Those less versed in the history of heavy metal might not hesitate to lump Judas Priest in with 1980s glam metal bands such as Motley Crue and Def Leppard; bands less affectionately referred to as “hair metal.” It’s uncommon to believe that Judas Priest, best known to classic rock radio as the band responsible for 80s hits Breaking the Law, Living After Midnight, and You’ve Got Another Thing Coming, are just another 80s metal band. But before You’ve Got Another Thing Coming made them international superstars in 1982, Judas Priest had already been playing heavy metal for close to a decade. Judas Priest are certainly not just another heavy metal band, they are the very first heavy metal band.
Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore’s Deep Purple may have dipped their toes in the heavy metal swimming pool, but Judas Priest dove right in. Since their 1974 album Rocka Rolla first debuted, Rob Halford’s screeching vocals, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton’s dueling lead guitars, Judas Priest have continued to be the trailblazers of heavy metal selling over 50 million records along the way.
Nearly 40 years and 16 albums later, Judas Priest is still going strong. Halford and Priest spent the last two years touring the world on the Epitaph Tour. The tour featured a set list containing at least one track from every album in Halford and Priest’s expansive career, from 1974’s Rocka Rolla to 2008’s Nostradamus. The final performance of the tour, held at the historic Hammersmith Apollo in London, England, was recorded as a concert film, titled Judas Priest: Epitaph.
When he was recording Priest’s 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla, Priest frontman Rob Halford never imagined he would be playing songs from that album nearly 4 decades later. Halford admits, “I don’t think any band does.” He adds, “that never even crosses your mind. I think most bands are focused on what they are doing now and looking forward to the future. that’s why I think this Epitaph DVD is so valuable. Because it’s really like a documentary of the band’s life in music.”
For Halford, the most rewarding part of Epitaph, is its demonstration of Priest’s diverse musical career. He adds, “It really shows the band’s breadth of dimensions that we had with writing metal songs. From Never Satisfied [off 1974’s Rocka Rolla] which is a very simplistic blues type of song, all the way up to more complex materials like [the 2008 album] Nostradamus.” Halford adds, “it is like a retrospective really. A celebration of all the wonderful years that Priest has been together writing heavy metal.”
Halford feels that the decision to play one song from every studio album was done with the fans best interest in mind. He adds, “I think much like everything that we’ve done on our tours, you just want to give it a different angle and do something for your fans that you’ve not done before.”
For a band with over 40 years of history, spanning 16 studio albums, playing one song from every album is a simple yet effective way to celebrate their vast musical career. Halford and the rest of Priest, who proved they were not afraid of a challenge when they recorded the incredibly ambitious concept album Nostradamus in 2008, showed little resistance to the idea. Halford adds, “We went ‘Well hey, maybe its time to take the opportunity to look at all the material we’ve banged out over the last 40 odd years and try to present a show, not in chronological order, but let’s put a show together that touches on the signatures from each record.’ That was the basic simple idea. And then we just went through every record and picked the songs that we ended up using.”
Despite being a simple idea, actually narrowing down the set list was far from simple. Halford admits, “I listened to everything that we’d ever done. I spent a week listening to everything and really digested the songs.” For Halford, this was a seriously difficult task. He adds, “You hear songs that you probably haven’t listened to in years and then you realize ‘Hey this is a really good track!’ But to use this track you’ve gotta drop this [other] track.”
Despite its challenges, Halford is extremely satisfied with the end result, particularly the selections from their older material. He adds, “it wasn’t easy to get the balance but I think taking Never Satisfied from the Rocka Rolla album was a good choice. I wanted to do the title track, Rocka Rolla. And I wanted to do Cheater. And I wanted to do Dying to Meet You. But that would have been like 20 minutes and change of the show. We had to discipline ourselves.”
Another tough decision, for entirely different reasons, was choosing the track from the 1978 album, Stained Class. Despite being considered the heaviest album of all time by many metal heads across the world, the album serves as an unfortunate reminder of one of the most difficult and tragic events in not only the history of Judas Priest, but of heavy metal as a whole. In 1985, two disturbed teenagers committed suicide, citing the lyrics to the Stained Class track Better By You, Better Than Me in their suicide note. Their families would later file a civil suit against Judas Priest, forcing the band to stand trial for the death of the two boys. Halford and the band were eventually acquitted of all charges, but the trial proved to be yet another example of American parental groups’ irrational fear of heavy metal. A fear started by Tipper Gore’s campaign against Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, and later reignited when the same groups blamed metal musicians like Marilyn Manson for the attacks at Columbine.
Despite the tragic events associated with Stained Class, it is important to Halford not to let the incident distract from the music. He adds, “You can’t let that intrude. The song, [Better By You, Better Than Me], is a great song. Of course we didn’t write that song, this band called Spooky Tooth did, but we did a pretty good version ourselves, the cover version of it. But I think it’s been taken to an unfortunate place.” He adds that the decision to not include the track on Epitaph had nothing to do with the court case, and just that Beyond the Realms of Death, a Priest live staple, was a better choice. He adds that if they were to let the court case affect the set list that “you’re submitting to something and that implies some kind of guilt. And Priest has never been guilty of doing anything but being a great heavy metal band.”
While selecting the lone track on the set list from albums like Rocka Rolla and Stained Class may have been difficult, other selections were anything but. Halford admits, “at the same time, if you don’t do Painkiller, the fans will get angry. Or If we don’t do Breaking the Law.” He adds, “You have to include the big moments. You’ve gotta do that. Everything else kind of works around those focus points.”
Halford’s emphasis on the importance of building the show around the big moments may explain why the Epitaph set list jumps around Priest’s career, instead of being performed in chronological order. Halford admits, “We tried to do it that way, but it wasn’t working.” He adds, “You have to create a flow to it. We moved the setlist around many times before we actually took it out on the road.”
Halford admits that selecting the songs for the setlist was more complicated than one might think. He admits, “You’ve got to really think about production as much as you are thinking about the music.” He adds, “We wanted to incorporate more visuals that we felt were important.” He admits that certain setlist decisions were made, “just to make the right opportunity work for when we are going to throw in fire and explosions and high def projection.” But Halford feels, “it probably worked better this way. Because you’re going from the 70s to 2000s to the 80s or to the 90s or back the 70s again.” he adds, “It works out really well. We start with Rapid Fire and end with Living After Midnight and everything in between.”
Halford is confident that Epitaph leaves nothing to be desired. He adds “The setlist is about 2 hours and 20 minutes. So, I don’t think the show has anything that it is lacking. I think that we would have realized in the first few weeks of the tour that something wasn’t working and we would have changed it. But as it turns out, right from the very first show in the Netherlands to the last show in London, going around the world twice, it was working night after night.”
Despite Halford’s insisting that nothing is missing from Epitaph, hardcore Priest purists might beg to differ. K.K. Downing, the long time co-lead guitarist, and founding member of Judas Priest, retired in 2011, making Epitaph the first ever Judas Priest tour without him. Despite Downing’s retirement, Halford and the rest of the band chose to continue carrying on the legacy of Priest.
Halford admits, this was an incredibly difficult decision to make. He adds, “In all honesty it was [very difficult]. But thankfully Richie Faulkner went out night after night and he did a magnificent job. He had a lot of pressure on his back, but he didn’t crack under it. He just went out there as a true professional.” Halford adds, “He’s a great guitar player. He really pleased the fans tremendously. If we hadn’t had Richie I think the tour would have been cancelled quite frankly. It was very difficult to find somebody to play on that part of the stage. Richie is a hardcore Priest fan, he’s seen us many times. He just ran with the opportunity and did a fantastic job.”
Metal head historians and hardcore Priest fans might recall that Richie Faulkner isn’t the first “hardcore Priest fan” to take the stage as a member of the band. They also might notice that despite being billed as a tour featuring at least one song off every Judas Priest studio album, two albums were excluded from the setlist; Juggulator and Demolition.
For those unfamiliar with Priest history, Rob Halford shocked the metal world when he quit Judas Priest in the Spring of 1992. Left with no indication whether Halford would ever return to the band, the remaining members of Judas Priest were forced to hire a replacement singer. Knowing that Halford’s signature vocal style was essential to the Priest sound, the remaining members famously hired Judas Priest cover band singer and Halford imitator Tim “Ripper” Owens to sing for the band. Despite releasing two albums with the band, 1997’s Juggulator and 2001’s Demolition, Ripper’s real life fairy tale was only temporary, as Halford would retake his throne as Priest’s front man in 2003.
Despite Halford’s absence, the albums recorded with Ripper on vocals, Juggulator and Demolition, were both official Judas Priest albums. Halford, never afraid of a challenge, admits he was completely prepared to sing a track off both albums on the Epitaph Tour. He adds, “I was ready for it. I was ready to play anything from those two records.” Despite his willingness to perform the material, it was inevitably left off the set list. He adds, “We were looking at the strongest possible moments and all of them outweighed other records and all other songs. I was waiting to have the opportunity to sing some of our songs from Juggulator and Demolition but it just didn’t happen.”
Halford has no regrets about the decision to exclude the albums from the tour setlist. He points out, “I’d like to say it didn’t feel as though anything was missing. I would have liked to maybe have the opportunity to include those two records in there. But in hindsight, I still feel like what we set out to achieve was done and it was a great show and the fans loved it. And I don’t think that anybody cared at all, or felt there was a great big gap or empty portion that’s not being covered. I think it got the job done.”
While willing to play the material Priest created with out him, Halford admits he would never consider playing the material from his solo projects, including Fight and Halford, with Priest. He adds, “I don’t think that would ever work in Priest world. I don’t think that would be the right thing to do. I mean, in my solo ventures we have always covered Priest because Priest is an important part of my life. But, Priest is a very special animal, and if you interfere with it, it tends to bite back.”
In addition to being the first Judas Priest tour to feature a song from every album with Rob Halford, Epitaph is also the first Judas Priest concert to be released in theatres. Before being released on DVD and Blu-ray, the film will enjoy a limited theatrical run in select cities across the US, based on fan demand. The opportunity for Priest to appear on the big screen, is one Halford is particularly excited about. He adds, “I’m excited because we’ve never done this before as a band. It looks great just on a regular flat screen TV, I can only imagine that on a big screen with surround sound, it’s going to be really exciting. I’m looking forward to it, and so are the fans.”
Halford admits to loving and appreciating cinema. He adds, “I’ve always loved the movies. I think that goes hand in hand with rock and roll. Just the whole creative process.” He adds, “I’ve always been very intrigued and interested in the way that works. I probably get more immersed in movie land now than I did as a kid. I just find the whole experience so wonderful. It emotionally takes you to places that the real world can’t.”
While Epitaph is Judas Priest first theatrical release, Halford’s relationship with cinema does not start here. In 2002, Halford played a small film role as a pornographic video store clerk. He adds, “I had a fantastic opportunity to work on that Spun movie with Mickey Rourke. And to watch Mickey Rourke, I just don’t know how he does it. He just switches it on, and he’s a different person almost. That’s the great challenge that these actors have. It’s not easy, but these actors make it look easy because they are so good at what they do.”
If given the chance to act again, Halford would be hard pressed to pass it up. He adds, “I never say no to anything. I think if you do you don’t know what you’ve missed. I think you should try everything in life. If it doesn’t work out, then at least you can say you’ve tried it. There’s nothing worse than having regrets. If life affords you an opportunity and you can go for it, then you should.”
While Spun may have been Halford’s first and last on-screen acting role to date, Halford has taken on many roles as the frontman to Judas Priest. He adds, “I love being in Priest because we create these characters, whether it’s the Painkiller or the Night Crawler, or the Sentinel, we create these imaginary beings and we bring them to life on stage.” He adds, “When I’m singing The Night Crawler, I am the Night Crawler. When I’m singing The Painkiller, I am the Painkiller. I’m getting to the character, I’m getting into the life of that particular creature that we’ve created. I just love that form of expression.”
The most immersed of all Halford’s performances, is arguably his representation of Nostradamus for the 2008 concept album of the same name, based entirely on the life and work of the infamous seer. He adds, “I kind of tongue in cheek call it my heavy metal Gandalf moment.” He adds, “Not in a condescending way. I just think it’s great that we are able to do that. Some bands can’t do it. Some bands come off as like a comedy. it’s very real for Priest.”
While Judas Priest has never released a concert theatrically, they are no stranger to televised performances. The Epitaph Tour kicked off with a two song Judas Priest set, performed lived for an audience of over 35 million American Idol viewers. Say what you will about American Idol‘s merit in the metal world, for Halford and Priest the show’s impact is nothing to scoff at. Halford adds, “More people saw Judas Priest in America in three and a half minutes than I think we’ve played to ever. 35 million people saw the band in one go. It was a great opportunity for Priest, but also for heavy metal music.” He adds, “The next morning, I was checking iTunes, and a Priest collection, I think it was The Essential Judas Priest, had shot to number one over night. That’s the power that American Idol has, in the way that it reaches people.”
For Halford, the success of their American Idol appearance, and the Epitaph Tour as a whole, indicate that Judas Priest is where he belongs, keeping his many side projects on the back burner. He adds, “I never close any of those doors, I keep them wide open. I just have to find the right time to get to them. I really enjoy those other opportunities, but the band that’s always led me in my life is Judas Priest and I’m looking forward to the next chapter of Priest right now.”
What is the next chapter of Priest? A new album, the first since 2008’s Nostradamus, and the first since K.K. Downing’s retirement. Halford adds, “Priest is working on a brand new record right now. It’s coming together really great. It’s got all of the essential elements that you love about Judas Priest if you’re a Priest fan. I’m going back to England shortly to start laying all my vocals down.”
He also adds that another tour is sure to follow. He adds, ” I think that’s inevitable. You can’t just release a record. You’ve gotta go out and display it.” Whether or not it will be displayed on the big screen, only time will tell.