Fifty years of doing anything in the arts is impressive — even more so in popular music, and especially in heavy metal.
It’s a rigorous and demanding genre, and certainly of a niche for faithful. But it’s proved resilient, welcoming to new directions and trends while continuing to revere its traditions and its long-haulers.
Judas Priest have become the latest to join the golden anniversary club, and in its case a band that’s spent the past half-century rocking uninterrupted, weathering lineup changes and changing audience tastes. But anyone who’s seen the quintet as recently as this year’s “50 Heavy Metal Years Tour” — which came to an abrupt and unexpected stop on September 26th after guitarist Richie Faulkner suffered a ruptured aorta onstage and more than 10 hours of open heart surgery — can testify Priest is as potent today as it’s been at any point of its career.
That case is further made by the new box set 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music, a 42-disc spectacular that features all of the group’s studio and official live albums, two discs of rarities and five previously unreleased shows, along with a deluxe memorabilia book, band member photos signed by photographer Ross Halfin, a numbered “British Steel” razor bland more and more. A single disc “Reflections” that culls 15 tracks from the box is also being released.
Heavy Consequence caught up with frontman Rob Halford by Zoom, at home in Arizona with some unexpected time on his hands, where he told us he quietly battled prostate cancer during the pandemic. Thankfully, the cancer is now in remission, but the singer was still “shook up, emotionally” by Faulkner’s heart emergency.
In the wake of those serious health issues for both him and his bandmate, the Metal God was gracious in taking the time to speak with us about his band’s legacy, among other topics.
On Judas Priest turning 50
Who knew? Fifty years of Judas Priest — it’s like an unreachable milestone in your mind ’cause you can’t imagine we’ve had these 50 glorious metal years in music. It absolutely is a blessing. It’s an incredible balancing act, and all of those 50 years on the precarious heavy metal wire, we haven’t really fallen off it. We may have been a little wobbly now and again, but we haven’t fallen off and that’s, again, a blessing.
On staying relevant after half a century
In today’s world, now more than ever, in some cases “new” only last for 24 hours, so to have us thriving in 2021, eventually ’22 and further on down the line is another great story attached to this band. We have this great bulk of support that’s been with us; Some of our fans have been with us for as long as the bands have, and then when I look down from the stage and I see all these younger metalheads barely out of their teens. That 50-year thread to be relevant, to show that even these guys — some of these guys have been around for seven decades — can still connect with the new horde of heavy metal maniacs, that’s a great feeling. We’re cool! All these great words and compliments fitting Priest now in our 50th year are just wonderful. It’s motivation, as well. It’s all very positive stuff. We thrive on positivity.
On the 50 Years of Heavy Metal Years of Music box set
Obviously the band was involved, but we had a great team of people on both sides of the pond to make something al little bit different, a little bit unusual. The feeling was if we’re gonna make this box set, let’s really try to give our fans something that has uniqueness about it. I think the content — especially with some of these live tracks — gives it a real solid stamp of that longevity. It’s one thing to have all these incredible [studio] recordings, but a song becomes its truest form when it’s played live, when you’re exchanging the emotion of the live performance with our fans and they’re giving it back. It’s just a beautiful thing. So this [box set] is a very powerful, potent time machine. It’s been so exciting to see it come together.
On the 1979 Mudd Club show included in the box set, and meeting Andy Warhol
The Mudd Club was this kind of showcase presentation for our friends in the music business, everybody who had been working really hard to book Priest to that place we were at in our growth in America. They wanted us to do it after a couple of sold-out shows at the Palladium and we went, “Oh, do we really have to do that?” But we thought, “Oh, let’s do it,” because it’s a gesture of goodwill and thank-you for all the hard work people have done.
So we do our show at the Palladium and we got to the Mudd Club in the early hours of the morning. It’s a very small place and we’re doing our bit and I’m dressed up with my leather and studs and orgy T-shirt. And as we’re playing I see this guy moving around. I said, ‘That’s not Andy Warhol?! For God’s sake, it can’t be Andy Warhol!’ Turns out it was. He had a little Olympus camera, taking pictures, and he stayed ’til the end, and afterwards we were just hanging around. And then Andy comes over and I say, “Hey Andy, thank you so much for coming. It’s so great to see you. It’s such a thrill, for me especially, all the great work you do.”
And of course Andy was socially awkward, and he would always go “Oh really?!” to everything. So we’re talking and I’d had a few drinks. He was looking at my stuff and I take my handcuffs off and I’m showing them to him, and for whatever reason I put a cuff around me and a cuff around Andy, and he didn’t pull away or anything — submissive Andy Warhol (laughs). Then I go, “I’ve got some bad news, Andy; I’ve lost the keys to the handcuffs.” “Oh really?!'”Of course I hadn’t, but it was a nice exchange, and then he said to me, “I’m going to Studio 54. Do you want to come?” So we got into a Yellow Cab and went to Studio 54. Steve [Rubell] was on the velvet rope and he lifts the rope and we walk in — [Warhol] goes to the left, I go to the right and never see him again for the rest of his horribly short life.
I posted a picture from that night on my Instagram. On the comment attached to that I wrote “Date Night,” which it was. We had a mini-date.
On rivalries with other bands
I think rivalries are fun as long as they’re not harmful. I equate it with sports; I love the Phoenix Suns and there’s a lot of people who hate the Phoenix Suns, but not in the truest sense of what that horrible word means. So the competition, the rivalry, I think it’s healthy. It drives us. It stops us from being complacent because that’s what you can become if you’re not careful in this world, in music, as you know.
On his bond with his bandmates, past and present
I feel very strongly about everybody, and very much in the same sense of purpose that I still have about Priest. Glenn [Tipton] feels the same. Ian [Hill], the same, now Richie, [former guitarist] K.K. [Downing]… all the different members of Priest. Even the crews we’ve worked with are just as enamored with Priest as we are as a band. I’ve had the good fortune throughout my life as a musician to work with like-minded people, and that’s important. Bands, even though they’re incredibly tough-sounding and incredibly tough looking, they’re as fragile as glass. Bands can break apart over the simplest thing — “Why were you looking at me like that on stage, dude?!” and the band ends.
On Priest’s next album
The drive behind the record is still there. We’ve kind of taken our foot off the gas for a little bit, but we’re hoping to get fully into production in the not too distant future. That’s part of what defines us is the ongoing substance of who we are, the music that has not been completed or heard by our fans. New is what drives us. We’re juggling the calendar right now to reschedule these dates we weren’t able to complete [due to Faulkner’s heart surgery], so we’re going to be incredibly busy in 2022. But not too far along the way is the completion of the new album.
On Priest’s twice-delayed European tour with Ozzy Osbourne, which is scheduled to kick off in January 2022
Please God, let it happen. We love Ozzy so much. I know Ozzy’s been through some recent surgery work, too. It’s an important set of shows. We’re neighbors, from the same place [Birmingham, England], so it’s got a lot of great feelings for us — especially when we get to do the home dates. You know, most 70 year olds are retired on the beach in Florida, sipping a mimosa. We’re gonna go out and assault the world again, which is what we love to do.
On his Hails & Horns Halford Ale
That was something my brother Nigel, who played drums on the Celestial album [in 2019], came up with. He’s a beer freak, a beer aficionado. I trademarked “Hails & Horns” a long time ago and I’ve been trying to think of different ways to use that phrase. I’m sober, but everybody around me likes to have a drink of beer, so I worked with Nigel and a small microbrewery back home in Walsall and we came together with this brew that we premiered at Bloodstock. I don’t know how many gallons we sold but it sold out within two hours, and they were calling the brewery, “Can we have more beer?” “Sorry, we’re closed for the day. The hordes just stormed the beer tent and wanted Halford ale. That was fun to do. We’re hoping to get it into America at some point.
On turning 70
I’m having a great time. I’m blessed — I really am, all these little extra things that are going around my Priest world, they’re just like little bonus rounds the penny casino with the little blue-haired ladies. [Laughs] I had my own little cancer battle a year ago, which I got through and that’s in remission now, thank God. That happened while we were all locked down, so things happen for a reason as far as time sequence of events. I have nothing but gratitude to be at this point in my life, still doing what I love the most.
Our thanks to Rob Halford for taking the time to speak with us. Pick up Judas Priest’s 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music box set here or their 2-LP Reflections collection here. A newly released paperback edition of Halford’s autobiography, Confess, is also available.