JUDAS PRIEST (1973–PRESENT). Rob Halford (vocals), K.K. Downing (guitar), Glenn Tipton (guitar), Ian Hill (bass), Scott Travis (drums).
Arguably one of the most influential metal bands of all time, Judas Priest, along with Iron Maiden, were at the forefront of the New Wave of British heavy metal that emerged during the late seventies and early eighties. Featuring a formidable twin-guitar attack and the operatic vocals of leather-decked, motorcycle-riding frontman Rob Halford, the band took the gothic imagery of Black Sabbath and fused it with a faster and more energetic presentation, providing a classic template that many of the metal bands that came after them would follow, especially in the speed metal and death metal genres.
Judas Priest began in Birmingham, England, when bassist Ian Hill, guitarist K.K. Downing, vocalist Alan Atkins, and drummer John Ellis came together. Taking their name from a former band of Atkins’ (the original inspiration having come from Bob Dylan’s song “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” from his John Wesley Harding album), the band began playing gigs under the name in 1971. In 1973, vocalist Atkins left the group. As it happened, bassist Hill was at the time dating a woman whose brother, Rob Halford, was a singer, and she suggested they check him out. Halford then joined the lineup and brought along drummer John Hinch, who replaced John Ellis, who had just left the band.
After more touring, including stints in Germany and the Netherlands, the band signed a contract with independent Gull records in 1974. Adding a second guitarist, Glenn Tipton, the band recorded their debut, Rocka Rolla, in 1974. The album failed to generate much interest.
After an appearance at the Reading Festival in 1975, Hinch left the band, to be replaced by Alan Moore on drums. Shortly thereafter, the band released Sad Wings of Destiny. The album, which the band had much more of a hand in productionwise than they did in their debut, established the band as a force to be reckoned with on the metal scene of the day. Featuring such cutting-edge tracks as “Victim of Changes,” “The Ripper,” “Tyrant,” and “Genocide,” the album represented an important step in the development of metal as a musical form and established the band as important innovators in the genre. The album was critical in helping to establish their fan base and remains a favorite of many fans to the present day and is generally considered one of the most influential metal albums ever released.
After signing an international deal with CBS Records, the band recorded Sin After Sin, which featured session drummer Simon Phillips, whose energy and technical skill gave the band’s sound another shot in the arm. The album, released in 1977, contained the band’s cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” and generated even more positive reviews and sold better than its predecessors. Adding drummer Les Binks to the lineup, the band set out for their first tour of the U.S.
Returning to England, the band released the 1978 album Stained Class, which further established them as a heavy metal force to be reckoned with. Featuring the tracks “Exciter,” “Invader,” and “Better by You, Better Than Me,” the album saw the band refining its metal sound without diminishing any of its power, and the album would go on to be one of the most influential in the later development of speed metal. Stained Class, along with its successor Hell Bent for Leather (1979), were two of the key albums spearheading the New Wave of British heavy metal and Priest, who had by this time developed their leather-clad stage personas and had become hugely influential to a whole generation of metal bands that followed them.
Hell Bent for Leather, released in 1979 (under the title Killing Machine in the U.K.), featured the title track and “Delivering the Goods,” and continued the band’s domination of the metal scene. Next came a live album, recorded in Japan, called Unleashed in the East. Released in 1979, the album would become Priest’s first million seller in the U.S. and marked their last recording with Binks. The drummer was replaced with Dave Holland, who had previously been a member of Trapeze.
Another classic album followed in 1980 with British Steel. The album featured two of the band’s most enduring favorites as singles, “Breaking the Law” and the classic “Living After Midnight.” The album charted in both the U.S. and U.K. and gave the band its second platinum album.
Point of Entry followed the next year and featured a somewhat more radiofriendly sound with the singles “Heading Out to the Highway,” “Don’t Go,” and “Hot Rockin.” The band also filmed two of the songs as videos for MTV. While not as successful with the critics, the album was another solid success for the band.
1982 would be a high point for the band. With the album Screaming for Vengeance, the band reached its height of popularity. On the basis of the singles (and videos) “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and “Electric Eye,” the album reached number 17 on the U.S. charts and sold over a million copies. The band supported the album with a sold-out worldwide tour.
While Screaming’s follow-up, 1984’s Defenders of the Faith, was similarly successful, metal tastes were changing, and as Priest had been moving in a slightly more pop and radio-friendly direction, the younger bands that they had so influenced—in particular bands like Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer—had helped to give birth to speed metal and thrash metal and were shaping a new aesthetic in the genre.
Still, Priest continued to do well, earning another platinum seller with 1986’s Turbo. Unfortunately, Priest … Live!, released in 1987, failed even to earn gold status, and the writing seemed to be on the wall for the group.
After Ram It Down in 1988, drummer Holland left and was replaced by former Racer X drummer Scott Travis, a younger player whose drumming chops would go on to give the band much of the speed metal power that its younger rivals were exploiting. Painkiller, released in 1990, was the first album that would explore this potential.
During the summer of 1990, the band was the subject of a lawsuit brought by the families of two young men who had attempted suicide (one succeeded) by shooting themselves with a shotgun. The suit claimed that subliminal messages in the song “Better by You, Better Than Me” on the Stained Class album allegedly had influenced the victims’ actions. It didn’t seem to matter that the song itself was a cover of a Spooky Tooth song and was not written by Judas Priest. The suit was eventually dismissed, and the band exonerated, but it shook up the band, and was one of a number of accusations (others involved Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden) directed at the heavy metal community and alleged the music’s negative influence on young fans.
After the completion of the Painkiller tour in 1990, Halford left, forming his own thrash metal outfit, Fight. Without Halford, the band spent the better part of the next five years dormant. Then, in 1996, they announced the hiring of Tim Owens, a young American vocalist who was a huge Judas Priest fan and who had been the singer in the Priest tribute band British Steel. Giving Owens the more metal-friendly nickname “Ripper,” the band recorded the Jugulator, which was released in 1997. Featuring a more contemporary sound with heavily detuned guitars, the album was actually a departure from the traditional Priest sound, although Owens showed off an impressive Halford-influenced vocal style. The album entered the charts at 82, but was generally given mixed reviews by fans and critics alike.
In a 1998 interview with MTV, the long-closeted Halford came out, speaking openly about his homosexuality. While the singer’s sexuality had been something of an “open secret” and the band had been aware of it, there was a question of how metal fans would take the news. As it happened, Halford was happy to report, the response from the heavy metal community was in fact “tremendous,” and has never seemed to be an issue adversely affecting the singer’s career. Meanwhile, Judas Priest issued another studio album with Owens, 2001’s Demolition, as well as a pair of live albums.
In the summer of 2001, the film Rock Star, featuring Mark Wahlberg, was released that was based upon Owens’ rags to riches experience with Priest. While the band had originally been connected with the project, they withdrew and the picture itself functioned far more as a parody of the band and the metal genre than as any sort of realistic representation of Owens’ experience.
As if in answer to many a Priest fan’s prayers, 2003 saw the announcement that Halford would be returning to the fold. The band marked the event with a European tour that coincided with the release of their Metalogy boxed set. They also co-headlined 2004’s Ozzfest.
The first studio album of the reunited lineup was Angel of Retribution, released in March 2005. The album was a return to form for the band and was a commercial and critical success. 2008 saw the release of Nostradamus, an ambitious double-length album based on the life of the seer.
Discography: Rocka Rolla (Repertoire, 1974); Sad Wings of Destiny (Koch International, 1976); Sin After Sin Columbia, 1977); Stained Class (Columbia, 1978); Hell Bent for Leather (Columbia, 1979); Unleashed in the East [live] (Columbia, 1979); British Steel (Columbia, 1980); Point of Entry (Columbia, 1981); Screaming for Vengeance (Columbia, 1982); Defenders of the Faith (Columbia, 1984); Turbo (Columbia, 1986); Priest … Live! (Columbia, 1987); Ram It Down (Columbia, 1988); Painkiller (Columbia, 1990); Jugulator (CMC International, 1997); Priest in the East [live] (Import, 1998); ’98 Live Meltdown (CMC International, 1998); Dying to Meet You (Sonotec, 2001); Demolition (Atlantic, 2001); Never Satisfied (Kiddinx, 2002); Live in London (Steamhammer/SPV, 2003); Angel of Retribution (Epic, 2005); Nostradamus (Epic, 2008); The Best of Judas Priest (Koch International, 2001); Limited Collector’s Box (Columbia, 2002); The Best of Judas Priest (Sony, 2008).