Rob Halford swivels his chair to direct the reporter’s attention to the “50 Heavy Metal Years of Music” box set on the shelf it shares with studded leather stage accessories in his Paradise Valley home.
He’s on a Zoom call to discuss what he refers to as “a hometown gig of sorts” at Arizona Federal Theatre in downtown Phoenix on a tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of Judas Priest.
“Photographs are incredibly powerful because every picture tells a story,” Halford says, referring to the lifetime of memories contained in the Judas Priest box set on the shelf behind him.
“So to look at the photographs gives some sense of the time that’s passed from the satin hippie years when we were trying to define ourselves to the place that we’re at now where we go out on stage with armor-plated steel.”
It’s all part of the story of Priest, he says.
“And looking at the pictures helps you kind of make a little bit of sense of it all. But 50 years is a long time, isn’t it? It’s a blessing. An absolute blessing.”
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Rob Halford reflects on his earliest days in Judas Priest
Judas Priest had actually been at it for a few years by the time Halford made his first appearance with the band.
His first gig was in May 1973 at The Townhouse in Wellington, a market town in Shropshire, England, not far south of Birmingham, the heavy-metal breeding ground of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and two members of Led Zeppelin.
“I had heard about this very early metal band in Birmingham called Judas Priest and went along to see them play a little gig somewhere,” he says.
“And even though they were in the absolute infancy of being a band, you could sense that there was something special there — a sense of something yet to come. There’s an adventure waiting to happen.”
As luck would have it, Halford’s sister, Sue, was dating Ian Hill (“the legendary bass god of Judas Priest,” as Halford calls him) when Al Atkins, Halford’s predecessor, left to take a job that would support his family.
“So my sister’s there, ‘Hey, my brother’s got a pretty good set of pipes. Why don’t you give him a chance at an audition?'” Halford says.
“That’s part of the Halford family mythology. Is that the word? We always talk about that at holiday time. I’ve yet to hear my sister go, ‘Where’s my 10%?'”
It wasn’t long after his sister threw his hat into the ring that Halford showed up to audition.
“The local priest, ironically, the vicar who ran the church, also ran this little tiny room he rented out to people like Slade and Judas Priest and many other local bands,” Halford says.
“We used to give him a couple of quid. He’d go round the pub and drink the money.”
When Judas Priest arrived with ‘British Steel’
Judas Priest’s first album, “Rocka Rolla,” hit the street in September 1974. It failed to chart, but Halford wasn’t worried.
“You have to sustain the band with the material you’re making,” he says. “And we seemed to find that important part of who we were, right from the beginning.”
It wasn’t until 1980’s “British Steel,” five albums later, though, that Halford feels the early promise really hit its stride — in part because it was the first release on which the singer and guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton really started writing as a trio.
“When we got to ‘British Steel’ and wrote the songs that have become part of the anthems of Priest, I think we understood the power of that creative force to its full extent, particularly in the format of a two-guitar heavy-metal band,” Halford says.
“To have two guitars and a singer sitting down together and writing music was pretty extraordinary.”
“British Steel” gave Judas Priest their first Top 40 album in the States, a breakthrough largely driven by the classic heavy-metal singles “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law.” In the U.K., it remains their highest-charting album, having peaked at No. 4.
“I think from that point on, if you listen to the music, you can tell it’s developing,” Halford says. “It’s taking different twists and turns and it’s opening up endless possibilities, where three heads are better than one when it comes to making music.”
He also feels there’s something to be said for having put the work in by the time they got to “British Steel.”
“I’ve watched music most of my life and there seems to be the tipping point,” he says. “What is it, the 10,000 hours or whatever it is, the hours you put in? There’s a certain point when you really find your stride.”
‘Nothing comes quickly in life’
This applies to any form of creativity, he says, from writing heavy metal songs to filmmaking or sculpting.
“Nothing comes quickly in life in the creative sense,” he says. “You have to keep pouring your heart and soul into the work. And then you find the place of hopefully originality and something of a unique attraction.”
Along with that creative growth, he says, “You’re building this fan base that really sustains you. You can’t move much further than a certain spot without the support of your fans.”
For all the hours Judas Priest had put into arriving at the breakthrough, Halford says they didn’t really think that much about it at the time.
“You don’t sit back and fold your arms and go, ‘We’ve done it! This is it! It’s all smooth sailing from now on! Because firstly, it’s never smooth sailing. It’s always choppy waters occasionally.”
He does recall feeling a sense of security, though — within reason.
“Bills have to be paid,” he says. “So there’s that side of it that you equate with success. But by the same token, what we do is very fickle. There’s no guarantee. You’re clocking in for work. And then one day, the factory could be closed. Rock ‘n’ roll is littered with great talent that only got to a certain spot and then something imploded.”
‘The tentacles of MTV’ spreading the gospel of metal
Judas Priest had another huge success with 1982’s double-platinum “Screaming for Vengeance,” which spawned their biggest U.S. hit, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.”
By that point, MTV was in full swing, which Halford says he recognized from the beginning as a brilliant opportunity for Judas Priest.
“We embraced it,” he says.
“We ran to it because here was an opportunity to be in as many people’s homes as MTV was reaching at the time as it was growing exponentially. I remember being invited to MTV studios in Manhattan when you couldn’t even get MTV in parts of New York.”
It was like radio but better, Halford says, because it had that visual element.
“We thought this is a real opportunity for a band like Priest, a British metal band in the United States, to really start to put down an imprint and reach people that hadn’t had the opportunity to see the band live,” Halford says.
“It wasn’t just making a video. It was more than that. It was like the tentacles of MTV reaching across this great nation and spreading the heavy metal gospel.”
There’s always been a heavy visual component to a Judas Priest show, which continues to this day.
“When we bring the 50th-anniversary show downtown, it’s full of that great metal perspective that we’ve tried to incorporate into our live shows,” Halford says. “From a gigantic bull that represents the Birmingham Bull Ring and all things metal to the big pitchfork emblem, 50 feet high, blasting lights something from the Spielberg movie, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'”
It’s ‘a buzz’ to be nominated for the Hall of Fame
As they celebrate those 50 heavy metal years in concert, Judas Priest have once again been nominated for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor Halford says he would embrace with open arms, no matter how long overdue the honor is.
“It’s a buzz,” Halford says. “It’s a thrill. It’s a pity, really, because a lot of the Rock Hall nominations get overshadowed by criticism, Twittering, people losing their minds. And that’s OK. You know, music is passion. Music is emotion.”
Halford points to the limited representation of heavy metal in the Hall as a reason to celebrate the fact that they’ve been nominated rather than bemoan the fact that they’re not in yet.
“We want to get more of this kind of recognition in the Rock Hall, because there’s just a very limited supply of this style of very important, powerful, potent music that for a long time was overlooked and was marginalized and pushed to the side,” he says.
“So if we do get it in, I think that’s great. And not only for Priest, but for metal, for our fans, for everybody that works with us. It’s a celebration and I hope we’ll be able to celebrate for real this time.”
One more way the Metal God is just like Elvis
It’s a mystery to Halford why the rock ‘n’ roll establishment has been so slow to recognize a style of music that’s been making millions upon millions for the industry for more than 50 years now.
“When metal appeared, I think a lot of people in the industry thought, ‘What is this? What are we gonna do with this? What is this about?'” Halford says with a laugh.
“Some people kind of took a step back and were intimidated by it. And that’s OK. People were intimidated by Elvis. So it’s nothing new to have that kind of disparaging response to certain parts of music. It happened to Elvis. It happened to Priest. You have to get past the barriers. You have to get through the wall. And metal’s done that.”
Judas Priest 50 Heavy Metal Years Tour
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16.
Where: Arizona Federal Theatre, 400 W. Washington St., Phoenix.
Admission: $78.50 and up.
Details: 800-745-300, https://www.ticketsmarter.com.
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