“There was a time when ‘heavy metal’ was a dirty word,” Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford says. “But we have always said that we fly the flag of British heavy metal. It’s something that we’re extremely proud of. We take it seriously.”
For nearly half a century, Halford has been the voice of Judas Priest, screaming for vengeance against nonbelievers. His razor-sharp shrieks have always blended perfectly with the band’s two-guitar assault on classics like “Breaking the Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” and “Heading Out to the Highway,” and his studs-and-black leather biker outfits defined the look of the genre for years to come. In 1980, the band released the song “Metal Gods” on their classic British Steel LP, and the title became a nickname for him that has stuck. Rob Halford is the Metal God.
He’s also one of the most intriguing men in hard rock, having risen above many obstacles. He overcame drug and alcohol abuse in the Eighties, long before many of his peers. After taking a break from Judas Priest in the Nineties, he recorded harder-edged metal with Fight and embraced industrial music with his group 2wo on a record that Trent Reznor’s label released. Around that time, he also came out as gay, which could have been a risky move since metal was still ruled by machismo. But fans embraced him nevertheless. Once he reunited with Judas Priest, he and the band have continued putting out genre-defining metal; their 2018 album, Firepower, ranked third on Rolling Stone’s best metal albums list that year. Halford will detail his full life story in his upcoming autobiography, Confess, due out September 29th.
This year, the band was supposed to be celebrating its 50th anniversary on the road supporting Ozzy Osbourne, but nature had other plans and the coronavirus pandemic forced Judas Priest to stay home. Despite this, Halford is in good spirits when he speaks with Rolling Stone, since he’s been spending his time listening to music and making inspiring videos and outrageous cat memes for his Instagram followers. “It’s not always the Metal God,” he jokes, “sometimes it’s the Metal Cat.” And with that jovial frame of mind, he had fun with the Last Word interview, offering up his philosophies about life and advice on defending the heavy-metal faith.
What’s your advice for staying sane during social distancing?
I think the main difficulty here is everybody has a routine. It’s completely disrupted. That’s the mental side of this pandemic that’s affecting so many people. It’s important that we try to retain some kind of sanity. One of the best ways is to talk it out, whether it’s on a phone call, video chat, or a text. We need to keep that line of communication open with each other.
How do you define success?
Success is realizing your dreams and your ambitions. I’ve never equated success with how many records sold or plaques on the wall. When those rewards, if you want to call them that, come to you, I think it’s just a beautiful reaffirmation in the way success displays itself. I equate success in just making a great song, putting on a good show. So I’ve never been a blingy guy. I’ve still got one vehicle, my little old Cadillac that’s like 15 years old. That’s all I own; that’s all I need. I guess that’s the kind of characteristics and makeup that came from growing up in a working-class family.
What did you learn from coming from a working-class family?
It was tough. The income into the family was pretty meager. Watching your mum count out your dad’s wages to make sure that we could just get through to the next week, living paycheck to paycheck, which a lot of people still do, just puts a kind of thing in your mind about what you need and what you don’t need, what’s superfluous. And as we all know, [what matters] is having some food in the fridge and some shoes on the kids’ feet.
You’re from just outside of Birmingham, England. What is the most Brummie thing about you these days?
I haven’t lost my accent. I’m pleased that that’s still in place. I like to feel I’m also a very practical guy in a lot of things, and that comes from my roots. You don’t have to double-check yourself as far as putting yourself on a pedestal. Or saying, “I am the Metal God.” That kind of thing. Well, I am the Metal God, but that’s onstage. I think probably those characteristics of what has value and what doesn’t have value, are still deeply embedded in me.
How do you know when it’s appropriate to declare yourself the Metal God?
[Laughs] I really feel it’s when I’m onstage. Everything changes when you hit the stage. Just getting out there and holding a mic, there’s something very tangible that shifts in me and suddenly it’s the Metal God. It’s a bit like when Superman went into the phone booth and came out. Whereas he came out in a cape and tights, I come out in leather chaps.
What music still moves you the most?
I’ve always had an eclectic taste in music. Metal has always led me in my life, but it can be all over the place. Depending on my mood, I’ll say, “Alexa, play me some Pavarotti.” I’ll listen to that remarkable human voice. “Alexa, play me some Bob Dylan.” I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan lately. My other half, Thomas, is going through his autobiography, and I’m going to grab from him when he reads it. And, oh lord, “Alexa, play me some Dolly Parton, Black Sabbath, Scorpions, Deep Purple, Tool, David Bowie,” and on and on and on it goes.
What books are you reading now?
I’ve been slacking off recently. I’m looking forward to snatching the Bob Dylan book [Chronicles] from my other half when he’s finished with it. I’ve got a number of books that are in my office, as I call it: The latest Philip Pullman book, who did His Dark Materials, that’s waiting to be read. And I’m eagerly awaiting the next opus, whatever that might be, from Ken Follett.
Judas Priest was one of the first bands to embrace being “heavy metal.” Why did you latch on to that term?
That’s who we are. It’s what we speak. That’s our music. I think that one of the great attributes of Priest is that we can be a “Painkiller” heavy-metal band or we can be a “Turbo Lover” heavy-metal band. I think that really, there is no other band that comes close to Priest in that respect. That’s what’s made our life journey in metal be so comprehensive and full of twists and turns. We said from day one that we wouldn’t limit ourselves by what heavy metal is supposed to be. By definition, big slabs of riffs and all the other accoutrements which of course, we cover. It’s just a way of expressing yourself. We needed to believe it.
What is it about heavy metal music that spoke to you originally?
Just the cathartic side of it. As a singer, to be able to let loose vocally in that primal way, it just was a way of expelling all of this angst and tension and fear and joy. I still feel that way now.
When did you know that you had found your singing voice?
Oh, probably by [1976’s] Sad Wings of Destiny, in terms of recording it in that way. I don’t know. I think that those first early bands that I was with gave me the opportunity to stretch my metal wings and see what the voice was capable of doing. But until your voice comes back at you through speakers, it’s only then you feel that you’re getting to grips with what your voice is capable of. I still enjoy the challenge of trying to bring some little extra nuances into the voice all these years later.
“Breaking the Law” has become an anthem. How do you keep a song like that fresh, night after night, for 40 years?
It’s fresh every night that you play it. That given moment in time, it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s different. It’s never exactly, identically the same, and that’s just the way it is. I think what’s important with these kinds of songs is, you don’t put them on autopilot. You don’t go through the motions. It has to be coming from a real sincere place of performance. It’s not like, “Oh, shit. We’ve got to do it again for the fucking 4,000th time.” You never feel that way. You look forward to it. I still look forward to doing “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight,” “Electric Eye.”
Judas Priest’s black-leather, almost S&M look made you stand out. How do you go about finding a look?
A good look has been important since rock & roll began. I think the way that Priest had that journey of visual discovery was just by experimentation more than anything else. If you look at primitive footage of Priest on The Old Grey Whistle Test on the BBC [from 1975], when we looked a little bit like Greta Van Fleet [laughs], it’s remarkable. I think we developed our look in simple steps. You’d look at yourself and go, “No, this doesn’t feel right. The music is so strong, angry, and dark in places, and it’s deep and full of power … and I’m wearing a paisley shirt. I need to do something about this.” [Laughs] So just putting out a simple leather biker’s jacket was, for my part, just a major, major step. Suddenly you look at yourself in the mirror and go, “That’s more like it. Now it’s connecting.” From that point on, it began to develop.
Of course, me being the gay metalhead fashionista, I couldn’t wait to really extrapolate on that and take it to all those glorious places with the help of my main guy, [clothing designer] Ray Brown, who’s been with Priest forever making these incredible works of art.
You have really embraced your love of cats on Instagram, and I love your many cat T-shirts. What have you learned from your fans by putting that side of yourself out there, and where do you get those shirts?
I have a secret cat T-shirt supplier. I’m not going to say anything more than that. But I like to have fun with my Instagram, because my Instagram is like my music. I don’t just bang out a pouty pic; I’m not one for pouting. I just have a lot of fun with that. It just carves a little kind of groove, this #caturday thing. I have to be very careful now, though. I have to include all critters, because not everybody’s into cats. It was National Pet Day last Saturday, where I just again, I opened the doors and I put everything out there. Your pet cats, dogs, spiders, lizards, anything that lives and breathes, anything that’s not of the human species, just put them out there.
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You got sober in the mid-Eighties. What advice do you have for people still struggling with their demons?
Oh, every day is a fucking struggle. It’s just unbelievable. But what sobriety gives you is just this incredible strength that is in all of us. All of us are strong people; sometimes you have to go to the bottom of the shit pit, as I call it, to realize that you have tremendous strength and resilience to survive. In terms of sobriety and learning to live as a sober person, you have to dig deep for the strength to do it, because you can lose it. It’s incredibly fragile. Strength is a funny thing, because it can break at any moment. It’s finding something in yourself that you can only find by going to the darkest of places.
In 1990, Judas Priest were put on trial because a lawyer claimed you put subliminal messages on an album, influencing two teens to attempt suicide. Did that experience ever make you question your direction as an artist?
It made me appreciate that there are people on the outside looking in that are capable of damaging you. And that really brings into question, how do we go forward? Particularly for me as a lyricist, what can I now say and what can I not say? And then suddenly you go, “What the fuck? Why am I even thinking this way?” I hate censorship in all of its formats. I just detest it. Because again, being a guy out of the closet, I realize that any values, walls, rocks, or chains that you wrap around something, it’s the wrong thing to do. It’s restrictive freedom. So the one thing I learned about that was to just stay the course and just write lyrics from the heart. But the most heartbreaking thing about the whole trial was the loss of these two beautiful boys’ lives.
You left Priest in the early Nineties but came back about a decade later. How do you know when to leave and when to come back from something?
I would probably say that my exit was due to probably the similar circumstances as a lot of my friends, lead singers that I know that went on the same self-journey of discovery. I think it was important for me to do that. Because it’s like that song, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Internally, as difficult as it was for me to be away from the band that I lived for, it kind of brought things into perspective and led me back to the place where I felt this is where I need to be. This is the band I need to be in. This is the band that means everything to me.
What did you learn from doing Fight and 2wo, in between?
I still had that sense of self-determination and drive to express myself in those styles of music and be able to realize it, make it happen. I had no clue how any of those bands were going to work — that they would connect, but they did. I surrounded myself with like-minded players. And even though I hold the reins more firmly in that respect in terms of leading those projects, I couldn’t have done any of those things by myself. It helped me figure out a lot of things.
You publicly came out as gay in 1998. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned that you’ve got to let yourself out of the cage and you can’t live your life for other people. To come out into what was at the time, and still is to a certain extent, a very alpha-male–dominated experience — and that’s no disrespect to the great female metalheads — it brought me a lot of peace and helped me in my work more than anything else. If you’re still in the closet, you can’t really focus on life and what you’re here to do in life when you’ve got that shadow hanging over your head. Black it out, smash it down, burn it, tear it apart. You’re entitled to live your life as a human on this planet on your own terms.
You’ve always had a tough look. Do you feel you have to keep that up because you make hard rock?
There are all different types of gay people, as there are all different kind of straight people in the way that we show ourselves off, how we speak, how we dress. I think that’s the beautiful kaleidoscope of life in the way it manifests itself, regardless of whether you’re gay, straight, bi, black, white, Asian, Latino. That’s just the glory of it all.
When I’m dressed to the nines in leathers, that’s a personification of me that’s really no different to when I’m offstage. I love drag queens; I fucking love drag queens. They’re some of the most fiercest people on the planet. One of my great friends, Chi Chi LaRue, is just the master of that world. And so, that’s another way that we express ourselves in the gay community. And then when you take all the drag off, you’re unrecognizable, and yet your heart and your soul and your spirit are still in the same place.
What advice do you have for metalheads who feel like they’re stuck in a very straight culture but want to come out?
Well, you don’t have to feel as alone as I did. At your fingertips are all of these resources, places you can go to help steer you through making that decision. It is up to you to decide. I have friends that are still deeply closeted of their own choice. That’s just the way it works for them.
Gay metalheads, man, just come and join us and just get out and just have a blast. Have a good time with your life and don’t be afraid. It’s just fear more than anything else: fear of rejection, fear of being kicked out of the house by your family. It’s just unbelievable how there are always cruel aspects within a family that you didn’t know. But please don’t let that stop you. It’s your life. Claim it. It belongs to you.