When I was young – I’m talking 6, 7 years old – I would spend way too much time looking through my dad’s records. We didn’t own a functional record player at the time, nor would he have let me play them even if we had, for fear of scratching the immaculate surfaces of the holiest of relics. But I nonetheless loved poring over their covers and liner notes. Not a bad way to start building an encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock in the pre-internet days. And while the digital age has significantly compromised the influence of album artwork and packaging, they were really all I had at the time.
Sadly, the adult version of my dad preferred John Denver and Dan Fogelberg. Cool enough guys, and I don’t want to knock their music, but their album covers were too predictable. A dramatically lit, up-close portrait, or a more candid pose, sitting next to a river with a silly hat and an acoustic guitar. Points for down-to-earthness, yet over my young imagination these scenes had little sway. Luckily, the teenage version of my dad had amassed enough classic rock staples to keep me busy, and these all remained in tip-top shape. Led Zeppelin III alone could hold my attention for hours, spinning that damn wheel to reveal every bit of miscellany it held, and trying to figure out which exact position in the rotation constituted the “correct” orientation of each window with the pictures beneath. And of course there was its successor, whose simple, cryptic cover was a brilliantly direct response to critical panning of the excesses I just described. What mystery this image held, this stick-laden hermit, framed atop peeling, bland wallpaper. I accepted its meaninglessness, but nonetheless got lost in the damn strangeness of the whole thing. Of course, the payoff was inside, as you open the sucker to reveal the presumable Gandalf, looking down as protector onto the presumable Shire. To me, this had at least as much hypnotic power as any comic book, and my ironic inability to access the actual music within only served to heighten the sense that each sleeve was not simply a colorful facade, but a herald – equal parts invitation and warning – of some great and mysterious treasure.
It was one record in particular, however, that fascinated me the most, because it surpassed all others for sheer, grisly awesomeness, and that was Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind. My dad was not in particular a fan of heavy metal, and this was the only album in the collection that really fit the categorization. Zeppelin and Tull were on the heavier side of classic rock, but this, this was metal, and while there were only album sleeves, only visuals, to help inform this distinction, they left no room for doubt. The old, homeless derelict on the Aqualung cover may have been creepy and unsettling, but a lobotomized, manacled Eddie, writhing, screaming, and bleeding, clearly attempting beyond all suggestion to break free from his chains and leap forward, into the 3rd dimension, to rip my face off – well, this was beyond creepy. This was straight out of horror movie. And I loved it.
A year or two later I had begun taking drum lessons, in a small, musty room at the top of a precariously thin and rickety staircase, under which was an equally musty music shop, offering among banged up drums and rusted saxophones the obligatory stacks of used records. The really beat-up ones were only a buck, while the better kept ones could be as much as 6 or 7, although I quickly got hep to the fact that I could peel the price tag off, play dumb, and get the shopkeep to blurt out, “uhhh, just gimme a buck”. Life’s pretty easy when you’re the cutest damn 8 year old on the block. And this was how I began to amass my own record collection, my own personal stash of spooky covers to pore over, and personnel trivia to add to my increasing knowledge. I had also, by this point, procured my own record player. It cost $3 at the White Elephant (aka “trash exchange”) at the local church fair, and had a table that folded up, flanked by two attached speakers, all of which could be carried around like a suitcase when properly stowed. My dad eventually made me throw it out when it started jolting me with electric shocks, but while it lasted it was my prized possession. That record player and the old, beat-up records that I abused it with made me, as far as I cared, the hippest 3rd grader in my own school or any other.
Anyway, the first record I bought was The Who’s Live at Leeds. And what a way to kick things off, with the greatest live album of all time! But the 2nd album I bought was Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast. I think it’s quite possible that, at this point in my life, I still hadn’t heard a single Iron Maiden song, and that my entire understanding of who or what exactly they were remained limited to the impressions I had received from the sleeve of my dad’s Piece of Mind record. And that was enough; I had to have it.
It was in utterly deplorable condition. My dad said that it looked like someone had let their dog eat dinner off of it, and strongly advised against buying it, because the atrocious symphony of scratches on both sides would make listening virtually impossible. But I didn’t care; buying an Iron Maiden record would shoot my badass level through the roof, and I couldn’t let that chance slip by. So I forked up my buck and proceeded to my drum lesson, Number in hand, where my drum teacher chuckled (endearingly enough) at my purchase, made the devil horns with his right hand, and said “Iron Maiden!” in a demon voice. It only helped fuel my ego.
Of course, my dad was right; the album was completely unlistenable. Being closest to the edges of the record, and therefore most vulnerable to wear (or in this case, warfare), the kickoff tracks from each side – “Invaders” and “Number of the Beast” – would be over after about 30 seconds of chaotic skipping, and sounded like some frenzied collage of second-and-a-half snippets: Dickinson shrieks, whammy bar wails, and galloping drum fills falling like an avalanche on my poor 8-year-old ears, ending before I could even begin to make sense of it, and leaving me dumbfounded, as if some horde of Satanic vikings had pillaged my room, tearing down my Greg Maddux posters and setting ablaze my He-man, Master of the Universe bedsheets, then storming back out just as quickly as they had come. And perhaps this all sounds like hyperbole now, but keep in mind that at the time I still had that most treasured and fleeting of gifts, the imagination of a child. To me, this was really what it felt like to listen to Iron Maiden.
The only songs I had any chance of actually listening to, that bore any semblance to music, were the ones closer to the center of the record: “The Prisoner”, “22 Acacia Avenue”, “Gangland”, and “Hallowed be thy Name”. I listened to them over, and over, and over. And over. And over. “The Prisoner” might sound a bit silly to me now, a bit too earnest and fist-pumpy, but at the time it was my favorite, probably because it told a story that I could envision with great lucidity. Who was this rogue, this underdog whose identity and freedom had once been stolen from him, who now reclaimed both with such violent conviction, casting aside the tools of his oppressors, hell-bent on vengeance, no matter the cost? For a kid whose other primary interests included Batman and the Scary Stories books, this was prime subject matter, and genuinely uplifting music.
As far as “22 Acacia Avenue” goes, well I had some sense of what the song was about, but I was still pretty young, remember, so it certainly kept an air of the unknown and inappropriate, which of course only made me like it more. I remember thinking, for example, that “quid” was some weird sex thing I didn’t know about, and not British slang for “dollar”. And clearly I’m assuming that my readers are familiar with the song, but if you aren’t, it’s about a prostitute named Charlotte, addressed by an anonymous narrator who decries the perils of her lifestyle, from physical violence, to STDs, to her inevitable destitution once age gets the better of her. At one point we’re even invited to “beat her, mistreat her, make her get down on her knees”. Pretty intense stuff for an 8 year old.
As for side B, “Gangland” and “Hallowed be thy Name” were the relatively listenable songs. The first is generally thought of as the throwaway track on the album, if there is one, but it’s a personal favorite of mine, and showcases some exceptional drumming from Clive Burr, whose last Maiden performance was on this album, and who is generally overshadowed by Nicko McBrain, who succeeded him. McBrain is an incredible drummer with an even better name, but I never thought that Burr got the credit he deserved.
And “Hallowed”? Well, it’s “Hallowed”, ‘nuff said. The “epic” of the album, and absolutely deserving of that title. Like “The Prisoner”, this was a song that I could picture all too vividly. It’s the story of a man living his last moments before being executed, and follows him as he takes that last, long walk from his cell to the killing floor, mirroring his physical passage with a scarily convincing account of the thought process that a soon-to-be-dying man must endure. The song, and thus the album, ends with the lyrics:
When you know that your time is close at hand
Maybe then you’ll begin to understand
Life down here is just a strange illusion
I thought this was the coolest shit I had ever heard.
Of course, there are other songs on this album, and eventually I got to hear all of them in full, but you probably know them already: the title track, “Run to the Hills”, “Invaders”, “Children of the Damned”. I mean, what really needs to be said about these songs, or about this album? It’s a classic among classics, one of the irrefutable cornerstones of heavy music. You probably know this album from front to back yourself, and if you don’t, well I’m sure you can imagine what my advice would be.
Slowly but surely, I did my best to “fix” my poor copy of this behemoth. That meant applying pressure to the needle of my record player at any spot where the record skipped, in the hopes that I could “train” it to stay in the groove instead of skipping elsewhere. And it actually worked pretty well. It took hours and was incessantly tedious, but little by little the listenable stretches got longer and longer, to the point where “Number of the Beast” was the only track on which the skipping remained a dealbreaker. Otherwise, I still have the record, and it pretty much plays through now. Of course that doesn’t need to be a factor anymore, because I can just find it on Spotify or whatever. And I don’t mean for this review to be built on some “old ways are the best ways” kind of moral or anything, because times change, and technology changes, and you gotta change with it. If nothing else, it’s simply a reminder of the fact that, nowadays, the thought that one would need to work so damn hard to listen to a piece of music is virtually inconceivable. But back then, it was the only way I could finally get to the forbidden fruit that had been promised to me as early as my first explorations of my dad’s record collection; I had no choice but to sit by that record player, night after night, holding the needle down until finally it ran where it was supposed to, and then onto the next skip. It was hard work, but the payoff was immense.
The Number of the Beast might not even be my favorite Iron Maiden album (POWERSLAAAAAAAAVE!) but it is the one I hold dearest. I nurtured it like a mother nurtures her cubs, and as a result, it will always be one of those albums whose personal value to me is beyond measure. Just last week my roommate suggested we listen to it, so we did, front to back, and even though I could have easily played it through computer speakers, that option didn’t even cross my mind. I walked over to my record shelf, ran my finger along the spines until I felt the most raggedy one, and pulled out the same downtrodden copy of The Number of the Beast that I’ve been listening to almost 20 years now. And boy, it never sounded so good.