Judas Priest - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Judas Priest are almost universally acknowledged to be one of the founding fathers of the heavy metal genre. They formed the link between the proto-metal of such bands as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath to the bands that rose with The New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the late 1970's. Their musical style of fast, chopping guitar rhythms with wailing vocals over the top has come to define heavy metal, and their visual style of black leather, studs and biker imagery continues to influence fashion up to the present day.
Guitarist K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill grew up near each other in the Northern English town of West Bromwich, and shared a love of the harder-edged guitar bands of the late '60's. The two learned to play their instruments together, and by 1968 were ready to form a band. The two formed a Cream-style power trio with drummer John Ellis, and soon after were joined by a singer, Al Atkins. Atkins previous band had been called Judas Priest, after the title of a Bob Dylan song, and once the new band came together, they decided to take the name for themselves. The foursome played around the Birmingham area, opening for such bands as Trapeze, Budgie and Black Sabbath. Most likely influenced by some of the bands they were gigging with, they developed a style that moved away from their original heavy blues-based sound to a harder, more streamlined heavy attack. Ellis left the band in 1971, and was replaced by drummer Alan Moore. Moore only lasted in the band less than a year, and was in turn replaced by Chris Campbell. The band was now touring throughout the U.K. and slowly building up a following. After clashes with the band's management, both Atkins and Campbell left the group in 1973. At the suggestion of a woman bassist Hill was dating, they auditioned her brother, a young singer for a band called Hiroshima named Rob Halford, and once in the band, Halford brought along the drummer from Hiroshima, John Hinch, to fill the drummer's seat in Judas Priest. The new version of the band toured around the U.K., and even ventured to mainland Europe to headline some shows. Soon the band were signed by Gull Records, though the label suggested adding another musician to the band to fill out the sound better before they recorded their debut album. Downing wanted to keep the sound hard and aggressive, so instead of adding a keyboard or horn player, they decided to add a second guitarist who was capable of trading off rhythm and lead parts with Downing. That guitarist was former Flying Hat Band guitarist Glenn Tipton. Judas Priest's twin guitar attack would come to define the sound of the band for the rest of their career.
The now five-piece Judas Priest entered the studio and recorded Rocka Rolla (Gull/RCA), released in 1974. Though there was still some post-blues influences in their sound, it was already apparent that the band was moving towards something leaner and more streamlined. The producer of the album, Rodger Bain, was chosen by the band's label and had already helmed albums by Budgie and Black Sabbath. The group wasn't overly satisfied with Bain's production and generally how the album turned out, so when it was time to record a follow-up, they took more of a hand in the production and were able to pick who they wanted to produce. Drummer Hinch left after the sessions for Rocka Rolla and was replaced by Alan Moore, who had drummed previously in the band. The group's next album, 1976's Sad Wings Of Destiny (Gull), was a massive step forward in the group's sound and songwriting. Tipton and Downing had now developed their trademark chugging riffs and interlocking guitar leads, and the rhythmic grooves were harder and more focused. Halford, too, had grown in leaps and bounds as a distinctive vocalist. Sad Wings Of Destiny sounded like nothing else on the rock map in 1976, and established the band as pioneers of a new kind of music called heavy metal. Judas Priest had been on the British independent label Gull for their first two albums, but found the lack of resources provided by the label limiting, and after being on the brink of going broke, the group was signed to Columbia Records. After Sad Wings Of Destiny and the subsequent touring was completed, Moore left the band again, and when the time came to record their third album, 1977's Sin After Sin (Columbia), the band was forced to use session drummer Simon Phillips. When the band toured, they were able to recruit drummer Les Binks, and his technical skills as a drummer brought the band's sound up another notch. Sin After Sin was another refinement of their hard-driving, twin-guitar sound, and now with the addition of Binks, the band refined their sound further to shorter, even harder and heavier songs. The group released Stained Class (Columbia) in 1978, which many critics and fans of the heavy metal genre cite as a seminal release. That album was followed quickly by their next album, Killing Machine (Columbia)(1978), released in the U.S. with the title Hell Bent For Leather. As the American title suggests, this is around the time the band started to adopt the leather-and-studs clad visual style adopted from biker culture, with liberal influences from the punk and S&M sub-cultures as well. Killing Machine was the album that really established Judas Priest's fully-formed heavy metal sound, combining crunching guitars with pummeling drums and shorter song structures that still retained a commercial appeal.
Through now worldwide touring, Judas Priest was able to build up a huge international fan base, a fact born out when the band's live recording from the tour supporting Killing Machine, Unleashed In The East (Columbia)(1979) went platinum around the world. Judas Priest were now clearly one of the leaders of heavy metal. After the tour and the release of Unleashed.., drummer Binks quit the band, and was replaced by former Trapeze drummer Dave Holland. The new line-up of the band recorded British Steel (Columbia), released in 1980. British Steel would further add to the band's popularity, and included three songs that would become regular staples on rock radio for years to come; “Breaking The Law”, “United”, and “Living After Midnight”. The group toured in support of the album, and quickly followed it up with Point Of Entry (Columbia)(1981), an album that garnered mixed reviews, and Screaming For Vengeance (Columbia)(1982). Screaming For Vengeance proved to be one of Judas Priest's most popular albums, spawning such radio and live favorites as “You've Got Another Thing Comin'”, “Electric Eye” and “(Take These) Chains”. The record was so popular that it went platinum in sales two times over. The group continued to tour in support of their albums, and became one of the more popular live draws during the 1980's. Defenders Of The Faith (Columbia) followed in 1984, an album which sounded almost exactly like it's predecessor. Judas Priest had the distinction of being one of only two heavy metal bands, ( the other being Black Sabbath), invited to play the Live Aid concert in 1985, further testament to their wide-ranging appeal. With the rise of so-called 'hair' or 'glam metal' in the mid-eighties, Judas Priest suddenly felt they needed to re-tool their sound a little to keep up with the times, and, on their next album, they introduced more 'pop'-influenced elements, including more reliance on synthesizers. Turbo (Columbia) was released in 1986, and while many of the band's older, hard-core fans screamed that the band had sold out, both the album and the subsequent tour to support it were huge successes. Priest...Live! (Columbia), a live recording from the Turbo tour, was released the following year.
Fearing that they may have lost some of their old fans and wanting to show their clear connection with the rising wave of speed and thrash metal bands, Judas Priest went back to the drawing board and released Ram It Down (Columbia) in 1988. The album didn't chart as high as some of their previous albums, but it did start to point them in a new direction stylistically. After the album and tour was completed, drummer Dave Holland left the band, and was replaced by Scott Travis, the former drummer of technical speed metal band Racer X. With a new, faster drummer in place, Priest released the Painkiller (Columbia) album in 1990, which was hailed as both a return to form and a new step forward in the band's music. The album was both harder and faster than anything the band had yet done,and it cemented the band's image as forerunners of many of the speed metal bands that were emerging at the time. It seemed that the band were starting on a new chapter of their career, but much of that was derailed when the band was named in a civil action suit that alleged they were responsible for two Reno, Nevada teenagers attempting to take their lives. One of the teenagers, 19-year old Ray Bellknap, died from his injuries, while the other, 20-year old James Vance, sustained severe injuries that eventually led to another successful suicide attempt three years later. The two boys were fans of Judas Priest, and the prosecution alleged they were influenced to take their lives by a subliminal message that said “do it” in the Priest song “Better By You, Better Than Me”. The case was eventually dismissed, but it managed to shake up the band, and that, combined with other internal strife within the group, caused long-time vocalist Rob Halford to leave the band in 1991. Halford went on the next few years and formed the more thrash metal band Fight with Travis, recorded two albums with the band, The War Of Words (Epic)(1994) and Small Deadly Space (Epic)(1995), then disbanded the group and formed the industrial metal project Two with guitarist John Lowery. Two released only one album, Voyeurs, produced by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and released in 1997 on his Nothing label. At around the time Voyeurs was released, Halford admitted in an interview with MTV that long-circulated rumors about him being a homosexual were true. From there, Halford formed the band Halford around himself, and the band released the more traditional metal-sounding album Resurrection (CMC International) in 2000, followed by the live album Live Insurrection (BMG) in 2001.
When Rob Halford left Judas Priest, it took them a little time to get their bearings and get back on their feet, but eventually, after a series of auditions, the band settled on Tim “Ripper” Owens to be their new singer and frontman. Owens had actually been in a Judas Priest tribute band prior to joining, and his story was loosely adapted for the 2001 Mark Wahlberg movie Rock Star. With Owens now on board, Judas Priest released the 1997 album Jugulator (SPV). The album was clearly influenced by recent speed and death metal bands, and featured the band playing for the first time in some stepped-down tuning to convey an even heavier edge. Die-hard Priest fans were divided on Owens as the new frontman of their beloved band, but the album and the subsequent tour were successful. A live album from the Jugulator tour, '98 Live Meltdown (SPV) was released in 1998, and the band followed that up with Demolition (SPV) in 2001. Jugulator had it’s critics, but rather than going back to a “classic” Priest sound, the band utilized more elements of nu-metal and even rap-rock on Demolition. After two albums of trying to change the sound of an almost 30-year old band, Priest’s die hard fans were pleading for the band to reconcile with Halford and return to the sound they featured in their late 70’s/early 80’s heyday.
Judas Priest’s former label Columbia approached the band about issuing a box set history of the group, and all the members of the band, including Halford, collaborated on the tracks selected and the liner notes. The set, a massive four-CD set titled Metalology (Columbia/Legacy), was released in 2004 and came housed in a black leather-looking box complete with silver metal spikes. Working on the box set thawed the ice that had developed between Halford and his former bandmates, and before the box set was released, Judas Priest and Halford announced that he was back in the band and they would embark on a tour starting in 2003 to promote the set and their long career together. Owens left the band amicably, and later went on to be the lead vocalist in the power metal band Iced Earth. After touring around the world and participating in the 2004 edition of Ozzfest, Judas Priest returned to the studio to record a new album with Halford. Angel Of Retribution (Columbia) was released in 2005, to a chorus of approval from the bands fans. It debuted on the American album charts at #13, the highest the band had ever debuted up to that point. The album sounded similar to many of their classic albums and contained many lyrical references to earlier albums, as well. The group returned in 2008 with the concept album Nostradamus (Columbia) to mixed reviews. Some saw the album as an attempt by the band to reclaim some of their early progressive rock tendencies for a new era, others saw it as a bloated attempt at self-important concepts that were never the band’s strong suit. Regardless, the album sold well, and it appears that the “classic” line-up of Judas Priest plans on continuing into the future.