Their debut release in 1969 on indie label Gull was a bluesy hard rock affair that went unnoticed by most.
Naming the band for a Bob Dylan song seemed off. “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is a crossroads tale of two strangers meeting on a road in the forest.
Only in hindsight does this become an ingenious origin for their moniker. If you listen to the song the idea is really cool. Judas Priest is a dark figure. Embued with a mystique that fits the band’s image.
Black Sabbath are widely acclaimed as the fathers of heavy metal music. The formative period for Judas Priest were spent in the shadows cast by the bigger acts of the time.
Until Deep Purple’s Roger Glover produced their major label debut, “Sin After Sin” on Columbia.
Covering Joan Baez’s “Diamonds & Rust” would broaden their sound. Their composition, “Vicitm of Changes” became a live staple during this era.
The late 1970’s was quite exciting for heavy music. Van Halen debut. Queen’s ‘News Of The World’ album goes multi-platinum in America. Judas Priest were about to unveil two metal masterworks.
Judas Priest unveil their best work to date. The name of the record is changed to ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ in America (‘Killing Machine’ in the rest of the world). The band present a new image wearing leather and studs.
Songs celebrating the biker lifestyle incorporate new guitar techniques that would become part of the heavy metal art form.
“Rock Forever”, “Take On The World”, and the title track formed a trio of anthems. “Before The Dawn” is a power ballad that I think tops them all.
The record brought a sound that would continue to develop over the next three decades.
The band’s cover of the haunting ‘Better By You, Better Than Me” by Spooky Tooth became a fan favorite. The song was at the center of a trial years later.
Proving Their Steel
The dawn of the 1980’s would bring Judas Priest into the long out of reach limelight.
The album ‘British Steel’ stripped down the music to a lean muscular form. “Living After Midnight” became a rock radio hit. The song began their music video history.
Priest continued to evolve using different sounds on each album. “Point Of Entry” followed in 1981.
Three singles with videos: ‘Headin’ Out To The Highway’, ‘Don’t Go’, and ‘Hot Rockin’ were all catchy songs that took pop melodies into metal.
Visions of motorcycle rides in the desert was the overall feel of the work.
‘Desert Plains’ was part of the current Firepower tour playlist.
“Screaming For Vengeance” became the defining statement that Priest were the metal band. The anthem ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ hit radio rising to the top. The band toured extensively. American rockers fell in love.
The album featured the first in what became a series of mythic metallic monsters on their covers.
The Hellion is a metal Eagle soaring above looking for justice for those who have been wronged. ‘Fever’ , ‘Devil’s Child’ , and ‘Ridin’ On The Wind’ are stellar songs often overlooked.
By 1984 heavy metal music was a primary force in the American rock scene. Small towns/suburbia felt besieged by the culture. Long haired kids in denim and leather; patches of bands decorated their jackets.
“Defenders of the Faith” in my opinion is still the modern most influential metal record. Every fan owns this record. The Metallion is the beast of choice on its cover.
It’s a take no prisoners anthemic, macho declaration of heavy metal glory.
The radio smash ‘Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” followed by the sex driven ‘Eat Me Alive’ and ‘Love Bites’ alarmed conservatives.
The band rose to the top. Then hysteria in the form of local teen suicide being blamed on the music. Judas Priest were blamed for a fan death. They were acquitted in court.
Pushing the art form of metal into new directions was part of the band’s mission. Their records always incorporated the latest technologies.
The Turbo Age
Then in the summer of 1986 the Priest changed direction. ‘Turbo’ featured guitar synths. Giving their sound a much more pop friendly polish. There was a decidedly mixed reaction.
Singles like ‘Turbo Lover’ and ‘Locked In’ gave the band great top 40 success. A lot of kids at the time listened to Priest for the first time.
The record was envisioned as a double record by the band. Columbia records would decline to allow such an ambitious project despite the band’s popularity.
Bound For Glory
“Ram It Down” was the second half of “Turbo” released separately. No metal beasts on their covers; anthems & ballads. I love both albums. Some fans became disgruntled by the new sounds.
The band even recorded a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ for a movie soundtrack. Quite a commercial move for a metal group. This track appears on ‘Ram It Down’.
The ups and downs are inevitable in the music business. Opinions change over time. Some of the more pop oriented moves are now seen as a blip in a history full of mostly metal glories.
After leaving the band for solo albums in the early 1990’s, Rob Halford returned as lead vocalist for an album that would once again raise the bar for metal music.
Ripper Owen’s Era
Things change. When their iconic frontman left the band the future became foggy.
A singer in a Judas Priest tribute band by the name of Tim ‘Ripper’ Owen’s became their vocalist. His nickname from a classic Priest song.
Two albums are released. It’s the 1990’s. “Jugulator” features a metallic beast on its cover. The music is solid metal. Fans were indifferent.
I had the opportunity to meet them after a show at Roseland ballroom here in New York. It was gratifying to tell them how much I loved their music and concerts. I gave Tim Owens a pat on the back. No one could fill Rob Halford’s boots.
Back On Top
“Painkiller” is arguably the best metal record ever made. The metallic biker on the cover is a winged hero. Every song is heavy. Halford’s voice was never better. The twin guitars of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing are at their peak.
I got to see them in their peak years. Never a disappointment. The songs were always representative of their entire career.
“Angel of Retribution” was Rob Halford’s return to the band. A solid effort. During this time the band’s albums showed a marked return to their late 70’s early 80’s sound.
“Redeemer of Souls” was a great follow-up album to “Painkiller”; “Nostradamus” was a double album that returned the band to their roots. A decidedly non-commercial epic aimed at their most dedicated fans.
Today the band enjoys their fame. Rob Halford has the nickname, Metal God, for the song and his amazing voice. Always proud to be metal, the community loves Judas Priest.
“Firepower” was their 18th studio album released in 2018 and the tour is still going strong. Well received by critics and topping the charts the group is poised to celebrate their 50th Anniversary in 2020.
They are nominated for induction into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2020.