. Dickinson and Harris are diplomatically baffled; they protest that Maiden’s music has never tried to be anything but tongue-in-cheek fantasy escapism…and top quality rock. They splutter at the thought of being termed “bland”; Harris says at one point, “You put an Iron Maiden album on the turntables and watch your fucking mother-in-law drop the dishes or something.” They point out that “Run To The Hills” made the top ten as a single, and that Radio 1 would avoid having to play the record other than when they had to (chart shows, etc.). Then Dickinson very quietly points this out to Morley: “Basically you’re saying that heavy metal musicians are too dumb to deserve an audience” and doesn’t get a useful response (what does “destructively enclosed” or “harmfully sensationalist” mean?).

The musicians are not without fault; they sound confused when the subject turns to black people or homosexuals, and regularly describe women as “birds.” But they mean well, and it is Morley who comes off as looking foolish. There is something that Dickinson says in the course of their conversation which has always stuck with me; speaking about Deep Purple In Rock in particular, but also about music in general, he notes: “You felt great, you were right there with them, you felt what they felt. You look for the shiver that goes up the spine and if it’s there, it’s fucking great (italics are the author’s).”

There is no doubt that Iron Maiden wanted to inspire that kind of feeling in younger listeners – can we do for kids now what Gillan and Blackmore once did for us? There are few nobler callings – and it is noticeable that the group’s continuing devotion to its fanbase is maybe not that far removed from, and arguably more effective than, The Jam; they have never issued stern Wellerian diktats, compelled their listeners to keep up with what they’ve just listened to like a tired sergeant yelling at his reluctant company of privates, gone away at the point where they were most loved.

Likewise, it is hard to listen to the characteristic rhythm section galloping unisons of Harris and Burr, particularly when tempo changes from slow to fast, as happens on both “Children Of The Damned” and “Run To The Hills,” and not sense some kinship with Foxton and Buckler. And the lyrics on The Number Of The Beast, though largely derived from the sword and sorcery section of Forbidden Planet, are as bleak, if not bleaker, than those of The Gift; “Gangland,” for instance, puts the “Carnation” self-loathing paranoia into sinister perspective (“Face at the window leers into your own/But it’s only your reflection, still you tremble in your bones”).

But what I am trying to get at here is that The Number Of The Beast is a far more entertaining listen than The Gift, and a much more genuinely forceful one at that. Rather than treating their fans as naughty schoolchildren at the back of the class in whom knowledge has to be forcibly instilled, Maiden consider their fans as equals, as evinced by the sleeve’s dedication “to Headbangers, Earthdogs, Rivet Heads, Hell Rats and Metal Maniacs everywhere. See you on tour!” And the music bustles through any hint of monastic ambiguity, hurls itself at your face.

The opening “Invaders” sets aside any questions. Dickinson’s voice blends so naturally and rightly with the musicians, in ways that Paul DiAnno and Blaze Bayley’s voices, for all their merits, didn’t, that it’s impossible to think of this as their first record together; they seem always to have been there. Accusations that heavy metal was at this point systematically shutting down on itself and all other outside influences – that all the NWOBMH were doing was playing music inspired by listening solely to other heavy metal groups – are terribly unfounded; any group capable of negotiating the tricky bridge of “Invaders” clearly know their jazz and folk (see also the canny little visual Zappa tribute on the sleeve) – and while Harris said yes to Purple, Sabbath and (to a lesser extent) Zeppelin, he also said yes to Yes, Jethro Tull and Wishbone Ash (listen to the latter’s Argus, particularly “Blowin’ Free” and “Throw Down The Sword,” for a clear notion of where Maiden learned their musical approach; Martin Birch, the engineer on Argus, was also Maiden’s producer).

Dickinson, meanwhile, certainly channelled a lot of Ian Gillan through his voice, as well as the more vaudevillian approach of Arthur Brown, but there is also a considerable amount of Peter Hammill – hear the latter’s Nadir’s Big Chance from 1975 for proof, and compare with the outraged way in which Dickinson sings the line “If he had LIVED he would have crucified us all” on “Children Of The Damned”  – and a lot more sensitivity than the singer is usually credited for (the quiet introduction to “Hallowed Be Thy Name” which, despite its gallows pole reference, strenuously avoids being Zeppelin). In other places – most unexpectedly on the choruses of “22 Acacia Avenue” (charmingly subtitled “The Continuing Adventures of Charlotte the Harlot”) – his long-sustained, high-pitched ululations make him sound, of all singers, like Billy MacKenzie. “Acacia Avenue,” by the way, is a very silly “Roxanne” retread, thematically if not musically, climaxing in a bellowing Dickinson declaiming “Stop all that screaming! You’re packing your bags and you’re coming with ME!,” far too camp and pantomimic to be taken for misogyny.

The music, however, as I said before, is thoroughly assured and helpfully single-minded. Co-lead guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith must be the closest-knit guitar duo since the Stones (or at least since Glen Tipton and KK Downing in Judas Priest); it really doesn’t matter who plays what, since any ego is subsumed within the greater good of the band. “Invaders” alone is enough to send any cobwebs flying, and forceful enough to remind us that another group, who perhaps listened to this record very closely, will later have a number one record entitled Invaders Must Die.

“Children Of The Damned” was enough to confirm the group’s superb control of tension, release and dynamics, coming across like a more meditative Black Sabbath throughout the slow first half, before speeding up and escalating to Dickinson’s final, apocalyptic high note; the guitar work in the song’s closing section is, Lena reminds me, highly reminiscent of Pat Benatar’s draining 1980 song about child abuse, “Hell Is For Children.”

“The Prisoner” – band manager Rod Smallwood very nervously rang up McGoohan to ask his permission to use the dialogue, but the great man said don’t be silly, of course you can use it! – is surprisingly generous in touch, and its lyric extremely relevant to the context and metaphor of the original series (“My blood is my own now,” “Don’t care where the past was”). Despite its final operatic defiance, the band plays, if anything, like the Ramones, fast and light rather than flat and bombastic.

Like The Jam, Maiden made great sense as a singles act, and both the title track (the introductory voiceover, incidentally, is spoken by one Barry Clayton; first choice Vincent Price asked for too much money, but we’ll be hearing from him on TPL soon enough) and “Run To The Hills” were quite in keeping with New Pop developments, in that the mission to revitalise and resuscitate pop music was parallel to Maiden’s ambition to resuscitate and revitalise rock music. Both are terrific, and “Hills” in particular is underrated; an update on “Indian Reservation” perhaps, but the lyric is intelligent enough to encompass the viewpoints of both the Cree Indians and the massacring soldiers, ready to pillage and exterminate to ensure space for free enterprise. No points for guessing whose side Maiden are on, though; Dickinson’s concluding three-step falsetto shriek is pretty extreme and unambiguous in that respect, and moreover, one can easily visualise a twenty-year-old Axl Rose listening to this song and learning it.

Burr’s “Total Eclipse,” not part of the original album, fits in well enough here, with its visions of apocalypse extending beyond Vikings and blue soldiers of history to encompass the present tense, and in its usage and cross-stitching of guitar duopoly demonstrates just what an unsung influence early Van Halen was (1982 also being the year of the latter’s excellent Diver Down album) and also (as demonstrated throughout the album) what an abominably underrated influence Slade had on the rock bands which followed them (like Slade, Maiden roll far more than they rock). But “Hallowed,” which has the same plot as Tony Christie’s “I Did What I Did For Maria” – at least in terms of going to the hangman at daybreak without fear - was the big finish, its initial quietude gradually rising to a roaring fearless-of-death defiance, even though it finishes on the strangest of lines ever to finish a heavy metal album: “Life down here is just a strange illusion.”

The record hit big immediately and gained them an audience, of sorts, in the States, as well as the attention of various Bible belt types who saw “666” and took immediate offence.  More importantly, however, there were innumerable teenagers in America, sick of the milk of magnesia diet of REO Speedwagon and Styx, who wanted something more, and, crucially, something fresh. Yes, there was Black Flag and the Melvins and Minor Threat and all the rest of them – and I’ll bet they all lapped this record up, as did people who would go on to form groups like Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax (not to mention G’n’R). Even Lady GaGa has gone on record as naming Maiden her favourite band (“their fans live, breathe and die for Maiden, and that is my dream”). It still seems a far more decisive break from stultification than most, and – although we will be revisiting Maiden several times as this tale progresses – you have to love a group who will put “Pete Brotzman” on their thank-you list, although sadly this is not a misspelt German improvising saxophonist, but the band’s correctly spelt amplifer supplier. And would Weller have dreamt of augmenting The Jam with a huge papier maché mascot named Eddie?  No new path is walkable without humour, but The Number Of The Beast, by recognising that humour is always something to be taken with the greatest of seriousness, is still a blast of a record to listen to, and as good an example as any in this tale of new ways coming forward to supersede old ways. Except that – as entry #262 will demonstrate – the old ways weren’t always for turning.