Rob Halford on Judas Priest's Turbo Lover: "We didn’t know it was a classic"

Ron Halford onstage with a motorbike in 1986
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts)

Judas Priest were living in a material world. This was the mid-80s: greed was good, success meant excess, and for five nouveau-riche Brummie metallers with swollen disposable incomes nothing was off limits.

“When you look back at the 80s, living through that decade, it was incredibly decadent,” admits Judas Priest frontman Rob Halord. “There was a lot of money flying around. It was a real pig-out in many ways, but what a great time. From 1980 right through to the grunge movement, all the Porsches, all the turbo engines, everything was larger-than-life.

“The band was incredibly successful,” he adds, “and we had an enormous amount of wealth going around us. I remember that at the time of Turbo Lover, both Glenn [Tipton] and KK [Downing] were absolutely mad on Porsches.”

The lyrical seed was sown, but the genesis of the music for Priest’s 1986 single really began when Tipton arrived at sessions in Spain with a new-fangled guitar synth.

“We’d just finished a world tour. We went straight to Marbella and started to write,” recalls Halford. “We’d rented this beautiful place by the ocean and just locked ourselves away for months and months. We were very prolific at that time, just on the crest of all the great things that were happening for Priest.

“But the big thing about Turbo Lover was this new invention that Glenn was using. I forget the name of the device, but it was making all these really interesting and inspiring sounds. I remember one day when Glenn kicked his pedal board and this sound came out – the one you hear at the start of Turbo Lover – and I said: ‘It sounds like an turbo engine revving up.’ That was the spark. That was the way the song suddenly grew and how the title popped up.”

Halford, by his own admission, would not be the first lyricist to join the dots between cars and coitus. “We were just noodling around and, for whatever reason, we used the typical rock’n’roll analogy of having a bit of fun in the back seat of a car,” he recalls. “Y’know: ‘I’m your turbo lover’; you’re using the vehicle as an innuendo for having a bit of slap and tickle. That’s been going on since day one. If you look at early movies like Rebel Without A Cause or On The Waterfront, they featured fast cars and motorbikes. It goes arm-in-arm.”

Tipton sparked the riff and played the juddering solo (“it’s simple but effective for that particular track,” he says on his website, “ending in a machine-gun frenzy”), while Halford says all five members pitched in: “It was a combined effort, like the writing is now, but the riffs are always the basic format for every good metal song. We had so much material from those sessions that we actually told the label: ‘Look, we’ve got a double studio record here. It didn’t turn out like that.”

When it came to recording, cars were not Priest’s only indulgence, with 80s-sized royalties also giving them a licence to move between top studios. “We moved around three places,” says Halford. “First we went to Compass Point in the Bahamas… but that was insane. We didn’t get any work done and we couldn’t get focused. It was just mad. We’d start work at six at night, and by eight we’d be down the pub. 

“I was going for everything,” he admits. “In fact, that was just before my sobriety kicked in. It’s like a test of fire. Everybody goes through that ritual in rock’n’roll, and it can either be very creative or you can end up doing a lot of damage to yourself, which is what I was doing. I was peaking at that time. From the mid-80s onwards I feel like I became a more serious musician. Maybe it was because I hit that inevitable rock’n’roll wall and survived it.”

Recording moved to Miami, and finally to LA, where both the song and its parent album, Turbo, were completed. When they wrapped, recalls Halford, the band were too close to Turbo Lover to assess it objectively. “We didn’t know it was a classic. But that was the same with Breaking The Law and Living After Midnight. You never think where a song might end up. You’re so immersed that you have no idea.”

Los Angeles was also the city that gave Halford his favourite memory of the song. “I was driving down Sunset Strip in a convertible Porsche, and Turbo Lover actually came on the radio,” he grins. “I was like, my god, here I am, a kid from Walsall in the West Midlands. It was so unreal.”

Others were less enchanted, though, and, six years after their breakthrough British Steel album, Turbo’s zeitgeist-straddling sound split the hardcore.

“There was a bit of push-back,” says Halford. “But I can remember when we released Painkiller, there was a bit of push-back on that too. That’s the way it goes. You can’t please absolutely everybody. Sometimes all your fans want is to keep living the same experience over and over again. In Priest we never dismiss what our fans say, but at the same time it can be very dangerous.”

The singer admits the song and album were ‘love/hate’, yet insists both were vital to Priest’s evolution. “We were passionate about protecting Judas Priest’s music too, but if we’d shut every possibility off we wouldn’t have been as adventurous. The truth is, we’ve never believed in rules, and we’ve always said you’re foolish if you’re in a band and you don’t listen to the radio, or check out other bands’ music, because you can learn a lot. 

"That’s what’s so cool about Priest: if you lay out all the decades – the 70s, 80s, 90s and now – they’ve each got a representation of the vibe that was going around. So Turbo Lover and Turbo were controversial to some people, but that’s where we were at the time.”

Halford still loves the track, if not the subject matter. “Turbo Lover has become a classic,” he says. “But I’m not really a car fanatic any more. Since I turned 60 I’ve become less attached to stuff. I’m not really interested in the material side of life. I went through that phase but I’ve realised now the most important thing in my life is Judas Priest."

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Rob Halford adds of the Harley-riding skeletons in Wayne Isham’s memorable Turbo Lover video. “KK and Glenn were Porsche-mad, but of course the motorbike was still synonymous with what we do. We were looking to have some fun with the video and get the essence and the message across. With each of our videos we’re quite original and tried not to repeat ourselves. So when you think of Breaking The Law, you immediately think of breaking into a bank, and with You’ve Got Another Thing Coming you’ve got the power station… all the videos have had a little treasure to look at.”

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.