Between the years of 1982 – 1988 my favorite band on the planet–by a wide margin–was Judas Priest. I was borderline obsessed and consider them my first true musical love. My bedroom walls were covered with 6′ posters, wall tapestries, and cut out photos from the likes of Creem and Hit Parader of my leather-clad heroes. When my parents bought me my first Walkman the first tape I threw in was Priest’s underrated debut album Rocka Rolla and I listened to it 10,000 times if I listened to it once.
During this time period you would hard pressed to find a heavy metal band bigger than Judas Priest (maybe Iron Maiden, but that is an argument I choose to not partake in since I had it about 1639 times in 8th grade with my Maiden-loving cohorts. I’ll admit this though: Maiden had way better album covers). They had some radio-friendly singles (“Breaking The Law”, “Living After Midnight”, and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”) and pretty much sold out 20,000 seat arenas all over America (I should also note here that Priest was able to achieve this success without ever being considered “sell outs” and continually sustaining respect among their peers, including being one of the few metal bands asked to perform at Live Aid. They had a plethora of metal street cred stocked up in their well).
On June 6, 1986 I became one of those 20,000 fans and attended my first concert ever at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey: Judas Priest with opener…Krokus (a band that had absolutely zero shot of “blowing” anyone off the stage but themselves). I knew every note of every song they played. I sang along to every anthemic chorus The Metal God sang, and I pumped my 13-year old fists in the devil horn \m/ for 2+ hours. I didn’t want the show to end. It was heavy metal ecstasy up to an including the guy in the row in front of us asking me if I had a rolling paper (I had no idea what a rolling paper was at the time. I just wanted to hear “Victim Of Changes“–which they didn’t play but did at a later show I saw).
Over the next few years I would see Priest only three more times during this peak period of their career. As I aged, my musical tastes expanded and Priest slowly fell out of my repertoire. I always maintained a respect for the band, it’s just that over time, some of their music didn’t age too well and some of their later albums didn’t have the direction and cohesiveness of their previous works. They seemed more like a band trying to fit in with the modern trends (Turbo) vs. creating them (British Steel). Turbo was a synth-laced pop metal album (which some fans, to this day, will never forgive them for). Ram It Down (the last album I actually bought of theirs) seemed like it had the band heading back in the right direction, but it’s trashy, speed-metalesque songs just didn’t sound like…Judas Priest. I mean, it had the fast guitar solos, the insane operatic metal screams, and the “metal” lyrics. It simply didn’t sound like the Priest we were used to but a Priest that was trying to keep up with new up-and-comers like Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Pantera (all heavily influenced by, as Phil Anselmo calls em, Judas Fuckin’ Priest!).
Fast forward to 2005. I went to see Ozzfest. The lineup was a metalheads dream: Black Label Society, Superjoint Ritual, Slayer, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath with Ozzy! I was there to see them all but I was really there to see if–20 somewhat years later–Priest still had it like they did when mullets were actually somewhat cool. At that time, it had probably been over a decade since I even thought about or listened to Priest. They took the stage and it was as if it was 1986 again. They sounded great, they played great, they looked great, the crowd loved em, and they stole the show from Sabbath. Rob Halford could still hit every note, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton (my first guitar hero) sounded tighter than ever and the band just knows how to put on a great live show. This was the last time I saw Judas Priest live and I am not planning to see them again even if they do tour with their new lineup (K.K. Downing “retired” from the band in 2011 and longtime drummer Dave Holland was replaced by skin basher Scott Travis in the late 80’s).
So why am I writing this? Judas Priest just released their 17th studio album, Redeemer Of Souls. I don’t plan on listening to it, so I suppose some Priest fans probably wouldn’t actually consider me a Priest fan anymore. But with their name in the news as of late I have been revisiting some of their earlier works: Sad Wings Of Destiny (probably my favorite Priest album), Rocka Rolla, and Stained Class to be specific. When I listen to these albums now, some 30+ years after my first spins, I find myself smiling quite a bit. Partially from reminiscing about my innocent youth when listening to your favorite band was akin to a pastime, partially because some of those riffs are still flat out fuckin’ awesome.
While most people know of Judas Priest as the studded, S&M clothed, Spinal Tap-ish, heavy metal band with the gay lead singer who screams a lot, few are aware of just how awesome (and dare I say “funky” at times) their 70’s albums were. Black Sabbath might have come before them–and they were certainly “darker”, “groovier” and more blues-based–but Judas Priest was the first unapologetic, 100% authentic heavy metal band. On their earlier albums you can hear the embryonic stages of thrash metal (listen to the end of the song “Savage” on Stained Class or “Dissident Aggressor” from Sin After Sin) and on their mid-career peak albums (British Steel, Screaming For Vengeance, and Defenders Of The Faith) Priest solidified their status as the premier heavy metal band in the world. For better or worse, countless hard rock and heavy metal bands of the 80’s were influenced by their sound and look but none could pull of the blend of pure dedication to a music form, musicianship, and those fuckin’ screaming vocals quite like the Priest were able to.
Do I put on Judas Priest albums these days? Not really. Do I sometimes see current photos of them wearing their iconic leather, long hair, and studs and think “wow, grown men, still dressing like this?” I do, but then I think about why I loved them in the first place: authenticity. Judas Priest never shied away from who they are, in fact, they embrace it (most all “hard rock” bands will go out of their way to say they are not “heavy metal” whereas Priest wear the term like a badge of honor). Mainstream music critics and fans might cringe at hearing the mighty Halford screech his way through songs and their look might be outdated in 2014 but isn’t that what makes them who they are? Would we want to see a Judas Priest show with them on stage wearing jeans and t-shirts playing through Fender Twin Reverb amps and slumbering through past hits? No, I want to see rows and rows of Marshall stacks, crazy stage designs/fire/lights, and a motorcycle-driving, leather-loving, operatic gay singer belting his way through some of the greatest heavy metal songs ever written. If you think I’ll let it go you’re mad, you’ve got another thing coming.