Judas Priest: The making of British Steel

Judas Priest
(Image credit: Fin Costello / Getty Images)

It was 1980, one of the most important years in the history of metal. NWOBHM kicked in with the release of the debut albums from Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and two classics from Saxon. AC/DC offered up Back In Black, Motörhead gave us Ace Of Spades and Black Sabbath pitched in with Heaven And Hell

Oh, and someone had the idea of organising a festival at Donington Park, called it Monsters Of Rock and started an ongoing legend. Right up there with all of these landmarks was an album called British Steel from Judas Priest, which in many ways defined the style, sound and image of metal as we know it today.

Guitarist KK Downing refers to it as The People’s Album. And the recording process included broken milk bottles, a billiard cue and a cutlery drawer. Oh, and then there was the story that the tapes of the album were stolen and held to ransom.

“I think this is where we found our direction,” says vocalist Rob Halford, recalling that glorious period in Priest’s history. “Up until that point, although we’d done well, there was a feeling in the band that we really didn’t have a proper focus.”

Priest had started in 1969, although they came into their own five years later. By this time the line-up was cemented with Rob Halford (vocals), Glenn Tipton and KK Downing (both guitar) and Ian Hill (bass). For debut album Rocka Rolla (released in 1974), they had John Hinch on drums. But, in classic Spïnal Tap fashion, the band were to have a succession of drummers over the next few years, before Dave Holland arrived in 1979.

The first Priest classic album, 1976’s Sad Wings Of Destiny, was to be their last for independent label Gull. A deal with CBS (now Columbia) led to a significant step up for Priest. Each of the next three albums – Sin After Sin (1977), Stained Class and The Killing Machine (both 1978; The Killing Machine was called Hell Bent For Leather in America) – saw the band becoming increasingly popular. By 1979 they’d even had a Top 20 in the UK with Take On The World. The same year, the live Unleashed In The East gave Priest their first top 10 album in Britain, and finally cracked the top 100 in America.

“I think Judas Priest were ready for the big breakthrough in the States,” says producer Tom Allom, who first worked with the Brummie band on their Unleashed In The East album. “They had steadily built up their following, and what they now needed, really, was a commercial album.”

The band decided to work with Tom Allom again, on their next studio album.

“We’d met Tom a few years earlier, but turned down the chance to work with him, because we thought he was too posh!” recalls Tipton, with something of a chuckle.

“Tom really was a great man to be with,” adds fellow guitarist Downing. “He knew how to party as well. There were many nights when we’d have to get him home and tuck him in bed!”

So Priest and their new producer went down to Tittenhurst Park, a 72-acre estate near Ascot in Berkshire. At the time it was owned by former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who’d bought it from John Lennon in 1973. The latter had built Ascot Sound Studios in the grounds, and Ringo renamed this Startling Studios. It was here that Priest and Allom had mixed Unleashed In The East in 1979, and later the same year, the latter had worked at the studio with Def Leppard on their debut album On Through The Night.

“Ringo wasn’t there at the time we were in. He’d met [actress] Barbara Bach, his future wife, and had gone off to Los Angeles to be with her,” says Rob. “And Ringo’s then-wife, Maureen, had also left. So we had the place totally to ourselves.”

“But Ringo wasn’t taking any chances,” laughs Downing. “He took all the valuables out, and also set down rules for us to follow. There was to be no riding of bikes on the grounds – so we did that. There was also to be no fishing in the lake – so we did that as well! What do you expect from a Brummie heavy metal band? He also had two papier-mâché dinosaurs hidden in the grounds – they were massive. And when you came back pissed from the pub up the road, they could really scare you!”

Although Startling was a more than decent studio, Priest decided they preferred the ambience of the house itself when it came to recording.

“We set up each member in a different room, and the vibe worked really well,” says Allom. “I think KK might have been in the room with the famous white piano, the one you see Lennon playing in the video for Imagine.”

“For some reason, the recording equipment was all in a tiny room behind the kitchen,” adds Halford. “Not sure why that location was chosen, but it worked well enough.”

Priest also made a decision to go into the studio without having everything written and ready – something they’d never done previously.

“I can’t remember why we chose to do it that way,” confesses Tipton. “We’d never done that in the past, and we never worked like that again. We had about 60 per cent of the songs written and ready to go. I know The Rage was written in the studio, and so was Living After Midnight.”

“There’s a story behind Living After Midnight,” reveals Downing. “One night, Glenn and I were working on some guitar ideas, when all of a sudden Rob appeared in the doorway, in his dressing gown. ‘Do you mind?’ he said. ‘Some of us are trying to sleep. It’s after midnight’. That’s where the song came from.”

While the band were busy both recording and writing, the process itself was comparatively smooth, with little sign of any external pressures.

“We felt comfortable with it all,” says Ian Hill. “There was a real discipline in the studio, and no sense of panic. The whole thing just went without a hitch.”

“We were in the studio for exactly one calendar month,” adds Allom. “From February 1 to the 28th.”

Priest also had to be inventive in order to get certain sound effects. For instance, what you hear at the end of Rapid Fire, which comes across as a scythe cutting through the air, is actually a billiard cue being wielded by the vocalist. And the sound of marching robots across Metal Gods is… cutlery!

“There was no such thing as samples in those days,” recalls Halford. “So bands had to be a lot more imaginative. I often feel sorry for young musicians now, because they’ve got everything at their fingertips. That sort of thing can stunt creativity.”

“What we did for Metal Gods was load up a drawer with cutlery,” says Tipton, with a straight face. “Then we shook it around, and took out spoons and knives until we got it just right. It was trial and error, but worth it in the end.”

But that’s not the end of the innovation. For the song Breaking The Law, the sound of smashed glass was generated by… “Milk bottles!” the guitarist continues. “We just got a load of them, smashed them on the ground and recorded it. It had the desired impact. But the sound of the sirens is real. We went outside and recorded a passing police car – or at least that’s my recollection of events!”

There is an alternative suggestion as to how the siren effect was generated, namely through KK on his guitar, using the whammy bar. However, even the guitarist himself is currently unable to remember if that’s the case.

“I think we did try a lot of different things, like a door slamming for the start of Metal Gods, and even putting light bulbs in a microwave,” Downing explains, “but I don’t know if any of those things ended up being used.”

The album was wrapped up in one month, and only two days later it was in New York being mastered.

“I went straight from Tittenhurst Park to Morgan Studios in London without any sleep to have it cut,” sighs Allom, “and then flew to New York for the mastering.”

It was at this juncture that a story emerged in the press that the album’s tapes had been stolen by a gang in New York and were being held to ransom. According to this press release, Priest paid £50,000 to get back these irreplaceable tapes. But it all turned out to be a hoax, fabricated by the band’s publicist at the time, one Tony Brainsby, who was notorious for planting such sensational – and utterly false – stories on behalf of his clients.

At the time, Downing insisted that neither the band nor their management had a clue about the report being sent out by Tony.

“This is utter shit!” he said. “And really embarrassing. If we’d have got wind of what Tony was planning, then we’d have told him not to do it. Judas Priest doesn’t need such cheap publicity. Our music is what makes us stand or fall.”

Although the press release at the time was full of factual inaccuracies – including the claim that the album was recorded in France – one thing it did get right was that the record was still untitled. But that quickly changed, with Ian Hill coming up with what has become an iconic moniker, British Steel.

“I thought it represented everything we were trying to do,” says the bassist. “We were very British in sound, and the title just came to me. I think workers at the British Steel Corporation [which was the nationalised company making steel at the time] were on strike, so the name was in the news.”

“When Ian first put forward British Steel, we did think, ‘Is this really right for the album?’.” admits Halford, as he explains the choice. “But the more time went on, the more it did seem appropriate.”

Tipton, who’d worked for the British Steel Corporation for five years, remembers that the band didn’t have an alternative album title anyway. “We never really thought about it. And once the album cover design came back [by Roslav Szaybo], it made sense. That artwork really brought the whole thing to life.

“I remember the hand that gripped the razor blade, and in some countries they thought it was offensive because it looked like it was slicing into the fingers, so they airbrushed it so that it was just actually holding the razor blade, to which we said, ‘No, we don’t like that – it’s got to have the finger slicing there.’”

These days, though, Downing does have an alternative title in mind, one he feels fits the style and attitude of the record. “It came to me one night: Sermons For The Teenage Rebel. You look at some of the song titles – Breaking The Law, You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise, The Rage – they’ve got a real feel of youth angst about them. That’s why I believe what we made was a people’s album – it told their story. Everyone back then thought that the punks were the real agitators, but hey, we’d come up with an album that, lyrically, was more in tune with what the kids were thinking on the streets than any punk record!”

While the band had no doubts they’d recorded something strong, the same was also true of their record label. Howard Thompson, who was the A&R man working closely with Priest at the time, was convinced they’d delivered the goods. “I thought Living After Midnight sounded like a hit the minute I heard it, and I liked Breaking The Law, too. I mean, how could you not? I think it would be fair to say Tom Allom played a significant part in their success. He was able to deliver – most effectively – on the heavy and the commercial fronts.

“The band were all solid, easy-going, polite but reticent guys. Like many musicians, they weren’t too keen to interact with the record company guy. But they did what they needed to do – deliver a great album – so a quiet, mutual respect was established.”

Living After Midnight was released as the first single from the album in March 1980. It got to number 12 in the UK charts, accompanied by a promotional video, directed by Julien Temple and filmed at Sheffield City Hall. Temple also directed the video for Breaking The Law, shot in a branch of Barclays Bank in London. In the pre-MTV era, such things were still very rare.

“I’d worked with the Sex Pistols, and after that nobody would touch me,” recalls Julien. “But Judas Priest didn’t seem to mind, and I ended up doing quite a bit of work with them in the end. I came up with the storylines for Breaking The Law and Living After Midnight by wandering around listening to them on an early Walkman, while smoking a spliff.

“I always regarded the band as a comedy act, and deep down so did they. We certainly had a lot of laughs on the set!”

British Steel was released in April 1980, reaching number four in the UK (the highest-charting album the band would ever have in Britain) and making it to number 34 in the United States. The reaction was immediate – Priest had come up with an absolutely storming record.

“At the time, we knew it was good, just not how special it would turn out,” admits Tipton. “You just don’t realise when you’re in the middle of the process what you have is a classic. Only later on, when everyone tells you… that’s when it really hits home.”

Halford has no doubts at all that one of the key elements that makes it stand out was the production on it. “I think with every great album, there’s a timeless feel. You listen to the first Black Sabbath album, or Led Zeppelin II, or any of the wonderful Pink Floyd records and they don’t just belong to an era. If I had a time machine right now, I could take British Steel back or forwards, play it to people and they would feel it belonged to them. That’s the reason so many big names in metal say they were influenced by it.”

One of those is unquestionably Scott Ian of Anthrax, for whom this was a landmark release. “British Steel was a huge influence on, and precursor to, what the Big Four of American Thrash would become,” he explains. “It’s one of those perfect records at the perfect time. Picking up from where they left off on the previous album, Priest kicked metal in the ass with breakneck songs like Rapid Fire and Steeler, and set the bar – that they had already set pretty high – even higher.

“The overall energy on this record is unlike any other Priest record; the tracks literally jump off the record into my ears, all driven by Tipton and Downing’s iconic riffs and Halford’s insane vocals. In 1980 it was state of the art, and it absolutely holds up today.”

Priest started the British Steel tour around the UK and mainland Europe in early March 1980, supported by the fastest-rising name in metal at the time… Iron Maiden!

“I still think back to that tour and get goosebumps,” laughs Halford. “Can you just imagine it – Judas Priest and Iron Maiden touring together? It’s one of the all-time great metal tours!”

In America, the band toured with support acts Def Leppard and the Scorpions, returning to Britain on August 16 to play at the first Monsters Of Rock Festival at Donington – second on the bill to Rainbow. In a year where so much history was made, Judas Priest were right at the epicentre.

Last year [2009], the band revisited British Steel, playing the album in its entirety on a US tour. The upcoming reissue of the album will include a DVD and live CD, filmed and recorded at the Seminole Hard Rock Arena in Hollywood, Florida on 17 August 2009. It will also be available as a special vinyl edition.

“To be able to do something like that was a fantastic experience,” says Hill. “We are a band who like to do things we’ve never tried before, and to do the whole of an album was new for us.”

“One thing it did do was ensure there were no arguments about setlist!” adds Downing, with a smile.

So where do the band believe this album stands in terms of the whole Judas Priest catalogue?

“Right at the top,” insists Halford, something with which the rest of the band fully agree.

And with the number of bands – new and old – who continue to cite its seminal sounds as an inspiration, it’s hard to argue with that view. It remains one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time – defining both the era and the genre. Where would metal be without British Steel? A timeless masterpiece.

This was published in Metal Hammer issue 138.

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021