I didn’t grow up with metal. While I have vivid memories of seeing videos by Def Leppard, Metallica and Megadeth in my pre-junior high days, it wasn’t something that my brothers or sister listened to, and even my friends grew into its aggression and vicious riffs long after first being won over by the same alt-rock bands that caught my attention. Yet sometime around age 12 or 13, I took to listening to a local hard rock and metal station, one that leaned heavily on AC/DC, Zeppelin and Alice Cooper (I must have heard “School’s Out” a hundred times one summer), and, most importantly, Judas Priest. At the time, Rob Halford’s band Fight was garnering its share of airplay as well, but for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the song the station played. What I did remember, however, were Priest’s classic, monumental songs, from “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” to “Living After Midnight,” to my personal favorite (and Beavis and Butthead’s), “Breaking the Law.”
Every metalhead needs a gateway into the genre, and while I hesitate to say Judas Priest was mine (the more accurate answer is something more “alternative” like Helmet), they certainly piqued my taste for further discovery. Of course, I spent most of my adolescent years thereafter consumed in sad bastard music and a compulsion to chase the canon. But now, at 28, I have more fondness for the legendary U.K. metal icons than ever. Coincidentally, 2010 also marks the 30th anniversary of the band’s landmark album British Steel, as monolithic an example of 1980s metal as they come. And to honor the occasion, Legacy has released a deluxe edition of the album in two versions, one with a bonus DVD of an anniversary concert and “making of” interview, as well as an additional expanded version that also contains a bonus CD that also features the live tracks from the anniversary performance.
Listening with fresh ears to this album, a little under two years its junior, I’m struck not by how vicious or punishing these songs are (consuming Converge and Botch albums will erase any such notions), but just how great they are as rock songs. This is, by all means, a classic heavy metal album, but one from an era that predates more elaborate and fringe forms of the genre. Perhaps the most intense song is the very first track, “Rapid Fire,” which recalls the double-speed punk-metal drive of fellow New Wave of British Heavy Metal heavyweights Motörhead. But from there, the material takes on more of a steady groove, pounding out a glam-rock swagger and strut in the stellar “Metal Gods,” and fine-tuning the perfect tempo for headbanging in the immortal “Breaking the Law.” And “United” is practically a Queen song! Likewise, “Living After Midnight” and “You Don’t Have to Be Old to Be Wise” share more in common with AC/DC than Slayer, but by god, what searing slabs of rock ‘n’ roll they are. Metal got far more extreme in the years to come, but this was cutting edge at the time. Still, when I hear the sinister strut of a standout like “The Rage,” all I can think is how much fun Judas Priest are.
The bonus live DVD drives that point home even further, as even 30 years later the band’s showmanship remains in top form. Rob Halford may be an elder statesman of metal, but the dude can still wail like he did when he was in his twenties. Even more impressive, however, are guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, who both maintain their chops and their energy throughout this 16 song set, which features not only all of the album’s original 9 tracks, but other classics such as “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and “The Ripper,” as well as a cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” The accompanying interview isn’t quite as enlightening, though the band draws an interesting parallel between heavy metal music and their background growing up in working class England, being surrounded by the sounds of steel factories.
Rob Halford briefly lived in San Diego, and I distinctly recall spotting him on Robinson Avenue. Even dressed casually, without the biker metal wardrobe, he seemed like a giant. Perhaps it was merely a flair for the dramatic that led Judas Priest to release a song titled “Metal Gods” in 1980, but 30 years later, it’s clear that prophecy has been fulfilled.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.