There has always been a heated debate among metal critics – both amateur and professional - as to the historical relevance of albums that were released between 1980 and 1990. Some say that the emergence and rabid media saturation of hair metal essentially killed any historical relevance for all the metal bands that attempted to capitalize on that decade’s surge of commercial recognition. On the other hand, the sub-genres of speed and thrash-metal (influenced by the ’70s American hardcore punk scene and classic metal) were also popularized, and classic hard rock and metal luminaries, such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, found the spotlight and devoted fan bases.
In that era, radio stations were not as musically segregated as they are today. A disco track would follow a pop-rock single, and the occasional classic rock, punk and metal track would seep in. The diversity and occasional melange of musical genres and fashion was not only adopted by burgeoning musicians who dreamed of stardom, but also by established artists who felt that they needed to alter their original sound in order to get more radio airplay.
By the time British Steel was released in 1980, England’s Judas Priest had already released five albums. Originally, Judas Priest was a blues-influenced, mid-tempo rock band with a deep ’70s groove. With the addition of guitarist Glen Tipton and singer Rob Halford, a heavier, harsher sound emerged. The quintet soon gained popularity for playing faster than British contemporaries, partly because of the band’s penchant for the now trademark dual guitar attacks, and the accentuation of Halford’s unique voice.
1978’s Killing Machine (released in North America as Hell Bent for Leather) is regarded as the first indication the band was exploring its more “sensitive” side, with less aggressive tunes and a more commercial appeal. It it is also considered the album that bolstered Judas Priest’s North American popularity. 1979’s Unleashed in the East live album, recorded during a show in Tokyo, Japan, the band received its first platinum album. Despite the band’s success, Judas Priest decided to go even more commercial with British Steel, determined to get songs on the airwaves by incorporating even more pop melodies,catchy hooks and shorter songs.
Judas Priest’s most popular and commercially successful song is most likely off British Steel. “Breaking the Law”, and the accompanying video, introduced the band to a wider audience. It is also a very deceptive single, belying the band’s true rapid-fire urgency, choosing a more pop-punky, comedic flavor. While it is symbolic of the era’s penchant for Top 40 ditties, the second single, “Living After Midnight”, incorporated more of Halford’s lyrical cockiness and a slightly more pronounced heavy sound, while remaining catchy with a simple song structure.
Halford is all about celebrating the metal community and has frequently mentioned how important metal culture is in unifying a diverse group of people. “United” and “Metal Gods” are symbolic of his philosophy, with the latter carrying a rousing, anthemic chorus that calls for all metalheads to stand up and be proud. In 2001, Judas Priest remastered and re-released British Steel, adding two previously unreleased tracks.
The band’s historic musical style has been frenetic. Later albums, such as 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance was one of their heaviest releases, hearkening back to the sound from Judas Priest’s first four albums. But then 1986’s Turbo had a heavy glam metal influence, with a liberal use of synthesizers and effects.
This summer Judas Priest will perform British Steel in its entirety, over 17 North American dates, in celebration of the album’s 30th anniversary. While British Steel can be seen as a musical reflection of the times, the band’s trademark leather and studs has never strayed into the glam, sunset strip “leather n’ lace” outfits favored by ’80s bands Poison, Ratt and yes, Motley Crue. In light of this, Judas Priest will don similar costumes as those worn during their ’80s tour. “In the tradition of Priest, we were often credited with kicking off the denim, leather, studs, whips and chains look, and there is a rich heritage with that,” said Halford in an interview conducted with Noisecreep. “We want to bring that back with the stage set and other surprises.”