Screaming For Vengeance: Rob Halford Of Judas Priest Interviewed

Toby Cook talks to defender of the faith and all round good guy Rob Halford about Judas Priest's biggest album

Whoever you are, you know who Judas Priest are. Of course you fucking do. And it’s a safe bet that you don’t know them because of some hipster revival of metal as an ironic fashion statement or because “they’re that lot with the gay fella” either. No, it’s probably because of one album, British Steel, the 1980 album that is now an essential rite of passage album for anyone one with even the most meagre interest in hard rock or metal. But is it their best album? Well actually no, and it’s not even their most successful either, that honour goes to, incredibly, their eighth LP Screaming For Vengeance. (If you don’t realise what a feat this is, St. Anger was Metallica’s eighth long player, and in truth they ran out of ideas after …And Justice for All, four albums in.)

Exactly 30 years ago, after the comparative commercial and critical flop of British Steel’s follow up, Point Of Entry, and before burgeoning alcohol and drug abuse caught up with them, Judas Priest found time to return to Ibiza and create arguably one of the most important metal albums ever made.

Screaming For Vengeance very nearly invented thrash metal; showed a politically and socially conscious side to the band; broke them and the new wave of British heavy metal in America; and, most importantly, contained the sort of riffs which explain why they are the most popular unpopular band in the world, remain as the proudest ‘defenders of the faith’ of the last tribe left in music – heavy metal.

This month, Screaming For Vengeance gets the ‘touch-up-the-cover-put-it-in-a-cardboard-gate-fold-case-and-stick-some-extra-tracks-and-a-bonus-DVD-with-it’ reissue treatment. So what better excuse for the Quietus to call up one of the most righteous, articulate and erudite men in metal, Rob Halford, for a chat?

Coming at the time, off the back of Point Of Entry which – without being rude – perhaps wasn’t as well received as it might have been, what are your memories of the Screaming For Vengeance period?

Rob Halford: Well I think it’s fair to say that every time we’ve written songs for a new record we haven’t really thought about it too much in terms of an attack plan. And I think that’s good really, because as a musician once you start thinking things through too much, or putting an agenda behind anything, that interferes with the way that you write music. You start to put unnecessary pressure on yourself, and the pressure is already there when you start to become successful because you’re getting it from everybody. You get it from the label, from agents and promoters, and if you’re not very careful that can be quite destructive.

All I can really remember about Screaming For Vengeance was that we were all really up for going back to Ibiza – I mean, who wouldn’t be? We just wanted to get on with making another record that we were under contract – and under some time restraint – to deliver to the record company, and that’s what we did. But it’s interesting really, you’re not the first person to mention the way that Point Of Entry went for us, but when you talk about records that are more successful than others, I think that it can be kind of dangerous to go too deep into it, I think it just makes you human. I think it just shows the human side of you as a musician, because if you look at all bands that have had a long life in metal or rock & roll there are points where some records are more appealing or more successful; more people buy them than others; and you can’t really put your finger on why.

But certainly after British Steel, which was a very, very successful record for Priest here in the UK and elsewhere, following it up with Point Of Entry as we did, I think we just did the best we could at that time. So I don’t think it was like ‘C’mon lads, we’ve got to try harder’ on Screaming…, which has been one thing that has been suggested. I think it’s just the way that bands go in terms of growth and development, you’re just always trying to do the best that you can at the time that you’re doing it. It turns out that Screaming For Vengeance just happened to get all the right bits connected and became a very successful record for the band.

How much did Priest’s increased fame by this point affect the recording?

RH: Well, I think this is a very important thing that bands need to consider. When you’re sleeping in the back of a van, and we’ve all done that, you’re obviously feeling and behaving differently. Like when we were all sleeping in the van doing Rocka Rolla, that’s not the same as being in a beautiful studio in Ibiza. But once you close the studio doors you could be anywhere in the world, you’ve just got to remember who you are and what you’re trying to do and, again, just do the best job you can. I don’t think you slack off when you become successful – if you do then you’re an idiot, because people don’t buy shit! That’s the bottom line; if you make a crap record it’s of no use or value to anybody and I don’t think Priest has ever been in that world – we’ve always done the best we possibly can, whatever distraction might occur.

And of course this was also the record that broke Priest in America – what was it about Screaming… that helped you succeed there better than you had done before?

RH: Just the connection with rock & roll radio, which is still vital for any band in America. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you want to break it in the States you’ve got to have something that gets played on the radio, even in the world of the internet. If you haven’t got a radio connection in the States, you might as well forget it!

For us it was all about this song, ‘Another Thing Coming’ – which we buried, we put it towards the end of the record because it was one of the last songs we wrote in the studio sessions in Ibiza – that suddenly that got picked up by some stations in the States, unbeknownst to the record company – they were pushing ‘Take These Chains Off’, which was written by Bob Halligan Jr. So as a result of that we quickly put that video together with Julien Temple and shipped it over to MTV. So the two important components that were going on in the early eighties in America – the video and the radio side, that was really what propelled the record to such success in the states.

It’s interesting that you talk about the role of technology. The track ‘Electric Eye’, as I understand it, is inspired by Orwell’s 1984, the ideas of spy satellites and the invasion of privacy. Looking at how the world is today, do you see that some of Orwell’s predictions have come true – are we indeed facing a technological assault on our civil liberties?

RH: I think that the lyrics of that particular song are interesting, just because I think it shows one of the many sides that Priest has delved into. We’ve never been a socio-political band, we’ve just been wanting to write songs that have got interesting messages in them – ‘Breaking The Law’ for example, which was a reference to what was going on in the UK when we were recording it at the back end of the 70s/early 80s, when there was a lot of crap going on in the UK with so many people being unemployed – talk about history repeating itself! – that was kind of a kneejerk reaction to that.

We’ve never shied away from making statements like that – even the message in ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin” has got the line, “My life; I’m gonna live it up” – that’s a very strong thing to say. So lyrically we’ve been into many places, but I just recall, again around the early 80s, in the Reagan years, they were putting all these spy satellites up and I just thought that it might be an interesting topic to put into a song.

Do you find yourself cracking a wry smile at the fact that with that song you’ve almost pre-empted the sort of panopticon-like world we find ourselves in today?

RH: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t know whether they’re recording phone calls in the UK but I do know that they keep every text, every e-mail, and every website that you’ve been on for three years at some facility in the UK. And that’s not me being a conspiracy theorist, I remember reading about this when I was in the States, the argument being that, ‘Oh, well, we’re doing that to prevent terrorism – like what happened in London.’ So it’s a strange world really, isn’t it?

I get just as irritated and angry at 61 as when I was 16. And I think most people do – when you live in a democracy, surely that goes alongside with the word ‘freedom’, but freedom isn’t free, is it, you’ve got to work hard to keep freedom established. So, what’s happening in the UK is pretty much what’s happening in most so-called ‘civilised’ and ‘democratic’ places. It’s a very potent song and it still works now. And of course it always brings a roar when we fire up the hellion and then it bangs into that particular song – most importantly it’s a good old piece of metal.

We’ve already spoken briefly about the title track and how well it did for you in the States; I hear that it was added to the LP at the last minute and pretty much written in an afternoon – what’s the story there?

RH: Yeah, that’s right. We had the record completed but we absolutely needed one more track. It’s impossible to remember the exact details but I do remember that it just came out of a jam. And sometimes the best songs happened that way, it’s almost like ‘feel the force Luke!’ you just let go and it just happens – and I think that’s the great spirit of rock & roll.

I think most of the great things in music have just happened, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. You go the with the way it’s making you feel and you forge ahead with it. But I don’t recall us feeling particularly excited at the time that we’d written it though, none of us went, y’know, ‘kerrching! This is going to be massive.’ I don’t think we’ve ever done that in this band. But we thought, ‘Yeah, this is a good groove, this has got a great vibe and it’s like nothing else we’ve got so let’s go for it.’

I think if we’d really believed that it was going to be special we’d have stuck it up in the first two or three tracks, which is what most bands do now. You’ve got to catch everybody’s attention. If your record is going to sell itself, if that’s the way you look at it, then it’s got to all be happening in the first two or three tracks. Otherwise people are just like, ‘Is that it? What happened? The first song was great, but now what’s going on?’ I think that if we felt that ‘Another Thing Comin” was going to do that we’d have pushed it up the front of the record, but as we’ve discussed it just took on a life of its own and I think that’s what’s made us feel really affectionate towards that song – even now when we play it, like we did just recently in London where we filmed the show, it still does the business.

A number of people have covered Priest over the years, but most notably Pat Boone covered ‘Another Thing Comin” on his 1997 LP In A Metal Mood. Have you heard it – what did you think?

RH: I did, yeah, he sent it to me. And I’ll tell you what’s great about that, Toby: a good song, as we say from the stage, still now, will take any kind of interpretation. It’s like when Priest did ‘Diamonds And Rust’ or ‘The Green Manalishi’ – that’s what a good song should be able to do; you can take it and make it into anything. As an exercise of what a good song stands for and represents in terms of possibility I think it was amazing. Have you heard it?

Yeah, I listened to it again very recently preparing for this interview to be honest!

RH: It’s amazing isn’t it?

It is, that whole album is really good, in a weird way – not what I expected at all.

RH: I know, neither did I – when somebody sent it to me I thought it was going to be at least a little bit electric. I’m giving a story away here – I should keep quiet and do this myself! – but if somebody put together like, ‘Ace Of Spades’ and ‘Run To The Hills’ and all the other great metal tunes and gave them the big band treatment I think it would make for a really entertaining record.

Doug Johnson’s art work for the record is bad ass and very iconic – how did his involvement come about?

RH: Well the thing is, Toby, as you know, you’re going back to the vinyl days. It was glorious to go into a record shop and see all those 12" x 12" covers. You can still do that now I suppose. Most bands still do limited editions of vinyl – we do in Priest. I think that’s great, they’re keeping a bit of a fire alive, keeping it burning; not for sentimental reasons, because there are still people who listen to vinyl, but it’s a nice link to what we’ve been through together in metal over the decades. But artwork, as it still is, is very important, particularly in metal, because you’re trying to project, visually, what the musical side of what you’re presenting is all about – and I think that that particular artwork is just the dog’s bollocks. I mean, you look at it and you can almost hear the scream of what’s going to come out of the speakers.

As for how we met Doug – our record company, who we’ve always worked closely with, connected us with this guy Doug. I think by then we’d got the tracks and we’d got the idea and he just put his head around it and came up with that striking artwork – which of course he did again for Defenders Of The Faith and Turbo as well. As time has progressed, as you’ve pointed out, it’s turned out to be a very strong piece of very iconic imagery in the metal world.

One of the downsides of it being so iconic though is that people like Gap have basically ripped it off for one of their T-shirts.

RH: Well, it’s very naughty of them. They shouldn’t have done that and we’re investigating that right now because that’s intellectual property rights – we were never asked, neither was our label. Having said that, pushing the legal side of it to one side, its brilliant isn’t it? To think that something 30 odd years later is still striking enough to be a fashion moment – it’s a bit like when the vodka people [Absolut Vodka] did the <a href=“” target=“out”>British Steel label. The thing is with artwork is that I don’t think that you can underestimate its power. Like, you’ll see somebody walking down the street with a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt on, if you say to them: ‘Oh I love that band’ they’ll go: ‘What band?’ And if you say: ‘The T-shirt’ they’ll probably say: ‘Oh, I just like it!’ And I think that’s great, because again you’re making a visual, emotional connection with people; that’s what Screaming For Vengeance is doing all these years later.

Part of this deluxe reissue is a DVD that contains footage from the ’83 US Festival. There was a quote about the heavy metal day that went something like, “The day the new wave died and rock & roll took over." Do you, or did you at the time, see yourselves as ideologically opposed to new wave?

RH: No, not really. I think that it could be placed into the same world as what we were going through with the punk movement whilst we were recording British Steel. When I saw the Sex Pistols I thought they were a heavy metal band, quite frankly. I saw them live in a club in Wolverhampton and I thought, ‘Hmm, this sounds like heavy metal to me.’ But on that day it was just 350,000/375,000 people tuning into metal. And again, nobody was texting, nobody was Facebook-ing, y’know, nobody had any form of communication other than what was going on within the audience and that’s what I love about festivals – even though now you can communicate instantly – it’s just a lot of people, all there for the same thing. And it was a powerful day; on that particular day’s event, if I can remember rightly, there was Priest, Ozzy, Scorpions, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen and Triumph. It was all over the place in terms of rock & roll music, but it sent a strong message all over America and – particularly when it got into the magazines – then all over the world.

Up until that time in America, metal was still trying to find its way nationally, it was big in places like Texas in the early 80s and some other parts of the country too, around Chicago for example, but nationally it wasn’t as big as it became after the US Festival event.

And I hear that on that day you flew into the site by helicopter, which must have been pretty amazing – what are your memories of that day, did you have to slap yourselves, because here’s a bunch of guys from the Midlands who only a decade or so earlier were busy stickering every bus stop in West Bromwich?

RH: You just get caught up in the whirlwind Toby, you just know that on a certain day you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to play a show – even now. But all the bands flew in by helicopter, it wasn’t just Priest, it was everybody. In America everybody’s got a car and nobody was bringing their mates, so there was probably a quarter of a million cars spewed out all over the place; for the bands and the personnel it was the most efficient way to try and keep it running on time, which it did actually. But it was still pretty mind blowing; it was the biggest festival we’ve ever played and I do believe this one festival, which has now been gauged at 375,000 people, is the biggest collection of rock & rollers in one place ever – even bigger than Rock in Rio.

When Priest did Painkiller at Rock In Rio, there was a quarter of a million people there. So as you can imagine, when we flew over the site and saw all those people it was very surreal.

Do you know I don’t think I can imagine it – I mean, that’s the size of a city or a small country.

RH: It is, it is – definitely. It’s nice that you’ve picked up one that whole coming from the Midlands thing actually, because that’s still very important to us, even after all these years – we still take the Union Jack with us where ever we go, we still take that side of what we are about in Priest very seriously, so the fact that it was, y’know, some guys from the Midlands about to go onstage and entertain all those people was a tremendous feeling for us. And for everybody back home we hoped too.

Well, Rob, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today…

RH: I’ve enjoyed it Toby, I look forward to having another chat with you when we release our new one next year.

Ah, yes, I was told not to ask you about that!

RH: Well, y’know, we’re in front of the firing squad – that’s probably a bit harsh – but it’s “don’t you talk about it!” from the label, from management, from everybody. “Don’t you dare say…” We’re still told off like kids! But, then again, it’s a bit like opening your Christmas presents in August – by the time Christmas comes you’ve lost the surprise. So we’re trying to keep it tightly wrapped at the moment, it’s still very much in the growth stage, but I tell you man, it’s going to be a fucking killer metal album; pure metal!

The deluxe reissue of Screaming For Vengeance is available now via Sony/Epic

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