On the eve of Judas Priest’s release of the 30th anniversary edition of their 1980 classic album, British Steel, vocalist Rob Halford speaks to us about this being his favourite Priest album and shares memories of recording it at John Lennon’s former house
Think heavy metal, and one of the first bands you think of is Judas Priest. And think Judas Priest, and most likely, the first album you think of is British Steel. This seminal record ”“ released on April 14, 1980, proved to be a major force in the growth and subsequent spread of the movement called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM). While Priest themselves had been active for over 10 years by then, and had released five studio albums, it was British Steel that really thrust them into the spotlight. Tracks like ”˜Living After Midnight,’ ”˜Breaking the Law’ and ”˜Metal Gods’ became definitive metal classics, and the band reserved a steel-studded spot in metal history forever.
Thirty years on, on May 10, the band is releasing a special edition of British Steel, with a reworked album cover on the outside and more tracks inside ”“ the Deluxe 3 edition includes the original album, a live DVD and a live CD, while the Deluxe 2 disc includes the original album and a live DVD. Vocalist Rob Halford spoke to Rolling Stone India about British Steel.
First of all, Rob, congratulations on the first Grammy for Judas Priest”¦
Oh yes, it was an absolutely incredible night. I think we’re all still kind of walking on air. It was just an absolutely fantastic moment for the band. Not only here in America, but I think that the Grammy is very valuable around the world, really, in terms of recognition. So we were absolutely thrilled to death to receive the Grammy after so many years.
Yes, it did come 35 years after, and the track ”˜Dissident Aggressor’ originally appeared in 1977. So it’s been a while”¦
Yeah”¦ But fact is that particular song received attention and it kind of reinforces what we’ve always said, that with the music of Judas Priest, we try to make the music last forever. And I think in this instance, that’s a definitely a case of being a fact, you know.
It’s been 30 years for British Steel. It’s a classic album, one of the seminal metal albums. Did you realise, when you were recording it, that it would be so huge?
Well, no, for a number of reasons as well. Of couse, 30 years ago, the band was still on the verge of reaching a new level. We had had a number of studio releases and a live release, Unleashed in the East, that came out before we went into the sessions to make British Steel. So we were just forging ahead, doing what we still do now, which is just making a plan, and marking dates on the calendar to fit in with the scheduling that we’ve got. And at that time, we were really just going hellbent for leather”¦ We didn’t have time to breathe, we were constantly touring, we were constantly writing, we were constantly recording. And we had a very short time window to record this record. So we really didn’t have the time or the chance to think about it. And I think that’s what gives this record a really nice sense of purity and clarity. It’s very uncluttered. It hasn’t been overly produced or overly thought through. The songs are very direct and very immediate. I think you can still feel that now. You can still feel the energy and the excitement in that session.
Is it, personally, one of your favourite Priest albums?
It is, yes, definitely”¦ for lots of reasons. Mostly of course, the musical side of it, the actual songwriting that Glenn [Tipton] and KK [Downing] and myself put together. And the sound that Tom Allom produced for the record, I think that was very special. Even now when you listen to the music, it just kind of sounds fresh. You know how some recording sessions have a feel about them and some sounds feel like they come from the Seventies, Eighties or whatever. This particular record, it sounds like a timeless production. If you hear anything by Priest from British Steel on the radio or anywhere, it just sounds like it could have been made last week you know. It’s just an incredible record for many reasons to myself.
British Steel is also widely acknowledged to be one of the first, if not the first, heavy metal albums. Would you agree?
Well, I think we were in a time of suddenly preparing for this global attack called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It came straight after. We’ve been together since what, the early Seventies. So within a short space of time, barely ten years of the music being invented and kind of creeping around the world. There were very little ways to get the message across but suddenly in 1980, everything changed. Communication was a little bit faster and radio and everybody was more receptive to the sound. Really right after that, it just suddenly seemed to explode. From 1980 onwards, metal started to become a really big deal.
You recorded the album in Ascot, if I am not mistaken, at the Startling Studios?
Yes, John Lennon’s former house in Tittenhurst Park, yeah.
I know it’s been a long time, but are there any favourite memories you have from the recording sessions?
Well, I remember the location more than anything else. I mean, it was a beautiful centuries-old Georgian house, in about a hundred acres of the British countryside. And the house was located on a bit of a rise, on a hill. So if you looked out from the front windows, the landscape descends to this beautiful lake area, with all these fantastic trees. So the atmosphere was strangely kind of in contrast to the music. You know, you’ve got the British peaceful countryside around, but inside the house, we were making this heavy metal music [laughs]. So that was kind of a special feeling, just the actual location.
And of course, being in a house that belonged to a former Beatle, John Lennon, who I’ve always been a great fan of. He’s always been my hero. That was also kind of inspiring.
And just the general vibe. Making the music, we had to kind of move out to the little studio that was attached inside the house and set up the equipment through various locations in the building to get the sounds that we wanted. For example, the drums were set up in the hallway of the entrance of the house. Glenn’s equipment was set up in that very famous room that you see in the ”˜Imagine’ video, where John Lennon is playing the white piano and Yoko Ono is walking around opening the curtains, the drapes. Glenn was set up in there. I did all of my vocals in like a little tiny broom cupboard because we wanted this very dry precise type of vocal sound. So I did a lot of my vocals and I couldn’t see anybody. I had them talk back in my headphones but I couldn’t see at all. It was kind of a strange thing, but it worked.
And then you’ve probably heard the famous stories, about the things that we had to do to make the special sound effects. Like the metal guards marching machines in the end. We had to use to knives and forks in a cutlery drawer and shake them up and down, and multi-track them about 20 times to get the sound of these marching metal robots. Little things like that you know. So I think while every recording is very special to musicians, but that one’s really fixed in our minds. It’s a real delight to remember what Judas Priest did at that place thirty years ago this year.
And how long did it take you, from start to end?
Well, Tom Allom tells us that we were only in there for 28 days. We seem to think that from the moment we started work to the moment that the record was actually distributed, it took about 12 weeks, which is still moving very very fast, in the recording timeline of events. But anyway, we made it very very quickly, because right after the release of British Steel, we were back on the road again, doing another world tour.
And what was the process like, Rob? Did you have complete songs before you actually got into the studio, or did you write in the studio itself?
We had a little bit of everything. We had a few songs written. Glenn seems to recall that we had ”˜Breaking the Law’ already written and two or three others. I think we only had about four or five songs, ready to go. Because we came straight from Japan to go back into recording, we didn’t have time to do our sessions as we normally would. So I would say half of it was in kind of bits and pieces, ready to be finished and the other half we made up at the studio itself.
About the album name itself and the album art. Both of these are incredible. British Steel is a name that pops out anywhere. The album art has even been referenced in the classic Absolut album cover series. What are the stories behind those?
Well, it’s like sometimes you see the art and then you give it a title. And then sometimes you give a title and then the art is structured around that. As far as we could remember, you know, our bass player came up with the phrase ”˜British Steel.’ I can remember, when we were doing ”˜Living After Midnight,’ or rather I can remember when we were playing shows in Sheffield, and we’d drive back from Sheffield city hall, we’d go past this big factory that had Sheffield Steel written on it. And I think that was in my mind when we were talking about possible album titles. We may have had a conversation about steel. And I believe that [bassist] Ian [Hill] said, “Well, we are a British band. Why don’t we call it British Steel?” And it just seemed to be perfect, you know. When you steel up to something, that means you get very resilient and hard and ready to kind of do what needs to be done. So just to be steeled is a great expression.
The artwork came from the label. And I’m pretty certain that we said to them, “We want to make this record called British Steel now.” Of course, there are very famous razor blade companies still in the UK like Wilkinson Sword and Gillette. And I think whoever was working in the art department at the record label at that time thought, ”˜British Steel’. There was the element of the punk movement floating around with the razor blades and the safety pins. I think it was all very much a cultural mix, a cocktail, a heavy metal cocktail of the times, you know. So anyway, it seemed to really work and I think it’s true to say that the British Steel artwork is as famous as, I don’t know, Sgt Pepper’s by the Beatles. Even now it’s very shocking. If you look at it, it’s a big statement. You just look at the artwork and you have the feeling that the music behind the artwork is going to be very powerful and very strong”¦
Have you charted out the tour plans for 2010 yet?
As far making shows and everything, we’re still kind of undecided. I mean, we had a very busy two year period that ended last Christmas. So I still think we are just contemplating what the next best thing for us to do is. I think, when you see Priest now, it needs to be an event. Because we’ve been around forever, we really have to think of something that’s gonna be valuable to ourselves and to our fans. So you know, we’re not in any great rush to do something next really quickly. We’re a bunch of old metalheads [laughs]. We like to enjoy life like everybody else does. The future’s good, the future’s bright. As soon as we know what we’re gonna do, we’ll just put it on our judaspriest.com website.
But will you still be performing British Steel in its entirety, like you did last year?
Well, I think, we’ve got multiple options. I mean, we know we had limited opportunities live, because we wanted to get everything ready for this year with the DVD and everything else. So there are many parts of the world that still haven’t had a chance to hear or see British Steel, including India. I think the last time you and I spoke, I was urging promoters and agents to try and work something out for Judas Priest to come to India. We talked about India the other day when we were together in London. There are still some places in the world that we are absolutely determined to come and play at. We know we have fans in India, and we love our Priest fans in India. And we promise you that as soon as we can make the arrangements with the necessary promoters and agents, we will come and play.
There are very strong rumours happening right now about Priest playing India, Bangalore specifically, sometime towards the end of May”¦
I don’t know anything about that. It wouldn’t be fair for me to comment because it something that I am not aware of in detail. But that said, we do need to come and play there. Just to say thank you to all the fans that have supported us so long and never have had the chance to come and see us. It will be an amazing night out when it happens.
Halford on 3 British Steel Classics
“I think collectively these three songs kind of cover a lot of what Judas Priest is about. Those three songs, in essence, very much convey a lot of the great things that we’ve done in about forty years and the hundreds of songs that we’ve recorded.”
”˜Breaking the Law’
“The amazing thing in ”˜Breaking the Law’ is the riff. The riff is definitive of that song. It’s become in itself one of the all-time classic heavy metal riffs. That combination of notes”¦ it’s just amazing to listen to. But the song itself is very short and compact. It’s barely three minutes.
“1980 was a turning point for the UK. We were coming out of the late Seventies which were difficult times in England, with the miners’ strikes and steelworkers’ strikes, lots of people out of work, Margaret Thatcher’s government, a lot of people unemployed. There was a real feeling of friction in the UK at that time. So I think I carried that type of message into the lyric. I don’t know where the idea came from, but it just seemed to inspire the idea for the content of the song. So it’s just a really nice little compact piece of music that came together.”
“”˜Metal God’ is just another expression that the band decided to use for its fantasy landscape of imaginary science fiction creatures and monsters, that type of thing”¦ The actual vibe of the song is great. It’s got this plodding beat and musically the verse is very tight but they break out into these big explosive chords. Just two chords and then kind of three notes in the end. So I think it’s kind of become a very special song. It’s from a heavy metal band and it’s about metal creatures.”
”˜Living After Midnight’
“”˜Living After Midnight’ is still very much like the rock & roll party song for heavy metal. It’s so because it starts with the chorus rather than the usual structure of music in metal, with the riff and the verse and the bridge and the chorus. This actually starts with the chorus, which is kind of unusual to do for us. But it’s just a great, happy, uplifting, inspirational, optimistic song that you kind of throw your worries away and just go out and have a good time. And party at the weekend, you know.”