When Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford looks back at the lead-up to the group’s 1986 album, Turbo, he says he and his bandmates were having the time of their lives. So he wrote a song about it called “Rock You All Around the World.” “It was a song of determination: That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to rock you all around the world,” the singer says. A live version of the tune premieres here. “The song was about how Priest were the ambassadors of metal, flying the flag of metal. It was a fanfare, a call to everybody that this was our intent, which it still is. We’ve always had a real genuine belief in what we do with our metal.”
As it happened, though, the synth-heavy Turbo album became what Halford describes as “without a doubt, the most controversial album Priest ever made” because “it just had a different tone, texture, and vibe and atmosphere to anything else that we have ever done.” The group had been on a winning streak in the U.S. since 1980, when their British Steel album pushed them in all their studded-leather to the forefront of heavy metal with hits like “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight.” Each subsequent record did better than the last; they even played to a reported crowd of nearly half a million headbangers at the US Festival in 1983. All it took to divide their fans was a synthesizer.
When writing Turbo – which ultimately featured the singles “Turbo Lover,” “Parental Guidance” and “Locked In” – guitarist Glenn Tipton had gotten ahold of a synth-guitar setup and drew much inspiration from its futuristic sounds. “I remember when we were just messing around with the tones and the sounds when we were in Spain,” Halford says. “We did think a bit about whether it was a good idea to use synthesizers, but we’ve always been led by our hearts, and we thought it was the right thing to do. As we’ve always done, we were looking to step into a different field, rather than be repetitive. So it might have crossed our minds that it might cause a bit of a fuss, but we don’t really let that get in the way.”
Despite dismaying some hardline fans, the album was still a big hit, reaching Number 17 on the Billboard 200 and being certified platinum. To celebrate its legacy, the band is issuing a deluxe edition of the record as a three-CD set, due out February 3rd. It features the original album, remastered, along with two discs containing a live concert captured in Kansas City on the band’s Fuel for Life Tour in 1986, which is where the version of the charging anthem “Rock You All Around the World” comes from. The tour, too, was a victory, documented on the group’s Priest … Live! double-LP and Fuel for Life home video.
“It’s amazing,” Halford says. “From a commercial point of view, it was a smash hit, especially in America. I remember we had this huge show with a massive stage set and this robot that came out and did all this kind of crazy stuff. It was full on. It was a complete, resounding success.
“It was an interesting tie, because in the mid-Eighties, everything started to shift focus,” he continues. “The rumblings of Seattle were coming along, which personally I thought was a lifesaver. It was getting too safe, and I’d put Priest in that club.”
Turbo marked a different kind of turning point for Halford on a personal level. In the years leading up to making the album, he’d reached what he describes as a “challenging point in my life with my substance abuse,” and subsequently it was a difficult record for him to work on. “I think I was trying to maybe elevate what we were doing in some way, to give it a little bit of a less gruesome experience,” he says. “‘Cause if I look back now, if I had dwelled on where I was at, it could have been a whole different story. But the music was very uplifting and had a really cool vibe and feel to it.”
So instead of writing about electric eyes in the sky and motorcycle adventures as he had in the past, he began writing what he describes as direct songs. “Parental Guidance,” with its anthemic chorus “We don’t need no parental guidance here,” shook a fist at Tipper Gore and the P.M.R.C. Meanwhile, the icy, brooding quasi-ballad “Out in the Cold” was about lost love, by Halford’s estimation, “lying awake at night, trying to get your ex out of your mind.” And then there was “Turbo Lover,” an MTV staple at the time.
And just what the hell is a “Turbo Lover”? Halford laughs at the question. “We’ve never been in a band that writes love songs, in reality,” he says. “I think that’s as close as we got. It’s using a vehicle or a motorcycle as a sexual reference, and we’d never [written] anything like that. It was just an appealing experiment musically to work with. … Any kind of relationship songs we wrote were generally a bit gloomy.”
Halford adds that that inherent darkness in Priest’s love songs is not unique to them. “Most successful love songs are gloomy,” he says. “We could look at Adele.” He laughs. “She’ll be the first to say, ‘Why are people coming to listen to these depressing love songs?’ I think that’s just a faction of life. You have to go back to the Beatles, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’ [for something positive]. But I think that human emotion has always been drawn to the plaintive side of love, because it’s relatable. People would rather feel bad about love than good.” He laughs again.
Nevertheless, he thinks that Turbo, which he still considers an “unusual” album for Priest, fit into the general positivity that imbued a lot of popular music in the Eighties. “Things were rocking along, and people were generally out there to party like wild metal maniacs,” he recalls. “So we made a Priest record with a completely different look at life at the moment. … It was a great time for metal. I don’t think it will ever be matched. Just look at what happened in 1986 musically. It was a remarkable year in and of itself.”