Judas Priest is so influential, so part of the original heavy music, that the band was already rocking when the term "heavy metal" was invented. Formed by guitarist K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill, the band originally came together in 1969 over a shared love of bands like Cream. Their hometown of Birmingham, England, though, is not exactly a pastoral place -- it's industrial gothic, and the sooty gloom eventually penetrated their heavy blues rock. (It's absolutely no surprise that Black Sabbath also came out of this environment.)
The addition of iconic frontman Rob Halford 1974 cemented the band's newly forged musical path. The songs were getting heavier and heavier, and more epic, and an appearance at the 1975 Reading Festival started Priest's trajectory into stardom.
It was with the 1980 classic British Steel, though, that the band entered superstardom. The music, now, had morphed into a sound sort of like the revving of the motorcycles the band so adored -- revving, short, loud blasts of pure power. Halford's voice was well-oiled and elastic, and the leather-clad look he favored in this era forever stamped metal fashion.
The songs on British Steel were, perhaps, less exploratory and more
compact than those on Priest's earlier records, but what this yielded
was a nine-track set of anthem after anthem. There is no reason, beyond
actual paralysis, to not pump your fist to "Breaking the Law" or
"Living After Midnight."
It's an album so good, the band decided to celebrate its 30th
anniversary a year early with a full-scale tour of the states, which
lands in Hollywood at the Hard Rock on Monday. New Times spoke with Rob
Halford about the occasion by phone earlier this week, as he prepared
to perform in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here's what he had to say, in
one of the most cheerful, polished accents in metal.
New Times: Hi there! It's Arielle with the Miami New Times --
Rob Halford: Hello, Arielle! Did you just call me a few minutes ago?
New Times: Hm, yes, I tried before, but it just kept ringing....
I knew it! When you're in a hotel that's "historic," in quotation marks, things break down! People were calling me and I was going, "Hello, hello!" I've just gone ballistic at the front desk.
Scary, did they know they were getting yelled at by the singer of Judas Priest?
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Oh, I don't know. I guess that's one of the little trials and tests of being on the road. The one thing I love about this band is we're very British, and very on time, you know? So we still carry that ethic with us. If people don't understand you or if things break down, you start talking in a very loud voice: Why is this not working? It's hit and miss really!
Well, my first question, the most obvious one, is why did you decide to celebrate the 30th anniversary of British Steel a year early?
I think more than anything in America, especially, it's great to have a story attached to your tour, something that's a litlte bit extra for the fans. On the first leg of our tour this year [through Europe], we were with Heaven and Hell and Megadeth and Testament, and now we wanted to try and kind of, you know, emulate the same kind of excitement that is around that type of event.
So while we were in Europe earlier this year, getting ready to come back for the second lg in America, someone tapped us on the shoulder and said, how about this idea for a tour? Why don't we get the party started early? Now by the time we actually have the official birthday [of the album], we can have a really nice celebration including a box set with a film on DVD, and all of the other goodies that bands put together for these types of moments.
So that was where the idea came from, and the more we thought about it, the more we realized how important that record has turned out to be. It's a number of things, really. It's for the fans, it's to recognize the importance of the music from British Steel, and it's just to make this second leg a special event, and that's what fans are going crazy for at all of these shows.
So you just play the whole album in order, back to back, or do you mix anything up?
Yep, we play them all in order. We've even gone a little bit retro with the look of the band -- we're actually wearing the clothes and ideas we were using in the early '80s. It's a pretty stripped-down stage with more emphasis on the light show. We still have the mtoorocycle, the Harley Davidson.
We start with the opening track, "Rapid Fire," which has the most amazing statement in the lyrics, because the first thing you hear from the stage is, "Pounding the world like a battering ram!" It really sets up the emotion for the evening. It's a very powerful connection right from the get-go with that particular song.
And then we go through all of the music, track by track. It's about 40, 45 minutes. Because you know in those days, there was no Internet, no cell phones, and as far as I know, no satellite TV -- so you could only get about 45 minutes owrth of music on vinyl, because there were no CDs, even. So we play the full set, and the fans go ballistic at the end -- and we won't be doing this ever again in America. Then we do some of the other Priest classics, so it's a full Priest show.
When you decided to do the tour this way, did you worry that playing one album in order would eliminate some element of surprise for the audience?
It's impossible to have a complete surprise now, isn't it? Unfortunately, that's the way of the world. Everybody's Twittering while they eat their lunch and while they're sitting in the movie theater, so it's a shame really. But I also wouldn't deny the excitement that this kind of instant connection can create.
Because you know, no matter how you explain to a fan that you've seen the pre-show, or seen clips from YouTube or whatever, you can't really fully understand or experience the true moment until you're there in person. It's like watching a movie of the Grand Canyon. It's great, but you cannot understand what it means until you are standing at the rim staring at the vastness. I think that's true of this particular show.
But I agree with you, you know. When the Internet was going mainstream, we discussed that. Because coming from that time of our life, there was the excitement of, Oh, there's a new LP coming from Priest! You'd put the vinyl on your turntable, and that was the only way you could experience it. You couldn't snag it off the Internet or get an illegal download or a video clip.
So there was a mystery of how [a band] would do it onstage. And to a certain extent, that's gone now. But it's today's world, you have to accept it. It's all about living in the moment, and the only way you can live in the moment for a Priest show is to come and see us.
Why did you choose to film your live DVD at the date here in South Florida? Was it just a scheduling thing?
It's a combination of a lot of things. We've been coming back and forth to Florida since the early '80s. We made two or three records in Miami at Bayshore Sound, which is no longer there. So we spent many years in the Miami area, especially in Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne, so we have many memories from South Florida. The fans are crazy down there -- the metal heads go insane.
Really? You find that South Florida metal audiences in particular are really that crazy?
There's just a very special feeling from the Florida metal heads that we want to capture. So here's a chance for all the Florida metal heads to become famous, because the cameras will be pointing on them throughout the night, as well as on the band. We're very excited that we're going to be making this film, this full show in Hollywood.
What about the other classic tracks you'll be playing?
"Victim of Changes," from the [Sad Wings of] Destiny album.... "The Ripper," "Hell Patrol," one or two others. We're mixing it up.
Between working on your last studio album, Nostradamus, which seemed like such an epic project, and celebrating British Steel, have you had a chance at all to think about writing new material for the future?
We don't really.... Here's the deal. At the end of this tour, which finishes when we come back from Japan in October, we'll have been touring the world for 18 months. We will have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, and we'll have just gotten back to our respective homes, and we'll stop moving.
And then we'll take a break through the holiday season. And then one of us will pick up the phone, probably the writers of the band, Glenn [Tipton] and Ken [K.K. Downing] and myself -- to say, "Hey whats going on? Should we start making some more metal?" And that'll be the plan from next year. But I don't know when that's all going to take place.
The thing is that we love what we do, and we still have all the passion and the energy and the drive as we did three decades ago. This is our life! We make these wonderful records, tour the world, and then take a little bit of a break. That's built into our system. Come January, we'll start to feel edgy and antsy.
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So [working on new material will] happen next year. We don't know what it's going to be, what it's going to sound like. Being in Priest is very real, it's not pre-programmed or anything. But it's wonderful to think that at some point there will be a new Judas Priest record.
So you all are together as a band indefinitely.
Oh yeah, most certainly. The time that I was away with my solo work -- I still need that outlet -- but while I was away, I was yearning for the opportunity to come back to the band, because this band is what I live for. So when we were reunited, which has got to be 8 or 9 years ago now [Ed. Note -- it was in 2003], we just felt great being back together again as a band.
Monday, August 17. Hard Rock Live, 5747 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $45 to $90; ticketmaster.com