“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ― Oscar Wilde
In heavy metal, as in any walk of life, nothing matters like identity. To know it, to be it, to own who you are, as the great rock’n’roll sage, Wilde, so profoundly observed. And you’d have thought Judas Priest would have owned that down to their sweaty leather pantaloons.
You’d have thought that a band slugging its way out of Birmingham, England, would have known that quiddity. But no. When Judas Priest blew off their umpteenth retirement and announced the 50 Heavy Metal Years Tour this year, they almost pulled off the biggest brand blunder since New Coke—dismissing second guitarist Andy Sneap and deciding to turn one of metal’s defining (if not the defining) quintet into a quartet.
Admittedly, Priest was smarter than Coca-Cola. Turning their five-piece into a four-piece lasted all of 5 days. In a rare moment of hubris-reversal, singer Rob Halford—who had expelled guitarist Sneap and said the band would power through as four—admitted his colossal rocka-rolla error and welcomed the guitarist back in time for the band’s highly successful 50th anniversary tour. And so, alongside the spectacle of a bigshot calling mea culpa rather than doubling down on his scandalous misperception, we got a Metal Teaching Moment. Know Thyself.
So let’s look at the record. While not common knowledge in polite circles, Judas Priest had a pretty solid run of good-to-great metal albums from, say, Stained Class (1978) to Screaming for Vengeance (1982), with the inarguable British Steel (1980) correctly ranked as one of the elemental records of the genre. Did I mention they had come from Birmingham? You’ve heard of “Swingin’ London” and Mary Quant and nice, groovy English things like that? Birmingham had not.
“When we were kids walking to school, we’d walk past these metal foundries and see the molten metal coming out of the big vats,” Halford has previously said. “We were literally breathing in the fumes from these metal works, breathing in metal before heavy metal had even been invented. I’d be in school trying to do English literature and the classroom would be shaking because of the machinery.”
So they grew up in a sulphur cloud, in a tuff town. It defined them, and that identity would eventually resonate through likeminded kids growing up in sulphur cloud towns worldwide. Judas Priest went through many early changes before setting the format/sound that drove ten thousand zit-encrusted rebels to leather-up. This was a band that once had a singer named Al Atkins, y’all. No band was gonna make it with an insurance salesman named Al Atkins.
They went with Halford. And in terms of vocals, unless we consider the Bon Scott version of AC/DC to be “metal” (and we do not), then Judas Priest has arguably the greatest singer in the genre’s history. Yes, not Ozzy, who is more of a category than a singer. And not Dio, who is beloved but always seemed like a bit of an operatic gag. It is Rob Halford, of the four-octave car-alarm voice, followed by the twin-guitar spiralling sound from KK Downing and Glenn Tipton, who codified the genre with deadly anvil-pounding riffs behind that glass-shattering butch singer. They also brought songs whose very titles defined a way of life: “Heading Out to the Highway”, “Breaking the Law”, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”.
Along the way, for laughs, the band also codified the look with spiked leather-culture outfits and the Harley Davidson stage entry.
Yea verily, Ye shalt know thyselves, decreed the Metal Überlords from high atop Mount Molten. And yet… there were two further identity tests to come.
In 1990, Judas Priest was the first band sued for trying to kill its fans with subliminal kill-thyself messages in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” (a cover, by the way). The case was eventually dismissed, and Halford would winningly say that subliminal messages calling for fans to kill themselves wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be good for business. You might want to subliminally ask them to “Buy more of our records.”
And in terms of identity, can there be anything more definitive than coming out as a gay man when you front Judas Priest?
Halford came out in 1998, but anyone going back to the song “Raw Deal“ (1977) might have had an inkling (sample lyrics: “The scene screwed me up / I saw some contact / Then the big boys saw me and knew that”). Much more importantly, this fanbase is—like most in metal—fiercely loyalist. I remember a non-metal fan goading one such loyalist when Halford came out. Uh-oh! Trouble in metalland!
The fan asked “Is he still gonna do the scream?”
“Uhm… I suppose so…”
“Then what do I care?”
All those instances cited above… that’s a lot of identity. And what else is heavy metal about, if not that?
What is metal about, if not finding your tribe? To generalize to the point of street-fighting, the initial metalheads were working class and blue-collar suburban outcast boys looking for the other exiles and misfits. Yes, there were badasses in metal culture. And for every one, there were three nerds seeking the empowerment of testosteronal release. Unto today. Some might suggest that a metalhead finding his (or her) tribe is just some headbanging bumpkin who can’t fold himself (or herself) into the most mediocre of lumpen job categories, when not self-abusing to pictures of elven folk. However, if you’ve ever been to a metal festival like Heavy Montréal, you know that there probably isn’t a crew of genre fans that travels better, or is more united when they assemble. They are loyal. And they know who they are.
So, back to Birmingham. When Judas Priest booted out Sneap, he was hurt. A prolific metal producer (100 albums!), Sneap had been handpicked as Glenn Tipton’s replacement in 2018 when the latter had to retire due to Parkinson’s Disease (KK Downing left and was replaced by Richie Faulkner in 2011).
Judas Priest had initially been a four-piece, sometime back in the 9th century. Was that a good idea for their 50th anniversary? How’s that New Coke going down? The fanbase was not having it. The fanbase shrieked blue murder. Don’t tell me what my favourite band is! They wanted the spiralling twin guitars. They wanted the true Judas.
And in a rare happy ending in 2022, they got it. After f—ing it up, Halford fell on his sword. “Of course, that blew up in my face, didn’t it?”, he said.
“To have done something like a four-piece now would’ve been just not right, ridiculous, insane, crazy, off my rocker, have a cup of tea and relax. I think my heart was in the right place, but I’m not the first musician to have a crazy idea.”
He is not. But he may be one of the first to uncrazy it. And now that they’re back on track, the reviews of the anniversary tour are, predictably, strong. Rob is 70, and still hitting the witchy notes. Andy Sneap is 52, so he’s a kid. They can probably do this for a while yet. The band has been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for the third time. “It’s wonderful,” Halford said to Billboard. Surely that would be something Priest and their happy fans can (apologies) celibate together.