Judas Priest’s Rob Halford: My life in 10 songs

Judas Priest’s legendary frontman Rob Halford reflects on 10 of the most pivotal songs from his five decades in metal…

Judas Priest’s Rob Halford: My life in 10 songs
Steve Beebee

They call him the ‘metal god’ and it isn’t without reason. Excluding a two-album hiatus when he worked on other projects, the inimitable Rob Halford has been our host through an entire lifetime of Judas Priest-branded heavy metal. The rock world simply wouldn’t be the same without them, and Rob’s consistent dedication to his beloved genre, not to mention his extraordinary vocal stylings, have made him a much-loved part of the metal firmament.

From humble beginnings, massive highs and a comeback no other ‘heritage’ band has equalled, Rob guides us through 10 of the songs made him the legend he is today…

1. Rocka Rolla (Rocka Rolla, 1974)

Judas Priest barely sounded like the Priest we know and love when they recorded their debut, but title-track Rocka Rolla is nevertheless where it all begun for a 22-year-old Rob Halford…

“It’s one of our first songs and we’ve never written one like it since! Glenn [Tipton, guitar] put it together and I immediately jumped in because I thought it had such a great groove. The lyrics are, shall we say, spectacular – stuff like ‘10-pint-a-nighter’ and ‘all-in wrestling is one of her pride and joys’. Then there’s ‘definite 99’ – I don’t even know what that means! I think Glenn might even have had this song written before he joined the band, and it’s one song in the vast catalogue of Priest that really shows our diversity. It shows that we’ll take on and tackle any opportunity. When we were putting our setlist together for Bloodstock this year I said to the guys, ‘What do you think about doing Rocka Rolla?’ The first reaction was, ‘Are you mad?’ When it came to it, though, we understood the importance of referencing that first album. We’d played Never Satisfied before and there are always opportunities for others. I’ve always wanted to do Dying To Meet You live, for example. That would be super-heavy if we ever did it now, and we may do.”

2. Victim Of Changes (Sad Wings Of Destiny, 1976)

When this melancholy-laden epic introduced their second album, Rob saw the future – and the future was metallic. It’s still his favourite song today.

“Brilliant song. I think by our second album we’d learnt so much and as a band we were growing at a really fast rate. We were with each other all the time, we were jamming together constantly and we were writing together at every opportunity. Looking back at that song now, out of all the songs that Priest have ever made, it’s genuinely the one for me. It’s got the double intro guitars, the big slamming riff, the vocal and the brilliant lead break from Glenn, plus the outro section and the high-pitched screams. It’s really got everything in one metal song, so for me it is probably the definitive Judas Priest number.”

3. Hellbent For Leather (Killing Machine, 1978)

This song helped to cement the leather-bound, biker-inspired look that Priest have made their own. And it all started at a biker bar in Derby…

“This was the time when everything was coming together and coalescing. We were finding out who we were visually as well as in terms of our sound. We were playing a venue in Derby I think, and I got talking to this biker and asked him if I could borrow his bike and take it out onstage. The song in question was Hellbent For Leather, and the rest is history. It just felt perfect; it felt like the right thing to do. And that bike – a different one now of course – that you’ll have seen if you were at Bloodstock, it’s all about metal, isn’t it? It smells, it’s noisy, it pisses people off and it’s got all the great metal attributes about it. I love the message that both the bike and that song send out. It is a pure metal message – all the qualities that we love about this genre are embodied within the lyrics, along with that specific look and that sound.”

4. Breaking The Law (British Steel, 1980)

Rob’s life changed forever when Priest unleashed this famous hit. ‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ he screamed. We sure do now, thanks to this seminal classic.

“You never know where your music is going to take you, especially when it comes to the reach it’s going to gain. That was such a compact and pounding song – it’s not even three minutes long, so it’s among the shortest songs we’ve ever written – but it obviously really connected. But that riff! Not just that but the message, which is an attack against society from the perspective of someone who’s really up against it – that’s probably even more relevant today than it was at the time. It’s lashing out against ‘the man’ and the machine. All those songs on British Steel took us into a different place, and a lot of that is thanks to [producer] Tom Allom. He wanted to strip everything down to the bare bones. He said, ‘Let’s not have loads of verses and long guitar solos; let’s really cut and slice these songs down to get the maximum impact.’ That’s what we did. You can’t beat a song that’s successful across all platforms including radio in our own country, because it spreads the British heavy metal gospel.”

5. Metal Gods (British Steel, 1980)

Recorded at former Beatle Ringo Starr’s place, Rob recalls the surprisingly simple methods he used to make this song sound like a prologue to Armageddon.

“I still love the fact that fans call me the ‘metal god’. It was they that bestowed me with that moniker, and I loved it so much that I trademarked it! It’s a wonderful part of the relationship Priest that has with our fans. I’m proud that [the song] Metal Gods was recorded in the UK, kind of exemplifying our love for British metal. It has a sledgehammer riff and then it creates this great imagery in the mind ‘marching in the streets, dragging iron feet’. I think we’re all metal gods; I’m not the only one. If you’re a lifelong metalhead too, you qualify. The metallic crunching sound you hear in the song is actually me holding a tray of knives and forks from Ringo’s kitchen. I just shook them up and down, and then we multi-tracked the sound. In your mind you’re seeing these robots, but it’s actually Ringo’s cutlery clattering about. This was before the internet, before you could go to a resource for that kind of thing – you had to make it up as you went along! Another example of that on Metal Gods is on the line ‘better be the slaves’ – that sound effect is actually me slapping a guitar cable on a flight case, while on ‘reaped by robot’s scythes’ you hear me swishing a billiards cue past the microphone!”

6. The Hellion / Electric Eye (Screaming For Vengeance, 1982)

By the mid-1980s, Judas Priest had mastered the art of spectacular live entrances. Wising up to what audiences really got excited about, they used the same approach on their albums – and rarely more effectively than via this deadly coupling.

“As any band will tell you, the sequencing of any album is absolutely vital. Usually your first two or three tracks are the ones that get the most attention – perhaps not so much today with people playlisting individual songs, but there is still a proportion of us that love to listen to an album properly, in sequence. The idea of opening in a big anthemic vibe provides a great set-up for what’s coming next. The Hellion bit also references the album’s artwork so it’s doing two jobs. Even now when it cranks up live, you get that noise from the crowd – it’s like a big football thing going on. Then you have this great transition into Electric Eye, and that’s a song we wrote about the future before the future had happened – about eyes in the sky and cameras following you. The two elements are exclusively different statements but we married them together and got something really effective.”

7. Turbo Lover (Turbo, 1986)

Although metal through and through, Judas Priest have never been afraid to experiment. Reviled at the time for its slicker production, Turbo Lover has gone on to become a must-play classic.

“For a long time that album was seen as the black sheep of the heavy metal family because it didn’t sound anything like British Steel. The fact is that we’ve always been on this musical adventure, and when we were putting that together Glenn was producing all these interesting new sounds. We’ve always been aware of what’s going on around us and we just wanted to show the fans that nothing was going to hold us back. Turbo Lover was a song that was reaching into new places. Now the vibe has gone from ‘we hate that’ to ‘we love that’. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It’s also one of those songs that you play live and you realise the fans are singing along with every word, so I sometimes turn the microphone towards our metalheads and they end up doing my job. That’s fine with me – I can have a bit of a rest!”

8. Painkiller (Painkiller, 1990)

Rob went for it on Painkiller. Heavy bands like Megadeth and Metallica were ruling the roost in 1990, but here Priest demonstrated that they could muster the same artillery – and more.

“It is a really tough song to sing, but it comes down to technique. When I watch Glenn or Richie [Faulkner] doing the lead guitar break, my mind’s blown. How do they remember all the notes, or move their fingers so effortlessly up and down the fretboard? I have a technique for singing it; I do get through it but it’s not as good now as I would like it to be. That’s life – you give it your best shot every night. It always connects though because for many it is Priest’s definitive heavy metal song. It has such attack and ferocity. Scott [Travis] joined the band for Painkiller and it kicks off with his huge double kick drums. The idea for the song was to reassert ourselves musically, to make a relentless, non-stop attack. For so many metalheads, even some who are not into Priest, it’s a big heavy metal statement. We’d never done an album as savage or intense as that – it only eases up on A Touch Of Evil, and even that’s got big metal balls!”

9. Judas Rising (Angel Of Retribution, 2005)

When Rob returned to Priest having left the band in 1992, he knew he had to deliver. The opener on the first reunion album was always gonna be crucial. Almost inevitably, Judas Rising ratcheted up the tension before delightfully slaying via double kick drums, mega riffs and Rob’s unique vocals.

“We were aware of where we were and of the expectations fans had for this reunion record. We knew that to make this work we needed to have something strong and potent to say. What better way to make that statement than this track? All the lyrics reflect that and the whole concept of ‘Judas is rising’ is embellishing the fact that we were truly back. I’d been away from the band for so long, but to be honest it was like coming home after being on holiday in Blackpool. You love being away, but then it’s a great feeling to come back to where you belong. For me, that time and that song meant being back in the place where I needed to be, the place where I got the best work done. Being back with my mates; my Judas Priest family – it was magical.”

10. Firepower (Firepower, 2018)

Richie Faulkner joined the band in 2011, replacing K.K. Downing. Rob credits this refresh with reigniting the fires. By the time they recorded their most recent studio album, the newcomer’s influence was clear, with the band – despite their vintage – enjoying a new lease of life.

“Richie’s contribution was absolutely essential here. Going back to when he first joined the band, Glenn and I had looked at hundreds of potential players – and then we got a link to this guy from London and we just instantly knew this was our man. When it comes to writing, you need to have important players and because we’d always written as a trio – the two guitar players and myself – it was great that when Richie joined us, really spectacular things started to happen. We rediscovered ourselves. There was a sense of new energy and power – it became infectious. When it came to Firepower, the second album we’d made with Richie, we wanted to embrace all the classic Priest elements from over the years. With our production team it was the perfect format and it worked magnificently. Going from Rocka Rolla to Firepower shows you the determination, the tenacity of this band, the love we have for British heavy metal and the endurance that we have – we are never going to pack it in. The reaffirmation of everything we love about Judas Priest is embodied in that one track and in the album as a whole. From that same spirit we’ve got an abundance of material for the next record – it’s going to be very fierce and potent again.”

Judas Priest’s 50 Heavy Metal Years Of Music is out now via Sony.

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