Judas Priest (due tonight, November 19, at the 1STBANK Center) is one of the most influential heavy metal bands in the history of the genre. From Birmingham, England (the same city that produced Black Sabbath), Priest basically created the blueprint for the sound and look of most of the heavy metal that has come along since. As part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Priest was a direct inspiration for '80s thrash, and its studded-leather attire has been adopted by countless headbangers and punkers alike. The group's singer, Rob Halford, has often been imitated, but few measure up to his power and versatility. But Halford wasn't a member of the band from the beginning.
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Halford's sister had been dating founding Priest bassist Ian Hill when she suggested her brother as a potential new singer for the band. Halford and the other guys hit it off and the working-class band spent the next handful of years earning an international fann base. Despite the obvious talent of the band in the live setting and the quality of the songwriting on what are now classic albums like Sad Wings of Destiny, Stained Class and Killing Machine, it wasn't until the end of the '70s that its twin guitar melodies and Halford's soaring, searing vocals broke into the mainstream, with 1980's British Steel which yielded radio hits "Breaking The Law" and "Living After Midnight." A great deal of that mainstream success came when the band toured the USA.
"America's such a large country and when you're here you have records out and you're played on radio stations and you're gigging all the time," offers Hill. "We got across to a lot more people here than we did in Britain."
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Throughout the '80s, Priest enjoyed great popularity and commercial success and, like many heavy metal bands, the dark subject matter of some of its songs courted controversy. In 1990 the band was sued following the suicide of two young men over the alleged subliminal message in the cover of Spooky Tooth's "Better By You, Better Than Me." The suit was dismissed. It didn't hurt that Halford deftly demonstrated the power of suggestion by demonstrating how one could hear the phrase "I asked her for a peppermint" in another song played backward if the phrase was presented to you.
Two years later, Halford left the band for a long solo career before returning to the fold in 2003. During his time away from Priest, Halford revealed in 1998 that he was gay. Which probably shocked a lot of fans but was no mystery to those close to him.
"Oh no, we knew," comments Hill. "I think most of the people that knew him knew as well. It's always been his choice. He chose to keep it to himself for a lot of years and he had his reasons for that. He thought it would be better if he kept it under wraps, maybe. None of us were going to stand in his way but he decided he wanted to keep it to himself."
To the credit of the group's fans, Heavy Metal Parking Lot retrospective hilariousness aside, that revelation didn't seem to lose the band any fans. The fact that its 2014 album, Redeemer of Souls, the first without longtime guitarist K.K. Downing, reached 6 on the Billboard 200 chart, the highest of its career, proves that perhaps the band is more popular than ever.
"It's what we love to do," comments Hill on the band's longevity. "The challenge is to keep it going as long as you can."
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.