Judas Priest’s British Steel hits Forty

Text by Phil Ashdown

With the new decade barely into its fourth month 1980 was soon to become one of the most important years in heavy metal history with the release of some superb albums from the likes of Motorhead, Black Sabbath and debuts from Iron Maiden and Def Leppard.

Among these landmark records was the sixth studio album by Judas Priest, British Steel, which in many ways helped define the style, sound and image of metal throughout the 80s.

Following a busy and increasingly successful period that included two albums in 1978, a top twenty single in the UK with Take On The World and a classic live album, both in 1979.

Producer Tom Allom who worked on the aforementioned live album, Unleashed In The East says in a Classic Rock Magazine article  “I think Judas Priest were ready for the big breakthrough in the States… they had steadily built up their following and what they now needed, really, was a commercial album.”

The album was written and recorded in just twelve weeks at Tittenhurst Park, the home of former Beatle Ringo Starr after a false start at Starling Studios in December 1979. Digital sampling was not yet widely available so the band used analogue techniques that included the use of billiard cues and trays of cutlery for sound effects during the track Metal Gods.

On the UK release the album kicks off with the up-tempo rocker Rapid Fire, which as the title suggests is a classic slab of Priest mayhem and one of the band’s fastest songs. Driven by the dual lead guitars of Tipton and Downing as well as thunderous drumming from latest recruit Dave Holland. Following track, Metal Gods was destined to be the defining signature number for the band and even became the nickname for vocalist Rob Halford. It’s irresistible, pounding riff and simple drum rhythms build to a climax as the metallic cutlery rattling marching sound of the Gods reaches a crescendo. The track also contains some of Halfords best vocal work on the album which includes a deliberately flat title chant. The classic Breaking The Law is up next, clocking in at just 2 min 36 seconds I think it is one of the weaker tracks and a rather contrived attempt at a hit single. Grinder is much better, a riff driven powerhouse with some excellent guitar interplay. Closing side one is the incredibly lame United which is an attempt at a foot stomping, football-terrace sing-a-long in the style of Queen’s We Will Rock You. Although a hit single in the UK it comes over as laboured and tedious. Side two starts well with You Don’t Have To Be old To Be Wise and the somewhat cheesy and repetitive Living After Midnight which should have been speeded up a notch or two. A sort of skanking reggae guitar starts The Rage which only improves as it builds to a main riff that sounds more akin to that classic Priest sound with final track Steeler bringing things to climactic close with some of the best dual guitar harmony work on the whole album. Overall a fairly consistent album that is let down by its three most commercial and successful tracks. It has been hailed as a classic album during the intervening years and is certainly ‘of it’s time’ in terms of both the song writing and production but it definitely helped build not only Priest’s reputation but heavy metal’s glory days of the eighties.

TRACK LISTING

  1. Rapid Fire 4:08
  2. Metal Gods 4:01
  3. Breaking The Law 2:36
  4. Grinder – 3:58
  5. United 3:36
  6. You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise 5:04
  7. Living After Midnight 3:31
  8. The Rage 4:44
  9. Steeler 4:30

Judas Priest Line-up

Rob Halford – Vocals

KK Downing – Guitars

Glenn Tipton – Guitars

Ian Hill – Bass

Dave Holland – Drums

The accompanying British Steel tour took place between 7th March and 23rd August 1980 and included a 21-date UK Tour with Iron Maiden (whose debut album was released on 14 April too) in support. This included two sold-out shows at Hammersmith Odeon in London, the first of which was on the same day as the album release that I was fortunate enough to attend.

Judas Priest were also second on the bill below headliners Rainbow at the first festival held at Castle Donington on 16th August. The one day festival was billed as Monsters Of Rock and continued under that format until 1996.

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