The afternoon has hardly begun and the US National Weather Service has already issued an ‘Excessive Heat Warning’ for the greater Phoenix area. As the thermostat approaches 45°C, news outlets caution locals to remain indoors or risk terminal heat stroke. It’s quite metal, actually, and it’s where we find Rob Halford today, comfortably ensconced in his air-conditioned home. The legendary Judas Priest vocalist and long-time Phoenix resident turned 69 yesterday and he is still basking in the online birthday wishes.
“It’s just absolutely overwhelming emotionally to see so much love coming back from every possible place,” he tells Metal Hammer, “particularly on social media, like Instagram and Facebook. I spent quite a bit of time yesterday reading the beautiful comments and things that people were saying about Priest and the metal we make.”
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In its wild and colourful history, metal culture has suffered no shortage of legends, but only Rob Halford is known as the Metal God. Exceedingly friendly, he calls us by our first name throughout the interview and shares his insights with a thoughtful intensity. Rob’s autobiography, Confess, will soon be released and Judas Priest are celebrating their 50th anniversary, putting him in a reflective mood.
“It’s a really powerful moment to read these beautiful comments,” he says, “because it all pertains to the chat that we’re going to have today about how metal is so immersed in the lives of so many metal maniacs around the world. Particularly, in this instance, with Judas Priest.”
We are indeed here to talk about one of the most important bands in metal history and all that they have accomplished, inspired, overcome and conquered in over a half-century. But talking about Judas Priest’s influence on heavy metal is like talking about the round part of a football. Metal, as we know it today, could hardly exist in any recognisable form without the steely-eyed quintet who emerged from the Midlands at the dawn of the 70s. Originally formed in 1969, Priest experienced a spate of line-up changes before congealing in 1973 around the core of Rob on vocals, guitarist Ken ‘K.K.’ Downing and bassist Ian Hill. In 1974, at the suggestion of their then-label, a virtuosic young shredder named Glenn Tipton joined the band as a second guitarist. Several different men would helm the Judas Priest drum stool for the first two decades, until the mighty Scott Travis ascended the throne in 1989.
Checking in from his home in the UK, Glenn remembers seeing Judas Priest for the first time. “Seeing the band and hearing Rob’s vocal abilities…it was truly magical,” he says. “He has such a distinct voice. I had great belief in both the band and Rob.”
If Rob Halford is the Metal God, then Glenn Tipton is Priest’s Lord of the Metal Riff. Any talented, hardworking guitarist might be chuffed to be known for writing one or two memorable riffs, but through the decades Glenn has composed literally scores of world-famous, stadium-shaking bangers. In 2018, Glenn stepped away from touring duties after disclosing a diagnosis of later-stage Parkinson’s disease. Passionate and completely unguarded, Glenn tells us that despite his health challenges, he’s hanging tough. “I have good days and bad days,” he says, “so I just get on with it. I’m very positive some days, but others quite negative, so I just try and make every day count and enjoy myself.”
In their earliest years, through their 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla, Priest aligned more with the prog rock and electric blues outfits of the day – bands like Cream, the Yardbirds, Hendrix and early Zeppelin. In these styles, they saw possibilities as yet unexplored and they seized the moment. “We’ve always felt that Judas Priest was born at the right time,” Rob says. “We had this wonderful opportunity to be inspired by such incredible musicians and to make something unique together in those early stages.”
Aside from some superficial commonalities, Judas Priest really sound like none of those early bands, even including Black Sabbath. Behind hard-driving tempos, and the fiercely affecting spectacle of two metal shredders and a frontman who seemed to channel his vocals from the very heavens above, they knew they had conjured something both darkly powerful and hopelessly catchy. It was Judas Priest who first alchemised those early influences into a punishing new style of music that the world would soon recognise as a new strain of heavy metal. They hit the road as soon as possible. “We were laying the groundwork with all of those countless trips up and down the British motorways and across the ferries to Europe before we ever set foot in America,” says Rob.
Back in the UK, bassist Ian Hill takes a break from tinkering around on his Bentley to chat. Ian laughs loudly and often and stresses that in those early days, nothing came easy. “It was hard work, you know? Some of the days we’d go to Norway in February! You’d put your gear in the back of the van and you’d put your mattresses on top of the gear and you’d sleep on that. Sometimes we weren’t even sure we had the petrol money to get home. Ha ha ha! It was all so exciting, it really was. We loved every minute of it.”
Today most bands release a new album every few years. Now consider that, beginning with Rocka Rolla, Priest released 12 full-length albums in 16 years. “I don’t know how we did it,” Rob says, “it’s mad! We’d be on the road for a year, take a week’s break and go back in the studio and make another album.”
“On albums back when we first started,” Ian explains, “I think we had a total of 24 tracks, so they didn’t take a great deal of time.”
Steadily and progressively, Judas Priest evolved their sound from Sad Wings Of Destiny (1976) to the 1980 masterpiece known as British Steel. Each album featured higher musicianship, ambition and attitude. Rob says, “I think the mindset for every Priest album is, ‘What can we do that’s different from the last record?’”
On Sad Wings Of Destiny, Judas Priest introduced the world to the fearsome spectacle of its double-fretted attack. Glenn and K.K. played at a dizzying pace, weaving deeply intricate melodies together, building towards climaxes so powerful as to render sold-out stadiums breathless, hoarse and begging for more.
“The dual guitars are pretty unique,” Glenn says. “There were bands like Wishbone Ash who had dual guitars, but we had two heavy metal guitarists harmonising and producing an exciting stereo backdrop of sound.” Glenn and K.K. had set a new standard for heavy music that would figure prominently in a few years, with the rise of Iron Maiden and the NWOBHM.
In 1980, behind the dramatic potency of tracks like Breaking The Law, Living After Midnight and Rapid Fire, the masterpiece known as British Steel broke Priest in the US, where they entered the Top 40 and never looked back. “We wrote and recorded British Steel in about four weeks,” Glenn recalls. “We wrote half of it in the studio; some great songs like The Rage, that just came naturally to us. Sometimes the best things come when you do them quickly...”
Rob adds, “I think we started to get really excited about where we were at by the time that we released the British Steel album. That was a tipping point for us, to some extent.”
If British Steel established them as the pre-eminent metal band of their generation, their release two years later would catapult them into the mainstream. “The first time we got very successful was probably Screaming For Vengeance,” Ian says, “when AM radio picked up on You’ve Got Another Thing Coming. That made us an ‘overnight success’, ha ha ha! We were on a long, steady climb until that point and then we sort of took off there.”
Fast-forward to the present and they’ve sold more than 50 million albums, toured Planet Earth countless times, released 18 full-lengths and scored a Grammy; but to a man, they insist that they’ve never rested on these laurels. “Because of who we are and where we’re from,” Rob says, “we never looked each other in the eye and gave two thumbs up and said we’ve made it.”
Glenn agrees, saying, “I suppose that we never really accepted the accolade of how big we’d become. We’ve always kept our feet on the ground and we just give the best show we can every time we take the stage.”
At the same time, they are all keenly aware of the towering scale of their legacy. Says Rob, “There is no other band like Priest, and I don’t say that from a pedestal. It’s a fact.”
There have been offstage moments that have played a prominent role in the band’s history. From a very young age, Rob had known and accepted that he was gay, but until coming out in 1998, his sexuality was never publicised. Within the band however, it was never an issue. Ian explains: “He was Rob. It wouldn’t have mattered if he was gay or straight or whatever. It didn’t change anything.”
“My main focus was my band, Judas Priest and heavy metal,” adds Rob. “But in the early days, [my sexuality] was tucked away deeply in the closet and those few that did know kept it as quiet as I did.”
In 1985, two young Nevada men carried out a suicide pact after a day of reportedly drinking, smoking marijuana and listening to Judas Priest albums. Their families sued the band, claiming that Judas Priest had encouraged fans to take their own lives by inserting secret backwards messages on Stained Glass, like “Let’s be dead” and “Do it.” The band had, of course, done no such thing and the case was dismissed, but not before Judas Priest were dragged through a gauntlet of vilification in the American media. Ian recalls, “We never expected it to go to court. But within a week I think the judge realised he’d made a terrible mistake by letting it get into court to start with.”
Revitalised and renewed, the band entered the 90s with Painkiller, a marauding siege of modern metal that pumped the full-throttle aggression of thrash into their trademark sound. It was not simply one of their finest moments; it was a statement. “Out of all of the albums that we’ve made, that one had a definite kind of agenda, if that’s the right word,” explains Rob. “We wanted it to be relentless, which is what that record is, from the first track to the last.”
Painkiller featured the debut of drummer Scott Travis, whose punishing double-kick assault and hyperkinetic volleys propelled Priest into a new era. “That was a revelation when he came along,” says Ian. “[The previous drummer,] Dave Holland was a great technical drummer but he couldn’t handle the stuff that Scott does. No way, God bless him. Scott opened a whole new avenue for us, really.”
Now 30 years into his tenure, Scott tells us, “I now understand the gravity of Judas Priest, which is a legendary band, and that only comes with time. It takes that much time to become, dare I say, a legendary band, because that’s what Priest is. Sometimes I look at them like I’m not even in the band, like, ‘Wow, that’s Judas Priest! They’re legendary!’ Ha ha!”
Born in Virginia, where we find him today, the chilled-out and amiable drummer is the only non-English member of the band – a detail that did not escape him when he joined. “Not only was I an American,” he says, “but I was at least 10 years younger than them. It could have gone completely pear-shaped, as they say in the UK. There were no personality clashes – none of that. I guess there was a little bit of risk on their part but here we are, 30 years later.”
Then in 1992, Rob stunned the global metal community by leaving the band to pursue new projects. Three years later, Priest recruited US vocalist Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens from a Judas Priest tribute band. They released two albums with Ripper – Jugulator and Demolition – before Rob returned in 2003. “Tim is a brilliant vocalist,” says Ian. “He really is. But he wasn’t Rob and I think that’s the problem that everybody had with it – including Tim. When Rob said he wanted to come back and rejoin, Tim was all for it because he could see it.”
Glenn looks back on the Ripper years “with fondness,” saying, “Tim is a good lad. We had some great live tours and we had some fun together.”‘
Rob’s 2003 return to the band led to a trio of studio campaigns – Angel Of Retribution, Nostradamus and Redeemer Of Souls. It was during this period, in 2011, that K.K. retired from Judas Priest, citing myriad grievances with the band and its management. British wunderkind Richie Faulkner was brought in as K.K.’s replacement and he’s made an immediate impact on both the band’s songwriting and their live show.
Richie is energetic, affable and possessed of a bone-dry British humour. In July, he and his partner Mariah welcomed their first child, their daughter Daisy Mae, which has kept him rather busy and exceedingly happy. Upon joining Priest, Richie felt the love straight away.
“It was an immediate sense of inclusion and respect and family. I got an opportunity with one of the world’s best bands, in my opinion, so if they’d told me to turn up, play the parts and fuck off, I would have been fine. But they didn’t. It was, ‘What do you think?’, ‘What’s your opinion?’, ‘What would you do here?’, ‘How can we change this?’ When they give you 1,000%, you give 10,000% back.”
On 2018’s Firepower, the band notched another high with their most consistent and catchiest batch of new material since Painkiller, again flaunting their ability to modernise while carrying forward that inimitable Priest DNA.
Despite years of globetrotting, according to Richie, Judas Priest remain close to their British roots. “We’re all moany old women, to some degree! Ha ha ha,” he laughs. “We are all stereotypically English. We like a dark pub with low ceilings and no light and shit food, do you know what I mean?”
Like Black Sabbath and a handful of other metal bands, Judas Priest have transcended their metal fame and claimed a spot in mainstream culture. There was of course, the movie Rock Star, a fictional tale loosely inspired by Rob’s departure from the band, starring Mark Wahlberg in the Ripper role. They also made a well-known cameo on The Simpsons, but the quirkiest moment might well be the cult documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, featuring literally a parking lot full of Judas Priest fans swilling beer and getting pumped for a Priest show. “I think Heavy Metal Parking Lot sums it up, really,” says Glenn. “Some of our fans are animals and they love metal! We have really loyal fans!”
“The people like to live a little bit more on the wild side, if you know what I mean,” says Ian. “Not the people you would generally find at Yale or Harvard. Ha ha ha!”
Fans will soon have a new reason to celebrate. The band report that even prior to the COVID lockdown, they had begun work on a new album. “We started the year prepping the next Judas Priest metal masterpiece,” Rob says, “and we had one massive writing session together and we’ve got an enormous amount of material stacked up, which is really thrilling after the glorious response we had to Firepower.”
“It’s gonna be good,” Scott says. “Rob’s always excited about new music, which is great, because he’s such a creative guy and when you are that creative, naturally you never rest on your laurels. You always want to do something new and get it out there.”
Though delayed by COVID, the process remains the same. “We compile all our ideas and get together and throw them in the pot and see what sticks,” explains Richie, “then see what lights up the room, see what Rob grabs hold of; it might be a riff that Rob really gets his teeth into that inspires a lyric or an intro, verse or chorus and suddenly you’ve got the nucleus of a song.”
Fans will be thrilled to learn that Glenn remains as deeply immersed in the process as ever. “Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease,” Richie says, “so it gets steadily worse and you have to keep taking medication to keep it at bay. But the great thing with Glenn is that we’ve still got his mind. His mind’s still sharp and his ideas are still sharp. I’ll tell you what, man, I might have a riff or a part or a section and I don’t know what it is, but it lacks something. Glenn will say, ‘Try this’ and I’ll think, ‘That’s not gonna work. You’re out of your mind…’ and then I’ll try it and see that it’s the exact turnaround or riff or part that it needed to make it Judas Priest. So if he’s having a tough day on guitar one day, he’s still in there with us, coming up with ideas – almost like a producer role. And he’s on some of the tracks so far already. But if he’s having a bad day with the guitar, he can just throw out his ideas and honestly, that’s what makes the difference sometimes.” Andy Sneap, the British-born guitarist and studio guru who co-produced Firepower, has been tapped to fill in for Glenn on upcoming live performances.
As so many of their peers have retired, passed on or faded onto the heritage circuit, it’s inspiring to hear the genuine excitement among the guys to write new material and to get it out to the fans. “If I’m not greatly mistaken,” Rob says, “Priest is the longest-working heavy metal band out there – from 1969 to 2020. It’s remarkable, it really is.”
Whatever happens from here, Priest will be remembered long into the future for many reasons. Considering how he’d like history to view his band, Glenn is comfortingly to the point. “A legacy of true heavy metal,” he offers, noting that he hopes it’s a legacy that’ll “inspire the shape of metal to come.”
“It’s a simple statement: ‘Judas Priest, Defenders of the Faith,’” adds Rob. “Because that’s what we’ve been doing in our lives in metal for all these years. Flying the flag of heavy metal for 50 years, with more to come.”