We now know him as the Metal God, but before that title was applied to him, a young Rob Halford and Judas Priest were cranking out album after album of groundbreaking, genre-crossing heavy metal. Between 1974 and 1982 (when they finally shattered the platinum sales ceiling), the British rockers released eight studio albums and a live record, played around the globe and opened for groups like Led Zeppelin and KISS. In 1980, their international breakthrough album British Steel arrived amid the burgeoning New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, a movement they helped usher in by being one of the few genuine heavy metal groups of the Seventies, sticking to their guns while sonically battling the slick sounds of disco, the ambitious sprawl of prog and the manic sounds of punk. But by 1980 all of those genres had collapsed commercially, and the raging heavy rock that Priest espoused was at last getting its due.
Driven by speed metal progenitors “Rapid Fire” and “Steeler,” the anthemic “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking The Law” and yes, the ominous “Metal Gods,” British Steel simplified the epic musical equation of past Priest efforts while attacking listeners with an immediacy and raw power that had a long-term impact on the genre. The dynamic album was by no means Priest’s pinnacle as they continued to evolve and expand their sonic territory — with Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing’s dueling guitars reaching higher and higher plateaus of metallic ecstasy in years to come — but British Steel was a commercial turning point for the band that got them onto the radio in a big way.
One Priest fan once told me that listening to Halford on their 1978 opus Stained Class was like hearing five different singers on one album. The singer’s diverse vocal approach on British Steel certainly echoed that sentiment. And Priest’s recent metal opera Nostradamus continued displaying their eclecticism, and in an even wider musical playing field, which is actually unusual for a group whose classic line-up has been together for nearly 40 years.
To celebrate British Steel‘s 30th anniversary, the band has reissued it with the two bonus tracks from the 2001 reissue, new artwork and liner notes as well as a new live DVD and CD (in the deluxe package) from their tour last year, during which they performed the entire album (in its original British track sequence) along with other classic Priest cuts.
I recently interviewed Halford in New York for ShockHound about the reissue and its cultural impact, the Grammy-winning group’s recent accolades and their future touring plans. I gathered some extra material that made it onto ADD.
After watching the live British Steel DVD, I’m wondering: When did you decide that you wanted to wield the longest microphone stand in the world?
It’s funny because they don’t make those particular microphone stands anymore. Each one of them is a limited edition like guitars. Now for whatever reason, I said to Martin our sound guy, “Look, I want to use a mic stand for the British Steel tour, and I used to use a microphone stand from way back that was like a pneumatic thing.” He knew exactly what I meant, and a couple of days later he got back to me and said he found a company that had only made a limited edition of maybe 500 of them. I told Martin to get me half a dozen, and I’d keep them. So I’ve got them back in the house in Phoenix. That was a very popular form of microphone stand because you didn’t have to fiddle around with the grips. It’s like a spring-loaded steel thing with some oil or something [inside], and no matter where you adjust the mic stand it just stays in that one spot. It’s an absolutely amazing invention. I don’t know why they’ve stopped making them. It’s got a really solid base well so you can’t tip it over easily. As you open up each box, each one has a little certificate [with your name on it]. I think there is a little bit of adhesive chrome with a number on the base as well. So I’ve got the last six of that particular run. I don’t know where the rest of them are around the world. It’s unusual for a mic stand, but for singers, especially for any kind of performer that needs a mic stand, they were a tremendous brand.
“Priest has been offered a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.”
Do you think that Judas Priest will get their star on the Birmingham Walk Of Stars in your British hometown?
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? I don’t know how that works. Is it to do with the city council, or is it a separate body of people? It would be wonderful if we could get that. I was in Hollywood a couple of weeks ago and walking down Hollywood Boulevard and [saw] all the stars there, and [Priest co-manager] Jayne [Andrews] mentioned that Priest had been offered a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. We’ve just never been there when they wanted to do the ceremony. God, I would just be ecstatic, because I love movies and Hollywood.
Classic Priest tunes have made it into video games. Plus you had a cameo in the 2002 movie Spun and did voice work for the recent videogame Brutal Legend. What was working on those projects like?
Both of those experiences were interesting. Both of them were new to me, and I really enjoyed putting my toe in the water of both of those worlds. They were really not that far removed from what you do as a musician anyway. As you know, a lot of musicians have dabbled in the movie business; some successfully, some not so successfully. I think you’ve got to be a little bit of an actor to walk out on stage anyway.
Do you ever see yourself doing films or Broadway?
You don’t say no, do you? I’m heading towards 60 years of age, and I don’t much longer my voice is going to hold out. I would listen to Pavarotti, and he was in his seventies, but I don’t know if I can do “Painkiller” when I’m 70. I like to think I still have a voice left. I still love to sing. I still love to use my voice. It makes me feel like nothing else. I’m sure it’s like when K.K. or Ian straps on a guitar or a bass. That’s why you’re here. That’s what you’re designed to do. Hopefully I will always find some connectivity to the entertainment world.
While you’re not screaming as insanely as you used to, your singing voice has gotten stronger over the last few years. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know what that’s about. I have no understanding or theory or concepts of why that takes place. It’s got to be something to do with physically getting older and things happening in your body, but my vocal chords are in much better shape now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. I think maybe it comes down to knowing what I can do it and what I can’t do. If Glenn’s about to do a lead break, he knows when he has to flip on a certain pickup on or adjust a volume pot. The same with singers — as you get older, it’s not tricks, it’s just knowing what your voice is capable of doing.
How did you feel when they finally called Priest’s name for the metal Grammy this year?
We were ecstatic. It was myself, Jayne and [drummer] Scott [Travis], and we are in the back of this big second room. There were two rooms– one was pre-broadcast and one was broadcast. We were in this room, and unbeknownst to us it was streaming live on the Internet. There were all these categories, and the host said, “Look, we’ve got 200 Grammys to give out in this space of time. Please keep your acceptance speeches to a minimum or we’re going to be here all night. We’re going to die.” It was like, let’s get on with it. So the categories began, and of course we had a program. There was this kind of music and this kind of music and this kind of music, and it was going on and on and on. But where was metal? Right at the bottom. Which I thought: How cool is that? Doesn’t that say everything? You’re at the bottom of the list.
I interviewed Angus and Malcolm Young a couple of days after AC/DC was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and they said they felt like they were the trash at the end; at least that’s the vibe they got from the people coordinating it.
[laughs] So 3 1/2 hours later we reached the heavy metal section. “And the Grammy goes to…” Then when they say it, it’s like, “Oh my God, we’ve won.” It is winning in a sense, I suppose, isn’t it? Your brain locks for a few seconds, then you realize you’ve got to get out of this chair, walk down the aisle, get on the stage and get the thing and say something. As you’ve probably seen on YouTube, there’s a clip of Scott going 300 miles an hour down the aisle and bounding onto the stage. He was so excited. I was so happy for him. You get it, and you hold it. “Who’ve I got to thank? Who’ve I got to thank? Please don’t let me forget anybody.” You blah-blah-blah for about 30 seconds, then they take you off and go on this back route in the Staples Center to the media room. From the moment you win it, everything seems to change. You become part of this club, the Grammy club, and it is a wonderful organization. It’s a very prestigious event, and they take it very, very seriously. We’ve only just received our Grammys. The awards were in February because there’s only one place that makes them. Before they give it to you, you have to sign a legal document saying they you will not do anything discourteous or disrespectful. I thought that was even cooler because it makes it even more valuable. You sign so you can’t take it outside and piss on it or something like that. I would never do that, but I’m just saying that’s the importance of it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a metal band; every artist has to sign this kind of release. I’ve got it on the mantelpiece at the house, and it looks great. I’ve watched nearly every Grammy Award ceremony for as long as I could remember and always wondered what it would feel like for us in Priest to actually get one. “And the Grammy goes to…Judas Priest.” It’s one of the best things in the world. All of these things come to you later on in your career. I think when they do happen you enjoy the moment even more. You feel like you deserve it, but you savor the moment even more.
It’s the accolades time for you now.
It’s great, isn’t it? They come unexpectedly. The accolades happen when they’re going to happen, and you’ve got no control over it. But it seems that when they do happen they’re generally for a reason and a purpose, and it’s a good feeling when they show up.
Halford on the metal award being listed last
at the pre-broadcast Grammy ceremony:
“How cool is that? Doesn’t that say everything? You’re at the bottom of the list.”
By the way, I recently heard “Electric Eye” used briefly in the temp mix of Toy Story 3. Would you be happy if they had used “Electric Eye” in the final score to Toy Story 3?
I think so. Just as much as it’s a great thing for Priest to be in Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Brutal Legend, it makes your music valuable in a modern way technologically. If you had said to us in 1980 that in the future there’s going to be this game — you’re going to be in it and you’re going to hold this guitar that’s not a real guitar but will make noise — you’d go, “What are you, insane?” I look at my iPhone now — I’m 58, and if you had showed me that when I was 10, it would’ve been like something from Flash Gordon or some kind of space movie. I’m really glad that I’ve lived this life with all of these great inventions because kids come along now and take it all for granted. It’s just there. That flat screen TV is there on the wall. In my teens I’d think a little bit about technology, thinking one day you’re going to have a TV that is so flat that is going to go on the wall. And there it is, it’s happened. So it’s been great to see that in music as well. To go from the big, three-inch reel-to-reel tapes to [software on] an Apple iBook.
Are you ever going to publish your sci-fi novella The Library Of Tears?
I still haven’t found the bloody thing.
You lost it?
I don’t know where it is. It’s somewhere, but I don’t know where it is. I know it hasn’t been thrown it away because it was a big deal for me. I’ve got all these boxes and boxes of stuff in different locations.
That was about a man who collects people’s tears, right?
And enslaves humanity by catching their tears. It’s a cool idea, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. Do you think we’ll see a full-scale Nostradamus tour?
We really want to do that. I still remember the day when Glenn, K.K. and myself were working over at Glenn’s house — and I think we were about three or four songs into the record — and I said, “Let’s just put a statement out on our website and tell everybody what we’re doing because I’m really afraid that someone else is doing this somewhere.” From that moment, we said that we were going to really push the heavy metal boat out and do something extraordinary. We’ve achieved that with the music, and we still want to do it on stage. We were in Hollywood recently and met with some producers and agents, so there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes.