When Rolling Stone rang Judas Priest's Rob Halford to discuss the group's upcoming live album, A Touch of Evil: Live (out July 14th), the leather-clad singer also discussed their classic British Steel LP — an album that will soon be celebrating its 30th anniversary. For their upcoming U.S. tour with Whitesnake, Priest will be performing the album in its entirety, and British Steel will be reissued next year with a DVD of live performances filmed on the upcoming tour. "It's a nostalgia trip for lots of reasons — where were you in 1980?" Halford says. The frontman also chatted about breaking through in America and the cult classic short film Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
What should we know about A Touch of Evil: Live?
I'm excited about it. It's a very powerful, strong, fierce record — in terms of the music and the intensity. We put together a list of songs that are extremely heavy. It really sends a message of determination and tenacity from the band all these years later.
With the group revisiting British Steel this summer, where was Priest at when you started work on the album?
It was a very interesting time for us. I've always believed that most times, the best material from any band is their first two releases. Priest is a little unusually different in that manner, because this was our sixth studio release. Suddenly, the band seemed to change shape, and you get a very distinctive moment coming from Priest, in terms of the way the songs were written and the production. We'd just come off the back of mixing Unleashed in the East, and we were on a schedule to release a full studio album. We were burning the candle at both ends, because we had some ideas, but we didn't have enough.
So quite a bit of the writing took place at a house that was the former home of John Lennon [Tittenhurst Park, in Ascot, Berkshire, England] — Ringo was living there at the time. There was a lot of stuff going on in the U.K. — socially/politically, it was in turmoil with the Thatcher government and the unions, street fights with coal miners and the police. It was a really volatile bit of a revolution around the late '70s. I think some of that went into my writing as a lyricist. If you listen to the words and messages on British Steel, it's full of that angst.
Did you meet any of the Beatles during the recording?
Ringo was in Barbados or Bermuda — he has a second house there — so we didn't see him. But the house was full of Lennon, as far as the white room he'd made "Imagine." That's the room where Glenn [Tipton] woke me up, because my bedroom was above that room, and Glenn was clanging out the chords to "Living After Midnight" at 4:00 in the morning. He woke me up, I came downstairs, and said, "Glenn, it seems like you're living after midnight down here." And he said, "That's a great title for this song!" It's full of memories like that — walking around the lake where Lennon was rowing across in that "Imagine" video. I always will be a Beatles fan. If you want to learn about writing a good song, listen to the Beatles. It's as simple as that.
At what point did you realize you'd come up with such a strong album?
30 years later [laughs]. We're so British in that way — we never take anything for granted. It's natural to feel good about what you've created, but you have no control over its fate or destiny. It's up to the masses to figure where it's going to stand. But looking at its value 30 years later, it's an important record for the genre of heavy metal.
What were audiences' initial reaction to "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight"?
It was absolutely immediate. That riff in "Breaking the Law" is like our "Whole Lotta Love" or "Smoke on the Water." More exciting to us was how it was creating things in America, because we had been to America on a few tours. Suddenly, we had music that could be played on American rock radio. British Steel has a very strong American connection because of that.
Among Priest's earlier stateside shows was opening for Led Zeppelin in Oakland, on what would be their last two U.S. performances with John Bonham.
We had just come to the end of our first massive American tour. We were ready to go back home, and then we got a call from management that Robert Plant knew we were over here, and said, "We'd love Priest to open for Zeppelin." We had to park our carcasses in a Motel 6 for about a week, and wait for the moment to happen. Without a doubt, those two shows [at Oakland Stadium] helped break Priest on the West Coast. We went on very early in the morning, because it was a 4:00 p.m. curfew. When we went on, there was still a lot of that fog that you get in the Oakland/Bay Area. You could see a few thousand people on the floor. But while we were performing, the sun broke through, the fog lifted, and the place was absolutely full. It was mind-blowing.
And then Priest soon returned the favor to other up-and-coming bands.
We went out with Iron Maiden, Def Leppard. It's what you should do, no matter who you are or what music you play. We've all got a story to tell, and we're all on the same journey. We've all been through barely affording gas and sleeping in the van — that's part of your "apprenticeship."
Do you think Priest's audience is faithfully represented in Heavy Metal Parking Lot?
The camaraderie between the people in the parking lot and the things they're saying, it hasn't changed a lick. You go to any parking lot before a Priest show all these years later, and you'll still get that same kind of essence. That's what's special about metalheads; it's like the Marine Corps — once a metalhead, always a metalhead.
If someone wanted to be Rob Halford next Halloween, where's the best place to buy leather and studs?
[Laughs] There's a place called the Crypt in San Diego, which has all of your Halloween S&M needs...
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