Spring, 1977. Six men are sitting in a central London boozer. Five of them are on one side of the table, drinking their beer sullenly and eyeing the sixth bloke across the table with suspicion. The lone guy, Dennis MacKay, is telling Judas Priest, a Birmingham metal band with three albums already behind them, how he started out as an engineer at the famous Trident studios, training under legendary producer Ken Scott, working on albums by the likes of Queen and David Bowie.
He pulls out a CV he’s brought with him and talks about the work he’s done since: producing fusion acts like Brand X, Gong, Tommy Bolin and John McLaughlin.
Finally Rob Halford reaches across, grabs the CV from his hand and rips it into little pieces. “Fuck that!” says Halford. “What are you going to do for us?!”
Today, Rob Halford laughs at the memory: “I must have had one too many pints under my belt,” he says.
“Those were my merry medieval metal drinking days. ‘Give me a flagon of mead and all will be well!’”
“Rob had probably had four or five vodkas,” says Glenn Tipton. “The next question to Dennis was ‘Let’s see how many pints you can drink…’ Actually, on that account Dennis used to be very good. That impressed us more than his CV.”
Still, Halford is embarrassed at the memory: “It’s very insulting when I think about it now,” he says. “Absolutely obnoxious. Who did I think I was, Johnny Rotten?”
By 1978, the spirit of Johnny Rotten was everywhere. Punk and new wave were dominating the pages of the music press, if not quite the charts. The first wave of hard rock and heavy metal bands were past their prime or moving on. Deep Purple had split. Black Sabbath were strung out. Scorpions, UFO, AC/DC, Ted Nugent and Thin Lizzy all released live albums.
Hard rock needed a kick up the arse and it came in two very contrasting forms. Van Halen’s self-titled debut redefined the capability of the electric guitar and encouraged a whole new generation to pick up the instrument. The other adrenalin shot was Judas Priest’s Stained Class. It’s a pivotal album in the evolution of heavy metal, arguably the most influential after the work of pioneers like Black Sabbath.
If Black Sabbath was the spark, Stained Class was the accelerant. In 2004, meanwhile, no less an authority than Classic Rock’s sister mag Metal Hammer named Stained Class the most influential metal album of all time. The foundation for what would define ‘pure metal’, and underpin almost all metal going forwards, is Stained Class.
Prior to that album, Priest long-players had been dogged by technical problems, poor sound quality, producer issues, session drummers and a mixed bag of styles, both musically and in terms of image. There were hints of what was to come, however, with killer tracks like Victim Of Changes, Dissident Aggressor, Sinner and Tyrant.
Faced with the hostile environment of punk, Stained Class was Priest coming out fighting. “We’ve always been aware of what’s going on around us in rock and metal,” says Rob Halford. “You’re a fool if you ignore what’s going on. You can learn a lot. Sometimes you might be inspired, sometimes you might be influenced and sometimes you want to put two fingers up at it – which I think is what we did to a certain extent with the punk and new wave experience.
“As musicians we had a sense that it wasn’t going to have a very long shelf life. There were some important bands coming through, like The Clash and The Stranglers, but some of the other elements were going to be flash-in-the-pan types. There was this hysteria around the idea that anyone could be in a band, which is a load of rubbish.
"Punk caught the ears of the record labels and the music press because there was a very immediate alienation of things from the past: ‘Forget about metal, forget about prog, that’s all gone now.’
“There was a time when you didn’t mention those two words, ‘heavy metal’ – they were like a death knell. I remember in the States you had to say ‘heavy rock’ or ‘hard rock’. But it was an exciting time for the band – there was a lot of self-belief in what we were about to do and a sense of adventure.
"When you think about the intensity of tracks like Exciter, for example, or Invader or Savage, maybe it was a reaction to what was going on around us. It kind of turned the fires up under our feet: ‘We’re a fucking metal band, mate, and this is what we love to do. Get an earful of this!’”
Glenn Tipton agrees: “We’ve always placed a lot of importance on what’s going on, because it’s what the kids want. It’s no use saying the next big thing’s shit, because a big element of the public likes it. So we’ve always kept our ear to the ground. Tracks like Exciter are indicative of us changing gear and going thrashy in a Priest way. It was indicative of what’s going on.”
Enter Dennis MacKay, the man whose apprenticeship was served at Trident studios. Based in London’s Soho, and the birthplace of albums like David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, MacKay recalls his time there fondly: “Rick Wakeman was the in-house keyboard player and it was among the first studios to use Dolby and eight-track recording. Paul McCartney, Queen, Genesis, Marc Bolan and T.Rex, Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, Free and Jeff Beck all recorded there too. It was a marvellous place.”
Dennis was suggested to the band by their manager at the time, David Hemmings, and – after that CV-shredding first meeting – had a dual role in the making of the album. “A producer has many roles,” he says, “but is primarily responsible for coaching the musicians in the studio and controlling the recording sessions. The recording engineer deals with the equipment used for the recording, mixing and reproduction of the sound. On Stained Class I was both producer and engineer.”
The album was recorded at Chipping Norton studios, an Oxfordshire recording facility set up by Mike Vernon (the producer of John Mayall’s legendary Beano album) and his brother Richard. MacKay was meticulous in his approach to producing and started by nailing the drum sound.
“The foundation is most important,” he says. “New drummer Les Binks was the first to arrive at Chipping Norton and was understandably a little bit nervous.”
“We were happy with Les,” says bassist Ian Hill. “Simon Phillips played on [third album] Sin After Sin but he couldn’t do the tour. He had a prior commitment with Jack Bruce, of all people. Then Les came along. We were starting to get a direction. Suddenly we were a unit – Les was one of our longest-serving drummers. He did three albums with us and three tours, including Sin After Sin.”
Dennis MacKay vividly remembers watching Binks set his kit up (“a surprisingly small bass drum, minimal toms with clear heads tuned fairly tight”). Dennis asked Les if he could tune the toms down (“I wanted to hear depth”) and to make sure the snare was tight (“I don’t like rattle”).
If Binks wondered what he’d got himself into, he didn’t show it, working with the producer to get the perfect sound: “It took two whole days to get the drum sound right,” says MacKay, “and throughout the recording Les re-tuned his drums every 20 minutes to maintain it.”
Guitarists Glenn Tipton and KK Downing arrived on day three to hear the fruits of their labours. “I sat them down and played it back,” remembers MacKay. “They listened stony faced and expressionless. I was rather worried.” In fact, they were so blown away that they decided to open the album with a barrage of drums.
Les Binks’ contribution was critical both on this album and in shaping the sound of metal. Pick any really definitive, innovative metal band since and you will find a tasty drummer behind them: Dave Lombardo (Slayer), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), Chris Kontos (Machine Head), Gene Hoglan (Testament and Fear Factory) – all of them play in the tradition of Les Binks to some extent.
“Les was a great drummer,” says Tipton. “He was excellent in the studio as well as live. In metal the drummer is the mainstay of the band. If the drums are exciting then the tracks are exciting. Plus Les was a vegetarian so we used to lob a bit of ham in his soup to amuse the kitchen staff!”
“We were embracing the double bass drum for the first time in a more adventurous way,” says Halford. “It’s really vital to the overall texture of the record. Les was extremely technically proficient, a very clean drummer. You can really feel the separation, even on the fast tracks, and the definition of the beats…” Just listen to the opening salvo on Exciter if you need convincing.
Having nailed the drum sound, it was time to start on the guitars. MacKay asked Glenn and KK what sound they liked and set about capturing it with the same level of attention to detail.
“Glenn and KK had about 10 four-by-12 Marshall cabinets,” says MacKay. “Glenn would play a range of chords while I would put my head inside each cabinet and listen for the right sound. If there was any distortion, then those particular speakers were marked with a piece of tape. The best speakers were kept and dodgy ones replaced.”
It took six days of painstaking trial and error with the positioning of microphones. Dennis: “I kept notes on the exact position of everything so it could be recreated flawlessly. There was no need for any added EQ in the end.” (“We were like mad professors experimenting,” laughs Tipton.)
All this experimenting took time though, and time was money. “On earlier albums money was an issue,” says Hill. “The more time you spent dicking about trying to get the perfect sound, the more it cost. As we got a little bit more successful we had a little bit more to play with. Dennis contributed a lot too. Being an engineer at heart, I think it was professional pride to get it right. Dennis was pretty much responsible for the whole sound. Probably because there was no one else to blame if he got it wrong.”
Between them they created the ‘pure metal’ sound that would go on to be so influential. And, inspired by this sound, the band’s playing rose to the occasion: “As a result,” says Dennis, “there is almost no drop-in [overdubs] on the solos.”
“Back in those days, without Pro Tools and things like that, it was difficult to drop in and you had to know your solos,” says Tipton. “You had to go away and practise them a lot more than you do now. Now you play them knowing that you can drop in sections. If you end up playing the song live, then you go and practise it. Whereas in the old days, you were going into the studio, there were two or three people watching you – you had to get it right.”
Bassist Ian Hill also made a small but very significant change: “I started using a pick on Stained Class,” he says. “For clarity, mainly. It didn’t matter how hard I hit the strings with my fingers, it got mixed in with the guitars. If you hit it with a pick you get that defined attack.”
“That was a very important moment for Ian,” stresses Halford. “To go from using your fingers to a pick was a very powerful and massive sound-changing experience. A very important moment for Priest. Fast tracks like Exciter served a purpose for Ian to eventually be ready for Painkiller.”
Rob Halford arrived eight days into the recording process and was low maintenance in comparison. After the outburst at the pub, MacKay remembers Halford as being “an exceedingly nice chap and rather quiet”.
Until he started to sing, that is. Halford is one of the most powerful singers in rock and possesses a four-plus-octave range. “I remember him hitting the high notes at the end of Exciter and being blown away.” Ninety per cent of the vocal performances on Stained Class were done in one take.
“I just listened to Stained Class for the first time in a long time from beginning to end and a million things went through my mind,” says Halford. “When musicians listen to their records they’re constantly critiquing them, you know? But the production is fucking unbelievable, like nothing else on any other Priest album. It’s testament to Dennis’s approach. He wasn’t just ‘Throw a few mics up, play a few guitars then you give me the money and I’ll mix it.’ His attention to detail was absolutely spectacular. [He had a] work ethic that Priest still maintains. We still go into writing, recording, mixing, production and engineering with the same kind of love, care and attention.”
Exciter opens the album with its pounding double bass drums, 16th-note rhythmic picking and a fantastic chorus. Fall to your knees and repent if you please, indeed.
“Rob hasn’t just got one of the world’s best heavy metal voices,” says Tipton, “he’s an incredible lyricist and he does excel himself sometimes. I think Exciter’s one of those times. Rob’s always coming up with these guys like Exciter, mythical beings that’ll rip your head off. The Metallion, The Hellion – there’s a lot of those in the history of Priest lyrics and Rob’s responsible for most of those.” The sheer speed of the track made it the perfect statement of intent. Or as Ian Hill puts it: “It’s still a pain to play, even today!”
The title track, Stained Class, is credited to Halford and Tipton but it was Hill who came up with the title. “I think Ian came up with that title,” says Tipton, and we just loved it. Stained Class – it’s got that contradiction, hasn’t it?”
“‘Man was King, now he’s Stained Class’,” paraphrases Halford. “I’d like to think of it as ‘thinking man’s metal’. We wanted to make people aware of some of the things we were feeling about what was going on in the world. That’s what Stained Class has going for it. Okay, it’s music, [it’s just] rock’n’roll, and fundamentally it’s about escapism, having a good time. But equally you can do all those things and deliver a little something more.”
The dark, brooding, malevolent Saints In Hell features an epic middle section and outstanding vocal performance. Hill calls it “one of those alternative songs” that’s “just a little bit different from the others” and compares it to Turning Circles from 1981’s Point Of Entry album. “That riff is a monster,” says Halford. “It’s also the first Priest track where I speak in French. ‘Abbattoir, abbatoir, Mon Dieu quelle horreur!’ How mad is that? The quiet middle section is great too. An unusual song.”
On Savage, meanwhile, Rob practically spits out the lyrics on the plight and anger of Native Americans with tangible venom. “I love that song,” says Tipton. “It did us a lot of good in Native American society. We’ve got some good friends there now – quite a big following, really – for being sympathetic to their cause.”
“It’s the first eco-metal song,” says Halford. “That’s what it’s talking about. Western civilisation going into indigenous tribes in Australia or South America. Who’s the savage? It’s not these people who are living peacefully in nature, it’s modern man. A real song about a real issue.”
And there’s Les Binks’ sole co-write, the ultimate metal power ballad, Beyond The Realms Of Death, the song that’s been called Priest’s Stairway To Heaven. “A lot of people have said that,” says Tipton. “It picks up towards the end, so it sort of is our Stairway… We always found if you do a really nice melodic piece, when you come to the heavy section it sounds twice as heavy. We’ve done that throughout the years and Beyond The Realms of Death is a great example of that, a great song that has remained in the set list above all other songs.
“I can remember Les coming up with it,” says Hill. “We were rehearsing in some studio in Birmingham and he said, ‘What about this?’ [sings opening notes] and it just grew from there. Glenn put a great solo down on it too.”
Glenn is characteristically modest about his astounding (middle) solo: “You can’t really pat yourself on the back and say, ‘I was composing something there that would stand the test of time…’ Back in those days we used to go down the pub, have a few pints, come back and jam for a bit and you’d formulate an idea. Some of it’s luck – you throw a few things against the wall, some stick, some don’t. But it’s a solo I’m proud of.”
Lyrically, the subject matter of Stained Class eschewed the usual sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and focused exclusively on heavier, bleak material. Grisly fates for mankind dominate and there’s a touch of sci-fi – subject matter that would pretty much define the lyrics for a lot of the NWOBHM and thrash metal that was to soon follow.
“I was still finding my ground as lyricist, as well as a singer,” says Halford. “I was still finding out what I could do. A lot of the lyrics come not only from me but from Glenn as well. Glenn writes fantastic lyrics. I like things to be interesting. Take the language in Exciter, for example – you feel like you’re down in the depths of Hell with things like ‘cauterising masses’ and ‘thermal lances’.
"It was the start of my love affair with Roget’s Thesaurus. I don’t know who introduced me to that great tome but I’ve always encouraged other lyricists to use it. I’ve still got my original and I’ve taken it with me to every writing session. I was devouring it: ‘What’s another word for fire? What’s another word for heat?’ And you get all those wonderful springboard opportunities: pictures, stories, interesting things to talk about.”
The lyrics, the production, the musicianship – all of these combined to make Stained Class what it is. “We never really sat down as a band and said, ‘What’s the battle plan?’” says Halford. “It’s been very slow and steady, growing, learning your craft. Like any great thing that comes out of Britain it’s got some apprenticeship, some dedication behind it, some love and inspiration.
"That’s what’s always made Priest special. Our ethic has been ‘Try not to replicate yourself, try and make songs that stand on their own two legs. A room full of books but every book is different.’”
Stained Class began a purple patch for Priest. Killing Machine followed later the same year, while Unleashed In The East in 1979 saw the band’s most classic tracks benefiting from the new unit and a live setting.
After Les Binks quit in 1979, in part because of the band’s direction (the other members of Judas Priest felt a less technical approach to drumming was needed), the band went on to sell in excess of 30 million albums globally. But arguably they never made a better, or more important, record. Stained Class catches the band on the cusp; the ultimate hybrid of unbridled, flamboyant creativity and refined, distilled commercial intent. It’s a true metal milestone.
“Judas Priest led us to believe that the answer to life is death…”