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Judas Priest: British Steel - Album Of The Week Club review

Judas Priest's British Steel is an album that defined the style, sound and image of metal as we know it today

Judas Priest - British Steel
Judas Priest: British Steel

Rapid Fire
Metal Gods
Breaking the Law
Grinder
United
You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise
Living After Midnight
The Rage
Steeler

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.”

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

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.”

Other albums released in April 1980

  • Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden
  • Solo in Soho - Phil Lynott
  • Empty Glass - Pete Townshend
  • Hypnotised - The Undertones
  • Seventeen Seconds - The Cure
  • Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath
  • Flush the Fashion - Alice Cooper
  • Go to Heaven - Grateful Dead
  • Give 'Em Hell - Witchfynde
  • Growing Up in Public - Lou Reed
  • Los Angeles - X
  • Marauder - Magnun
  • Middle Man - Boz Scaggs
  • Sky 2 - Sky
  • Snakes and Ladders - Gerry Rafferty
  • Waters Edge - Sweet

What they said...

"Predating Metallica's self-titled blockbuster by 11 years, Judas Priest's British Steel was a similarly pitched landmark boasting many of the same accomplishments. It streamlined and simplified the progressive intricacies of a band fresh off of revolutionising the entire heavy metal genre; it brought an aggressive, underground metal subgenre crashing into the mainstream (in Priest's case, the NWOBHM; in Metallica's, thrash); and it greatly expanded the possibilities for heavy metal's commercial viability as a whole." (AllMusic

"At a paltry 2:43, Breaking the Law is the most immediate song in Priest's discography and also the most timeless. Guitarist Glenn Tipton's main riff is one of the simplest and most recognisable in rock history, and singer Rob Halford leads the charge with a performance that exudes swagger. To this day Living After Midnight is an anomaly, an oddly ebullient, slightly forced rave-up that resembles Kiss more than Judas Priest, but anyone who claims to be immune to the tune's positive energy and singalong chorus is lying." (PopMatters)

"There’s a sense that the writing has become more broad-brush than ever before. Evidence for this can be found on the lowest common denominator approach on the “us against the world” camaraderie of United. This designed-for-the-terraces singalong is Priest’s attempt at Queen's We Are The Champions but without the Mercurial wit." (BBC)

What you said...

Gary Claydon: I was once thrown out of a night club for asking the DJ to play some Judas Priest. Actually, that's not quite true - I was thrown out for giving the DJ a hard time after he refused my request. His response of "we don't play that sort of fucking shit here" didn't impress me much, and I proceeded to shout "this is fucking shit" at every song he played, interspersed with occasional chants of "Judas Priest, Judas Priest". 

It seemed funny at the time, but in my defence I'd had a few. This led to a dialogue with the bouncers, the result of which was me vacating the premises. I wasn't bothered, I didn't really want to be there in the first place.

Now, there was a short period of time when I might well have told you that Priest were my favourite band but I have to come clean, I'm very much a fan of their '70s output rather than their later more commercially successful stuff, which really started with British Steel. That's not to say that British Steel isn't a good album. It is. I'll nail my colours to the mast now and say I've always regarded it as a very solid 7/10, maybe even 8 on a good day, but have never thought it the classic that many seem to think.

It opens in good style with the driving Rapid Fire, a very enjoyable slice of metal. Metal Gods is okay but the chorus grates with me which spoils it a little. Priest were never shy of veering into more commercial, 'let's write a single' territory. Witness the likes of Take On The World and Evening Star. Breaking The Law is one of their better efforts in that regard, a fairly enjoyable piece of hokum with a catchy chorus but I can't for the life of me figure out how it came to be regarded as some kind of metal anthem by many (and avoid at all costs the accompanying video). 

Still, any such thoughts can be put aside as it is followed by Grinder, one of Priest's most underrated tracks and certainly the best thing on this album. Side one closes with the truly execrable United, and the least said about that the better.

Side two opens with another OK track in You Don't have To Be Old To Be Wise, but unfortunately things take another dive with the annoyingly cheesy Living After Midnight. While not as bad as United, it's still another low point. I always thought it would be improved by being played at a faster tempo, and this was borne out when they played it live. Still wasn't good though. I never cared much for the faux-reggae parts in The Rage - I always thought it sounded a bit too contrived - but when the main riff kicks in it turns into proper crunching metal, before the whole thing closes with Steeler which I reckon is, like Grinder, more akin to 'old-school' Priest.

In the end, British Steel is let down by it's two most commercial tracks (and slightly by the production, which I suppose is of its time) and for that reason I don't think it comes close to being a classic.

David Jones: A genre defining classic of heavy metal. Everything from the imagery, the dual guitar attack, the vocals just scream pure, joyful metal. I’m quite fond of this one. Now where’s me studded belt?

Jacob Tannehill: Probably the most diverse Priest album, but most consistent. The anthem of United, the commercial sounding Living After Midnight to The Rage, to Rapid Fire. This album is their best. Not a dud in the bunch.

Adam McCann: a definitive metal album, this album took heavy metal to the next level. Along with Venom and Motorhead, it laid the foundations for a lot of burgeoning genres of the 80s.

Stuart Morrison: An absolute classic metal album, and it richly deserves all the praise it gets. The production still sounds great and the music is excellent - Metal Gods, Living After Midnight and Breaking the Law are must know tracks for new fans. I have owned this album on vinyl, CD and mp3 and never get tired of it.

Mike Rowell: One of the greatest and most important metal albums of all time! Yeah, I know it has some of their so-called 'pop' tracks on it, but there simply isn't a bad song. From the thunderous opening combination of Rapid Fire and Metal Gods to the epic ending of The Rage and Steeler, this album just keeps "delivering the goods"(yeah, I know). Very close to 10 out of 10 for me.

Lee Jones: I like this album, but the Priest albums between 1976 and 1979 are far superior in my opinion. Priest really started chasing the Yankee dollar on this one. Shorter, more straightforward songs (dumbed down, really). Bonham-esque bashing and crashing. There are no trademark Halford screams on this release - he stays mid-register for the most part. United is an horrible attempt at a Queen-style We Will Rock You anthem and Living After Midnight is a pop song with heavy guitars.

Don't get me wrong - it's a good album (Rapid Fire, The Rage and Steeler are all top-notch), but when compared to a masterpiece like Stained Class, it's a bit of a step down.

Mike Knoop: A perfect album. Black Sabbath invented heavy metal but Judas Priest perfected it with faster tempos, twin leads, and the best scream since…well, ever. 

I love many songs off of many Priest albums, but British Steel is the best testament of their raison d'etre as well as the best point of entry for new fans. This is the classic lineup at its best. Rob Halford, Glenn Tipton, and K.K. Downing wrote - and Tom Allom produced - an album’s worth of punchy melodic tunes that still have plenty of jagged metal bits. 

Whatever his personal sins, Dave Holland was the perfect drummer for the band at this time, effortlessly keeping the band in the groove, especially on party anthem Living After Midnight and one of my Top 5 Priest tunes of all time, Steeler. Finally, Ian Hill holds down the bottom end and even gets a brief bass solo on The Rage

When anyone mentions guitar harmonies, my brain automatically hums the riff from Breaking the Law. When the "grinder" was the sandwich of the moment, my mind would finish with "looking for meat." And, of course, when someone slams the silverware drawer, I always hear the marching footfalls of Metal Gods. A perfect album.

John Edgar: What a fantastic album. Judas Priest came onto my radar when a friend turned me on to Sin After Sin during my first year of college. I was an immediate fan. 

It wasn't long after that initial exposure that Stained Class was released. I bought it immediately and proceeded to wear the grooves off of the vinyl. Before that same year was out we were graced with the Hell Bent For Leather album (whereupon I was finally able to get my rock'n'roll friends to jump onboard the Priest Train). 

After that, Unleashed In The East was released, and it was at this point that I began to regularly hear Judas Priest being played at that those early 20s alcohol-fuelled bashes that occurred all to regularly at friend's homes, at the river and on camping trips. 

At this point, if you lived in the Southern United States and you liked to rock, you knew who Judas Priest were, and you knew what they did... and you knew that they did it well

With the rock'n'roll public sufficiently educated in the ways of The Priest, then came British Steel. British Steel brought us a new Judas Priest. A band that was a bit tighter and rocked a bit harder. The songs were a little shorter and the heat was turned up. The guitars were blistering and Rob Halford's trademark howl was absolutely on point. For Judas Priest this was the first step in the next phase. I was ready! To this day it is still one of my all time favourite albums. It never grows old.

Roland Bearne: I usually like an Album of the Week to bed in over the seven days but... Oh Boy, this is a joyously easy review. My second Priest album. I was already in deep smit with Killing Machine when this perfect creation summoned me to the Metal side once and for all. I still love all these songs, all these decades on. It's for the first time in this group, a 10 from me. (no I'm not knocking even 1 point off for Red White & Blue! So there!).

Eric Mehta: It's a fantastic album, but I'm not sure if the sound typified metal as much as it rendered it commercially accessible. Anthems like United and Living After Midnight were infinitely more radio-friendly than material found on previous albums such as Sad Wings of Destiny

I love this album and find it immensely influential. I always felt that Motley Crue nicked the music from Grinder for Knock Em Dead, Kid on the Shout At The Devil album. You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise is one of my favourite, oft-overlooked Priest songs. Wonderful album overall and, along with Unleashed In The East, my youthful introduction to Judas Priest. 

Still, if I had to choose an album by them that came to typify metal I would choose Screaming For Vengeance, pretty much a perfect metal album. British Steel gets an 8/10 from me.

Wade Babineau: British Steel was the album that moved Priest to headliners after the success of Hell Bent For Leather. Picked this up after diving into the Priest catalog in 1983 with Screaming For Vengeance.

Essentially my hard rock/metal years began in junior high starting in 1982, so I got a lot of the great stuff when it first hit the shelves. Rapid Fire and Steeler open and close the album like a one-two hammer strike and everything in-between is the meat and taters that moved it up the charts. Breaking the Law, Metal Gods, Living After Midnight are the album’s holy trinity have been in the setlist for decades after their initial release. Grinder is another wicked banger, and then you have the slow-down, crowd sing-along anthem of United and mid-tempo You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise. The Rage never did it for me then, and time has not altered that opinion. All-in-all easily in the top 10 all-time metal albums.

Matt Roy: An incredible album. It launched Judas Priest into the upper echelon of heavy metal. Opens with the high energy Rapid Fire. Two iconic anthems Metal Gods and United. And unforgettable tracks throughout. The album is excellent front to back. A true classic!

Brett Deighton: They may be metal legends, fronted by the metal god no less, but Priest also knew how to write some serious pop hooks. I don’t mean that to sound negative. I think the more radio friendly stuff, like Living After Midnight, just opened up new audiences. This is truly a classic rock album.

Bill Griffin: My first exposure to Judas Priest was when they opened for Led Zeppelin at what turned out to be Zep's last two North American concerts in Oakland, Ca. in 1977. They only played three songs the night I went (Saturday). I don't know if that was their allotted time or if they left because they were booed off the stage. They were definitely booed and when 80,000 people are booing, it gets loud! I thought they were pretty good myself, but also thought they were a new band. Just found out how old they already were by then researching for this review. 

Based on a few other Priest records (post-Screaming For Vengeance), I was prepared not to like this album or at least not find it particularly memorable beyond Breaking The Law and Living After Midnight but it's actually really good across the board. There isn't a clunker on it to my ears and I highly recommend it to the uninitiated.

Darren Burris: An epic Heavy Metal album! Really kickstarted the great 80s metal that was to come. I remember listening to this in high school! Drank many a beer and partied a lot with this album in the background! Just a classic album is all I can say!

Carl Black: Nine top-notch, high class, vintage classic: a rolls Royce, Aston Martin, behemoth, monster, losing-your-virginity, first-time-getting-drunk type album. All the songs are completely different and yet have a distinct sound running through them. Each player gets their turn in the spotlight, and each complements the others. It's one of those albums that, after each track, you say "that song was my favourite... no, that's my favourite... Oh no, this is my favourite!" 

Uli Hassinger: In the time from 1977-1980 JP released four records (Sin After sin, Stained Class, Killing Machine and this one) which defined NWOBM. Killing Machine was one of the first heavy metal albums I got in touch with, which opened a whole new world for me. 

I'm still fascinated of the guitar sound they captured on these albums, which is strong, violent, dirty and absolute unique. Like on all the other mentioned albums every song is a killer. It's hard to pick out one song, but Breaking The Law is one of the ten best metal songs of all time, and already a hymn of the genre. Beside that one, I will accentuate You Don't Have To Be  Old To Be Wise, which I adore too. But every single song is a burner. 

This album is an icon, a relic on the altar of rock. I won't be surprised if this album will smash the previous top score of our group. Anything else under 10 would be a sacrilege. 

Alan Mclaughlin: The band seem to rate this album much higher than do fans. It is a very enjoyable album, but as good as Sad Wings, Sin After Sin, Stained Class, Killing Machine, Screaming, Defenders, Turbo, Ram or Painkiller? Hardly.

Chris Downie: For me, this is the album where they really nailed their identity and sound. While early efforts like Sin After Sin and Stained Class - or even Sad Wings of Destiny - have their fans, and their classic moments, they were all building up to something bigger and more genre-defining. It's not unfair to say their 70's output is best encapsulated in the live album that closed the decade. 

British Steel is just one of those albums that you could point to as a great introduction to the genre, for any would-be newcomer to the scene. Its diversity yet amazing consistency just set it apart from their peers. While it's not my favourite Priest album (that would be a toss up between Defenders Of The Faith and Painkiller) it is rightfully seen as a pivotal moment in not only the band's career, but for heavy metal in general.

David Alejandro Cepeda Benavides: British Steel is, I think, a bit overrated, in comparison with other Judas Priest albums, but still is a 10/10 because of the legacy and the influence it provided to a lot of bands which found inspiration in this album. 

It is obvious the change in their sound since Killing Machine was to become more radio-friendly – and thus sell more albums – but I think Judas had at least four more important records: Sad Wings Of Destiny, Screaming For Vengeance, Defenders Of The Faith and Painkiller (I may add Nostradamus too, although a lot of people didn't like it, but I really love it). 

Still, British Steel has really good songs: from the anthemic Breaking The Law, Metal Gods and Living After Midnight to less known songs like Rapid Fire, Grinder and You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise. The other ones I think are good, but not as good as the mentioned above. Still, as I said, British Steel is a solid Priest album and maybe their most famous, but there are others which are far superior. 

The most important thing is that we share the love for one of the greatest heavy metal bands ever, and i encourage anyone who likes music to listen to Judas Priest.

Brian Carr: All hail the mighty Judas Priest! To be honest, British Steel was a very late arrival to my musical consciousness - I was eight or so when it was released and when I reached my metal head years, I was into their 80s output. It probably wasn’t until recent years that I explored what I came to know as one of the most important metal albums of all time. Heavy, but full of hooks, killer guitar, tight-as-a-military-bed rhythm section and the indomitable Rob Halford, part of the Mount Rushmore of metal vocalists.

The guitar riffs on Metal Gods, Grinder, The Rage and United aren’t flashy, but they absolutely slam; I love the verse groove on the latter song so much it helps me ignore the overall hokiness of the song. The leads are also quite solid throughout British Steel.

I also give props to Priest for embracing the “heavy metal” title. I know many bands never liked to think of themselves as metal (and I’m generally not a fan of “labeling” music), but not Judas Priest. I just wish I could find the photo of me and Halford from the Dallas meet & greet when he released the first Fight album in 1993. His bald, tattooed cranium next to my 90s mullet - fun times!

Final Score: 8.84 ⁄10 (571 votes cast, with a total score of 5051)

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