We Need To Talk About The Queerness Of Judas Priest
Rob Halford coming out in 1998 changed the way that people looked at Judas Priest. With Rob out of the closet, the band’s leather biker aesthetic took on an explicitly gay dimension, causing shocked fans to claim that they had no idea. But now, in retrospect, every discussion of Judas Priest’s music is full of semi-serious comments about just how obvious the vocalist’s queerness was, given the band’s albums are full of songs with titles like Hell Bent For Leather, Breaking The Law and Ram It Down. But there’s much more nuance to the way in which Judas Priest’s songs are about queerness; ideas that go far beyond the not-so-subtle nods towards gay sex. The depth of this writing is clear across ninth studio album Defenders Of The Faith, originally released in 1984.
Defenders Of The Faith isn’t without songs that appear obviously queer in hindsight. How else is anyone going to interpret Jawbreaker? And while the song has an obvious sexual dimension, there’s a deeper level to the kind of frustration that it evokes. There’s an element of repression running through the lyrics, of something that needs to be said, but can’t be. Lines like ‘And all the pressure has been building up / For all the years it bore its load’ have clear sexual connotations, but also a depth that comes from exploring ideas of being closeted and looking for a certain kind of freedom and liberation. Even one of Priest’s most ‘obviously queer’ songs, Hell Bent For Leather, had this extra dimension to it in lines like ‘Seek him here, seek him on the highway / Never knowing when he’ll appear’ evoke cruising, and being followed directly by ‘Hear the roar as they sense the fear’ brings to mind the dangerous anticipation of looking for love as a gay man in the 1980s.
The ‘pressure building up’ is more than just sexual. It also encompasses a more personal, emotional kind of frustration. There’s a sense of danger in the way that desire is explored in Jawbreaker, as the first verse ends with the line ‘On the verge of snapping if its caught’. Being caught has a specific resonance when considering the fact that, in spite of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalising gay sex to an extent, liberation was a long way off. Defenders Of The Faith itself was released against a backdrop of anti-homosexual Conservative government rhetoric, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arguing against the fact that people have an “inalienable right to be gay” in her 1987 conference speech. In fact, one of the strongest queer elements of Defenders Of The Faith is the quest for a kind of personal liberation; as if what’s being defended is the right to be gay as much as anything else.
Fighting for the counterculture is an idea that’s permanently linked with heavy metal thanks to songs like Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, but Judas Priest go one step further with this theme, offering a call to arms in relation to queerness – giving a voice to those who have been silenced by the wider world for too long. This appears on Defenders Of The Faith through Rock Hard, Ride Free, a song that argues ‘Gotta get a reaction / Push for all you’re worth,’ calling for defiance. This sentiment also appears on Painkiller. All Guns Blazing is a song about being pushed over the edge, and is defined by the declaration of being ‘Bent on survival’ after being ‘Forced into overdrive’.
Defenders Of The Faith also shows a softer side to Judas Priest, with the ballad Turn On Your Light. The song uses ambiguous pronouns and romantic declarations as a way of exploring a queer longing that’s more emotional than physical – a counterpoint to Jawbreaker. The song is full of hope for something that might turn into a romantic relationship, with lines like ‘I think you feel the same way too’, it’s a romantic longing defined by uncertainty more than anything else – the kind of thing that can’t always be expressed out loud, given the danger that comes with doing so. There’s something radical about this kind of optimism for queer love, even now. This isn’t unique to just Defenders Of The Faith. Ram It Down features Love You To Death; a song that is, on a surface, another S&M-themed romp, but everything from the unknown ‘you’ to the surprising cheer in the song illustrates a relationship that can be sexual and taboo, but still have (in more ways than one) a happy ending.
The main problem that comes with people half-jokingly calling the queerness of Judas Priest obvious due to songs like Hell Bent For Leather, is that it runs the risk of oversimplifying the band’s work and emotional depth. The use of potentially violent sexual imagery in Judas Priest songs; the sadomasochistic title of Pain And Pleasure, from 1982’s Screaming For Vengeance looks at a relationship that’s not just physical, using lines like ‘How I suffer for your love’ offers an image of suffering that is rooted in emotion as well as sex. Like Leave On Your Light, the pronouns remain ambiguous, drawing focus on what’s been left unsaid.
That’s where the hidden depths lie for Judas Priest; in spite of all of their explicit, sexually driven songs, much of it gets left unsaid, songs are addressed to ‘you’ as if Rob Halford were directly reaching out to people who felt the same way as he did and, like him, couldn’t say what they were feeling. Conventions around masculinity and heavy metal, from songs about sex to the denim-and-leather aesthetic, are deconstructed as well as being – ironically – played straight. The idea of queerness in Judas Priest didn’t magically appear after Rob came out, it was there all along. You just had to look.
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