Beast Over Hammersmith, 2002
This week’s remit was to pick a song that contained a sample from a television show or a movie. Unsurprisingly, this track inspired by the 1967 television show of the same name was the first thing that sprang to mind. I knew I had a live version or two kicking around, and chose this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a clear, strong performance, with a vibrant but not overwhelming audience presence (the version on the recent Maiden ‘88 is too hot for my taste). Second, it was recorded two days before the release of The Number of the Beast back in 1982, their first album with new singer Bruce Dickinson. It’s a hard sell for any band to debut unheard material; this recording shows them not only doing that but getting raucous applause for nearly half a set of new songs, including “The Prisoner”.
Iron Maiden took that positive response and fed it right back to the audience. Every band tends to speed up slightly from the adrenaline coursing through their veins and Maiden were no exception (this live version is about 15 seconds shorter than the studio rendition). You can hear the late Clive Burr trying to keep steady behind his drum kit, but guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, and bassist Steve Harris, are galloping faster and faster as each verse goes on; if there wasn’t a chorus to stop the charge they’d fly off the stage.
That headlong charge is the hallmark of the Iron Maiden attack, and behind the verses the music of “The Prisoner” is so prototypical as to be almost clichéd. But that chorus! That chorus has become a rallying cry for disenfranchised fans the world over. “Not a prisoner/I’m a free man/and my blood is my own now” is a powerful sentiment – one that generations of metalheads have taken to heart. The second refrain, “I’m not a number/I’m a free man/live my life where I want to”, only further cements the song’s anthemic status – both in their oeuvre and the heavy metal genre itself.
Last year, for the first time since 1991, Maiden added it back into their live set. To hear 20,000 fans sing their hearts out to those choruses along with Dickinson is a memory I will cherish for years to come. The band and crowd fueled each other once again, and the connection was electric. The crowd even matched the opening sample, word for word, with near perfect timing:
“We want information…information…information!”
“Who are you?”
“The new Number Two.”
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I am not a number! I am a free man.”