Rob Halford: “We still talk about sexual orientation, skin colour, ‘My religion’s better than yours.’ You’d think we’d have moved on…”
When Rob Halford answers the phone, he greets us with a reassuring, “Hello, it’s the Metal God.” That this comes in an unmistakable, cheery Brummie accent merely adds to his steely status. “I don’t look much like one at the moment,” he chuckles, “I’m sitting on a bed in a pair of shorts!”
It’s not the length of his trousers that’s made Rob one of the most respected and beloved figures in metal, though. Joining Judas Priest in 1973, he not only led them to phenomenal success during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but helped shaped metal itself. Priest took the heaviness and power of bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, dialled down the blues influences and ramped up the speed, aggression and sharpness. It was unapologetically heavy metal, by intent and design. They also introduced extreme quantities of leather, studs, spikes and motorbikes to metal’s look.
But beyond simply playing a song of the same name – from 1980’s essential British Steel album – what makes Rob the Metal God is his strength of character, his fearless attitude and his insistence on looking forward. Even when he left Priest to go solo in 1992 – first with the heavy Fight, featuring future Steel Panther guitarist Russ ‘Satchel’ Parrish, and later the industrial edged 2wo – he was still the Metal God. As metal’s first prominent out gay star – coming out during a 1998 MTV interview when he casually said “speaking as a gay man” mid-conversation – he’s also blazed another trail, working to spread acceptance through the metal community and beyond.
Above all, Rob Halford is the Metal God because of his unwavering dedication to the metal cause. So, without further ado… Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr Rob Halford, a heavy metal lifer.
When did you first discover your passion for music?
“Like most people, it happened when I was going into my early teenage years. That was when I really found music. At that time of life you’re raging against the world, your school, your parents, and all that kind of stuff. Nobody understands you, you hate everybody, and you hate everything, but you love music. So that was my first real connection, when it began to mean something to me and changed how I felt inside.”
Were you a rebellious kid?
“I didn’t really rebel against school; you just had to get on and do it. I did enjoy what school had to offer and I actually found a lot of it interesting, but I also found a lot of it quite boring. What I do remember was the cultural revolution – particularly in America – that was going on at that time in the 1960s. The social injustice, the racial injustice, the economic injustice, which I’m sorry to say we still have… but that’s another story.”
What was it like growing up in the Midlands back then?
“It was a pretty simple life around that time. There wasn’t really a whole lot going on in terms of a music scene that I was able to attend, as I was too young to get into clubs and bars and stuff. I was still getting to grips with myself as a young adult and understanding music and my surroundings, and just trying to make sense of everything. I remember in my last few years of school, I’d walk from my council estate past a big metal foundry. Walking across the canal bridges, you could see directly into the factories and see the molten metal coming out of the machines. There were no practices to protect people from pollution in those days, so you’d get all the grit and metal and stuff in the air in your eyes, and you’d breathe all of that in. I think that’s where I was baptised in metal when I was about 13.”
When did you discover that you were musically talented?
“At school. I was about seven years of age, and the school was putting together a choir. We were having music lessons one day, and the teacher brought everyone in the class up to sing along with her at the piano. She called me up and I sang along, and she kind of looked at me and I thought, ‘What have I done wrong?’ She finished the song and said, ‘Do it again.’ Then she took me to the class next door, spoke to another teacher, and asked me to sing, a capella, the song I’d just sung with the piano. I still can’t get my head around why that happened, but at the end some of the kids clapped. That felt good. And that’s kind of stayed with me as a metalhead. That was a really profound thing as a kid.”
What was it like joining Judas Priest and performing in Birmingham pubs and clubs for the first time?
“It was a big moment. I’d already seen Priest playing live, as well as Sabbath and Zeppelin, and I knew that I wanted to do that myself. One of the first shows we played was at Birmingham Town Hall, opening for someone, and it was amazing. You suddenly feel you’re in a band that’s connecting to what you want as a musician. And that’s important – everyone has to believe in it. I felt from that show on that there was something special about Priest.”
Is it true that you were working in a sex shop at the time?
“Yep. I did a stint selling dildos and cock-rings and wank mags, that kind of stuff. And I also worked in the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, which was… I was going to say more respectable, but I think they’re both pretty respectable. You’ve gotta make ends meet. You did get some interesting clientele coming into the porno shop, from all walks of life. Everyone needs that stuff.”
It doesn’t sound like it was all that glamorous back then…
“It was hard work. We went from Inverness and John o’ Groats to wherever. It was brutal. You’d play, drive back, get in at four in the morning, and then get up to go to work. But that’s what you had to do if you believed in it. That’s paying your dues, it’s showing your commitment. It took about 10 years, and hundreds of shows a year, but it made us into what we are. And it’s still a slog, and I’m not bitter at all, but behind hotels and private planes and whatnot, it’s still hard work. We’ve never slacked off, we’ve always been on the road or in the studio for nearly 50 years, even during my exodus in the ‘90s.”
When did the title Metal God first stick to you?
“It was the fans who started that. They’d see you and be like, ‘Hey Metal God, what’s up?’ It’s great, man. It’s better than being called Dickhead. It means a lot to me, and when I get ready for work, that’s what I’m turning into. And we all do, in Judas Priest. Your personality changes and you become a different person. It’s probably helped me more than anything else, and I thank the fans for putting it on my back.”
Do you feel like you have to live up to it?
“Yeah. Here’s the thing: I don’t care who you are, do not disappoint your fans. I always think about this. Someone’s paid money for a ticket, they’ve come home from work, they’ve got in the car in the rain, or in some cases a plane, and we’re all in a room together somewhere at a show, and there’s expectation built in. And if you don’t put on the best show of your life at that moment, forget it. You can’t just stroll out and give 50 per cent. All of that ties in to being the Metal God. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s good. It’s a deep thing.”
In the ‘80s you were a notorious party animal before you checked into rehab around the Turbo album in 1986. Had that lifestyle stopped being fun a long time before you got sober?
“When you’re an alcoholic like I am, that’s when the danger starts to happen. Not only to your health and wellbeing, but also to your musicianship. And as I was saying a minute ago about giving it 100 per cent – well, I knew I was still giving it 100 per cent when I was out of my tree, but if I ever look at some of that early footage, I kind of cringe at it. It was okay, but compared to how I’m doing it now, and the truth behind what I’m doing now, and the way I feel now… Half of those shows I can’t even remember. Before I’d go onstage I’d have three or four vodka and tonics, then I’d run around the back of the amps to do a couple of lines of coke, and then I’d have a few more drinks as the show went on. Then afterwards I’d have a load of beer and champagne. I was a fucking wreck.”
Did you realise that at the time?
“I thought I was having the time of my life. Which, in a lot of ways I think, ‘Yes, man, it was fucking great. I had a blast!’ But then the dark wall starts to come up in front of you, and it really does take over your life. You suddenly become this horrible, brooding individual who starts to get very, very selfish. You start going, ‘Ooh, nobody understands me, nobody loves me,’ all that kind of crap that comes out of addiction. And the thing about being in control and being powerful over your life is you’ve got to let all of that go. And when you do stop your excesses, suddenly you play music and realise, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s about!’ And I’m speaking only about myself and friends who have addictions. I have plenty of other friends who drink and drug and they’re all perfectly fine with doing it. But for those of us that are addicted, you’re suddenly like, ‘Oh, I don’t need booze, the music does it.’ All the thrills and highs I want aren’t in booze and drugs, it’s in playing music.”
What was your first sober show like?
“It was on the Turbo tour, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I was shitting myself, because it was the first time I’d been onstage without having a drink beforehand. But when I started performing and I could hear myself and I could see the audience and see the rest of the band, it was like an epiphany. It was one of the greatest days of my life. I can talk all day about living clean and sober, not just as a musician, but as a person as well.”
Back then nobody knew you were gay. How did it feel when you came out in 1998?
“It was a bit similar to quitting drinking. You think you’re gonna lose all your mates, so there was a lot of worry. But that didn’t happen. There’s this belief that everyone’s gonna hate your guts because (adopts ominous voice) you’re gay. Even today. And that just shows you the depths of the psychosis that comes with this. Nobody chooses to be gay. Who’d choose to be in a group of people who get thrown off buildings and hung in public? It’s just who you are, and it’s an understanding and a development of who you are as you grow up. Even as a little kid, I knew I was gay. As I was going through my teenage years, I’d get a lot of that ‘you fucking homo’-type abuse, and you become confused. You torture yourself, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and all that horrible stuff. I’ve said this a million times since I’ve come out – you’ve gotta look after yourself first. And that’s not being selfish, you’ve got to look after your needs as a person alive on this planet. Make sure you find peace and tranquillity in your own world and then you can deal with everything else. For years, I was putting everything else first – the band, the fans, everybody was ahead of me, and I was at the back of the queue. And you can’t do that in life.”
Were you worried when you gave the interview where you came out?
“When I finally came out on MTV and I said what I did during that interview, I left thinking, ‘I’ve fucked it – that’s it. Why did I do that?’ But then I started getting letters and faxes and messages from people, saying, ‘I’m a gay metalhead, and it’s great to feel like I’ve now got someone I can relate to.’ All these beautiful expressions were coming to me from all over the world. And when it’s something tangible like that – reading a letter, giving someone a hug after a show, like I did the other day – it’s a deep expression of love.”
Do you feel like things have moved on since then?
“We’ve still got a long way to go. I think the LGBTQ [community], as we call ourselves now, still have to figure a lot out in terms of equality. But much like metal was regarded as the black sheep of rock’n’roll – with people being like, ‘Oh, you don’t like heavy metal, do you? That’s not music. That’s crap’ – you can apply that same thing to the gay community. It’s a similar experience in some of its elements. But then again we still talk about sexual orientation, skin colour, or ‘my religion’s better than yours’. You’d think there would have been some kind of change and people would have moved on after such a long time. Now that I’m moving through my OAP heavy metal years (laughs), I thought a lot of it would be gone by now. And it’s a shame. We don’t really get to spend a lot of time on this planet together, so there’s no point in wasting it being divided. Love yourself, love each other, and love heavy fucking metal!”
You’ve always had a positive and undefeatable attitude in your music and in your life. Do you think that’s why you’ve had the career and the enduring appeal you’ve had – that fighting spirit?
“We’ve always had that, haven’t we? But we’ve sung about a lot of things in Priest, whether it’s Painkiller or The Sentinel, and it’s always the same: evil is always defeated. It’s an important quality in Priest. We’re a band who can be breaking the law, but we know why we’re breaking the law – we’re sick of being lied to by politicians and the man, and then You’ve Got Another Thing Coming – ‘If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by/You’re thinkin’ like a fool ‘cause it’s a case of do or die.’ That’s the heavy metal spirit, isn’t it? I love all kinds of metal. Priest are a band that have always been trying to push things forward in a positive way. We talk about death, doom and destruction – but it always gets beaten. It’s like Rocky or The Avengers movies. We always come out stronger on the other side after going through those battles. And when you leave a Priest show – or any heavy metal show – you feel exhilarated and good inside. It’s a really uplifting and positive experience.”
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