By Peter Lindblad
Forged of molten British metal in Judas Priest’s fiery smithy, “Hell Bent For Leather” is a kind of declaration of independence for bikers everywhere.
Rob Halford’s dad drove a motorcycle before the family even had a car, so the “metal god” with the gutteral growls and operatic falsetto took an instant liking to the machines. And over time, he grew to appreciate more and more what they represent, especially with regard to heavy metal.
“You’ve got this big, hulking monster of metal, and it’s loud, and it smells, and it pisses people off and creates a reaction,” laughs Halford.
“People either love motorcycles or hate them, but if you like motorcycles, you realize why you like the experience or symbol of that.
It’s got a great rock ’n’ roll element. It represents freedom.”
With a bit of disappointment in his voice, Halford says his dad wasn’t into the song “Hell Bent For Leather,” a song “ … that was written about a bike.” Undeterred, Halford has made the Harley a staple of the Judas Priest live show.
“It became kind of a prominent thing for Priest, and now it’s part of the show,” continues Halford, now back with Priest after a long absense. “When the Harley roars out onstage, it’s just a wonderful, crowning moment.”
Halford and company will trot out the chopper again this summer as Priest blazes a trail across Europe and then blitzes the U.S. in August in a metal tour package for the ages, with Priest going out with Heaven And Hell (the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath reincarnation), Motorhead and Testament.
“We’re trying to put together the Priest set list together right now, and there’s e-mails flying all over the place and phone calls, and it’s always difficult, because you’re looking at double digits in terms of full releases Priest has made,” says Halford. “You know, I’ll send one off to [guitarist] Glenn [Tipton], and he’ll send one back to me, and I’ll send one off to [guitarist] K.K. [Downing], and he’ll send one to [bassist] Ian [Hill]. I don’t know how we’re going to get this one together, but it’s a joy. There’s always a handful of songs that we’ll play for fans, but I think on this tour we’re going to try and look for material we may not have played before or songs that haven’t been in the show for some time.”
Around the time Priest hits the road, the band hopes to unchain the beast known as Nostradamus. It’s scheduled to be released in Europe June 13. Halford calls it a “massive endeavor.”
“We’re still battling away, doing the final mixes,” says Halford. “It’s taken the time it needs to take. As any musician will tell you, you don’t rush to the end just to accommodate a release date, or a day on the calendar. When you’re making music this complete, you hope that it’ll last forever.”
Taking great pains to ensure sonic quality has always been Halford’s MO in Priest and other ventures, such as Fight, the industrial-metal project 2wo (inspired by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor) and the Halford band.
2007 saw the release of Metal God Essentials Vol. 1, a collection of works Halford released with Fight and the Halford band.
Remarkable for the sonic fury and intensity of songs like “Resurrection” and “Golgatha,” these works are tornadic, devastating forays into the thrash-metal territory Judas Priest explored on 1990’s Painkiller.
As an outlet for Halford’s more aggressive inclinations, Fight and the Halford band gave the iconic singer a chance to broaden his sonic horizons, while still creating something enduring.
“Metal is unique in that it doesn’t have to battle with things that are under the spotlight in today’s contemporary culture,” says Halford. “Metal music has a different type of situation going forward in terms of the listener and how much a song can be enjoyed and cherished over the years.”
Playing with young guns like Scott Travis, the drummer for Priest on Painkiller who defected to Fight with Halford, was invigorating. Halford rounded up guitarists Brian Tilse and Russ Parrish and bassist Jay Jay for Fight, which delivered two albums of what was termed “street metal,” 1994’s War of Words and 1995’s Small Deadly Space, plus the Mutations EP. Then, they called it a day.
“It kind of fell into my lap with the Fight band,” recalls Halford, talking about how Fight was formed, “because firstly, at the top, you’ve got Travis … he was cool enough to come work with me on the first two Fight releases. Our bassist Jay Jay was my tattoo guy. I didn’t know he played bass or anything. He was working on me one day, and I found out that he and his best buddy, Brian Tilse … were in a band, and I went to see them, and they just blew me away.”
Halford liked working with them because, “ … they were young metalheads that were just full of passion, and they cared about what they had a gift to do… and they had great stage presence,” Halford remembers.
A flood of Fight material, packaged in custom-designed digipaks, is due out in 2008, including Into The Pit, a four-disc box set of Fight material re-engineered for sonic enhancement. That comes out May 26. “Live in Phoenix,” a DVD of rare and unreleased Fight footage, is also on the docket.
In the smoldering aftermath of Fight, the Halford band emerged in the early part of the new millennium, after Halford’s 2wo project, which put out the sexually charged, hammering industrial vision of Voyeurs.
Perhaps a bit ahead of its time, it didn’t generate many sales.
“The thing with Trent is, he’s always way ahead of of things,” says Halford. “He’s always thinking of things in a fresh, new way, and that makes him appealing, and I admire the way he does that type of work.”
To this day, though, Halford swears he is often asked if he’ll do more with 2wo in the future. He still appreciates the off-the-cuff experimentation that went into it.
“2wo came out of the blue when I met Trent at Mardi Gras,” says Halford. “I didn’t know he was such a fan of Priest, but he was and still is. But, it’s great how things happen that are unexpected, and you run with the opportunity that’s presented there. If you think things through too much, you kind of kill the spirit of it, and that’s important in the creative process.”
Not everyone agreed. Many longed for Halford to return to his roots, and in 2000, he did so in a big way with the torrential riff bombardment of Resurrection.
Not dated by any means, Resurrection sounds as fresh and violent as it did eight years ago.
“Many things inspire me, but I don’t go chasing after things other people have done,” says Halford, explaining why Resurrection has retained its ability to shock and awe. “I think if you chase after things other people have done, you end up sounding like them, or emulating what’s come before.”
Likewise, Judas Priest set trends. Halford joined in 1973 under fortuitous circumstances. At the time, Halford’s sister was dating Hill, and one day, the rest of the band heard Halford singing to the radio.
Once he was in, Halford and company plotted world domination, and they succeeded.
“It’s the same as with any new band,” says Halford. “You believe in yourself. You have something of a plan. You have the makeup and the characters of the musicians that are putting together songs in a way nobody else is doing. I was a different world back then, a whole different world than it is now.”
Allowed the freedom to grow creatively, Judas Priest, through a series of monolithic displays of power that would provide the blueprint for the rise of thrash metal, gradually conquered huge swaths of metal territory.
With the focus of lasers, Priest rolled out Rocka Rolla (1974), Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), Sin After Sin (1977) and Stained Class (1978).
“With Priest, we always strived, and I think that’s gone into my solo work, is to pull something that has its own legs, and that’s why, from Sad Wings of Destiny — or even Rocka Rolla — right up to Nostradamus, you’ll hear something different on every release,” says Halford, “and that’s just to maintain your own interest and sense of adventure.”
Had Priest stopped at Stained Class, its legacy as one of the greats of British heavy metal would have been secure. But, the band had bigger aspirations. Streamlining its attack, Priest broke into the mainstream with British Steel (1980), Point of Entry (1981) and Screaming for Vengeance (1982) — all gold and platinum sellers.
“You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” off Screaming for Vengeance, would be Priest’s biggest hit.
“That just hits a mark, hits a nerve, doesn’t it?” says Halford of the song. “I love that record. It’s produced by Tom Allen, and it’s almost got a conceptual feel in the vibes of it.”
Initially, the members of Priest didn’t think much of the track.
“We had no idea when the label — I think it was Columbia at the time — said, ‘We want this to go as the radio track,’ [that it would be a smash]. We said, ‘Oh, we doen’t particularly think that’s the one,’ but they said, ‘We think it’s going to do the business,’ and it’s a great track to play live.”
Defenders of the Faith, in 1984, would also scale dizzying sales heights, but subsequent efforts — 1986’s Turbo, 1997’s Priest Live and 1988’s Ram It Down — paled by comparison and indicated the band’s creativity was drying up. Then came Painkiller, an sonic meltdown of thermonuclear proportions.
Two years later, however, Halford left. In the years that followed, before the release of 2wo’s Voyeurs, Halford would reveal to the world at large his homosexuality. It was no secret to the rest of Priest, and even in many quarters of the metal community, it came as no surprise.
Still, there were reasons why Halford kept silent. “
“As far as the journey I took, firstly, it was, this is my life, and it’s my choice of whether to let it out and come into the open,” he says. “And then, there’s the protective element that I didn’t want that type of situation to … well, damage isn’t the right word, but something that wouldn’t be useful as things were going with Priest, especially through the ’80s. but there came a time when I felt it was important to step forward and say what I said.”
Not everything with Halford’s career took such a serious turn. Famously, Halford once had an accident on stage with his Harley.
“Yeah, they took my keys away,” says Halford with a laugh.
Then, there was the time, during a video shoot for “Hot Rocking” that his motorcycle boots caught on fire.
“It looks great on the video,” says Halford, “but at the time, I was wearing these steel-capped motorcycle boots, and, as you know, steel is a very good conductor of heat (laughs).”
Tipton frantically tried to help Halford get his boots off. “We suddenly realized my feet were getting like third-degree, second-degree burns or whatever, and we had to douse them with water.”
What could be more metal than that?