The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

British Steel Stronger Than Ever: Judas Priest Interviewed
Joel McIver , March 18th, 2010 07:54

Joel McIver talks to Judas Priest about drugs and alcohol, the domination of heavy metal, and their classic album British Steel

It’s been 30 years since the release of Judas Priest’s most acclaimed album, British Steel. With that in mind, The Quietus sent Joel McIver to talk to Rob Halford and KK Downing and look back at a classic slab of ear - and, on the cover, finger - bleeding metal.

Thirty years since British Steel, eh fellas? What does that feel like?

Rob Halford: It’s hard to believe. Y’know, you’re a different person in your teenage years, your 20s, your 30s, your 40s and your 50s, and whatever’s to come. That has to have some kind of relation to how you treat your work. The older you get, funnily enough, things seem to get less cluttered. You’ve made sense of a lot of things: you don’t sweat the small stuff.

KK Downing: It was 1980 when we did it, and we’d made a few albums by then. We weren’t exactly floundering around, we were gaining momentum, but everything did lock in with British Steel: the artwork, the songs, the stage clothes. Everything consolidated who we were and where we were going. It was almost like a rebel’s almanac, for want of a better term. Audiences endeared themselves to it.

The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was underway by the time British Steel was released. Did Iron Maiden make you feel that you’d better up your game?

KK: I’d never heard of Iron Maiden until we were just finishing the mixes on the record, and someone told me that they were going to support us on the subsequent tour. I said, ‘OK, fine’ and then they started to get mouthy in the press, saying they were going to blow the bollocks off Judas Priest and all this sort of stuff. I said, ‘I appreciate the attitude, like, but let’s fuck ’em off and get somebody who appreciates us!’ There was loads of bands who would have wanted that tour and appreciated it, and you just didn’t need those sorts of vibes before you go out. Anyway, they did it and it was fine. I’m glad that they emerged and became a force to be reckoned with, and gained their own identity, musically, visually and in every way possible. All credit to them: they’ve done a fantastic job to be ambassadors of British metal all around the world.

Scott Ian of Anthrax said that British Steel was the first real heavy metal album, because everything before it had contained elements of blues. Does that make sense to you?

KK: It kind of does, I guess. All the British musicians of our age were influenced by black blues, but I was just doing an interview with VH1 and they couldn’t understand why we dropped the blues and went on to metal. It’s just evolution: music that was destined to come about, know what I mean? Like, if you don’t have eggs and milk and sugar you can’t make, um, fuckin' can’t make, let me think, Viennese roll or something. Know what I mean? Like, when people eat a dessert, they don’t think they’re eating a bunch of dairy products, do they? Know what I mean? They’re eating, like, profiteroles. There’s only one real true honest dessert in this world and that’s fruit, I guess, when you think about it. The rest is full of like, crap.

Interesting analogy. Now, the ‘Breaking The Law’ video features you breaking into a bank and ‘holding up’ the staff with your guitars. How does that clip stand up nowadays?

KK: Well, I have to chuckle to myself really about how they got us to do whatever it was we were doing. But we were young and it was exciting and we were making probably the first ever heavy metal conceptual video. The director Julien Temple went on to do great things. What can I say? I wouldn’t change a bit of it, except it was freezing cold when we went down the road in that car. Anyway, it reminds us that however big and powerful we were, we still did everything that people wanted us to do…

Did any booze and drugs play a part in the making of British Steel?

RH: Not really: my crazy years were around the Turbo time – that was full-on. My alcoholism and my drug-ism wasn’t interfering at that time. Had that been the case, British Steel would probably have turned out a different record. I had clarity in terms of being able to compose and being cognitive of choices and decisions and strong ideas – they were all in good nick. It’ll be 25 years [of sobriety] next year, which is a good feeling. KK: I got most of that out of my system when I was a teenager, really, with the LSD and everything. You had to try everything back then, didn’t you? I can’t say I enjoyed acid, really.

Did it make you hallucinate that one day you’d find yourself in a bank, wearing spandex and holding everybody up with a pointy guitar?

KK: Ha ha ha! No, that was in someone else’s imagination, fortunately...Music kind of saved me, in a way, because I wasn’t that great a player and I found that if I went on stage after a couple of pints I couldn’t play that well!

Was it weird when Dave Holland, who played drums on the album, was imprisoned for the attempted rape of a teenage boy in 2004?

KK: Yeah, it was, totally. I don’t know the circumstances of everything that went on, but you know, a lot of innocent men have been hung and a lot of guilty men have gone free, and a lot in between, so I’m not gonna make any judgments at all.

Are the Priest bandmembers still friends after all these years?

RH: None of us have any common denominators outside the band. We love each other to death, but it’s like going to work! People say, ‘You call that work?’ Well yeah, it is work. A lot of people just see the show or listen to the music, which is how it should be, but you try tagging along with us and see what we do. There’d be carcasses along the sidewalk! It’s fucking tough, and it don’t get any easier the older you get.

What are the toughest bits?

RH: The physical side can be really gruelling. Being on stage at 20 is a lot different to being on stage at 58. Your intensity and your passion haven’t changed, but there are certain things going on that you’ve got no control over. So you try and do your best to stay in shape and have the strength to put on a great show four or five nights a week, including travel and promotion and everything else, with no sleep. You do have to be relatively superhuman.

The touring must be the most exhausting part, I imagine?

RH: Yeah, it is. If I think about it now, I don’t want to go on a fuckin’ tour again for the rest of my life, but that’s not going to be the case. It’s gonna happen, and when you go out there you don’t want it to stop, because the biggest rush in the world is standing in front of the people who put you there in the first place. Connecting with the fans, whether they’re in Brazil or Japan or Italy or America or the UK, is the reason you do what you do. But we never get bitter, or cynical or regretful: all of the reasons why you want to be in a band and play in front of people and have a great night out, they’re still there. We’ve got an unwritten agreement that we’re gonna keep doing it until one of us says, ‘I’ve had enough’.

Does it still give you a thrill when you play a stadium?

RH: After a full day of talking to radio and press, after no sleep, you walk out in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people and blow their minds. You can’t describe it: it really feels like that’s what you’re alive for. It’s what you’re on the planet to do: to stand there, to look out and get that reaction.

A lot of Priest fans weren’t keen on the operatic sound of your 2008 album Nostradamus.

RH: It’s a wonderful record, but it’s a challenging record from the listener’s point of view because it’s an enormous amount of information. There are some fans that only want Priest to be Painkiller or Turbo, and that’s the passion that your fans have. We love our fans to death, but we’re in control of our own destiny when it comes to music. That’s the uniqueness of Judas Priest: we can be a band that does Painkiller one minute and Nostradamus the next. It’s still Priest. We’ve never felt that being in a band was about staying in a box.

Will Priest ever spill the beans in a book?

RH: We talked about it. When people read a rock’n’roll book, they want all the stuff in it like Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. It’s perfect: it totally fits with that band and their image and their stage show. Priest has been nowhere near that type of lifestyle: we’ve certainly had our incidents, a lot of which have been documented and a lot of which have not. We’re very, very private people in Judas Priest: we’ve always felt that anything outside of music is taboo and out of the public psyche. By the same token, in today’s world, it’s reality this, it’s reality that, it’s what’s under the carpet and sniffing the laundry, and I don’t think any of us in Priest are into it. It intrudes on the music, and the legacy and the merit and the value and the tradition and the history of the music. Why tarnish it? If everybody in the band wanted to do a warts-and-all autobiography, we’d all agree to do it. But we haven’t agreed, and if we haven’t agreed it’s not going to happen. I think it’s tremendous that we all value each other’s opinions rather than just saying, ‘Let’s do it and make some cash’. That’s the way Priest has always worked – there’s no dominating force, it’s all collective.

Are you in a position, financially, where you could retire?

RH: Yeah, and I think that’s another indication of why we do what we do. We’ve got the best band in the world: it would be different if the fans were falling away, but they’re not, they’re consistently there. You walk on stage now and you see these teenage metalheads banging their heads to Priest: out of all the young bands that these metalheads could relate to, they choose Judas Priest. That’s a tremendous honour that they’re giving you, so there’s a sense of responsibility.

We spoke for Metal Hammer five years ago and you told me then that you wanted to do an all-British metal festival one day. Any chance of that happening?

RH: Well, I would have hoped that someone would have read that and made it happen! Maybe they will this time. I still think it would be phenomenal to get all those bands jamming at a festival.

What do you do in your down time, Rob?

RH: I don’t really have any down time. I’ve always got something going on. It’s literally been non-stop since...well, even before we reunited [in 2003]. I’ve got a record label and a clothing company, so there’s always fuckin’ emails to do and phone calls to make. I’m not complaining. Here I am at 58 and you’d think life would be slowing down a bit but it’s not, it’s gone in the opposite direction. I’m relishing it, because I know in the end everything has to come to an end. That’s the nature of living.

Which metal bands are going to be playing stadiums after Priest, Maiden and Metallica have all gone?

RH: Well, that’s a really good question. There are a handful of bands that have been able to go on to the level that those are on, and can do these massive world tours and sell out major-capacity venues, but will there be another Judas Priest? Will there be another Metallica? Will there be another Iron Maiden? Will there be another Guns N’Roses? AC/DC? Kiss? I don’t know. All of these are still giants in the world. We came close to it with bands like Slipknot and Linkin Park or Rammstein – there’s a handful – but will they be able to maintain it for 30 or 40 years? All of those other bands that I mentioned, even Metallica’s been around since 1981. Maybe it doesn’t matter, I don’t think it really does. The main thing is that heavy metal dominates completely in every part of the world, and it’s reassuring. Heavy metal is everywhere and it will never die. You have to appreciate that the music is bigger than you are.

Judas Priest's 30th Anniversary Deluxe Expanded Edition of British Steel is out on May 10