The Judas Priest that entered Miraval Studios in France to record their 14th album was approaching the end of its proverbial tether. Mere months earlier, they had been forced to don suits and spend several farcical weeks in a Reno, Nevada courtroom, accused of the backwards-masking messages that had caused two young fans to attempt to blow their brains out with a sawn-off, 12-gauge shotgun.
It was alleged that hidden references on the song Better By You Better Than Me, a track the band hadn’t even written, had incited teenagers Ray Belknap and James Vance to indulge in a suicide pact. When played backwards, the song from 78’s Stained Class album was said to have instructed the pair: “Do it, do it”. Despite having consumed a 12-pack of beer and smoked some marijuana, Belknap was successful, but Vance was left horribly mutilated, dying three years later. The boys’ parents sued Priest and their label CBS Records for a whopping $3 million before charges were thrown out.
On top of all this, Priest’s previous two albums Turbo (1986) and Ram It Down (88) had seen their popularity gradually waning, having peaked with Screaming For Vengeance in 82. To make matters worse, vocalist Rob Halford was realising that there might be life outside Priest’s confines.
“We’d worked non-stop for ages,” acknowledges guitarist Glenn Tipton, “and the fact that Rob later left us tells you there was some friction in the band. Every band goes through slumps and highs, and it was probably the best thing that we parted company for a while.”
“It was a difficult time,” agrees Halford, who recently returned to the five-piece after a decade-plus absence. “Around then, Alice In Chains came out with Man In The Box (from 90’s Facelift) and the whole world of rock changed focus. The court case also played a part. You should try waking up each morning with the fact you’ve been accused of killing two people on your mind, it’s not easy.”
“It affected us more than people might think,”Tipton affirms. “I’m sure that people think we just brushed it off, but when you have to walk into court every day for six weeks and have lie after lie thrown at you, with the American legal system making us scapegoats for their own problems, it really winds you up.”
“Painkiller became a defining moment,” Rob adds. “We set ourselves a challenge to make the consummate heavy metal album and that’s exactly what we achieved.”
With its sleeve of a winged robot flying above a burnt-out city skyline on a motorcycle – complete with chainsaw blades as wheels – Painkiller saw Judas Priest harnessing their anger and frustration into a whirlwind of aural ferocity. If they were going down after almost two decades of glory, it was to be screaming for vengeance and as the song proclaimed, with All Guns Blazing.
Two factors were to help them. One was the arrival of former Racer X drummer Scott Travis, the first American in the Birmingham band’s history. Another was the phasing out of long- time collaborator Tom Allom, producing the project themselves with the very metal Chris Tsangarides.
“Scott Travis brought us a whole other dimension with his fantastic double kick-bass work, whereas Dave [Holland, his predecessor] always used a single kit,” observes Halford. “It opened up a whole new realm of possibilities.”
Tsangarides, who eventually worked with Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Thin Lizzy and Bruce Dickinson among others, had actually been the tea boy for the 75 sessions of Priest’s Sad Wings Of Destiny album!
“Funnily enough, Chris still makes a good cup of tea,” deadpans Tipton, with Halford adding: “We’d made some great albums with Tom Allom, but we’d been looking for other possibilities. That’s the role of a producer – to point out something that you might not otherwise have been aware of because you’re too close to what bands like Slayer and Metallica that they themselves had originally inspired.
“We could fill this room with bands that have been influenced by Priest, so why not? So many of them say that without us they wouldn’t have existed, everyone from Slayer to Sum 41.”
Visually as well as musically, Judas Priest were upping the stakes. Already known for a leather and studs image that they would later accuse Iron Maiden of stealing and popularising, the tour for Painkiller saw Rob shaving his head for the first time, also emerging with an array ofattoos.
“I was going bald, I didn’t want to go out looking like that guy [Fish] from Marillion, or Phil Collins – fuck that,” he announces, much to the amusement of the still hirsute Tipton. “I’d always wanted a tattoo since I was a teenager, I just started late in life and very quickly got hooked on them. I quit drinking and drugs and started getting tatts instead.”
More than ever, Halford was looking like the nickname that would stick: The Metal God.
“It helped,” he says, then adding with a self-mocking smile: “On the other hand I could’ve
worn a dress.” Speaking of which,after years of speculation, Rob finally came out as a gay man in 97. Given the type of bondage-looking outfits he wore for Painkiller and before, is he now surprised that more people didn’t put two and two together?
“I really don’t think that’s very important,” says the singer abruptly, the laughter surrounding his previous answer quickly evaporating. “The band’s whole image, of leather and studs and whips and chains, was just something that felt right at the time. It went hand in glove with the music. We’d been looking for something visual to connect with all the great rumbling metal power that we were making.”
“We were the absolute epitome of heavy metal,” says guitarist KK Downing proudly. “But if you think we looked metal on that tour, just wait till the next one.”
Song titles like Between The Hammer And The Anvil and Leather Rebel threw in every last heavy metal cliché the band could conjure up. Incredibly, while Halford admits to an awareness of the dangers of cheesiness in his lyrics, he feels he managed to remain in the realm of good taste.
“There’s a fine between being cheesy and being able to stand there and feel good about what you do,” he insists. “We’ve always been able to handle that. We could play Leather Rebel again tomorrow and get away with it because it’s genuine. No other band can create these characters and make them work the way we do.”
So we’ve got our headline: ‘No cheese please, we’re Judas Priest’?
“Actually,” grins Rob, “when I was making my last record [the Halford band’s Crucible] I had a block of mature cheddar, and if the guys came up with anything cheesy I’d fucking throw it at them. They soon got the message! When you’re recording, it’s always important to have a block of mature cheddar to hand.”
Even since being re-mastered last year, Painkiller has sold around a million copies. However, bassist Ian Hill laments its lack of a more subtle moment like Beyond The Realms Of Death. Indeed, not all reviewers fell under the album’s spell when it hit the racks in October 90. Journalist Don Kaye called it “a bona fide Priest masterwork”, but writing in RAW, Hammer’s own Malcolm Dome awarded it two out of five, calling it “desperate” and “a mistake”.
“Maybe Malcolm was constipated on that day?” Rob chuckles. “Personally, I’ve never lost a moment’s sleep over those things; we all knew that we’d made a great moment in metal history.”
“Judas Priest like to experiment,” theorises Tipton. “We evolve and we try to make every album different, and sometimes things go over people’s heads. People have come back to us years later and said, ‘I didn’t get it at the time but now I understand what a fucking great album you made’.”
Whether or not Painkiller was misunderstood, or even whether it revived the band’s career, it certainly wasn’t an overnight process. The original Gulf War was raging and the label had even delivered it too late to the shops. When the band hit the road to promote it they were proudly playing five tracks from their newborn baby. By the trek’s end, that total had been slashed to just two. In early 91, Priest played in front of 100,000 fans at the Rock In Rio festival alongside Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, Sepultura and Queensrÿche, but Halford was already having misgivings. He went public by telling a writer that although Painkiller had probably “saved Judas Priest’s life”, they had been “seriously considering” calling it a day.
“We thought, ‘What was the point of continuing if the public doesn’t want us any more?’. I don’t want to be in a band with dwindling album sales, which has to play in front of more ‘select’ audiences. Fuck that!”
Perhaps significantly, Rob told the same interviewer: “Actually, I wish Painkiller had been even harder. I want to go real hardcore; get really, really intense from now on. I’m not mellowing out into middle age; I want to go to the opposite extreme. I want the next album to sound like the Cro-Mags.”
The Painkiller tour finished in Montreal in embarrassing fashion, with Halford being knocked by a stage prop from his Harley Davidson. Fortunate not to have been decapitated, Rob spent the last number of his original Priest career unconscious while his unsuspecting band-mates played on amid a sea of dry ice, wondering why the vocals on Hell Bent For Leather had stopped.
“I not only fell off the bike, I fell out of the band,” Rob said later. “I broke my nose and never put it back, so whenever I scratch it’s my permanent memory. Yes, it was Spïnal Tap.”
It was later announced that Halford was taking what was intended as a leave of absence from Priest to pursue Fight, his thrash metal-hardcore band. However, record company politics intervened and in order to realise one dream he was forced to say goodbye to another and quit Judas Priest The singer’s decision to take Travis with him to Fight, along with famously having offered his resignation by fax, only made his ex-colleagues more furious.
When Fight were forced to downscale down their London show from the Astoria to the Mean Fiddler, and after being informed they would not be welcome at any of Rob’s UK shows, Priest responded to the “deranged mumblings” of their ex-singer, crowing: “This latest outburst has obviously stemmed from his disastrous tour and album.”
Halford in turn described his ex-partners as “tyrannical”.“There was a lot of turbulence in my life, musically and non-musically,” he now explains of his departure. “I could only do what I did. There were a lot of communication problems and wrong things were said. I take responsibility for that.”
“You don’t need to do that, Rob,” offers Tipton diplomatically. “Everyone was burnt out, there were differences of opinion and things were taken out of context, but everyone was at fault. Then there was no way back.”
Perhaps the only person not to have completely forgiven Rob for the time he spent fronting first Fight, then Two, then Halford, is Downing. KK once insisted that Rob would never sing with Priest again “because he doesn’t fucking deserve to”, but has since made his peace with Halford and expresses happiness that the creative nucleus is back. However, he still struggles to reconcile the time that was lost.
“14 years,” he shrugs. “If David Beckham goes off to Madrid, Old Trafford will still be full every Saturday afternoon. Music’s not like that. The good thing is that Rob’s still got it, and it’s all water under the bridge.”
“It’s amazing, nothing’s changed,” Halford maintains. “Everything about our individual talents and abilities is still intact all these years later. The fans can feel confident that they’ll get a killer record from us some time in 04 [this was Angel Of Retribution, actually released in 2005]. And there will be a massive tour to promote it.”
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 121
And here’s a major interview with Rob Halford