By Pat Prince
In our June 4, 2010 print issue, renowned metal journalist Martin Popoff interviewed Judas Priest’s bassist, Ian Hill, in celebration of the “British Steel” 30th Anniversary edition. Here, we have vocalist Rob Halford touch on the reissue as well, but Rob takes us back to the original “British Steel” album and tour. Halford shares with us the feeling of making the “British Steel” album, the adventures on the original tour, and an end note on the Grammy win for Best Metal Performance.
I wanted to touch on the influence “British Steel” has had on many metal bands. Why this album and not, say, “Hell Bent for Leather” [which was originally released as "Killing Machine" on October 1978 in the U.K.]?
Rob Halford: I don’t think anybody’s got the honest answer to that. I mean, it’s a bit like going to the casino, isn’t it really? In all practical terms it’s got to be the way it (the album) sounds, the way the songs were created, the production of it. The beginning of 1980. … the decade of 1980 to 1989 was unbelievable for metal music. That was the year it became this worldwide phenomenon. Obviously, for us in Priest, we were delighted that it received that amount of attention. And all these years later people are talking about it. I was just sent a link that Disturbed have covered “Living After Midnight.” And there’s one of these CD giveaways in a big metal magazine in Europe that had about twelve different acts covering “British Steel” songs. I suppose because you’re so close to it, you can’t really be that analytic about it, because you’re like ‘I’m in the band. We wrote these songs, we recorded them, and then we released them to the world. And then it’s out of hands.’
Maybe because it was the first album to really catch on in America?
Halford: Yeah, with “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight,” no doubt that those two songs caught everybody’s ear. Whereas, ordinarily, they may never have heard of Judas Priest before. And that was just the way it came together.
And it happened on the verge of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM).
Halford: The British heavy metal invasion, yeah. It was also the beginning of the video phenomenon, when MTV kicked off. So everything kind of fell into place, didn’t it? If we never had those two tracks — “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” — and we never had the video phenomenon beginning, things might have turned out completely different. Everything synched together. We never — and even now we don’t — write with a specific agenda … like “we gotta get our songs on the radio, so we gotta do this and we gotta do this …”
If you do, you kind of jinx yourself.
Halford: You do. You absolutely do. And it loses its sincere value, and its honesty.
Did you feel there was something special going on when you were recording the album?
Halford: Really, no, because as most people are aware we were in and out of the studio less than a month … to actually put this all together. We were just very excited about our growth and the tremendous support of the label at the time. And everyone was rooting for is, particularly in America.
We really had no idea. We were just doing what we had to do and because we didn’t really have that much time to think and ponder and plan what songs we were trying to create. It was just a very unique record.
Is it your favorite Priest album? Or is it hard to say?
Halford: Just by definition of the running order and the sound of the record … it’s an amazing sounding record. Tom Allom just did something remarkable. Again, maybe if we had six months to mix and produce it, it would have sounded completely different. I think we were actually mixing it and doing everything as we went along. It kept us all in this kind of immediacy. So now when you listen to it, it’s a timeless record. It sounds like it was done last month somehow. I think that’s what you get with a simple clarity in production. That’s why George Martin’s work with The Beatles is so amazing, or Jimmy Page’s work with Zeppelin, or Tony Iommi and Geezer’s influence in the early Sabbath recordings. These records just have a remarkable sound essence and they don’t have this thing where it’s ‘Oh, that was done in 1960 or that was done in 1980.’ It was just recorded as clear and as pure as the instruments being played.
Is it hard for you to pick out the most effective song on the album.
Halford: I like the leadoff track on the European version: “Rapid Fire.” The American version began with “Breaking the Law.” For whatever reason the label felt that that was the way to go, probably because that was the lead track sent to radio. And we started the “British Steel” show (last year) with “Rapid Fire.” It’s great. The first line, Pounding the world like a battering ram. That’s Priest.
On the liner notes of this re-issue of “British Steel”, Dave Shack writes that there’s a “staccato spit” to your singing. And there is a great cadence in the way you sing your lyrics. It really came out on this particular album. And, in the past, whether it was “Tyrant” or “Genocide,” it was always there.
Halford: I never thought about this in my entire career, until now, and it’s probably a reflection of my personality. I don’t like odd numbers. I like even numbers. I’m not one of these obsessive-compulsive people but I do have a little bit of that in me. I have to have things in a certain way. I have to have tidiness and efficiency, (laughs) and maybe that transmutes into my vocal performance.
Your singing has a life of its own … where you’re playing with words, and you did that a lot in the 70s.
Halford: I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it’s just the fact that even as kid I had a …
…love for words?
Halford: Yeah. I love working with the English language. That’s why I still enjoy the challenge coming up with a message in a lyric. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s a little bit easy when you’re given a “Nostradamus,” because it’s almost laid out in your mind, and all you do is pick the words out and put them together. When you try to come up with the words for a “Rapid Fire.” Well, what is Rapid Fire? What does it mean? Including the words to “Steeler,” what is that about? What is the “Grinder” about? I was talking on the Jim Breuer show, and Jim is just a genius comedian, and he has this Sirius show, and he thought “Grinder” was this sex song. And I said, ‘Why did you think that, Jim?’ when we were talking live on Sirius. ‘Well, you’re talking about grinding meat …’ and I said ‘You have a one-track mind there, Jim. It’s not about that. In fact, the inspiration for that was the First Amendment .’ He said, ‘You’re kidding me?’ ‘Yeah, you know, Never straight and narrow, I won’t keep in time, tend to burn the arrow, out of the line … As the mighty eagle, I need room to breathe … day of independence … It’s just a reflection of the Constitution.’ And he said, ‘No. I never knew that.” Well, you know, Grinder, looking for meat (pause) … sex, sex, sex …
That’s interesting. I never knew it had a sort of political tone to it. And “Breaking the Law” had a sociopolitical tone to it as well.
Halford: Definitely. And I always kind of reflected on why that was. The fact that Priest never set out, or never will be, that kind of band. We’re not the heavy metal U2. But a lot of those songs convey a kind of strong observation of society.
And the unrest in Britain at that moment …
Halford: It was definitely that. You couldn’t escape it. You know, we’d been in this beautiful house [Tittenhurst Park], twenty minutes from London, and we watch the news and there were riots.
I mean, just the fact that songs like “Breaking the Law’ had a sort of punk feel to them, too.
Halford: That’s a valid point. And maybe that filtered into our psyche. And some people say the way the guitars were chugging on, “Rapid Fire” and “Steeler” were the start of the Thrash idea. When they first heard the ways the guitars were being used, it inspired them.
And going back to that first “British Steel” tour, what is your favorite memory about it? There was one thing — and this was considered controversial at the time — you had a plastic machine gun and would pretend to riddle the audience with it.
Halford: It was a real machine gun full of blank bullets. Yeah, and I had this idea, at the end of “Genocide,” — and, I mean. “Genocide” is about genocide, you know — and I thought it would be great at the end (of the song), with that unusual time measure [hums the riff] … that’s a great fucking tune. We gotta do that song again … I’d take the machine gun (laughs) and fire into the crowd. And everyone thought ‘Are you fucking mad?’
We actually got a real machine gun and we had a guy go around with us on tour (to check it and load it). It was a full-on machine gun, a John Dillinger-type thing, And, of course, a fire marshall would come to check and it’d be ‘These are the flash pots and this is the machine gun …’ And they’d go, ‘What the fuck? A machine gun?’ The fire marshall had to watch the guy load it with blanks and give it to me.
There’s a very famous picture of me with that machine gun. I’m shooting it, and you can see the shell cases coming out and the smoke and stuff. I remember doing it at the Palladium in New York City and it was embarrassing because it didn’t fucking work. Yeah, sometimes it would jam. And it was really loud so it was loud enough not to be mic’ed up because the mics onstage would pick it up.
Is there any video footage of the machine gun onstage?
Halford: There can’t be.
I would love to see that.
Halford: You would think if it was gonna show up, it was gonna show up by now. it would be great, wouldn’t it? After that show — after the Palladium show — we did another show at a place called The Mudd Club [in NYC]. It was at The Mudd Club where I met Andy Warhol.
I have two of the most amazing pictures in rock and roll of me with Andy Warhol and I got him handcuffed to me, in the dressing room. He was there as we were playing, he was taking pictures, and, you know, they are in those boxes in his warehouses somewhere, which going through would take forever to do. But Andy came backstage and I was messing around with chains and handcuffs and I go ‘I’m going to put these handcuffs on you, Andy.’ And he goes, ‘Oh really?’ And all about Andy would say was ‘Oh really?’ about anything. And I put them on and we were both handcuffed together. And I thought, ‘This is really cool. I’m handcuffed to Andy Warhol. Somebody please take a photo.’ And the label photographer took a couple of photos. And then I said, ‘I’ve got bad news, Andy. I’ve lost the key.’ ‘Oh really?’ And those were in my drinking days as well, so I said ‘Looks like we are handcuffed together for the night.’ ‘Oh really?’ ‘No, I’m just kidding.’ And then I took the handcuffs off and we both went to Studio 54 together. What a night that was. But many, many years later I remembered that moment and I got two beautiful black and white prints made and they’re at my house in England. Just me and Andy Warhol, handcuffed together.
Can you compare last year’s “British Steel” tour to the first one?
Halford: Probably everything going over better …
… better than the first tour?
Halford: Yeah, just because people have become to love the songs.
Plus the last tour you were able to do the whole album, all the way through.
Halford: Yeah, yeah, just a very special feeling.
I gotta tell you, “Steeler” blew me away. I’d never seen it live.
Halford: Someone said to me, ‘It’s like a metal church. I feel like I’ve been to church and seen the ultimate metal experience.’
That song is intense as it is, but live …
Halford: What a great way to finish that record. The lasers, and KK and Glen trading off, and then the buildup and the big crashing chord. And those green lasers coming out and it’s the end and everybody’s just ‘Fuck. What was that?’
It was intense.
Halford: I would just look at the crowd every night and they were just open-mouthed. It turned out absolutely fantastic.
I think that was the song that went over best, — not just cause it ended it (the British Steel album) — because you went on to do other Priest songs, but that was the song everyone was talking about afterwards.
As far as the “British Steel” album cover art … why did you alter it for this 30th Anniversary release [at left]?
Halford: To put a bit of blood on it?
Yeah, cause the original was so perfect [below left].
Halford: It’s just what Priest does. It would have been probably too easy to just re-release the same thing. I think we were looking to go to a sort of different place. And we always wanted to put the blood on the blade … blood on the blade…. I got to write that down. That’s a great title. I’ll remember that. That could be on the next Priest record.
But the artist did a great job because you are left wondering why the fingers aren’t bleeding (from the razor blade). It’s kind of freaky because you expect it to bleed. It’s even more intense …
Halford: Yeah, because it isn’t. We said ‘Where’s the blood?’ And they said ‘We can’t put blood on it.’
A lot of times it’s what you don’t see that freaks you out.
Halford: That’s it. I think that’s what makes it. Is this the feeling before the blood begins to spurt? It’s a wonderful record cover.
One last thing … about the Grammys. You won for “Best Metal Performance” (“Dissident Aggressor”). They’ve come a long way since Jethro Tull.
Halford: Yeah. I remember watching that on t.v.. “And the Grammy goes to … Jethro Tull.’ I saw Lars (of Metallica), his face go ‘What the fuck?’ But (for us) it was wonderful to get it. Our fifth nomination. It’s the biggest kick in the world for a musician. It was a real treat.
Next up, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, maybe.
Halford: You never know.
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