Arguably the greatest, purest, most important metal band ever, the Judas Priest story begins in a world where man has only just walked on the moon, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are storming the Woodstock Festival, and the highest-grossing film at the
UK box office is Carry On Camping. Meanwhile, from the back-street jam-rooms of West Bromwich in Britain’s industrial Black Country, something heavy is stirring…
“K. K. Downing and I formed a band in late ’69, we were just rehearsing as a three-piece, learning the ropes,” remembers Ian Hill, Priest bassist since before day one and the only man still connecting the band to that foundational incident.
The name wasn’t as good then, mind. “We were called Freight,” laughs Ian. “It wasn’t until we were ready to get onstage that we realised what a terrible bloody name we’d got!”
Another local band had the far cooler name Judas Priest, taken from Bob Dylan’s 1967 song The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest. “That band broke up, and their vocalist, Al Atkins, happened to walk past our rehearsal room,” Ian continues.
“He liked what he heard, and asked if we needed a vocalist – which we did, none of us could hold a tune! We were trying to think up a decent name, but eventually Al called the guys from his previous band and asked if they minded us using Judas Priest.
"They gave us their blessing. So actually, the 50th celebrations are going to be next year, because we didn’t take the name until 1970. It’s funny, it doesn’t feel that
long, but I think that’s because we enjoy what we do. If it was 50 years of drudgery I’m sure we’d all be feeling it, but we love it, y’know!”
We know, Ian Hill; everybody loves the Priest. Here are 50 reasons why…
The departure of guitarist K.K. Downing in 2011 could have derailed the Priest freight train, but it was obvious from the first seconds of 2014’s Redeemer Of Souls that new boy Richie Faulkner was the right man for the job. Dragonaut simply sounded like classic Priest, but somehow harder and ever-more ready to hit the road.
49. Heading Out To The Highway
Commonly viewed as a disappointing follow-up to British Steel, 1981’s Point
Of Entry did boast a couple of outright stormers, not least its fearlessly radio-friendly and thoroughly infectious opening track. Where the rest of Point Of Entry flattered to deceive, Heading Out To The Highway delivered the goods and a righteous hook that never ages.
48. Evil Never Dies
Is Firepower the best Priest album since Painkiller? Yes. Yes it is. And Evil Never Dies is just one of the inarguable face-smashers that made the band’s 18th studio album such a joy last year. Killer riffs, an unforgettable chorus and Rob bellowing about the Devil, noting that your final scream is music to his ears! Really, what’s not to love?
When Rob Halford re-joined in 2003, a storming comeback album was definitely required. Two years later, Angel Of Retribution was hard to fault, as Priest reconnected with both their classic 80s sound and, on this malevolent neck-wrecker, the brutal might of Painkiller. ‘Here they come,’ Rob spits, ‘These gods of steel!’ Well, you said it, chief.
46. Locked In
The furore around Priest’s use of synthesisers on Turbo seems ridiculous now, but many diehard fans were genuinely outraged. The day was saved by the strength of the album’s songs, and when Locked In ended up on heavy rotation on MTV, its popularity confirmed that people did rather like Turbo after all.
Alex Bush (fan): “The song itself is just so ridiculous, I love it. Soaring vocals and galloping riffs wrapped around the concept of the song. What’s not to like?”
44. Cathedral Spires
Priest’s two-album stint with Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens was no unequivocal triumph, but 1997’s Jugulator was a brilliantly brutal and unrelenting slab of pointedly modern trad-meets-groove metal. Tim’s voice is brilliant throughout, but especially on the album’s monumental closer, a grandiose metal masterclass full of end-of-days dread.
43. Private Property
Dave Hunt, Anaal Nathrakh: "Mine would be a bit different than most of the hero worship suggestions. Of course, anyone into metal of any kind today owes Judas Priest a debt of gratitude whether they acknowledge it or not. They are part of the very definition of metal, and Rob Halford’s ‘scream’ in particular has been an inspiration to me and many other singers for decades.
"But the first thing that springs to my mind about Judas Priest is that they nicked my crate of cider backstage at a festival last year, ha ha ha! In fairness, they probably had no idea, but it was the only crate at the whole festival, which was a wounder. So with tongue firmly in cheek, I’d go for Private Property!”
42. Devil's Child
There’s no doubting that Priest are on the side of the angels, but they love to explore wickedness, too. A seething tirade against some unnamed thorn in Rob’s side (who, he claims, has been eating his diamonds and drinking his gin), Devil’s Child is a righteous 80s metal rabble-rouser with a sting in its tail.
Another three-minute exercise in heavy metal perfection, Running Wild presents Rob as the archetypal biker rebel, ‘crazy like a madman’ and, as the title suggests, somewhat out of control. In contrast, this driving anthem is the sound of a band that knew exactly what they were doing. And, more importantly, it was awesome.
40. Running Wild
Mike ‘Puffy’ Bordin, Faith No More: “I used to hate Rocka Rolla, but as I’ve gotten older, I love the feel of that album, the groove that comes out in an almost R&B way. Cheater is a great song with a kick-ass solo. Halford blows out this harmonica like Ozzy on the first Sabbath record… it’s just so gooooood!”
39. Rising From Ruins
Joakim Brodén, Sabaton: “I love the classics, but right now that’s my favourite track. I’ve heard all the classics so many times, but this one is still new. And Firepower is the best album they’ve done since [2005’s] Angel Of Retribution, and before that [1990’s] Painkiller.”
We say: Metal bands have always written songs that seek to uplift and inspire: that is, after all, why most of us listen to music in the first place. But Judas Priest have a particularly uncanny knack for writing anthems that lodge in your brain and re-emerge in times of need.
On last year’s magnificent Firepower album, Rising From Ruins was an obvious standout. A straightforward, mid-paced affair with a wonderfully rousing chorus, it’s exactly the kind of song metalheads want to hear when they’ve had one too many and are becoming a little misty-eyed about how brilliant metal is.
Because, you know, it is. ‘Send in the valiant,’ Rob sings, ‘Fight for what you believe / Then we shall overcome / Lay victory at our feet...’ If they can keep writing songs as powerful as this one, Judas Priest will clearly have plenty more victories to come.
Ian Hill says: “It’s a real production piece, that. On the early legs of this tour we were playing that one, but you can’t play the whole album – you’ve got to fit the older songs in as well. So we’re rotating the songs from the new album, we’ve done nine or 10 of them. Rising From Ruins has gone down really well, but we’ve replaced it with Traitors’ Gate just because unfortunately we don’t have enough time onstage to do them all!”
Eleanor Goodman, Deputy Editor: “There’s something brilliant about the way Rob gleefully reveals the necromancer’s methods of raising bodies from the dead, revelling in the biblical language he uses to describe such a sinful misdeed. Then there’s the chorus – catchy AF with a touch of Alice Cooper’s Feed My Frankenstein. Evil never sounded so good.”
37. Beyond The Realms Of Death
Masters of heavy metal melodrama, Judas Priest have a knack for penning epics that take the roof off when the heavy bits kick in. Beyond The Realms Of Death is simply perfect: a slow-burning, pitch-black paean to the other side with a huge riff in its triumphant, brutish chorus. Before Maiden, before Metallica, Priest were the undisputed kings.
36. Love Bites
Michael Starr, Steel Panther: “To me, it’s a song about a sexy, deadly orgasm. It’s like a vampire bite and you get laid. My best friend thought it was about rape and murder. Turns out we were both right.
"The first time I saw Judas Priest play it was back in May of 1986 on the Fuel For Life Tour at Irvine Meadows, California, with special guest from Los Angeles, Dokken. Rob killed that song. His screams were on point.
"The whole night was awesome. It was an honour to be the opening act for Judas Priest years later for a 12-week run. They were all so nice to us. They even had us join them for some songs on stage at the end of the tour. Judas Priest for ever! Heavy metal fucking rules!”
35. All Guns Blazing
Alissa White-Gluz, Arch Enemy: “By far one of the best Priest songs! Quintessential Halford vocals for the intro – a cappella no less – followed by a perfect headbang verse at ideal mosh tempo, and a chant-along chorus. You can just hear a crowd echoing those three simple chorus words! Energetic solos and a half-time break-
down outro cap off this masterpiece.”
34. Diamonds & Rust
Priest were once fond of an unlikely cover version, and this thumping rendition of a song by folk rock legend Joan Baez is the cream of the crop. Perfect for Rob’s soulful but gritty voice, it became an even unlikelier live favourite, appearing on seminal live album Unleashed In The East in 1979.
Jack Styles, Fan: “This lesser-praised cut from British Steel pops up about once a decade or so in Priest sets, and it always receives a warm welcome: that stomping, swaggering midsection and sneering delivery from Halford showcasing the metal legends’ uncanny knack for melding catchy rock ‘n’ roll histrionics with pure heavy metal oomph.”
The tale of a magical, mystical figure who cruises into town to steal people’s hearts before vanishing without trace, Starbreaker rocks like an absolute bastard. With plenty of textbook metallic chug and some infectious handclaps, this highlight from Priest’s third album was memorably covered by Arch Enemy in 2001.
31. Dream Deceiver
Phil Pendergast, Khemmis: “Dreamer Deceiver is an early highlight from a band that was capable of doing anything, even the dreaded power ballad – which they may have invented here – better than anyone else.
"Herein lie some of Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton’s finest performances, yet the track is truly masterful for the way that its lyrical concept progresses in perfect synchronicity with the instrumentation and vocal delivery.
"Halford’s baritone singing plants us firmly on earth before rising, like our narrator, into the cosmos, where soulful guitar bends and falsetto harmonies exemplify the simultaneous freedom and terror of leaving the world behind.”
One of the band’s more divisive efforts, gargantuan concept piece Nostradamus may have been a bit flabby at times, but its finest songs are up there with the best of 21st-century Priest. A slow, grinding riff-beast with lashings of atmosphere and pomp, Prophecy is a brilliant heavy metal song. Who saw that coming?
29. Hell Bent For Leather
Vanessa Thorpe, Production Editor: “Yes, it’s commercial, and yes, it’s from a contentious album, but dammit I still lose my shit every time they play it live and the Metal God comes onstage revving his Harley. Hell Bent For Leather is a perfect singalong live track... even if the ending does seem to get longer every time they play it.”
28. Never The Heroes
Adam Beard, Fan: “The first time I heard it, it got my adrenaline running. Then I wanted to learn the riff, so I went on YouTube and found a cover by a guy called Julio Blackening, who was so into the song that it made me love it even more. Now I listen to this song whenever I need a bit more oomph to tackle anything life throws at me.”
27. Rapid Fire
Jonathan Selzer, Reviews Editor: “If Rob Halford’s Harley Davidson ever did make it out onto Route 66, Rapid Fire would be the ultimate soundtrack. The lyrics may have been apocalyptic, but with riffs welded to the throttle and channelling ever more power through Rob’s rolling, scenery-summoning vocals, it sounded like a celebration of freedom and gas-guzzling momentum, even if the surroundings were a war-torn wasteland.”
26. Judas Rising
Johannes Eckerström, Avatar: “There are very few bands who have made it to the top of the mountain. A few of those have been able to cling on to their spot, and even fewer than that have done the impossible and made a triumphant return. I love Judas Priest and draw influence from them all the time.
"Like many others, I mostly look to the early 80s for my fix, but I wasn’t around back then to see it happen with my own eyes. I was there for …Rising. It is a magnificent and monumental show of strength and the essence of heavy metal. It’s the flag on the mountain top.”
We say: Fifteen years on from Painkiller, Rob Halford’s return to the Priest fold was greeted with widespread euphoria and, if we’re honest, some fairly ridiculous expectations.
As a result, it was particularly impressive that the opening track on 2005’s Angel Of Retribution genuinely sounded like a bomb going off in Hell, with Halford in full-on screaming for vengeance mode and his bandmates pounding away like (much younger) men possessed.
Knowingly self-referential, the song’s lyrics made it plain that the singer was back on top form and ready to give any remaining doubters the fright of their lives: ‘Eternal betrayer / Ice cold and evil / Taking no prisoners / Dark prince of the world...’ he roars, as Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing whip up a storm of churning, ultra-dark riffing behind him.
Much like Iron Maiden’s triumphant return to glory with The Wicker Man a few years earlier, Judas Rising was instant and irrefutable proof that the Metal Gods were back and blazing.
Ian Hill says: “That’s another one we’re doing on our current tour, it’s a really exciting, aggressive song, and it said it all, as well: Judas is rising, Rob’s back and we’re headed in the right direction again. I think it was always going to be the opening song.
"How it works is, when Scott and I get copies of the demos they’re pretty much finished, and we’ll put our parts to that. In the early days we didn’t have the facilities to record stuff, so we’d just get together in someone’s front room, pool the ideas and see what to make of them.”