By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Outside of Birmingham’s metal godfathers Black Sabbath, no band has influenced the sound and look of heavy metal more than Judas Priest. One could also make a strong arguement that no metal singer has set the bar higher than the band’s iconic frontman Rob Halford. A charismatic stage presence who continues to unleash his searing wail on headbanging audiences the world over a half century into his career, Halford has rightly earned his nickname the Metal God.
While Priest’s roots date back to 1969, the classic line-up of the group featuring singer Halford, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer John Hinch (the first in a long line of players to occupy the chair) didn’t come together until just before Priest entered the studio to record its 1974 debut for Gull Records, Rocka Rolla.
Though the album leaned more on psychedelia, progressive rock and hard rock than metal, hard-hitting tunes like “Cheater” and “Never Satisfied” proved the group could deliver a heaviness equal to Sabbath and Deep Purple. Their sophomore album Sad Wings of Destiny had some of the same production issues that plagued the band’s debut, but it marked a turn towards a style that would help define heavy metal.
The effort included some of Priest’s earliest gems, including Halford’s epic, operatic showcase “Victim of Changes” and the charging, twin lead guitar-fueled tracks “Tyrant,” “The Ripper” and “Genocide” that proved to be the influential template the group would refine on future releases. Their major label debut Sin After Sin in 1977 continued to push faster tempos and darker subject matter with the galloping rockers “Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest,” “Sinner” and “Dissident Aggressor” that pointed the way toward the sound of UK disciples Iron Maiden and even the rise of thrash metal in the ’80s (Slayer would later cover “Dissident Aggressor” in tribute).
By the time the band released its seminal live album Unleashed in the East, members had embraced the leather and studs wardrobe that would codify metal fashion into the next decade while embracing a more pop-minded (yet still undeniably heavy) sound on songs like “Hell Bent For Leather.” Priest had a commercial breakthrough in 1980 with British Steel, enjoying its first real taste of chart success and radio airplay with “Livin’ After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law.”
With that album and the platinum follow-up discs Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, the quintet established itself as one of the most popular metal bands on the planet. The band’s success would continue through the decade, though some longtime fans would be thrown by the group’s new glam image and use of guitar synthesizers on Turbo in 1986. Ram it Down two years later continued the trend toward towards a more commercial sound, but the group rebounded with 1990’s Painkiller, a recording that introduced more thrash elements and was hailed as Priest’s heaviest effort in a decade.
The ’90s would bring new challenges to the band, with members forced to appear in court for a civil suit that claimed backwards masked messages in the song “Better by You, Better than Me” (a cover of a Spooky Tooth song) led to the fatal suicide pact of two young metal fans in Spark, Nevada. The suit would be dismissed by the judge, but a far more seismic change for Judas Priest would be the departure of Halford in 1992.
The singer would record and tour with the thrash-oriented group Fight and the industrial project 2wo before his return to traditional metal with the eponymous band Halford in 2000, while Priest would find new singer Tim “Ripper” Owens, touring extensively and tracking a pair of studio albums. Still, any interview with Halford or members of Judas Priest inevitably turned to the question of a possible reunion. Fans finally got what they wanted in 2003 when the singer rejoined the group.
High-profile live performances like a co-headlining slot at Ozzfest the following year and a string of successful album releases beginning with Angel of Retribution in 2005 have reaffirmed Priest as one of the quintessential purveyors of metal. Even after the retirement of K.K. Downing in 2011 during the Epitaph World Tour (a jaunt that the band had suggested would be their final farewell), Priest has soldiered on with the addition of new guitarist Richie Faulkner. The fresh blood seemed to reinvigorate the group, who released their 17th album Redeemer of Souls to solid reviews in 2014.
Two years later, Priest teased that the band had begun work on it’s next recording. Working with classic-era producer Tom Allom — who engineered the first three Black Sabbath records and a 10-year stretch of Judas Priest efforts from Unleashed in the East to Ram It Down — and modern metal production maven Andy Sneap (who has helmed albums by Megadeth, Accept, Testament and Saxon among many others), Judas Priest put together nearly an hour of new material for it’s latest opus, Firepower.
Hailed by some as the best Priest album in nearly 20 years, Firepower was finally issued last spring to great anticipation from metal fans the world over. Singer Rob Halford recently spoke with CBS SF about the album, the enduring power of metal and the band’s latest tour across the country to promote the acclaimed effort that will feature fellow British heavy rock veterans Uriah Heep. The band headlines two nights at the Warfield in San Francisco on June 24-25.
CBS SF: Hi Rob! It’s good to talk to you again. How’s it going?
Rob Halford: It’s very good to speak with you. I’m doing great, thank you. Just enjoying the calm before the storm before we get back on the road. We just got back from Australia, New Zealand and Japan recently. We’re just taking a bit of time to recharge the metal batteries.
CBS SF: Those were all festival appearances?
Rob Halford: For the first time they were having the Download Festival in that part of the world. Download has become quite a significant festival in the UK, what used to be Monsters of Rock/Castle Donnington back in the ’80s. We were one of the first bands to play it actually. But now it’s kind of morphed into the Download, this big three-day event every year in the UK.
It’s a Live Nation gig. So Live Nation decided to take the festival to Australia with Download at Melbourne and Sydney. They were a huge success. I’m sure they’re going to be an annual event. And am I right thinking there was going to be one in New Zealand? Something happened and it fell through. Not that horrible thing in March [the mosque mass shooting in Christchurch on March 15]. That was a terrible, terrible tragedy.
We did our own show in Auckland with our good friends Halestorm. And then we finished again with another Download, the first time it’s happened in Japan, and that was a huge success again with all of our friends Slayer and Ghost and Halestorm and a bunch of others. So three big country visits and several time changes [laughs].
CBS SF: That is a lot of time flying there and back…
Rob Halford: In a tube in the sky for days and days? Yeah.
CBS SF: So you’re back home in the States in Phoenix?
Rob Halford: Yes, I’m relaxing in beautiful Phoenix, Arizona before we head out on the road and come back to the beautiful Bay Area again.
CBS SF: I saw Priest when you weren’t in the band at the Warfield back when Tim Owens was singing. At the time I thought, “Well, even if Rob comes back to the band, it’s not like I’m ever going to see them at a place this size.” So I was thrilled to see you there on the first round of dates for Firepower before you went out with Deep Purple last summer and I’m so glad you’re returning to the Warfield. That last time at the Warfield was maybe my favorite Priest show ever. It’s great that you’re playing such intimate venues.
Rob Halford: Thank you. It seems a lot of the fans are tapping into both worlds. No matter who you are, I think there’s this desire to take it up and see a concert with rabid metal maniacs in as close and as tight an environment you can. And the Warfield is legendary for that type of atmosphere and emotion. When the Warfield show went on sale last time, it sold out in minutes. So we’re thrilled to return and play two back-to-backers. I don’t think we’ve ever done that before. It just goes to show you how strong and powerful metal is in the Bay Area.
CBS SF: To get to the latest album, I’ve had conversations with friends discussing where Firepower stands in the Judas Priest catalog. Is it the best Priest album since Painkiller? Since Screaming for Vengeance? It’s a remarkable achievement this far into your career. When you were making it, did you feel like you were tapping into something special? I know any band worth their salt is going to say their latest album is the best album they’ve ever done, but Firepower is something else…
Rob Halford: It’s important to feel that way. Because it’s the motivation you give each other from the early days of writing the music. I would say right from the get-go, we were getting buzzed about those early songs before we even entered into full production. So when we linked up with Andy and Tom and our friend Mark Exeter, who’d come off the Sabbath album [13, Black Sabbath’s final studio effort in 2013] for the production, it was just sensational.
But having said that, you know the phrase you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear? It all has to come from the songs. It has to come from the material. Due respect and massive thanks to the great work the production team did as well, but you know Dave, this is the joy of music. You never know what the end result is going to be. And our fans just ran to it and gave it worldwide success. We’re so grateful to each and every one of our fans who helped elevate it to that next level.
CBS SF: When we’ve spoken in the past, you’ve talked about how you work with the guitarists, listening to the riffs they write to come up with ideas for vocal melodies and lyrics. I imagine the process hasn’t changed much since Richie took over for K.K. Downing. I was wondering — since you’re already talking about work on the next Priest album — do you think between the time working in the studio and on the road with Andy that he’d be included in the writing process? Or would you stick with you, Glenn and Richie as the main songwriting core?
Rob Halford: Well, due thanks to Andy. We love Andy for stepping in. It’s been incredible from day one. When Glenn called me into the studio and said, “Look Rob, I think it’s best if I step aside, because it’s getting increasingly difficult for me. This band means the world to me and I don’t want anything in terms of perception to change as far as the level of professionalism and performance that we’ve always generated.”
And I thought that was incredibly strong and brave for him to do, because he’s put his heart and soul and life into Priest, like we all have. So to make that decision was incredibly difficult for him. But he did it for the benefit of the band. And as it turned out, of course Andy was in the studio at the same time. And Andy ran to Glen and said, “Let me do what needs to be done.”
So Andy has been out there standing on that side of the stage every night and doing great work. He understood and understands his position in Priest, which is that he’s doing the work as he is right now. We haven’t really looked beyond where we’re at as far as this next touring cycle. Everything is on the table. So I guess we’ll look closer at that when the touring for Firepower ends, which at the moment looks like it’s going to be in Las Vegas.
But Glenn is still a full on, 100 percent member of Judas Priest. It’s just that his position has altered a little bit. He doesn’t go out on the road as much and he plays the guitar at the level he’s able to comfortably. The great thing is he can still play guitar, He’s probably jamming with Richie right now back in the UK getting ideas together for the next Priest album.
It’s been kind of difficult for us to not be with Glenn every single night, but we’re grateful to Andy and we’re grateful to the fans for being so gracious for accepting what’s taken place. And it just shows you the love and support for the Priest — under any circumstances — is as strong and as powerful as it ever was. Particularly with the success of Firepower.
But let me just finish quickly on the Richie thing. Richie was kind of embedding himself in the writing thing more and more starting with the Redeemer of Souls album. He did great work. By the time we did that album and tour, he was stronger than ever. So his writing for the Firepower album was top notch. So the three of us — Glenn and Richie and myself — were able to turn it up to eleven! We had a blast! It was amazing.
CBS SF: You’ve talked a little bit in recent interviews about the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and I don’t know if you’ve watched the Motley Crue movie that’s come out on Netflix yet. I was curious if you’d prefer to see a movie like that portrays your story and the story of the band with actors, or would you rather to see a documentary about Priest?
Rob Halford: Well there’s been loads of unauthorized documentaries floating around for a while, but not to the level of Bohemian Rhapsody. I haven’t seen The Dirt yet, but I will watch it. I love Crue. They’re good friends of mine. So I don’t know. Priest has had a very interesting life. We’re one of the longest surviving working heavy metal bands and a lot of our life story has been documented, but a lot of it hasn’t.
I think you have to have a strong storyline to really push, otherwise it kind of falls flat in today’s sensationalist TMZ world. You’ve got to have some stuff going on there. For us in Priest, that’s difficult, because we’ve always tried to keep the privacy of what happens offstage in its correct place. But having said that, there’s no doubt the story that we’ve told musically, the way we came from where we came from and our place in this style of music called heavy metal, there’s a lot to focus on there that would be really interesting.
Every band is made up of different characters. I think that’s the attraction of Bohemian Rhapsody, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although, being a Queen fan, I know everything about that band, so I didn’t see much that I didn’t already know. But I thought that Remi was brilliant and so were all the other actors. I think it was a superb effort. But as far as Priest, who knows? We’ll have to wait and see.
CBS SF: I did want to talk a little bit about the support you have on this tour. I’ve seen you on tour with Slayer and Testament and other bands of the later thrash generation of metal, but more recently you’ve been on the road with older guard bands that like the Thin Lizzy offshoot Black Star Riders and Saxon who played on the last tour and Uriah Heep on this leg. Is there a reason you’ve leaned more towards your contemporaries as far as the support acts on the last couple of tours?
Rob Halford: Well, we’ve had these opportunities with Priest to work with some very significant UK acts that we’ve never worked with before. It’s good to show everybody some of the bands that came from and are still coming out from the UK, in all genres of heavy metal and hard rock or progressive rock, whatever it might be. And a lot of it has to do with the calendar as well.
And we’re fortunate we had an opportunity to make this work with Uriah Heep, who are a sensational band. You look at their track record and it’s just mindblowing. It’s going to be a very entertaining fan situation with Heep and Priest. Just because of the diversity you’re going to experience between the two bands. So we would urge all of our metal maniacs in the Bay Area to come early and check out some Uriah Heep, because you’re going to have a great time with them.
CBS SF: Beyond the current tour cycle, have you looked ahead to what Judas Priest might be doing for the band’s 50th anniversary next year as far as touring and revisiting material from an older album?
Well we’re going to be doing some of that when we come to the Warfield. Because we’ve been to the Warfield and to the Bay Area a couple of times on the Firepower tour, we want to jazz it up and give it a fresh look. So we’ll have new light and new costumes and new songs, most importantly. You know we haven’t done “Take These Chains” off Screaming for Vengeance for as long as I can remember. So that’s going in the set. We’re bringing back “Out in the Cold” from the Turbo album, which if you’ve heard that in a live setting, it’s just huge.
We’ve been working on 10 to 15 additional tracks for the tour, so I’m sure there will be some adjustments between the two Warfield shows back to back. It won’t be the same set list. We’ll mix it up and swap out two or three songs for those maniacs who have bought tickets to both shows. But beyond that, we’ve already been looking at stage designs for the 30th anniversary tour. It’s just fantastic. We’re really pushing the boat out and again, we’ll dig really deep and bring some songs and rare gems out that haven’t been played live in a long time, if ever.
Judas Priest and Uriah Heep perform at the Warfield on Monday-Tuesday, June 24-25, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $49.50-$99.50.