Judas Priest's classic album British Steel turns 30 years old this year. To celebrate, the legendary metal gods are touring the world playing the LP in its entirety — to
crowds where many may not have even been born when it first hit the shelves back in 1980.
In fact, there's a healthy chance that a good percentage of Priest's newer fans probably hadn't heard Steel's two massive singles, "Livin' after Midnight" and "Breaking the Law," until they found themselves playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band one day after school.
Steel came out at a pivotal time for the band, which was stuck between rote riffage and steadily heading towards banality. The album's very creation was quick and harried.
Priest holed up in former Beatle Ringo Starr's estate in rural England and bashed out the LP, recording the album's signature sound effects themselves in Ringo's hallways and chambers. It's Starr and family's own cutlery that makes the track "Metal Gods" so, well, metal.
When Steel was released, heavy metal wasn't the gauche fashion statement it is now. At this point, every Tom, Dick and Harry can pick up toothpaste, a bag of Doritos and an AC/DC shirt at their local Wal-Mart. Back then, a metal image was something you had to strive for, and things like Priest and Iron Maiden T-shirts were red flags to polite society. What used to be demonic and lethal to some is now on a par with Snoopy tees and loungewear.
The album's content was heavily influenced by the England in which lead singer Rob Halford, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton and bassist Ian Hill found themselves ensconced. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected as the nation's first female prime minister, and was charged with making sweeping improvements to an Albion facing near economic ruin.
"Where there is discord, may we bring harmony," Thatcher crowed in her inaugural address. "Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."
This was quite a heady ambition at a time when the Clash and other UK punk bands were striking out against what they saw as their country's decline, whose flames some would say they and their brethren were also helping to stoke. But punk wasn't the only musical genre feeling the pain of English strife.
Heavy metal bands and punk rockers may have not gotten along swimmingly but as British citizens, they were in the same sinking boat. Neither were their respective subcultures viewed as two distinctive groups — they were both outcast and misunderstood, but too stubborn or cliquish to see that and unite.
Over the phone, Halford concedes that Steel has punk leanings, but nothing was taken verbatim from the movement.
"We were writing in a very kind of spontaneous way, and even though we have always been aware of what was going on around us musically, I don't think we have ever taken those things as inspiration," he says. "We have always kept our ears to the ground, though; it's valuable to be aware of those things. If anything has thrash or punk vibe on Steel, it's 'Rapid Fire' and the closer 'Steeler.'"
One song that always stuck out was "You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise" and its attitude of raw, universal human aggression. Steel's hallmark has always been its directness, and a prescience that has never wavered.
"My job as the lyricist, a lot of my inspiration comes from what the music makes me feel," opines Halford. "It's just a phrase, no different than 'You Got Another Thing Coming,' which is the same kind of statement. It's direct, assertive."
"United" was most indicative of what was going on in England at the time. It was initially an anthem for Priest's fellow countrymen to band together as one, and it soon became, Halford muses, a "rallying cry for metalheads around the world."
"The inspiration at the time was the Thatcher government was in power, there was a lot of unhappiness and friction between government, the miners and the steelworkers," Halford explains. "I think that's where I got that simple and straightforward idea. The crowd loves singing it, and to us now it's about being united in metal."
And just what do Halford and company think when they look out from the top of the metal mountain that they helped create?
"You feel connected, really," he says. "The guys and the girls all there, some seeing Priest for the first time. It certainly gives you a feeling of pride. There's so much incredible talent out there in the metal scene today, and for young metalheads to latch onto Priest is such a cool thing to do. It shows a lot of smarts, quite frankly, and if I do say so myself, we are a great metal band."
Halford will be providing vocal work for the upcoming video game Brutal Legend, alongside Jack Black as a heroic metal roadie and Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister as a key villain. Halford's character is an evil minion of Lord Doviculus, the story's main villain, voiced by none other than Tim Curry. Legend is scheduled for an October release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
"It's something that came to me out of the blue," Halford says of the game. "I ran to it, because it's really valuable when you can do that type of thing. It's another part of getting your music out to people."
"We also just did a big piece for the Rock Band game, and we early on were associated with Guitar Hero. It's all a part of spreading the gospel of Priest," he adds.
Halford hints that, like the upcoming all-Beatles game, Priest may have its own Rock Band edition somewhere down the line. Attempting Halford's trademark metal howl could potentially shred the vocal cords of young gamers all over the world.
"Can you imagine someone having to sing 'Painkiller'?" he quips, referring to his hellish, nearly six-minute falsetto assault from the 1990 album of the same name. (Painkiller was also the last album Halford recorded with Priest before he left the band for nearly a decade.)
"Painkiller" is featured on last year's Rock Band 2, and its nearly 20-second falsetto drill is said to be the very bane of some gamers' existence. Even 40 years into Judas Priest's metal odyssey, the band is still pissing people off and enchanting a whole new growling, leathery crowd.