Rob Halford of Judas Priest: Defending the Faith for Thirty Years!

By Jeb Wright

It has been over three decades since I came home from my senior year in high school, turned on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and watched the video for “Love Bites” by Judas Priest.  The song, both the visual and audio aspects, was what made that era of Priest popular.  It was tough, gritty and a little bit Spinal Tap.  It was leather and studs and fire and monsters, called Metallians, and it was awesome!

Some fans swear by the early years and some say Priest got harder as they forged ahead.  No matter what your stance may be on that debate, there is no denying that Judas Priest took their place as The Kings of Metal with their back-to-back releases: Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith. This was Metal for the masses.  The hooks, the looks, the riffs and the songs had fists raised in the air and stereos cranked to 11.  With Defenders, Priest reached the heights of their worldwide success and they have never looked back.

In the interview that follows, the Metal-god, Rob Halford, speaks with Classic Rock Revisited about the 30th Anniversary release of the iconic album Defenders of the Faith.  The album has been remastered by the original producer of the record, Tom Allom, and a two-CD live recording from the Defenders tour has been included. 

Rob talks about the challenges that the band faced while making the album, which included arriving in Spain to find an empty recording studio—meaning no people or recording equipment were in sight!  In addition to discussing Defenders, Halford opens up about rediscovering his long lost novel and a run in with Marie Osmond on the music television show The Top of the Pops back in 1978. 

As always, Rob comes across friendly, passionate about his Metal, and ready to rock the world!

Jeb: Mr. Halford, the Metal-god, it is, once again, my pleasure to speak with you!

Rob:  It’s always good to speak with you, my friend.  I hope you’re keeping well.

Jeb: Rob, I’m doing great and you are, as you know, a member of one of my favorite bands.  You’re pretty much a hero to me, so it is always a blast to bend your ear about what Priest is up to.  For this interview, it is pretty exciting, as we get to look back a few decades.  You guys do the best stuff, whether it is a new release, a re-release or a box set.  Your commitment to excellence of the Priest product which you give us fans makes us speechless. 

Rob: Well, that’s great.  I love it when you say things like that because I know you’re a hardcore Priest fan.  Where do you begin when talking about a band like a Priest?  I’ve been screaming my head off for Priest for 41 years now, and I wish I could do it for another 41. 

Jeb: I remember going to the record store, as I did with every Priest release, on the day it was out, and I remember buying the vinyl and turning the album around seeing this written on the back:  “Rising from the darkness where hell hath no mercy and screams of vengeance echo on forever…”  Did you pen that phrase?

Rob: Yeah, I did.  I put something together for the Hellion. Then we had something for the Metallian.  It is just the visual Metal drama that represents Priest.  It is just great hearing you say those words because that’s what we used to do in those days, you know. 

That particular statement made people go, “What do they mean by that?”  It is just a great opening discussion for the record, even before you played a note.  It sets the whole thing up, which is what you’re trying to do.  You create an idea for your fans to suddenly get immersed into your idea when the music starts blasting out of the speakers. 

Jeb: British Steel brought in a new era for Priest and you followed it with Point of Entry, which I personally like but not all Priest fans did.  Next came Screaming for Vengeance, which put the band through the stratosphere.  With this album we are talking about today, Defenders of the Faith, I would imagine it was very important not to do another experimental album, but instead you had to be thinking that you needed to come up with something as powerful as Screaming

Rob: The tremendous reaction to Screaming for Vengeance was propelled by the way radio embraced the song, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” which became part of rock and roll history. 

You get a record that goes Platinum pretty quickly in America, at least, and naturally everybody’s stoked and excited and you’re ready to get to that next level, whatever that might be.  There is always an element of uncertainty in rock and roll.  You play your heart out and you write and record the best you can, but there is no guarantee what the outcome will be.  Having said that, we were completely immersed in this amazing time that we had, particularly in the States, which wound up at the now iconic and infamous US Festival.  We shared the stage with our mates on 5/29/’83.  Ozzy was there.  [Motley] Crue was there.  Triumph was there.  Van Halen was there.  The Scorpions were there, and Priest was there. 

In July we got on a plane to Ibiza, Spain.  It is a small bunch of islands off the East coast of Spain.  We’re all set to go and we get to the studio, and talk about hitting your brakes… there was absolutely nothing left in the studio.  There was just the building.  It had been gutted.  They hadn’t been paying the bills and so, unbeknownst to us, they’d come in and taken the consoles out.  They took the tape machines… everything that was not secured was taken. 

We basically went back to square one in the idea of getting off the plane to start making Metal.  We had to wait two or three weeks before we could fire everything back up again. 

I look back now at that with kind of bewilderment and amusement, but at the same time, the thing about Metal is that whenever these difficulties or adversities are put in your face, Metal Heads deal with it.  We say, “Bring it on” and we take care of business and that’s what we did.  Having said that, we just started like we’ve done with past Priest albums and we turned the amps on and plugged in the guitars.  Slowly but surely, we put together Defenders of the Faith

Jeb: You literally had to wait for them to restock the studio. 

Rob: Yeah, we did.  We had to pay some of the bills off.  In fact, we actually helped when the trucks showed up at the studio.  This is a pretty remote location up a hill, up a dirty track.  We actually all got out and helped the guys get the stuff off the trucks and we staggered into the studio with these thousand pound consoles.  We were like, “Wait a minute, weren’t we just in front of 300,000 people at the US Festival and now we are truck delivery guys?”  Again, like I say, you look back now at those incidents with amusement.  It didn’t stop us, it didn’t jeopardize us.  In fact, more determination went into Defenders because of that incident more than anything else. 

Jeb: Was the original title going to be Keeping the Faith?

Rob: We had a lot of ideas floating around.  I am assuming that it came out of my head.  I think I got it from a British coin.  On the currency it will have a picture of the Queen’s head and you have etched into the coin Defenders of the Faith, which means the monarchy is the defenders.  I think that is where that came from. 

I can tell you that the song “Heavy Duty” on Defenders of the Faith came from a washing machine that I owned at the house.  As a lyricist, I soak everything up as far as ideas for different song titles, or content, or whatever it might be.  As a lyricist, I think you have to have the open mind for any possibility for the idea of a song story.  When it comes along you grab it, whether it is a piece of coin, or a washing machine, and you use it. 

Jeb: Was there any material left over from Screaming for Vengeance or was Defenders of the Faith all new stuff?

Rob: There were probably some bits and pieces as that is the way with most bands.  It’s like this giant jigsaw of odds and ends.  It is like a big box of Legos and you take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and you build a Metal song.  I think that is pretty much the way all music is written.  You have multiple choices.  You have the fast riffs and the slow riffs and the little melodic ideas and the little statements here and there, and you piece together your work. 

With a Metal album it is pretty much, as is still the case with Priest for Redeemer of Souls, that you want to have a certain level of energy consistent with who you are and what you’re about.  You want to be able to fall back a little bit with some of the more kind of textured songs like, in this case, “Night Comes Down.”  You take your listener on a journey of forty-minutes and some change and you try to capture all of the elements. 

A little bit on Defenders of the Faith came from other places, but a lot of it was written fresh in the studio.  If it is usable, then it is good and you take it from any source. 

Jeb: Defenders was, for the time period, the heaviest Priest album that had ever been recorded.

Rob:  “Freewheel Burning” and “Rock Hard Ride Free” it is all Metal, Metal, and Metal.  You can never get enough Metal, man.  That is what I like about Defenders of the Faith, it is a very strong sounding record with resilience and determination.  “We are a Heavy fucking Metal band and if you don’t like it you can fuck off.”  It is that kind of attitude that I love about Priest. 

Jeb: The song “Freewill Burning…”  Let’s talk about your vocals on that one.  On the previous album you are relentless on your vocals on the title track.  With this album, on “Freewheel Burning” you have that fast section where I have no idea how you sing it.  It is not vocally difficult note-wise but it is the speed of which you deliver and how you have to stay in time with the band.  Your voice, when you do that, is like a lead guitar. 

Rob: It was a really fun moment to do that section.  My vague memory is that I wanted to have this kind of semi-automatic delivery.  I remember saying to Glenn, “This is what I want to do” and he said, “Then let’s do it.”  That is what I love about Priest.   You might have the most ridiculous sounding ideas but we never kill it.  We’ve always said in Priest, “Try everything.”  It doesn’t matter how absurd it might sound in discussion, you don’t know until you try it.  You can talk until you’re blue in the face about an idea, but until you go through the motions and you hear it coming back through the speakers you don’t know if it is going to work or not. 

Jeb: A different type of vocal delivery that is still very powerful is “Night Comes Down.” 

Rob: The ballad.  It is a passionate song, it has an attitude of sentiment to it but it is still legit, as far as having that kind of Metal intensity.  It is a nice little breather in the overall assault that surrounds it.  It was a pretty intense vocal delivery and I’m not sure I can do it now.  I am glad I got it there and then because it is there for eternity now. 

Jeb: For the 30th anniversary you’ve included the live concert from the Long Beach Arena.  Priest had taken the throne of Metal at that point.  What do you remember about that show?

Rob: It was Saturday night, I believe and it was kind of a summer show.  It was a sold-out event.  It was just absolute magic.  That night everything was working as you hoped.  The crowd was great.  It is a classic Priest memory and I am really pleased we were able to have recorded it.  When I listen to it now you can sense it. 

We were playing the music a million miles an hour.  I don’t know how we were able to play the songs that fast.  I know how it happened, as we were just caught up in the energy of the moment and we were pushing it as fast as we could, so the tempo increased dramatically on some of the songs.  It didn’t create any detrimental effect, in fact, I think it just gave the event more ferocity.  It is wonderful that we can marry those two things up with this release.  We can marry up the live experience of what the Metal Heads were going through that night and on that tour, as well as having the studio recordings to kind of make a comparison. 

Jeb: I am going to switch gears.  I have heard you have a book, a novel that you wrote in the 1970s called Library of Tears.

Rob: I do, I do, absolutely.  Until recently, I was searching my house in the UK to try to find it, and I actually found it.  I found the actual book, the manuscript I put together.  I wrote it out longhand and then I typed it.  I haven’t re-read it yet--I read the first few pages.  It’s very childlike, but I’m just pleased that I was able to find it.  I don’t know if anything will come of it.  I am just relieved that having thought it was completely lost, I now have it. 

It’s a pretty cool story.  It’s about this evil kind of guy who steals people’s emotions by capturing their tears.  He has this library and instead of books he has these little glass vials of humanity.  He has a room full of these things and it is called The Library of Tears.  I’ve now discovered it, and who knows what will happen to it.  I am not sure. 

Jeb: Here is another obscure one for you.  Back in 1978, you did the show The Top of the Pops.  You didn’t have your Harley Davidson, but you had a bullwhip.  Marie Osmond was on that show and I guess she had a big problem with your bullwhip. 

Rob: Yes, Marie wasn’t very much in agreement with that.  I got a message to my dressing room about that.  I immediately went out of my dressing room and to Marie’s dressing room.  I banged on the door and I went storming in.  She was sitting there with her hair in curlers.  I said, “Look Marie, I know you don’t like this idea with my bullwhip.  The thing is, you are who you are, and I am who I am.  I would never impose my feelings on another artist.  I just want to let you know that I am going to use my bullwhip, probably with more thrusting tonight than I have ever done before!”

Jeb: As we look back 30 years of Defenders of the Faith, where do you think that piece of work fits into the history of the Priest catalog? 

Rob: It is an important record, Jeb.  It brings back memories that I cherish associated around the actual making of the album.  The stumbling of going to a studio that was empty and getting through those difficult times and the general outcome of the artwork and the Metallian monster and the little blurb that you mentioned at the start of this interview—it’s all good stuff. 

Jeb: Last one:  I am going to test your Priest knowledge.  There are three Priest albums where every song has been played at one point in time live in concert.  One was when you did British Steel in its entirety.  Another is Defenders of the Faith.  Do you know what the other one is?

Rob: No, but I know you will because you’re a huge Priest fan. 

Jeb: Believe it or not, it is Rocka Rolla.

Rob: Really?

Jeb: That was the first Priest album.  You didn’t have any other songs that you could play live, so you had to play them all!

Rob: [laughter] Well, you stumped me on that one!  Good for you, Jeb.  It is always a pleasure brother.  You look after yourself, and I hope to see you soon.