Upon release in 1982, the song caused controversy in the United States where its subject matter caused outrage amongst uptight religious groups, even though the lyrics are clearly inspired by horror film imagery rather than any ‘Satanic’ beliefs. In spite of this, it remains one of the band’s more popular songs, reaching No. 18 in the UK singles charts, and has been performed on almost all of their concert tours.
On top of this, the song has been covered numerous times and has appeared in several video games and films. According to the song’s writer, bassist and band-founder Steve Harris, it was inspired by a nightmare he had after watching the film Damien Omen II in addition to the poem Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns.
The song opens with a spoken word passage, read by English actor Barry Clayton, which quotes directly from the Book of Revelation. According to lead vocalist, Bruce Dickinson, the band originally asked Vincent Price to read the intro, but decided to hire Clayton after Price refused to do it for anything less than £25,000.
The track is known for its very long, high-pitched and guttural wail at the end of the intro, which Allmusic describes as “the most blood-curdling Dickinson scream on record”. In the Classic Albums documentary based on The Number of the Beast album, Dickinson states that it came about through frustration with producer Martin Birch, who forced him to sing the introduction repeatedly for hours on end.
The single’s cover is the last of three singles to feature Riggs’ depiction of Satan, which debuted on the cover of the “Purgatory” single. The cover of The Number of the Beast is the aftermath to the cover of the “Run to the Hills” single where Eddie and Satan are depicted in battle. The single was also released on red vinyl.
The original music video featured the band performing the song, interspersed with clips from various horror films including Return of the Vampire, Godzilla, War of the Colossal Beast, the Crimson Ghost film serial, How to Make a Monster, and The Angry Red Planet. The Crimson Ghost – used as a logo by The Misfits – also appears early in the video, and there is another reference to The Misfits later in the video, when the monster from The Angry Red Planet appears (The Misfits used the monster on the cover of their album Walk Among Us). Also featured are Nosferatu and The Devil Rides Out. In the middle of the guitar solo, a dancing couple wearing cards marked “6” on their costumes appear on stage. As the male dancer spins his female partner around, the female dancer suddenly appears (via editing) wearing a wolf mask and furry gloves. They later appear, holding up their number signs to the camera, in close-up shots, with the third “Six” being held up by the female dancer while wearing her wolf mask. Eddie also makes an appearance towards the end of the video, as a large scale version of him walks across the stage to join the band.
An alternate version of the video exists where the film clips are omitted and the video is basically just the band’s performance (although the dancing couple still appear). A later video (available on the Visions of the Beast DVD), animated by Camp Chaos, replaced the film clips and the dancing couple with flash animation of Bruce (acting as a priest) and Eddie re-enacting scenes from The Exorcist. The devil costume is actually worn by future Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, then a friend of the band.
In addition to the album’s artwork and title, the song was a prominent target of religious groups in the United States who accused Iron Maiden of being a Satanic group. The controversy led to organised burnings of the group’s albums as well as several protests during their 1982 tour,although this would only serve to give the band more publicity. Steve Harris has since commented that the accusations made against them were “mad. They completely got the wrong end of the stick. They obviously hadn’t read the lyrics. They just wanted to believe all that rubbish about us being Satanists.”
Metal music on Horrorpedia: All Nightmare Long by Metallica | Army of the Damned | Black Widow | Brainscan | Cannibal Corpse | Cannabis Corpse | Dead Banging aka Metalca | Day of the Beast | Demons | Deranged | The Dungeonmaster | Electric Frankenstein | Ghost B.C. | Goatwhore | GWAR | Hack ‘O’ Lantern aka Halloween Night | Hellbilly Zombie Invasion by Pickups ‘n’ Pitchforks | Hopkins (The Witchfinder General) by Cathedral | Hymen Holocaust by Necromance | Killed by Death by Motörhead | KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park | The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden | Queen of the Damned | Repulsion | Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare aka The Edge of Hell | Slayer | Slipknot | The Spanish Chainsaw Massacre | Trick or Treat | Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal | Zombie Nightmare