Musical history isn’t always how we remember it. In January 1984, Judas Priest unveiled their ninth album, Defenders Of The Faith; long since acknowledged as a genre classic, but – amazing to consider – at the time, adjudged a relative failure. No, really.
Two years earlier, its predecessor, Screaming For Vengeance, had transformed the Brummie quintet into superstars, especially across the Atlantic where US audiences couldn’t get enough of their marauding, twin guitar-embellished anthems, voiced by the banshee-like Metal God, Rob Halford, and a macho leather, studs, whips and chains image that, just like their music, would be copied and copied until, we can only presume, the end of time itself. And then imitated some more…
But where do you go once you’ve crafted one the finest heavy metal albums of all time? Although 15 years of hard graft had finally elevated Priest to platinum-selling status, behind the scenes, a chunk of its proceeds had been ploughed back into underwriting an elaborate, arena-friendly stage show. Musicians are only human after all and, despite the band’s bravado, a shred of self-doubt was festering.
As Defenders… was unveiled, Rob Halford joked, “We’re confident that we’ve got another big album on our hands… it’ll probably sell about three copies now, ha ha!” /o:p
Three decades later, as the opus is unleashed in a snazzy new reissue package, Rob chuckles whilst recalling the record’s creation. Arriving in Ibiza from California where they had performed with headliners Van Halen for 375,000 rabid fans at the US Festival, Priest returned to Earth with what the singer calls “a massive metal bump.” The studio their management had booked for them was just an empty shell, its equipment removed by bailiffs.
“It was extraordinary,” laughs the frontman. “So the band helped to get all-new gear into the building when we should’ve been working! Why didn’t we just go somewhere else?!”
Judas Priest were seemingly on a creative roll, and with Tom Allom reclaiming the producer’s chair, from its pedal-to-the-metal opener Freewheel Burning to the drum-propelled lighter-waving title track, Defenders Of The Faith adhered closely to the blueprint of Screaming For Vengeance.
With hindsight, though, one thing was missing. Whilst Screaming… had boasted You Got Another Thing Coming, a sizeable Stateside single and MTV hit, the best that Defenders Of The Faith could offer in the crossover stakes was the aforementioned opening track; a blinder of a song, for sure, but in commercial terms, an almost thrash metal-style workout of a track in comparison. In the short term, it would cost them dear./o:p
By 1984’s end, Defenders… had stalled at 800,000 copies – a Herculean amount by today’s standards but half a million less than Screaming…, which continued to fly out the door. “I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t disappointed with those figures,” admitted Rob in an interview at the time, conceding: “We simply didn’t have a strong enough single.”
“That’s true, but this band has never written for the radio and the way that album was thought of then and now reflects two very different worlds,” he now reevaluates. “I still think of Screaming… as being one of our most special albums, the last of the really big-sellers.”
Of course, Priest would receive unwanted crossover publicity of a different sort when Eat Me Alive was named among a so-called ‘Filthy Fifteen’ hit-list by the Parents Music Resource Centre, a high-profile pressure group that sought to censor music for lyrics that contained sex, violence, the occult and profanity. The PMRC, who also targeted Def Leppard, Prince, W.A.S.P., Venom and AC/DC among others, believed that the lines ‘I’m gonna force you at gunpoint/To eat me alive’ referred to oral sex./o:p
Above: KK, Glenn and Rob defending the faith around the globe
So irate were Priest at this ludicrous and nonsensical interference in their art that a withering response entitled Parental Guidance appeared on their next record.
“The world had gone mad,” Rob sighs. “The PMRC were trying to use all these great songs for their own agenda, which in the long run counted for nothing.
“I still remember writing it,” Rob adds of the song, which, in fairness, was something of an unashamed ode to S&M, bondage and fetishism. “We all came back from the pub, completely off our heads. The guys were laying down their riffs and by the time it came to my part… well, I’d got the heavy metal horn. I just belted out all these crazy words and they seemed to make sense.”
There was a certain cartoon-ish element to many of the album’s songs, especially Jawbreaker and The Sentinel, that the so-called ‘authorities’ were determined not to see.
“You’re absolutely right,” exclaims Rob. “The PMRC didn’t want to acknowledge it. If you don’t know anything about metal, like those people in suits and ties, ignorance is what you get. In fact, we started playing Eat Me Alive again quite recently, and it’s a fucking intense song!”
For Judas Priest, and indeed heavy metal as a genre, 1984 can be seen as a watershed year. Many a battle-torn hero cast an eye over their shoulders in the summertime as Metallica unveiled a game-changing second album, Ride The Lightning, and the thrash metal movement that Priest themselves would embrace several years later with the Painkiller album began to take a firm hold.
Indeed, in many ways, one era was coming to an end and another about to begin, so it’s fascinating that during the promotion of Defenders Of The Faith, The Metal God, who these days prides himself on ravenously devouring new music, would make a statement as bold and deliciously naïve as: “I honestly don’t think that there has been a true American heavy metal band.” When put to him now, however, he quite sensibly pleads ignorance.
“Did I really say that?” he marvels in retrospect. “That’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?” We’ll let him off on that one.
Three decades on, however, and Defenders Of The Faith has long since attained platinum status and last summer Judas Priest issued Redeemer Of Souls, their 17th album in total and the third since The Metal God returned after a nine-year absence. That aforementioned, newly re-mastered and expanded edition of Defenders… now includes a double-CD of a show from Long Beach Arena, and in June they shall once again be taking to the stage at Donington at Download Festival, in what, perhaps rather neatly, marks the 35th anniversary of their slot at the inaugural Monsters Of Rock Festival.
The band have also been closing with the title cut of Defenders Of The Faith at their most recent shows – another sign of that record’s enduring and masterful quality. Had someone told Rob in 1984 that Priest would still exist three decades later, how might he have reacted?
“I would probably have believed them, I’d certainly have hoped so,” he muses. “And I hope that we’ll be around for another five or 10 years, maybe more. I’d love to be doing Painkiller when I’m 70. And I bet you I will!”
How, though, does conquering festival main stages across the world as a so-called ‘heritage act’ compare to life as the arena-slaying, chart-smashing, gazillion-selling metal mainstays of the 80s? Does he look back on those days with fondness?
“Truthfully, we didn’t have time to think about it,” Rob shrugs. “Things were moving at a million miles an hour. All you could do was hold on tight and have the best time of your life. It’s what we’re still doing now. The crazy train might be moving a little slower, but we’re still on the tracks.”
And what of the title of that album? ‘Defenders Of The Faith’ has become a motto adopted by generations of metalheads, a definitive title awarded to those who are steeped within metal’s history, values and core ethics. It has even served as the slogan of this very magazine in years gone by. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the definitive statement of intent that this genre has ever produced. Did Priest really, truly see themselves as guardians of everything our culture holds so dearly?
“Absolutely, and we still do,” Rob concludes proudly without a second’s thought. “With hand on heart. We really, truly believe in heavy metal. None of us in Priest want to let that go. The longer you live with the association it becomes a real, living, breathing thing. Yeah, we’re defenders of the fucking faith, no doubt.”
THE EXPANDED EDITION OF DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH IS OUT MARCH 9 VIA COLUMBIA/LEGACY. JUDAS PRIEST PLAY DOWNLOAD ON FRIDAY JUNE 12/o:p
Defenders Of The Faith explored and analysed, three decades on…
Laced with Glenn Tipton and KK Downing’s slicing axes, this full-throttle anthem was distinguished by Halford’s remarkable tongue-twisting lyrical finale. Try it, if you can.
BEST LYRIC: ‘Born To lead, at breakneck speed/With high octane, we’re spitting flames.’
Taut and ‘wound up like a spring’, just like its lyric, and very much ‘ready to explode’. Halford’s scream at the end is still a spinetingler.
BEST LYRIC: ‘Deadly as the viper, peering from its coil/The poison there is coming to the boil.’
ROCK HARD RIDE FREE
Using the open road as metaphor for the possibilities of life, this one rates among Priest’s very finest, fist-punching biker anthems.
BEST LYRIC: ‘Rock hard ride free/All day, all night/ Rock hard ride free/All your life.’
This paean to a mysterious, deadly, knife-throwing lookout sees the band shifting through the gears; its slow, dark and ominous midsection is brilliant.
BEST LYRIC: ‘The figure stands expressionless/Impassive and alone/Unmoved by this victory/And the seeds of death he’s sown.’
Some welcome light relief? No, Love Bites is the first of two consecutive, innuendo-charged bump and grind workouts. Beware, it has fangs.
BEST LYRIC: ‘Softly your stir, gently you moan/Lust’s in the air, wake as I groan.’
EAT ME ALIVE
The song that got Judas Priest into trouble with the PMRC – read the words and you’ll see why.
BEST LYRIC: ‘Squealing in passion as the rod of steel injects.’
SOME HEADS ARE GONNA ROLL
The only track here not composed by Priest alone, rock songwriter Bob Halligan Jr had also contributed to (Take These) Chains to Screaming For Vengeance.
BEST LYRIC: ‘With animal lust they’ll devour your life/And slice your word to bits like a knife.’
NIGHT COMES DOWN
People tend to forget how good Priest’s ballads can be, and Night Comes Down was a perfect scene-setter for the one-two punch that followed.
BEST LYRIC: ‘Call me and I’ll wait ’til the summer/You never understood.’
You want a head-removing riff an earthquake drums? Try this for size…
BEST LYRIC: ‘Let’s all join forces, rule with an iron hand/And prove to all the world metal rules the land.’
DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH
The title cut deserved to have exceeded 90 seconds long but is now the perfect show-closer. Timeless indeed.
BEST LYRIC: ‘We are defenders of the faith (repeat to fade).’/o:p