There are many iconic figures in heavy metal, but there’s only one Metal God. In a career spanning five decades, Rob Halford has fronted one of the most important and influential metal bands in history with his beloved Judas Priest, almost single- handedly defining the look and sound that’s integral to the genre. He’s come a long way since his early days growing up on a housing estate near Walsall in the West Midlands, but his passion and love for metal has not diminished one iota. “I’m a metal singer, that’s what I do,” he tells us, as he settles down to talk from his US home.
The last time we saw Halford in the UK, he was onstage for Priest’s emotional headlining set at Bloodstock 2021.
“When I was up there onstage at Bloodstock belting it out, I couldn’t help but feel grateful and humble for the long life that I’ve made as a metal singer with a band that I love more than any other band in the world,” he says.
It’s this kind of attitude, alongside the spectacular back catalogue he’s contributed to, that makes the vocalist such a star. We got him to reminisce about some of the highlights of a life forged in metal.
What was your childhood like growing up on a housing estate in Sutton Coldfield?
“It was a remarkable time. The world was just recovering from World War II; these new housing estates were part of the hope and glory of the UK, actually. Our family were blessed to be able to get into a house, 38 Kelvin Road on the Beechdale Estate near Walsall, it was like a new life that everyone was going through.
Going through my school years, becoming a teenager, becoming attached to music, it was a great time for a young person to be alive. As you get older though, that’s when you start to look outside of your circle, and I was very determined. I loved Walsall, but I wanted to see more of my own country. When you went down to London in those days, it was a big day out!”
What was the first music that inspired you?
“The first music that shook me up was my Aunt Pat giving me a record player and some records, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley And His Comets. I heard this music and I thought, ‘My goodness! What is this?!’ It was mind-blowing. That was my first comprehension that music has this ability to do things to you as a person. Then I grew up with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and The Who, all those great bands.
It was a great opportunity in those days to get into music as it was getting louder! That was when the heaviness started to kick in; I saw Jimi Hendrix cranking out those riffs at the Isle of Wight Festival [in 1970] and that was it for me. Destiny was calling.”
Heavy metal was barely even part of music’s terminology when Priest got started. What was it like for you in the early days of metal?
“The first thing we did was embrace this term, ‘heavy metal’. We’d get asked and we’d say, ‘We are a heavy metal band.’ There weren’t many places to look at, to judge, or level yourselves with. But you have to hone down who you are with the instruments you’ve got – finding your own character is vitally important.
We knew there was enough distinction in the sounds that we were making to know that we were pulling away from everyone else. People were saying, ‘There’s this band, Judas Priest, they’re doing stuff we’ve never heard before, with screaming vocals and pummelling riffs’, and this was before the image was even fully formed.”
1980 was an unbelievable year for metal. Priest released British Steel alongside Ace Of Spades, Iron Maiden, Back In Black, Heaven And Hell, Blizzard Of Ozz – so many classics of the genre. What was that year like for you?
“So exciting. The 80s was a decade of decadence, and the mix of heavy metal from Judas Priest to Mötley Crüe was amazing. For us to make a record that went on to be a standard-bearer was such a big moment, it stands alone; we’ve never made another record like it and we never will.
The industry was thriving; we’d sell half a million records in a week in the US alone! There was this sense of economic security for a lot of people, so shows were selling out and they were buying t-shirts and records, cassettes, all this crazy excitement… you just got caught up in it all.”
Speaking of the 80s, Live Aid in 1985 was a once-in-a-lifetime event, with simultaneous concerts in London and Philadelphia, and you guys and Sabbath were the only bands representing metal that day…
“…And we both played Philadelphia! Ironic, isn’t it? There were no metal bands at Wembley that day, how mad is that?! Bill Curbishley was managing us, and they said they wanted The Who. Bill turned around and said, ‘OK, but you’re also having Judas Priest.’ Bob Geldof knew us, so that was fine.
But the fact that you had two of the prominent British heavy metal bands playing a stadium in America and being beamed around the world was another milestone for metal. We were being heard in some people’s living rooms for the very first time! I spent most of the day with the punters out the front, banging my head and screaming, ‘Madonna! Mick! Planty! Jimmy!’ – it was one great talent after the next. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was there. I was there, man!”
What sort of mindset were you in when you left Priest in 1992?
“Let me start by saying I’m not the first lead singer to leave a band. I call it LSD: Lead Singer’s Disease. I always have to emphasise that it was a classic case of communication breakdown. After the Painkiller tour we were like dead dogs, we were exhausted. I’d said years before that at some point I might want to wander off and do something different and they’d all given me their blessing. It wasn’t cunning, or unexpected, it was just the way things went.”
And you made some great music in that period away from the band, too.
“I think so. I did Fight and Halford, which was very much my bridge back into the band. I think I was really able to use that time to try new things, to make sense of my life, and to work out what it was that I really needed in my life, and that thing was Priest. I learned a lot about my own abilities as a writer, I did all the music and the demos for [Fight’s debut album] War Of Words and got us a record deal, went around the world a few times. I look back at that time mostly with fondness.”
Did you ever listen to Priest when Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens was in the band?
“It’s cool to ask me this question, and I have an honest answer: I’ve never listened to Jugulator and I’ve never listened to Demolition. Not that I’ve avoided listening to them; the fact is that I wasn’t in the band, Tim is a great singer and a good friend of mine, but I wasn’t drawn to Priest at that time of my life.”
It was around this time that you came out. When was the first time you became aware of your sexuality?
“My earliest memories were when I was a little kid, I can’t put a date on it, but it was pre-teens; I just felt more comfortable [with] and more attracted to guys. As I went through, as we all do, trying to figure stuff out, I played around with boys and girls. That was a sad and confusing time for a young person back then – two men who were caught in a toilet together, because there were no clubs and it was the only place they could do that, were thrown in jail.
They were looked at as sordid little stories in the News Of The World, so you start to question yourself: ‘What’s wrong with me? Am I a freak?’, because you hear people saying you should be locked up for it. As a young person, it does your head in! You have to learn to deal with all of that.”
How did you deal with it when you were older?
“Even in the band, I requested that that side of my life didn’t get into the press. In case it damaged the band’s reputation. I was living all of that even as an adult, until that famous day on MTV [in 1998] when I came out and threw off those shackles. It’s cool that you asked this question, because we’ve just had National Coming Out Day, and it’s beautiful to step out and live your life totally on your terms.”
Do you feel metal is more inclusive these days than it was previously?
“I do. We are inclusive, we are open to anybody. It was bad enough when metal first happened and people on the outside were going, ‘This sucks, it’s not real music!’, so as a community we’ve always protected our music. That idea, I think, extends to whatever your religion is, your race is, or your sexuality is – that all falls away and we are just free to live our own lives.
This is a question that I will never stop talking about. It’s important to young gay metalheads who are seeking out their identity – we want equality across the board and we deserve it.”
You must take great pride in being such an inspiration to so many people.
“Yeah, I have never really been a spokesperson for that world, I just do my thing and sometimes your actions speak louder than your words. When I stand onstage in Russia, because they are discriminated against so much over there, or any country where that discrimination is more common, it’s a win. There are many more articulate people than me, but I do my bit as an openly gay heavy metal singer, and it’s a blessing to get these messages back from people.”
Tell us about rejoining Priest in 2003…
“I was living in San Diego at the time, and I really missed the band, so I went to a coffee shop, bought a cup of coffee, sat outside with some blue paper and a blue envelope, and poured my heart out into what was six, seven or eight pages of where I was at and what I was feeling.
How much I missed the band, you know. It was a really intimate and personal letter. So, I sent that off to Trinifold, our management people, and just let it go. I thought, ‘Let’s see what happens’, but at least I had got it out of my soul, out of my system. It’s really damaging if you hold things in.”
What happened next?
“I found out later that this was all part of the journey back, because the guys all read the letter and they said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I remember being in my kitchen in Walsall, for the Metalogy box set, with [manager] Jayne Andrews, Ken [K.K. Downing, then-guitarist] was there, Ian [Hill, bassist] was there… Glenn [Tipton, guitarist] must have been there as well, I’m sure.
We talked about this song, and that song, and the artwork, and blah, blah, blah, and the final question was: ‘So… are you coming back?’ ‘Yeah, I’m back.’ ‘OK, good.’ And everybody left! I was just left in my kitchen going, ‘Gosh! I’m back in Priest!’, which is so British, you know? You know how blokes can be… ‘Don’t make a fuss’ – it was so blokey! But it was beautiful. I felt like I just wanted to go out into the streets in Walsall and scream, ‘I’m back in Priest! I’m back in Priest!’ For me it was a very emotional thing. That’s how it is in bands, you’re like family, but I was back and the rest is history!”
It’s pretty incredible that you were immortalised in The Simpsons in 2014, isn’t it?
“Yes! It just goes to show how Priest have been adopted as part of the fabric of the United States, it’s a win for the UK metal world. The big thrill for me was going to the read-through. I’m in the room with all the voice actors and I was so excited: ‘There’s Homer! There’s Lisa! There’s Bart!’ Nancy Cartwright, who does the voice of Bart, came running up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe it, I’m such a Priest fan!’ And she did it in a Bart voice! It was freaky, a really special day!”
They called you a death metal band, though…
“Ha ha ha! It was funny, because the next week the intro had Bart writing on the board: ‘Judas Priest is not death metal.’ It was really sweet of them to do that, they acknowledged there was a hiccup and they put it right. But it’s amazing to be immortalised in yellow.”
You’re celebrating 50 years of Priest. How do you feel about that milestone?
“I’m just proud, that’s the word. Really proud of what we’ve done as a band. What we’ve done for British metal, for metal worldwide. To be there from the very beginning is extraordinary. You don’t get to see that much. You don’t get to see the band that was the first blues band, or the band that was the first jazz band, you can’t see the first classical musician – they’re all gone. But you can see Judas Priest and go, ‘they are some of the guys who started this genre’, you know? That’s a tremendous feeling of pride and satisfaction.”
Judas Priest's US tour resumes this week in Peoria, Illinois. For full tour dates, visit the band's website (opens in new tab).
Judas Priest’s 50 Heavy Metal Years Of Music limited-edition box set, featuring every official live and studio album to date plus 13 unreleased discs, is out now via Sony