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Judas Priest's ‘British Steel’ tempers metal’s blueprint

Bassist Ian Hill looks back at the 30-year legacy of Judas Priest’s landmark album
30 years after the release of “British Steel,” Judas Priest is still going really strong.

30 years after the release of “British Steel,” Judas Priest is still going really strong.

By Martin Popoff

Today, the 30-year anniversary of Judas Priest’s seminal “British Steel” album is upon us. But back in 1980, it was good to see the band finally break big with a record that touched off a golden decade for metal.

“I guess up to that point, it was the definitive heavy-metal album,” ventures bassist Ian Hill, a bold statement, but when you think about it, pretty defensible, given the lyrics about metal and the solidifying of a whole metal package, including the leather of studs look and all told, an overt declaration of the love of metal.

“It also crossed over into other areas. There was, as you know, a couple of very good radio-friendly tracks on there, in ‘Living After Midnight’ and ‘Breaking The Law.’ So the radio stations started to pick up on those songs, and it started to gain us fans from areas we wouldn’t necessarily pick them up from. Maybe people who’d never go see us live, or bothered to be into the things we were into at the time (laughs),” Hill said. “So it probably started heavy metal on its way to its popularity, if you know what I mean.”

If you don’t know what all the fuss is about, Sony has reissued the album in expanded “legacy” form, adding a 30- minute making-of interview, two bonus tracks plus a massive live DVD from the last tour, which featured the album played in full, in sequence. (Turn to our Reviews section, which starts on page 57, to get Michael Popke’s take on the “British Steel” Legacy Edition.)

But if you’re familiar with Judas Priest’s catalogue, you’ll know that this album is where the band simplified things, something that has been attributed — at least in part — to Tom Allom’s role as producer. The record company suggested Priest use Allom. Hill and the rest of the band members were skeptical.

“When we first met him, we thought there’s no way this bloke could be a heavy-rock producer. He was very public schoolboy. He came from a well-to-do family, and like I say, spoke very Queen’s English, sort of thing. We thought, “This isn’t going to work,” Hill said. “But he mixed the live album, “Unleashed In The East,” and he did a tremendous job on it, he really did, a great job on that, and we used him then, so he was with us for over 10 years there, right up until... well, from ’80 to ’88, was the last one we did, which was “Ram It Down,” and he was with us all that time. Colonel Tom Allom (laughs).”

Allom brought a lot to the mix, so to speak. First and foremost, Allom was an excellent engineer who knew just how to sort out the sounds of the various instruments, Hill said. But he had a host of other talents that came in handy.

“He was also a good mediator. Because if a couple of lads wanted to do something in the band one way, and a couple another; he was very pragmatic — he would look at the pros and cons and he would go to the most sensible suggestion,” Hill said. “He was good at that, and his mixing technique was very, very good, and production, and all the noises, the production sounds. There was no such thing as samples in those days. We had to invent them.”

The band had “great fun” creating sounds with everything from cutlery trays to broken bottles, Hill said. Of course, even with those bonus sounds, the band found itself short of material, he said.

“Well, we wrote some of the songs, actually, in the studio. ‘The Rage,’ I think was written, and oh, it was ‘Living After Midnight’ that was actually written in the studio,” Hill said. “We had just come off the end of a very long tour, a two-year cycle, and Ken and Glenn and Rob hadn’t got the time to write a complete album, so those two… it was a very hectic schedule, if you think about it. It was write, record, tour, write, record, tour, maybe with a couple of months off in between.

That’s all. For us to write a song and then not use it was almost like sacrilege.”
“British Steel” clocks in at 36 minutes. That’s a bit short compared to its contemporaries, but incredibly brief by today’s standards, where artists can easily cram twice that amount of music onto a CD.

“Generally, albums in those days were 40 minutes. Any longer than that, I mean, you’re talking about the days of vinyl records here. The more stuff you put on, the more grooves there are on the record, the shallower the groove, and the shallower the groove, the less quality to it. The deeper the groove, obviously the stylus was sitting lower in the groove and it could pick up more information there. So 40, oh, 45 at a real push, and you’re starting to lose quality.”

The lyrical direction of the record, which featured more overt lyrics about the brotherhood of metal, along with the leather-and-studs look, helped cement the band’s place in the new heavy metal movement.

“The direction the music was going sort of attracted a certain audience anyway,” muses Hill. “We didn’t attract girls for instance (laughs). We used to at one time, but with the leather and the studs and the actual power, the raw aggression of the music, it was not something that was that attractive to the female audience. So most of our audience were boys, really. Teenage boys. Which we all were ourselves the time. We were sort of in our mid-20s at the time, maybe 30, but yeah, that was when the typical heavy metal fan, if there was such a thing, started to evolve.”

“British Steel” also served as a way for the band to remind itself that rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be fun.

“Living After Midnight’ is the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, you know (laughs),” Hill said. “‘Breaking The Law,’ I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the video for that, but that was a lot of fun. It might be a bit cringe-worthy these days, but at the time, we had a blast doing that. It was a little tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t taken as deathly seriously as it had been before, maybe. Maybe we were getting a bit of a lighter side, and like I say, it could be a little bit tongue-in-cheek from time to time. It was evolving. We were getting across to the people who we wanted to get across to, which is basically people like ourselves. That’s who we were playing to, and as long as we had an audience and we were keeping them happy, that was the most important thing to us. And as I say, it was just the two radio tracks, or three maybe, that set this album aside, broke us into another audience, another area.”

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