For those that were too young to remember or not around yet, the ’80s was largely known and celebrated as a time of decadence, debauchery and decibels. MTV was born, the Sunset Strip scene ruled L.A. and Judas Priest cranked out six fist raising, foot stomping, riff slamming albums. The monumental British Steel started the decade Breaking the Law telling stories of their homeland ending with ‘88’s Ram It Down. The ‘90s began with the molten steel hammer meeting anvil statement of Painkiller. Though Stained Class caused serious legal problems for the band later on, 1986’s Turbo caused controversy amongst fans with a new experimental sound that was heard the second it started. For years fans had feverishly drilled the Priests riffs and screams into their heads like faithful disciples. The intro synthesized waves that greeted ears may have had an industrial robotic thrust but was a shock to many ears on a Priest album.
The use of synthesizers on the metal strings of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton were a shock to some and sacrilege to others. Some fans didn’t have a problem with it and many kids at the time discovering MTV, also discovered Priest watching Turbo Lovers Tron-like motorcycles hit the Los Angeles terrain, influencing a new generation of metal heads.
Instead of angry, electrified riffs, on first listen Turbo brought a change to the Priest style, image and music. The band, so feverishly celebrated for their two guitar onslaught and turbine vocals have taken its share of criticism over the years for the experimentation.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the motorcycle riding video bio mecca-droid with the remastered release of Turbo 30, available February 3. The reissue contains the remastered Turbo with a two-disc live show from Kemper Arena in Kansas City recorded on the ’86 Fuel For Life tour. Also available in a one-LP 150-gram vinyl format. The band sounds revved up and firing hard accompanied by the huge robot that lifted a 30-something Rob Halford up to the ceiling around the world. YouTube videos show Halford with blonde swinging locks still attached as the band took a slight detour from spikes and studs to attire slightly more space-aged, Blade Runnerish or glam, depending on perspective. Halford said in an ’86 interview that they were one of the first bands to use the technology on Turbo.
Screamer recently spoke to the Metal God about his memories of the decade of excess and the Turbo charged mid-80s.
“It’s always good to talk to everyone about what’s happening in the Priest world.”
On Turbo‘s reception and legacy, “It’s still probably one of the most controversial Priest albums I’d say. For lots of different reasons but, ya know, I think we were just at a place in metal that was quite unique at that time. In most of the ‘80s to some extent but particularly in the middle of the ‘80s there was a really different vibe going on there, down and around, not only in metal but in most kinds of music really. There were things I was watching on tour over here on TV and everything in general. The whole music industry was in a different place so it’s a special album really, like nothing else ever made.”
Though the band had prior videos out, it was still a time when magazines and cassettes were the dominant media and besides early MTV, bands in motion were only seen live, so a mulleted Halford moving in front of a screen was for many, their first impression of Priest.
Halford reflects on MTV’s exposure and the Turbo videos, “That was one of the cool parts of the ‘80s was MTV,” he says. “It broke around the time we made that record. The mid-80s was a special time in America because of what MTV was doing which went on to become a global force. With the major labels and the acts on the labels already successful, it was part of the setup when you released a new album you made two or more videos to go with it. It wasn’t a new experience to us, we’d been making videos for a while anyway but because of the possibility that MTV gave, it became more intense. It got more complex really.”
Wayne Isham was the creative force behind the videos. “Turbo and Locked In were made in L.A. by Isham who was the go to guy for everybody. It was a lot of fun. He made little mini-movies, and those two videos kind of connected. If you watch them back to back, there’s a bit of a storyline to them. But those were the only two we made, [Parental Guidance was a concert shoot]. It became kind of a moment to look back on and reflect on the memories that were attached to it. I look on it now, it’s full of humor and very camp. I think that’s where we were in the mid-80s. Everyone was having a great time. Everyone was going out on the weekend and partying and checking out bands. It was a really good mood going around the country in the States at that particular moment.”
Halford literary hung out in the pit for the Locked In video. “The old Griffith Park Zoo. The location for the second video was set around what used to be the old bear pit. We just all turned up and it was a long, long shoot. Actually it was a night time shoot. So, we started probably 7 or 8 O’clock and finished, I don’t know, 7 or 8 O’clock in the morning. I know it was getting dawn. Yeah, I do remember that. I remember hanging upside down for hours on this fucking thing, swinging back and forth like that old horror movie The Pit and the Pendulum. I don’t know why I was chosen, it could have been anyone else, but I was chosen, for whatever reason, getting in that contraption. I had no idea he was gonna flip it upside down. A lot of it was spur of the moment because, I don’t know if he still is now but Wayne is very impulsive, he knew his plot. He crafted what was going on around you, and improvised a lot of impulsive ideas which made the whole thing exciting. It was in an actual bear pit. It was quite a deep thing, like 20 feet deep. The way that Wayne pitched the angle you can grasp the size of the enclosure. That’s probably one of the most extraordinary things that’s happened in that place.”
The band christened the pit for Hollywood, “I do know that over the year’s lots of movies have been made in and around that bear pit just because it’s a real function-able setup with rocks and formations and stuff. It was a crazy thing to do, yeah.”
Some fans consider the imagery in the videos as Mad Max inspired, Halford says it’s possible but not likely, “I don’t really think so, it’s hard to really recall whatever meetings we had with Isham. We became good friends with the guy very quickly because he does so much work. I can’t recall, the discussion being on the table, I suppose it could be. To be quite honest, I haven’t watched it in years. I should do my homework and check it out. My memories of it, the end product, was a tremendous achievement, the editing, the lighting, the camera angles just the way it was all married to the song, it was a fantastic job. Top quality results.”
At the time the Priest… Live! album was the only audible, visual document of the tour. Recorded over two nights in Atlanta and Dallas, released on VHS and laserdisc, yes laserdisc, and later featured on the 2003 Electric Eye DVD.
As legendary as the tour was, it served as a time capsule along with another independently made period piece. The now legendary Heavy Metal Parking Lot documentary was filmed outside the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland on May 31, 1986. The short video directed by Jeff Krulik and John Heyn captured a rowdy, drinking crowd of dedicated fans waiting to get in to watch Dokken and Priest. The video is famed for among others unique characters “Zebra Man” who’s ‘slightly’ loud attire won him cult status. Another memorable moment was when a young lady was asked what she’d do if she saw Halford, saying she’d jump his bones. Ironically looking back in a later interview, Halford smiled saying, “I guess she didn’t know yet.” Several attendees asked if it was being filmed for MTV, the channel still in its infancy at the time.
Halford looks back fondly on what it accomplished. “It’s really cool that you brought that up, that really is a microcosm,” he says. “It’s a fantastic bit of social focus on the metal scene, as it was. Those people, those Priest fans, looking at them and listening to them speak and talk about the things they talked about, it was just amazing. I don’t know if people still do. I’m assuming they do. It was, in those days, everybody did that before the show, before the doors even opened. Thousands of people would show up and have parties and get drunk, rowdy and psyched up before they went into the building. That really is a fantastic kind of testimony to how everybody was feeling at the time from the fan perspective.”
On fan dedication pre and post social media, “I think more should be done with that in terms of social media. Now you listen to and hear what bands think more, but in those days what was achieved in the parking lot piece was quite extraordinary. And now it’s become legendary, it’s just an amazing piece of footage to look at and listen to taken at the time. The essence of how the fans feel hasn’t really changed that much. Maybe it’s me, but I think you’ve lost that kind of innocence that used to be there in and around that time.”
For enthusiasts of the era, it was released on DVD on the 20th anniversary with the original 17-minute film and 2 hours of never before seen bonus features with a ‘where are they now’ interview section with alumni including “Zebra Man.”
The ‘80s was also known for the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) calling album artwork and lyrics into question over content. Tipper Gore called more attention to the scene than any PR campaign could’ve with the Parental Advisory stickers. Gore founded the PMRC creating the Filthy Fifteen list of objectionable songs which included Priest’s Eat Me Alive, flagged for being profane and sexually explicit. Halford said at the time that they’ve never done anything intentionally that could be misconstrued as harmful or damaging.
On being targeted by the PMRC, “It’s a shame really. Those kinds of things hardly happened in America. Being British musicians, we couldn’t fully understand it [and] couldn’t figure out why we were on this list. I mean the song in question, I would never write the lyric like that again. I think that was just a very kind of immature moment for me lyrically but it was done in a drunken stupor one night I think.”
Halford has grown from the experience. “So, ya know, that’s the way you mature and grow in music. That was taken out of context with the Turbo thing. It was interesting from different perspectives as far as the political climate and first amendment issues and so forth. It was like a bit of a storm that was going on then it blew over and things got back to normal.”
On the PMRC’s attempt to censor music with warning labels, “There was a lot of belief in those days that controversy helped sell your music and I never really believed that,” he admits. “Your music has to kind of stand on its own merits really. I mean, if you just release something that’s rubbish and might be controversial, I don’t think it’s gonna be successful. In our case, it really didn’t make much difference really. I think if it did anything it probably made us more famous, than anything else.”
The band had a few other controversies happen before and after. In ’84 they played Madison Square Garden for a crowd that got a little too rowdy, tearing out $250,000 of seating, leaving a heap on stage, for the band to play through resulting in a lifetime ban and record company reimbursement. The incident had a funny ending, though, with the band returning incognito for a sports event and the staff quietly thanking them for the new seats.
A few years later by unfortunate tragedy the band was pulled into court to testify that the Stained Class song Better by you Better than Me, originally by Spooky Tooth, did not contain subliminal messages [do it’s] in the music. Two troubled youths had shot themselves after listening to the Priest song, one dying instantly, the other later from complications. Much like Ozzy Osbourne’s Suicide Solution controversy, artistic expression, musical freedom and metal itself was put on trial. The trial, held in Reno, Nevada received national attention with the issue of subliminal messages not being protected under the first amendment.
So called experts with special equipment were brought in to play the song both ways to identity the supposed hidden messages. The court determined that the ‘do its’ were a combination of guitar sounds and Halford’s vocal style and breathing technique he used, ruling that there were subliminal words present but were caused by a chance combination of sounds and not intentional.
On a happier, charitable note, in ’85 the band contributed to the Hear’n Aid benefit to raise money for famine relief in Africa. The convergence was an answer to its megastar counterpart Band Aid’s We are the World song featuring major pop icons of the day, and yes, Dan Aykroyd. Hear’n Aid’s single Stars put Priest in the same room with Ted Nugent, Night Ranger, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult and Vanilla Fudge among others, even Spinal Tap. Several vocal shredders including Halford, Dio, Kevin DuBrow, Geoff Tate and Don Dokken gave the song its mega-metal voice. Though together, the group was smaller than Band Aid, the combined music and vocal power disguised it. In the video Halford can be seen singing solo and belting it out front row next to DuBrow, Blackie Lawless and Vince Neil.
Shortly after they played a three song set at Live Aid in Philadelphia. A dual broadcast show accompanied by performances at London’s Wembley Arena. This ‘might’ve’ been the only time Priest shared the stage with Billy Ocean, Run-D.M.C., Crosby Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Madonna, Tom Petty and a slew of others.
When playing live, much of what fans scream for was released in the decade of hair and decadence. Before Priest… Live! their first live record Unleashed in the East came out with a loud snarling goodbye to the ’70s influencing countless numbers of future guitar slingers and musicians. Priest started the decade out strong with a definite statement of hometown dirt and grit on British Steel releasing the very tongue in cheek video Breaking the Law featuring the power of metal opening a bank vault and a security guard faux playing a cardboard guitar, a trend of sorts at the time. Fans were introduced to long time show staples Living After Midnight and Metal Gods. Live versions of Rapid Fire and Grinder were heard almost two decades later on ‘98 Live Meltdown during the Ripper Owens era.
After the loud decade door blasting hello of British Steel they continued with ‘81’s Point of Entry releasing videos for Headed Out to the Highway and Hot Rockin’. 1982’s aptly named Screaming for Vengeance ushered in several to this day crowd favorites including You Got Another Thing Coming and the molten melded metal companion piece The Hellion and the George Orwell inspired Electric Eye.
Love bit hard leaving a few broken jaws on 1983’s Defenders of the Faith, a record that read like a continuing mission statement to the metal community.
If you’re a determined YouTuber and footage completest, there are Turbo era commercials the band did with Halford playing a crossing guard, spoofing a credit card commercial hocking Turbo power and Halford walking in front of a couple making out asking if you know where your kids are. He also guest VJ’d for MTV’s Gonzo summer that year playing his favorite music videos, sporting a jacket with the mecca-droid from the Turbo videos explaining the animation process.
Halford says those commercials were mostly for fun and trying something different. “Oh yeah, I remember doing those shoots. Ya know, at that time, the whole musical climate was very experimental and getting out of the comfort zone and stepping out of the box. To be approached to do those kinds of experiences was a little bit unusual, but again, and still now, as a band, we’ll take any and every opportunity we can to use the belief we have in Priest, in heavy metal really, any moment that you can really reach out to a potential audience and bring them into the Priest world. We’ll do it. Even with the American Idol thing, we went into 30 million homes where you’d never see Priest.”
The band have never shied away from doing things a little different whether in the ‘80s or modern day like Halford performing Painkiller and Breaking the Law with BABYMETAL at last year’s Alternative Press Music Awards (APMA) show or on American Idol doing things in Halfords words, “You’d never think you’d see.” On season 10 James Durbin performed Living After Midnight/Breaking the Law with Priest.
“The next day a number of our CD’s were on top of iTunes charts. It’s just a way of having fun, trying something new and different and getting great results.”
In closing, the Metal God wets appetites for the future “I hope to be speaking to you sometime next year about new Priest.”