Judas Priest, a leather-clad heavy-metal band, was formed by guitarist K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill. In 1971 frontman Rob Halford joined (he'd previously worked in theatrical lighting), having met Hill, whom his sister was then dating (and later married). The band didn't get a contract until 1974, just after guitarist Glenn Tipton joined. Its first LP was released that year, but both it and the 1976 follow-up, Sad Wings of Destiny, sold marginally.
The band to develop a following in England, and in 1977 Priest signed with Columbia, which released Sin After Sin. Produced by ex-Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, Sin featured guest drummer Simon Phillips and an unlikely heavy-metal version of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust," similar in style to Nazareth's 1973 treatment of Joni Mitchell's "This Flight Tonight." The group's songs, highlighted by Tipton and Downing's dual lead-guitar attack, were catchier and shorter than most other early-'70s heavy metal, anticipating late-decade acts like Def Leppard.
Stained Class (#173, 1978) featured new drummer Les Binks, replaced with ex-Trapeze member Dave Holland after Priest's live-in-Japan Unleashed in the East (#70, 1979). The live LP included a version of Fleetwood Mac's "Green Manalishi." Over the years Judas Priest became increasingly known for its extravagant live show, which featured Halford, in his trademark S&M gear, thundering onstage on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. The band's seventh album, 1980's British Steel (#34), was its first U.S. Top 40 entry, and a heavy metal landmark. Concise songs like "Living After Midnight" and "Breaking the Law" mated metal aggression with new-wave melodicism. Both went Top 20 in Britain.
The 1981 follow up, Point of Entry (#39, 1981), failed to build on the band's momentum, but the platinum Screaming for Vengeance (#17, 1982) broke Judas Priest in a big way stateside, and gave the group its closest thing to an American hit single, "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" (#67, 1982). The song's stylish video showed Priest performing on a laser-lit stage while a conservative business type outfitted in a trench coat and bowler hat appears to be fleeing some unseen, sinister force. At the clip's end, Tipton and Downing's guitars explode —as does the character's head, literally —leading to a powerful climax.
In 1986 Judas Priest became the unwitting object of controversy when the parents of two mentally unstable Reno, Nevada teenagers sued both the group and Columbia Records for $6.2 million, claiming that a song on 1978's Stained Class contained subliminal messages that drove their sons to shoot themselves in 1985. One died instantly; the other lived but overdosed fatally on methadone three years later. Priest was acquitted of all charges in the six-week 1990 trial. The gold Painkiller came out shortly thereafter.
Halford, who'd relocated to Arizona in the early '80s and then moved to San Diego in 1999, abruptly quit Judas Priest in December 1992 to form his own band, the grungy Fight, which was active in the mid-'90s. (Scott Travis, Priest's drummer since 1990, assisted him, but remained in Judas Priest). Later in the decade, Halford led the industrial Two, which signed to Trent Reznor's nothing label. He also briefly fronted a post-Ozzy Black Sabbath, and collaborated with Pantera. In 1998 he obliterated many a metal stereotype (and confirmed years' worth of rumors) by openly announcing his homosexuality. In 1999 he returned to metal under the name Halford and parted ways with nothing.
Tipton released a solo album in 1997. The four remaining members of Judas Priest auditioned vocalist Tim "Ripper" Owens, a longtime fan who had fronted a JP tribute act. He joined his idols after singing only a portion of one song. The group's first album sans Halford, Jugulator, peaked at #82 in 1997.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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