The mere mention of Judas Priest undoubtedly stirs a shiver in any rock fan who came of age in the previous decade. The cheesy double-guitar onslaught of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, the grade-school lyrics of devils/testosterone/domination, and the band’s snarling leather-daddy ringleader, Rob Halford: All have left an indelible and embarrassing mark on fans far and wide.
Few would argue that Priest virtually defined heavy metal, yet the band evolved far more than many would give them credit for. They’ve also done more to promote camel toes in rock than anyone before or since.
Following their birth in 1971 as a blues bar band in Birmingham, England, Priest released two sub-Sabbath records before hitching a ride with CBS/Columbia in 1977. With the albums Sin After Sin and Stained Class, their dark, steel-toed crunch won them a niche as Monsters of Rock (and later on sparked publicity befitting such hellspawn: The band was taken to court by the parents of two Reno teens who had allegedly offed themselves after hearing a backward-masked message in the song “Better by You, Better Than Me”).
Then came greatness. Priest spread the latex on thick with 1979’s Hell Bent
for Leather, inventing speed metal in response to punk rock. Next came a leaning toward pop with British Steel (their first U.S. Top 40 entry) and Point of Entry. They grew some chest hair for 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance, which broke them stateside and contained the snide hit “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” This success carried on through the ’80s, their next three discs (Defenders of the Faith, Turbo, Ram It Down) going platinum, while every previous studio album went gold.
Even in the band’s irony-free heyday, non-fans found their appeal inexplicable. Judas Priest was the three-dimensional voice of adolescent rebellion — defiant, yet lyrically inane unto brilliance. Rock lyrics have always dabbled in psychobabble, but when Halford screamed, “I’m your turbo lover/Better run for cover!” he sounded like a very dominant primate.
Leather piled on to the point of absurdity, astride a beast of a motorcycle, Rob Halford was Judas Priest. “Harleys are loud, smelly, and they piss people off,” he says. “When I look at that machine, I see a characterization of what I do.” For two decades, Halford acted as the very embodiment of heavy metal, strutting all its excesses and contradictory doofiness, from the handcuffs dangling on his belt loop to his receding hairline and trademark “golden scream.”
After touring behind Priest’s 1990 Painkiller album, Halford called it quits. “I felt I had to move on and fulfill musical ambitions that wouldn’t have materialized otherwise,” he says. Retreating to his oasis in Phoenix, Arizona, Halford assembled Fight, a band of “fresh blood” whose Halford-penned Epic debut, War of Words, melded metal with such social concerns as prejudice, AIDS and the environment. It was followed by the less political A Small Deadly Space. Musically, Fight wasn’t much of a departure from Priest. “I think I was venting, confused, in turmoil,” he says, although it appears he was just still into metal.
For better or worse, rock music is not what it was a decade ago. It’s not nearly as amusing, and the only radical stylistic difference is the terrific increase in the plagiarizing of pre-existing genres; here in the ’90s, anything goes, as long as it’s been done before. Punk rock snorts in the ear of electronica while submetal guitars court spaghetti-Western samples. Everyone is a mutant.
Halford’s a mutant if ever there was one. He’s swept aside all traces of his former self, and he is, for the moment, a happening guy. His trademark S&M bond-
age wear and blond buzzcut have been replaced by Cousin It’s frock coat and Anton La Vey’s goatee; even his philosophy about music has altered. “I think music is generational,” he says. “Each generation wants to identify with their specific style of music. Since its inception, rock has been evolving. Now we’re supposed to be on the verge of a techno/electronica revolution.” Halford doesn’t think it will become mainstream. “It’s too anonymous. There isn’t a band identity with distinctive characters.”
It’s true, rock fans like personalities, and they like guitars. Halford’s new band, Two, has plenty of both. In ’95, Halford be-
gan jamming with guitarist John Lowery
and multi-instrumentalist/producer Bob Marlette. “It was something I had never experienced before; we were writing songs with no plans for a band, no contracts, no stress.”
Two is loaded with up-to-the-minute features, like the involvement of the thoroughly modern Trent Reznor. Halford met his future producer during Mardi Gras in New Orleans two years ago; back in L.A., Halford “banged on the infamous Sharon Tate door” and gave Reznor his demo tape. “I didn’t hear from him for the longest time, and then he calls and says he hears the music going to a different place.” After agreeing to executive-produce the band’s album, Reznor signed Two to his own Nothing Records. “When he became involved, the music became a very exciting thing to watch develop,” says Halford.
Reznor’s stamp is all over Two’s multidimensional debut, Voyeurs. Halford describes it as a musical “hybrid of things
that are going on around us.” Like Tool or Prong, Two wallows in sludgy, codeined guitars, which mesh easily with Reznor’s industrial, subdisco elements.
Halford possesses one of rock’s most versatile throats — he can troll as high as Mariah Carey, scream rawer than Axl Rose and emote like a Broadway diva. He’s relatively subdued on Voyeurs, favoring a taunting, nasal, Alice Cooper–like monotone or a strangely melodic, gravelly belch.
The album is surprisingly catchy, at times like the most hardcore music available at Walmart, often as pop-heavy as
the local alt-rock station might allow. Reportedly, several Midwestern radio stations refused to play it after Halford revealed his homosexuality on MTV.
Not that anyone was surprised. Of his past, Halford says, “It’s all been gay to me, totally homoerotic as a gay man.” The leather, so much leather, and so much
raging, snarling masculinity aimed in a
non-gender-specific direction — like Freddy Mercury’s, Halford’s sexual orientation seemed as obvious as a red hankie in a rear pocket. Months before his MTV appearance, Halford performed “Breakin’ the Law” with queercore band Pansy Division at San Diego’s Gay Pride Festival. “Once I thought about it, it was so obvious,” remarks Division’s bassist, Chris Freeman. “Even five years ago, coming out would’ve been a bad idea, but now it’s a good career move.” Like Freeman, many gays hope Halford’s openness will encourage other closeted rockers to come out.
“I’ve lived with this sexuality all my life,” says Halford, “and it was the last part of me that I felt I had not totally displayed in an honest way . . . I think it’s a myth that homophobia is rampant in heavy metal — it’s rampant in all forms of music. I’ve had some hate mail — ‘All fags should be shot’ — but there aren’t enough bullets to get rid of us.” To get the point across, local dragster/porn maven Chi Chi LaRue was drafted in to direct the video for Two’s “I Am a Pig.”
Meanwhile, Judas Priest forges ahead as both great art and great comedy. The remaining members have taken steps to ensure that the immortalization they received with Beavis and Butt-head and Heavy Metal Parking Lot was well-deserved. Jugulator, Priest’s first new disc in seven years,
features the vocal stylings of one Tim “Ripper” Owens, a law-firm purchasing agent from Akron, Ohio, who played Halford for a decade in the Priest tribute band British Steel. Halford is diplomatic about the whole thing. “I was only one voice in Priest,” he says. “My memories of Priest are the best I could have. I think it’s great they’re continuing.”
Some would say Halford has always had a strange and risky career. And while Two may win him new fans, he’s not expecting the world. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “I think we’ll bring in an eclectic mix of people. I would like to think that there will be some Halford fans from my previous musical experiences, although by definition they’re very conservative. For people that know of my work, it’s really pushing things to an extreme.”