Week 18: Judas Priest

British-Steel - cover

British Steel

Hard rock and heavy metal were my first real music love and as Priest in the 80s were one of the biggest metal bands of the time they were a regular spin on my turntable. They were the self proclaimed ‘Metal Gods’ and no one was going to disagree with them.  Albums like Stained Class and Killing Machine, (released in limited edition red vinyl dontcha know) and live release Unleashed in the East were the albums that made me a big Priest fan and I still am to this day. Amazingly both studio albums were released in 1978 only 8 months apart, you don’t see that these days and how much of the live album was actually live is open to question but whatever they did it still sounds great.

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At the end of the 70s and the early 80s heavy metal/hard rock actually wormed its way into the mainstream for a while with Priest, Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and many others all appearing regularly on Top of the Pops and being played on day time radio.  The fame was short lived though and rock music soon slithered back into the shadows where it felt more comfortable. It is very unlikely anything like that period would happen today, despite rock music containing some of the world’s biggest selling acts you’d never hear a heavy metal or hard rock song on mainstream radio these days.  Also around this time there was a music movement called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with the easy to remember acronym of NWOBHM which saw the likes of Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Saxon, Diamond Head and 100s of others of varying talent suddenly getting their time in the spotlight.  There were some great bands who never made it and there were some real clunkers who were just awful but it coincided with my growing love of metal music and many of those bands I still listen to today.  Some weren’t very good but had a certain charm like Witchfynde, some bands who should have been huge inexplicably didn’t make it like Diamond Head, others set their course and never deviated and were rewarded with success like Iron Maiden.

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Priest’s rise to fame just preceded this era but they could be regarded as not quite the fathers of NWOBHM but maybe considered the big brothers as their most successful period happened during this time and there is no doubt the NWOBHM phenomenon helped them along the way.  The British Steel album produced 3 hit singles that saw Priest appear on TOTP.  Breaking the Law, complete with one of the worst music videos you’ll ever see, Livin’ After Midnight and football terracing chant song United.  Considering the album only had 9 tracks that was a pretty good hit rate.  British Steel was regarded as a much more commercial album than previous releases but without losing the power that made Priest the band they were.   There were better songs on the album than the singles, in my opinion, Metal Gods, Grinder and The Rage which was a little darker and a little different to the usual Priest.

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Live was where Priest excelled though.  The twin guitars of KK Downing and Glenn Tipton produced mighty riff after mighty riff with solos being traded throughout the songs.  Ian Hill stood pumping his bass at the back providing the solid back beat along with drummer Dave Holland who had replaced Les Binks drummer on the aforementioned albums.  Out front we had Rob Halford who possessed the most incredible voice.  From ear piercing scream to guttural growl his range was quite astonishing.  My one major gripe with Priest was when they decanted to the US and tours in the UK became quite a rare occurrence until relatively recent times.  The band also went through a few line up changes with only Tipton and Hill retaining their places through the years.  Founding member KK Downing left in 2010 and even singer Halford left in 91/92 before rejoining over a decade later.

I remember when Halford finally announced officially to the world that he was gay and everyone shrugged and said, yeah we knew.  It was metal music’s worst kept secret. In the macho world of heavy metal where the narrative is often all about partying and sleeping with women it could have been a career destroying moment to admit you were gay but it turned out the metal community didn’t really give a feck, it ‘is’ really all about the music.  Although songs like Turbo Lover certainly took on a different slant.

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In 1990 Priest were subject to a court trial when 2 young men tried to kill themselves, one of them successfully, after listening to the Priest version of Spooky Tooth song Better By You Better Than Me that was claimed to have had subliminal messages when played backwards telling them to commit suicide.  It was complete and utter nonsense but it still went to trial but was thrown out.  I still remember watching a programme about heavy metal that included a story about the trial and Priest decided to play some of their other tracks backwards to see what came out.  Most of it was of course garbled nonsense but some phonetic recognisable words and phrases could be heard like ‘Hey ma, my chair’s broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and ‘Help me keep a job.’  It was a all a bit Spinal Tap without the humour.

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More recently Priest threatened to do a farewell tour which then became a new album and a further tour.  Live they are still great to see, Halford’s vocal power may not be the power of old but it’s still pretty formidable and with KK being replaced by an almost identikit younger version of himself in Richie Faulkner complete with flying V in 2010 and drummer Scott Travis who has been on drum duties since 1989 still going strong Priest seem good to go for a few years yet.

There may have been faster, heavier bands who came after Priest but they will always be the Metal Gods for this Metal Head.

See you on week 19.

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