By Martin Popoff
It’s been a running complaint, how little heavy metal is represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the conspiracy goes — and there’s probably some truth to this — the Hall has more or less aligned with the tastes of Jann Wenner and the cognoscenti of senior writers at Rolling Stone magazine, and famously, they’ve been pretty thin on the ground when it comes to heavy metal coverage over the years, and for that matter, progressive rock coverage.
And the roll call of inductees bears this out. Arguments about who’s metal and who’s not aside, there’s been Aerosmith in 2001, AC/DC in 2003, Black Sabbath in 2006, Van Halen in 2007, Metallica in 2009, Guns N’ Roses in 2012, Rush in 2013, Kiss in 2014, and Deep Purple in 2016. In other words, out of batches of inductees for each of the 30 years, hard-ish music has been represented a single time, in nine of those 30 years.
Now, every angry metalhead in his (and very occasionally, her) NWOBHM patch-festooned jean jacket will argue up and down about his favorite band that is missing. The usual shortlist including the likes of — let’s start with three umlaut bands — Blue Öyster Cult, Motörhead and Mötley Crüe. Also, there’s UFO, Thin Lizzy, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, even Ted Nugent, and above all of these, Iron Maiden. But there’s a consensus growing that the biggest travesty of an omission would be Birmingham’s second batch of bashers after Black Sabbath, namely Judas Priest (we’ll worry about Diamond Head and Napalm Death in another few decades).
And if one were to make an argument why that band’s studded leathers should elucidate excitement at the edifice on Lake Erie, one might sing that metal anthem, as follows.
Judas Priest started in 1969, and they’re still going. That makes them a band that is 48 years old. In terms of influence, you’d be hard-pressed to find a general heavy metal band from 1980 forward — or any thrash or “power metal” band whatsoever — that wouldn’t cite Judas Priest as one of their top influences, if not the top; along with the likes of Black Sabbath, Motörhead and Iron Maiden, if we can focus on thrash. Really, among those four bands, most studied and committed metal-makers of the ‘80s forward would likely crowd around the idea that Judas Priest provided the most substance for the longest run of records.
It is also pretty much consensus — and certainly this writer’s viewpoint — that no one record throughout the entire 1970s, other than the originals, “Black Sabbath” and Deep Purple “In Rock,” did more to advance the integrity of heavy metal than 1976’s “Sad Wings of Destiny.” And then extending that, many people who pay way too much attention to this stuff would argue that the run of records from that one, through 1977’s “Sin After Sin,” 1978’s “Stained Class” and 1979’s “Hell Bent for Leather” (the LP was released in 1978 as “Killing Machine,” but Columbia/CBS changed the title for the 1979 U.S. release) represent one of the smartest, most creative runs of albums in all of rock ‘n’ roll. Much less the industry’s redheaded stepchild, heavy metal. I’ve always believed that the only band that even comes close is Queen, from the debut through “Jazz.” And, dammit, I mean this objectively. We can all talk about The Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Bruce, U2 and The Clash, but one has to enter the arguable and abstract concept of songs and hooks, and even disregard areas of, say, craft, of which, to various degrees, these bands — Rolling Stone magazine bands — thought themselves too cool to address with any level of attention.
That’s a whole ‘nother rabbit hole; but in summary, yeah, I think it’s widely believed that Priest from 1976 through ‘79 was operating on a rarefied plane. Inside of this time frame as well, the band offered innovations such as high, operatic, thespian heavy metal singing from the consummate metal siren, the “Metal God” himself, Rob Halford. Let’s not forget his groundbreaking act of coming out of the closet, something Freddie Mercury was criticized for not doing (albeit, granted, there are complaints it took Halford a heck of a long time to go public). Halford’s been an influence on countless front men since, beginning with Bruce Dickinson and any number of NWOBHM and even hair-metal bands.
As well there’s been innovations around twin lead playing, and varied, not just of the Thin Lizzy variety, but quite daring and acrobatic in terms of the dialogue conjured between guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton. And then finally, in terms of song structure, there have been innovations around nascent speed metal or proto-thrash, the future of metal in the ‘80s, with songs such as “Call for the Priest,” “Exciter,” “Dissident Aggressor” and “Hell Bent for Leather.”
Moving onto a different tack — and for the heck of it, into a whole different swath of the catalog — Priest has also impacted the memory circuits of rock culture, or put another way, accomplished some level of incursion into pop culture, with hit songs such as “Living After Midnight,” “Breaking the Law,” “Metal Gods,” “Electric Eye,” You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and “Turbo Lover.” Yes, I’m well aware that these songs are somewhat down the food chain, but they are indeed somewhat known.
Upon another commercial tack, an additional factor that should mean something for Hall of Fame induction, let’s not forget how many concert tickets Judas Priest sold over the decades. This is a band, essentially like many ‘70s acts that have sold a heck of a lot more records, that has been a hockey barn-headlining act since about 1980, save for the mid-‘90s when the legendary Halford was replaced by Ripper Owens. And they’ve toured relentlessly, really, again, creating a subtle but real incursion into the rock fabric, rock culture, pop culture, whatever you want to call it.
Off of crass commerce for a moment, Judas Priest are also widely accepted as the first big band that made no apologies for being heavy metal, beginning with anthems such as “Take on the World” and “United” back at the beginning of the ‘80s, with an uncompromising leather and studs (and motorcycles and whips and handcuffs!) image to match. Call it camp, inconsequential, whatever, but it’s a uniform that had been widely adopted by hundreds of bands through the ‘80s, as well as the European power metal resurgence of the mid-‘90s that continues to this day.
And then finally, again, this being something that seems to matter, Judas Priest has sold a considerable amount of records. Three of their formative years’ early albums in the ‘70s have been certified gold in the U.S. Tick over into the ‘80s, in the band’s golden period (1980 to 1990, say), Priest delivered another three golds, three platinums and a double platinum for 1982’s “Screaming for Vengeance.” All told, it’s a run of 10 studio records in a row at gold certification or higher. In addition, the band’s two live albums during this period, “Unleashed in the East” and “Priest … Live!,” went platinum and gold respectively, taking us to an impressive dozen-record run of metal mayhem for the masses.
Now, that was it for them — no more certifications — but the band has spent the ‘90s and the 2000s and the 2010s enthusiastically making records, relentlessly delivering the sermon on heavy metal and its charms, touring the world over, gladly giving interviews, and throughout it all, staying relatively scandal free.
The end result is that in all of heavy metal, Judas Priest would easily be one of the top 10 most respected and beloved bands for millions of fans around the world, from at least two rock generations if not more. And, oh, look at that. Nine (arguably) heavy metal bands have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and there is a 10th slot wanting, waiting, yearning for the hum of the Marshalls. Indeed, it’s time to call for the Priest.