"In non-metal circles, Judas Priest is probably best known for the movie Rock Star, based on the real-life story of Ripper Owens, or for being gay. (...) These things are noteworthy, of course, but this only scratches the surface of their legacy. I'm not even going to attempt to do so here, but take my word for it, when it comes to metal legends, Priest is on anyone's short list."
I wrote that for my NWOBHM post from a few years back. And now the time has come for expand on these remarks, as
Whatever else they may be, Priest was first and foremost my favorite band from when I was 10 to 12 (1984 to 1987), or so. I actually became a fan a little earlier than that, but they weren't my Favorite Band (capitalized) until that time. And since anything I loved in that age range eventually turns into blog, here then are the Official Dog Star Omnibus Priest Essentials, presented least-to-most. Not included are live albums. If they were, though, Unleashed in the East would probably be in my top three.
Also not included: anything released post-Painkiller:
I just don't know any of it, and it's not "my" Priest. I'm sure some or maybe even a lot of it is what others would consider Essential. Go forth and preach your gospel, friend and fellow Priest traveler, as I preach my own. My era of metal basically ends where Nu-Metal begins, and all Nu-Metal (and post-Nu-Metal) kind of blends together for me. So it goes.
I trust interested parties can easily enough find their own way to any biography and line-up changes. I'll only say that the double-bass drums, twin lead guitars of KK Downing and Glenn Tipton, and octave-warping range and melodic sensibilities of Rob Halford define what heavy metal means to me personally as unequivocally as Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica, or Ronnie James Dio.
Ready? Here we go.
Priest's debut album is a mixed bag. Before we get to the music, have another look at that cover up there. Is that some kind of mechanized-wing troglodyte? With a scimitar and bombs? The 70s, man. Not that album art got any less weird in the 80s.
I never had this album growing up. What I did have was this compilation mix put out by Gull Records that I bought at the Isenburg-Zentrum:
|Again with the 70s. Neither the Hero, Hero nor the Rocka Rolla cover have anything to do with any of the tracks or even the band, really.|
Things get started with "One for the Road," which sounds a little like the Guess Who to me. (Something no one could say of anything Priest recorded after 1981.) And of course the chorus rhyme is "shooting my load." Of course it is. Not a bad riff/ groove, though. There are a couple of Black Sabbath-sounding numbers ("Winter," "Never Satisfied") and "Cheater" and "Never Satisfied" are pretty good tunes. None of it is exactly Essential, though, so why is it even here? Answer: the title track. Which is so essential you should probably get two copies of it.
Rocka Rolla woman for a Rocka Rolla man -
You can take her if you wanna,
if you think you can...
Gentlemen and Ladies, young and old, if you've got your eye on someone, play this one at the bar or post it to facebook or lift up a boombox, whatever you have to do. In the words of Don Dawson, "Sounds stupid, doesn't it? It works." Trust me. (Make sure you snap your head on the beat and do not smirk.)
Whether you use it in your wooing rituals or not, this is a damn hot mess of awesome. The swagger is so remarkably ill-considered that it comes all the way round to genius. Or maybe it's even a test. The lyrics are ridiculous. But goddamn! Two-faced liiiiiiii-aaaaaaaarr...!
Some context: in 1986, Priest put all their chips on radio-and-keyboard-friendly-metal (Turbo) and spun the wheel. And won, more or less. Both their number of US fans and their MTV airplay increased. But there was a sizable element of Priest's audience that was left cold by the band's foray into AOR-metal. Ram It Down was meant to re-assure those fans that felt betrayed that when it came to metal, Priest could and would be as fast and loud and relentless as anyone.
As such, as an album, it's the definition of over-compensation. Yet the particular way two or three tunes go about their over-compensatory metal-ing is so over the top and crazy that you simply have to let yourself get swept up in the madness. I refer to "Monster of Rock," and the title track. Let's just focus on that last one.
Thousands of cars and a million guitars!
Screaming with power in the air!
We've found the place where the DECIBELS RACE!
THIS ARMY OF ROCK WILL BE THERE...!!
God almighty, this song. It starts with a patented Halford scream-yell before the guitars come screaming in, then the drums explode and nothing backs off until the middle eight, which gives the slightest of nods to the sort of melodic structure Priest excelled at prior to this. Then, the solos - just insane. There are like six of them, and then the song ends with another one. (And in case you missed the point, the next track is called "Heavy Metal." RAM IT DOWN! RAM IT DOWN!)
Outside of the songs I've mentioned, there's "I'm A Rocker" (pretty dumb), "Love Zone" (wants to be a LA Guns song), "Blood Red Skies" (which comes back in better shape as "Touch of Evil" on Painkiller), and their cover of "Johnny B. Goode," which was recorded for the largely forgotten Anthony Michael Hall film of the same name. Taking a metal band and giving them an oldies tune to remake was Standard Operating Procedure for heavy metal bands of the 80s. Sometimes the results ("Smokin' in the Boys Room" by the Crue, or "Bad Moon Rising" by Leatherwolf) were great. Other times ("Leader of the Pack" by Twisted Sister, or this one) not so much.
This one sounds much more confident in the new direction Priest chose for themselves than Ram It Down does. So far what praise I've given has been rather tongue-in-cheek, i.e. "get a load of how screwy-kablooey this is - play it again!" There's some of that here for sure ("Metal Meltdown" - wow), but it's a pretty good record for its wheelhouse. The title track is probably the equal in bombast to "Ram It Down," but it bottles its acid a tad better.
Favorite tunes? The aforementioned, for sure, along with "Hell Patrol", "Nightcrawler", and "Touch of Evil." That last one was radi0 friendly enough to get some heavy airplay on the old hard rock stations in Boston/ Providence when I was in high school. That was a first for the ol' Priest, at least in my window of time in Southern New England. These days, "You've Got Another Thing Coming" and even "The Hellion" are used in car commercials. But back when Judas Priest was my favorite band, you barely heard them on the dial.
I know at least one metal maniac who's going to give me grief for placing this one so "low," but let's bear in mind I'd rather listen to "Stained Class" or any of the next eight albums than 90% of all recorded music.
It might just be that I didn't have this one as a kid, and neither did my brother. Therefore it was just totally off my radar. I knew "Exciter" from Unleashed in the East, but that was about it. When I saw Judas Priest for the first and only time in 1988 (with Cinderella, the "Mercenaries of Metal" tour), they played "Beyond the Realms of Death," which was the first time I'd ever heard that. And those are probably still my favorite songs off of this one. Though the title track and "Invader" are pretty cool.
The song "Better By You, Better Than Me" was the subject of the subliminal-messages-in-heavy-metal trial. A comprehensive account of which, written by one of the experts for the defense, Dr. Timothy Moore, can be found here. The idea that music - particularly rock and metal - can influence its listeners to murder is nothing new, (looking at you, Charlie Manson) but this was the first time it was legally established that a) subliminal messages do not constitute protected First Amendment speech, and b) in the words of Dr. Moore, "There is not now, nor has there ever been, any reliable empirical evidence that subliminal directives can compel compliance."
Despite that having been established in a court of law, just wait - you'll hear someone who should know better state the exact opposite as if it is fact.
I don't recall ever listening to this one very much as a kid, but it makes sense, as all the tracks are either on Hero, Hero or Unleashed in the East, and - at least until Defenders of the Faith came out - those were the Priest albums I listened to the most.
One of my all-time favorite Priest songs, "Victim of Changes", makes its first appearance here, but check out this live version from Unleashed. Way better. (Though the "Whiskey woman don't ya know that you-uu are dri-vin' me IN-SAAAAAAAANE?!?" vocal delivery comes across a little crazier in the studio.) Great track, either way.
Elsewhere, "Tyrant" and "Ripper" ("In for a shock-AAA-A-AAH!!") are great tracks, and I'm listening to "Island of Domination" as I type these words and keep squint-nod-metal-salute-air-guitar-ing at my desk. Fun times.
I imagine some purists will object to my placing this one behind Turbo, which would have been considered sacrilege in Priest circles of yesteryear. But we'll get to Turbo. The only important thing I have to say about Killing Machine is that it belongs in everyone's collection. On vinyl. Holy crap is this album fun. That goes for everything still to come. We have crossed the threshold, now, from albums that have Essential Priest songs on them to Essential Priest albums.
The big guns here are "Hell Bent for Leather" and the title track, which remains criminally unexploited in film, television or other media. But outside of a couple of tracks that fall just shy of great ("Rock Forever", "Burning Up" and they still complement the album as a whole), most everything is a classic. "Delivering the Goods" has got a great groove. "Take on the World" is an honorable attempt at a stadium singalong. "Running Wild" is a classic. (I'm forever amused by how many metal bands have songs commemorating "running wild." The berserker rage looms large in our collective unconscious.) "Green Manalishi" has got some great metal riff/verse interaction, but as with "Victim of Changes," the version on Unleashed is the definitive version. "Before the Dawn" is kinda too much, but I love the chord progression and production.
And then there's "Evening Star," which I completely forgot about and can't tell if I still think is awesome or if joy of rediscovery is exaggerating my opinion.
Lots of tunes about staying out all night on this one, unh?
This is one of those albums that bridged my return to the States after the years in Deutschland. It took me a little time to adjust to the tastes of my new environment. ("What the hell you mean you don't have Turbo??") But thanks to some MTV rotation of "Private Property" and "Parental Guidance" (shameless, but awesome) after awhile my Judas Priest shirt didn't prompt quite as many puzzled glances.
Unless they were just noticing that the cover looks like a hand on a dick. Which was probably the case. Miraculously, I did not. I was completely oblivious to a lot of sexual innuendo in those days. Not completely - obviously, I read the lyrics to everything and the blatant sex talk of Kiss and Priest and others was hard to misread - but did I ever have a moment's self-consciousness about my favorite t-shirt to wear in 7th grade being the Turbo cover? Nope. Funny to think of now of course.
What makes this Priest album Essential for me is that not only is it a solid effort from the band, despite what some believe, it's the only one in their catalogue that doubles as a Great 80s Record, i.e. a work of art that illuminates its era and context. You put this on - once you get past the title track, which does have a bit of 80s-ness to it, sure, but it's not the first thing I'd point to as encapsulating the 80s. It's definitely one of my favorite Priest tracks, though. If they ever make a movie about my 7th grade year - and I'm sure they will - this will be the opening credits song. For what it's worth, this and the Lost Boys soundtrack were the Coolest Things Ever to me then. Anyway - put this on, and you re-appear magically in 1986. Let's go shoot some hoops in the driveway.
And then there's "Rock You All Around the World." Man. Another shameless bid for the American teenage vote. Or rather our allowance money. It worked for me. I played a lot of Mike Tyson and Super Mario to this one right here.
Here's one I didn't think too much of as a kid, but it sounds fantastic to me now. The leadoff track is one of Priest's all-time greats, "Heading Out to the Highway." I've described elsewhere how we didn't have MTV when I lived in Germany, so my brother and I watched the same VHS tapes sent to us from relatives over and over. On one of them was the official video for this track. The drag race hits me a little... differently nowadays. I love that fake highway backdrop with the bent horizon, though. That still hits my brain as très surreal.
Next item: "Hot Rockin'." ("I wanna go! I wanna go! I WANNA GO! HOT ROCK-IN'!") Here's a video I saw for the first time only just now looking around for a link to the song. I think there is sometimes too much made of Priest exploring homosexual themes in their early work. It's like after they came out of the closet suddenly people were excavating the albums for gay themes that were vague at best. And then there's something like that video, and you're like... holy goddamn crap.
I want to stress that I in no way think there's anything wrong with exploring gay themes. In fact, I think it's pretty cool that Judas Priest contributed in no small way to a broader understanding and tolerance for a less rigid and homophobic definition of masculinity, in metal and elsewhere.
Anyway, "Hot Rockin'" has always been a personal favorite of the kinda-dumb-but-kinda-awesome headbanger genre. Besides those, "Desert Plains" (one of my all-time faves) and "Solar Angels" are the big ones. "You Say Yes" is kind of annoying, but as a whole the album hangs together wonderfully.
British Steel was their breakthrough, but Screaming for Vengeance is the album that put Priest over the top in America. (Aided greatly by their appearance at the 2nd U.S. Festival.) It's been reviewed and analyzed a million times and from where it lands in this here countdown you already know I love it, so let's just bullet-point this one.
- "The Hellion / Electric Eye" - what can you say? One of the best album openers ever. Five-by-five. ("I'm made of met-al! My circuits gleam! I am perpetual - I keep the country clean!!")
- "Riding on the Wind" - Rob's voice might overpower the verses just a tad. But still great. And a great second-song-on-side-one, to boot. As with things or lads "running wild," I'm always amused by the ubiquity of wind-riding.
- "Bloodstone." Awesome.
- "(Take These) Chains" - Similar to my amusement with wind-riding, etc., the very-metal habit of adding parentheticals to titles always meets with my approval. A tradition Boat Chips (my old band) made a point to kept alive. If we could add some parentheses to any title, we did. Anyway, this song isn't a personal favorite. Would've been a better fit for Dokken, I think. (And they had a whole chains-theme going, to boot.)
-"Pain and Pleasure" - Not bad. "Heavy Duty" from Defenders of the Faith is a more successful version of this song, I think.
- "Screaming for Vengeance" - Another one where Rob's voice might overpowers the verses, but a classic howler for sure.
- "You've Got Another Thing Coming" - Priest's "Rock and Roll All Nite." But even better!
The album ends with "Fever" and "Devil's Child," which are personal faves if not popular ones. I still sing "Devil's Child" in my head anytime I ever see the two words side-by-side. ("I be-leeeeeve you're the devil!") They almost sound like Foreigner on this one, and this might be the only Priest song with a call-and-response ("so! damn! wic-ked!") in its verses.
In many ways this is probably my favorite Priest album. It's just a masterpiece start to finish. But this isn't a list of my personal favorites; it's an attempt to deliver unto the world a hierarchy of Priest Essentials. No album better showcases Rob's vocals than this one.
There's a great RetroReview of it here. That's actually a great overview of Priest all around, not just Sin After Sin. I have much the same relationship with it as its author. Every year (at least - in prep for this post I think I'm up to a dozen spins in 2016) I give it a spin, and every year it sounds better and better.
I've told this story elsewhere, but here it is again. Picture it, Sprendlingen, 1983. A 9-year-old version of your humble narrator is busted at the border (i.e. his bedroom) with a copy of this and Motley Crue's Shout at the Devil. I'd saved up for awhile and got both LPs - a splurge of the first order - when we went to the record shop next to the Commissary on-base and snuck them in the house. But my parents weren't having it. Devil's music, corrupting influence, etc. I argued they should at least listen to them to see what they were condemning before forbidding me to listen to it and must have been convincing, as they did. (Well, not the Crue - the big pentagram on the cover of that one was all they needed to see. In retrospect, though, I think they might have smelled the drugs and pornography rising from Crue like heat rippling from desert asphalt and been reacting more to that.)
Turns out, my Mom really liked it. A fact that would ruin the metal of something in just about any other circumstance, I grant you. So it was returned to me. Let that be a lesson to you nine-year-olds out there: keep reaching for the stars.
I don't think it's possible to oversell this one. Every track is a favorite. At least one reviewer out there thinks "Raw Deal" is Rob's true coming-out-of-the-closet moment and makes a pretty good case for it. The song is awesome whatever it's about, just such a great groove.
Surprises: "Diamonds and Rust," "Here Come the Tears," "Last Rose of Summer."
Favorite tunes: Title track, "Starbreaker," "Let Us Prey/ Call for the Priest," and "Dissident Aggressor." (From that RetroReview: "When Slayer covered (this), it could only be sped up by them, slightly. And it had to replace some vocal parts with guitar.")
From Noisey (Music By Vice)'s review of this album:
"Priest repaired to Ibiza, Spain, to record Defenders of the Faith. With songs about blowjobs ("Jawbreaker"), blowjobs at gunpoint ("Eat Me Alive") and vampire seduction ("Love Bites") - not to mention a track that landed at number three on Tipper Gore’s infamous "Filthy Fifteen" list ("Eat Me Alive" again) and possibly the greatest biker anthem ever written by humans ("Rock Hard Ride Free"), Defenders Of The Faith is a thundering celebration of huge riffs, anthemic choruses and hot, sweaty man love."
Rob seems somewhat amused with the interviewer's insistence that the album is as specifically about gay sex as he thinks it is, but as he (Halford) points out, "Jawbreaker" could be interpreted as a song about guys' dongs, but it could also be "about a fictional character, this Jawbreaker guy, who has this kind of Rambo-esque kind of attitude about him." For what it's worth, that's always how I interpreted it as a kid: I thought it was about a mercenary who broke people's jaws. But maybe it's a I-say-tomato-you-say-guys'-dongs sort of deal. Either way, the song rocks, as every song on here does.
(I never saw a "by gunpoint" association with "Eat Me Alive", either, but I knew something really kinky was going on.)
If they ever made a movie about my sixth grade year, this album would make a good soundtrack. (And the plot would have to be Red Dawn on Rhein Main AFB. Thank you.) My favorite is probably "The Sentinel," which I spent a lot of time contemplating and sketching out comic book ideas for in '85 and '86. These personal associations aside, though, it's just one hell of a metal tune. That's how you do sci-fi metal, folks.
I have a surefire Defenders-specific cure for the blues, by the way. Cue up "Freewheel Burning" to around the 1:45 mark or so while looking at the lyrics and sing along. I guarantee unless you are Rob Halford himself (or perhaps Ripper Owens) you will not be able to keep a straight face, at least in your heart. (If this doesn't work, try and exactly reproduce Keith David's "Now how'd that motherfucker wake up after thousands of years in the ice?" from The Thing. Unless you're Keith David - or maybe Rob Halford again - you're going to cheer yourself up just for trying.)
Well here we are at the top of the mountain. Most Essential Priest, but also an album with a lot of crossover appeal. It's a great Priest record, a great Metal record, a great NWOBHM-specifically record, and even a great 70s/80s transitional record. There's a pretty detailed review and overview at KK Downing's site that's worth reading for a more expansive look at things.
Technically the album opens with "Rapid Fire," one of the all-time greats, but the version I grew up with opened with "Breaking the Law," the video for which was also on one of those aforementioned VHS-godsends that my brother and I watched over and over. It played a big part in my understanding of heavy metal, actually, specifically its harmlessness. Metal was about robbing a bank and scaring the straights and old fogeys with guitar solos and headbanging, not Satan and all the growly posturing it became later. Metal can't be scary - it can be disorienting or Hammer-horror-y but it quickly becomes silly when taken too seriously. The reason I think that way is the "Breaking the Law" video, probably. Whatever your stance, though, I think we can agree that hard rock doesn't come much better than this.
"Metal Gods" - a little ditty about robots taking over the world and ripping men apart (Moderan!) - is a classic, as is "Living After Midnight." These four ("Rapid Fire," "Breaking the Law," "Metal Gods," and "Living After Midnight") are usually named as the albums' best. I'm not sure which is my personal nomination, to be honest. It changes on each listen.
I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be "You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise" or "Grinder," even though I love both of those tunes, or "United," one of the great metal-fans-solidarity songs along with Saxon's "Denim and Leather" and Skid Row's "Youth Gone Wild." It certainly could be "The Rage," which depending on my mood is my favorite all-round Priest tune, and ditto for "Steeler," which is just the perfect end to this perfect album.
As mentioned in that review afore-linked, "British Steel laid down a blueprint for NWOBHM and is still being followed all across the genre. Its asset was tightness and various different moods: fast songs, mid-tempo numbers, slow burners, and songs that simply crush their way into the listener's sub-conscious." Truth.
Well there we have it. All links active as of August 2016 but who knows for how long. I hope I've given some indication of the depth and variety and awesomeness of vintage Judas Priest or at least my longstanding appreciation for the amount of ass they've kicked. They went on a Farewell tour in 2011 but have since toured a few more times. ("I guess we changed our minds," said Rob.) Once he told Circus magazine that Judas Priest was the type of band who'd go out with a whimper instead of a bang, which I took to mean as they loved touring so much that they'd probably keep doing it long after anyone stopped paying attention. That probably is still the case.
One of these days I have to crack open their new stuff. If and when I do, perhaps we'll see an Essential Priest Vol. 2 in these pages.
Until then, my friends - Rock Hard! Ride Free! ALL NII-I-IGHT LO-O-NNG!