Hailing from Birmingham, England, leather-clad Judas Priest were one of the pioneers and mainstays of the heavy metal genre. Despite limited success in the U.K. in the band’s earlier years, the group achieved rock immortality in the U.S. as it shed its earlier bluesy sound for a decidedly heavier tone – British Steel, anyone?
Judas Priest was founded by guitarist K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill in the fall of 1970, and went on to play its first gig in 1971 with Al Atkins on vocals and John Ellis on drums. In 1973, Atkins left the group, and Priest made an important decision in hiring Rob Halford to take over vocal responsibilities (at the suggestion of a girl Hill was dating at the time). Halford brought an impressive vocal range and wrote lyrics that reflected the blue-collar, industrial environment he and the rest of the band experienced while growing up in Birmingham.
After signing to Gull Records, the group set about recording its first studio album Rocka Rolla. The label suggested adding another band member, and the band elected to bring in guitarist Glenn Tipton. Despite the fact that Judas Priest’s first two albums were well-received by critics, a lack of support from Gull and low sales put the band in dire financial straits. Signing an international recording contract with CBS Records in ’76 fixed those financial problems (despite leading to the band losing rights to master recordings from its work with Gull), and opened up new avenues to success for the band, with its first tour of the U.S. in ’77.
After touring the U.S. in support of Sin After Sin and electrifying American fans with blistering dual lead guitars from Downing and Tipton, the band set forth to record Stained Class in ’78. That album would establish the band’s template for future successes with Hell Bent For Leather (1978), British Steel (1980), and Screaming For Vengeance (1982). While Priest’s first three CBS releases in the U.S. each achieved Gold status (over 500,000 units sold), British Steel (over 1 million sold) and Screaming For Vengeance (over 2 million sold) would each reach Platinum status, cementing the band’s legacy.
Playing louder, faster, and heavier than most bands in the 70s and early 80s put Judas Priest at the crest of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. That wave kick-started the American Thrash movement that began in the 1980s, directly influencing bands like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and others.
Judas Priest’s most well-known songs include “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'”, “Breaking the Law”, “Living After Midnight”, “Heading Out to the Highway” and others.
The band found itself amidst controversy in 1990 as it was accused in a civil lawsuit in Nevada of directly causing the suicides of two young men via subliminal messages included in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me”, from Stained Class. Music itself seemed to be on trial, and the band ultimately was successful in convincing the court that they could not possibly have been responsible for causing the death of a fan. After all, as singer Halford stated in a 1991 documentary, if they were going to put subliminal messages in their music, why would they encourage their fans to kill themselves? If anything, the subliminal message would likely be to “Buy more records.”
Despite hailing from the U.K., Judas Priest is also a band with strong Cleveland connections. In 1993, singer Halford quit the band to experiment with different types of rock music, and Judas Priest embarked on a quest for a new singer. Akron’s Tim “Ripper” Owens became that new singer in ’96, after fronting Winter’s Bane and a Judas Priest tribute band named British Steel. Owens’ amazing journey from tribute singer to replacing one of his heroes, Halford, in Judas Priest was embodied in the 2001 movie Rock Star (despite protests by the band that the script was a little too far-removed from how everything really happened). Owens recorded two studio albums while in Priest (1997’s Jugulator and 2001’s Demolition) before leaving the band in 2003 to allow Halford’s return.
The band has another connection to Cleveland that came as a result of their 2008 double-album Nostradamus, a concept album based on the life of the famous French seer. Though the album itself was not considered to be among the band’s best efforts, it was considered life-changing to one fan in particular, Maple Heights resident Jim “Nostradamus” Bartek and his metal-loving dog, Clarence. Bartek made national headlines when he embarked on an incredible streak in that he listened to the album at least once a day for 524 consecutive days – despite the album’s nearly two hour runtime. As a result of the streak, Bartek made national headlines and was given the opportunity to meet the band.
Since Halford’s return, the band has continued to bring the heavy metal thunder. The band, now comprised of Halford, Tipton, Hill, drummer Scott Travis and guitarist Richie Faulkner, is currently in the midst of its last world tour, scheduled to run through 2012. According to Tipton, a new album is in the works and will be released sometime in 2012.
Ed. note: This article was also featured on WNCX.com and is available here.