By Kevin Stewart-Panko
“It’s Judas Priest, man. Judas-fucking-Priest!” And really, that’s just about all that needs to be said. That name, it’s a ritual, a mating call, a summons to arms, a bonding focal point. When you hear a bunch of yahoos yelling out “Slaaaaayeeeeerrrrrr!” you know the chances are very good that a Slayer show has just let out nearby. But when you hear “Judas-fucking-Priest, man!” regardless of the setting, there’s no doubt that metal is about. Hell, they even wrote a song called “Metal Gods” just in case you were still somehow a little blurry on the subject. How apropos that the subject of “Metal Gods” has arose, as that song and the eight others that comprise the band’s 1980 album, British Steel, are presently the focus of a tour commemorating the record’s 30th anniversary. Criss-crossing America – there’s one Canadian stop in Toronto on July 9th – with the album that initially broke the lads from Birmingham in the US in tow, Priest and their fans will celebrate in a summertime orgy of leather, studs, dry ice and synchronized head nodding.
Books have been written about Judas Priest, books will continue to be written about them and you better believe that after they either retire, collectively keel over whilst on stage somewhere in Nebraska or perish in a flaming plane wreck en route to another gig, you can fucking bet there will be more fucking books written about Judas-fucking-Priest. Hellbound caught up with one of the original members, bassist Ian Hill – he and KK Downing went to nursery school together! – for a brief chat during a tour stop in Connecticut during his band’s summer vacation to discuss unfashionable metal, pining for the classics and what’s in Richard Starkey’s storage space.
Hellbound: So whose idea was the British Steel celebration tour?
Ian Hill: I think it sort of hit us instantaneously, really. I think somebody pointed out it had been 30 years since we started writing and recording it and of course, British Steel was a bit of a landmark album because it was the first album where we did a headline tour of the states back in 1980. We started out with Kiss, did their last major tour and then we carried out on our own after that and we were here for quite a long time. It’s quite a good feeling when the American folks take you into their hearts; it makes it all worthwhile at the end of the day.
Is the tour going to be a strictly North American event, then?
Well, it is so far, but now fans around the world are getting interested so there’s talk of us taking it through Europe next year which is a bit of a shame… well, not a shame, but we were planning on doing Nostradamus and, of course, these things push those things back. But we’re thoroughly enjoying British Steel. There are so many fan favourites that you don’t realize. I mean, you do them in the set, but you sort of forget which albums they’re from and when you look back on it, there are a whole bunch of them there. It’s a great blast and the fans are loving it as well, which is probably the major thing.
I know it’s a celebration of a significant record and all that, but is that much focus on the past something you are okay with? Especially now that you’re saying that you had intentions of doing a Nostradamus tour.
I see your point, yeah, but we couldn’t really let it pass, y’know? We’ve done it in the past when certain album anniversaries have come and gone, passed on a tour offer and then regretted it. So we thought we’d do it this time. Nostradamus is going to be an immense project. There are obviously going to be other musicians involved, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of rehearsals and it’s going to take a long time to do and get it sorted to where we’re happy with it and comfortable taking it out on the road. So really, in the larger time scale of thing, taking six months to do this made a lot of sense.
Is the plan to do the full Nostradamus album and production?
Yeah, it’s still there. When we’re going to do it, I don’t know [laughs], but it’s still being planned. We’re not quite sure what format it’s going to take, whether it’s going to be with an orchestra or with synthesizers or whatever, but it will be done, sooner or later.
So, when you look at your discography and see that 1980 had British Steel, two years from now are you going to be looking at doing a Screaming for Vengeance anniversary tour? Then, two years after that it’ll be time for Defenders of the Faith.
[Laughs] Yeah, you’re absolutely right! But it’s not like that would be a bad thing. The thing is the fans are loving it so much, they know all the songs, every single one from start to finish. It’s a great sense of achievement as well, because a lot of these fans have been with us from day one and to see them enjoying it the way they are… there’s some sort of special blast you get out of it.
When it comes to the classics, do you guys even have to rehearse them anymore, or is it a matter of running through them once as a band to shake off the rust and there you go?
Yeah, it does get that way and they’re not very complicated songs either, even talking 30 years ago. The major thing is the production side of things: where the lights are going to go, what the backdrop is going to be like, the stage set…
…making sure you’re not standing near flashpots when they go off…
[Laughs] You’re absolutely right! The main rehearsals are for the crew. We know our part and it’s making sure everybody else knows what they’re doing and everything fits into place.
When you yourself go and see a band play live, do you want to hear the classics? Are you disappointed when they start playing new material and do you cringe when you hear, “This is a little something new we’ve been working on”? When you’re in the crowd, what do you want and does it differ from when you’re on stage?
I want to hear the classics as well. If I’ve got the new album, great, I wouldn’t mind hearing some of it, but if you’re missing a few… I just went to see the Eagles recently. I’ve been listening to the Eagles for over 30 years and everybody was there waiting for “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California,” which they did at the end. All the other stuff just leads up to those classic sounding songs. It’s all part of the entertainment; it’s not just the enjoyment, though, part of it is nostalgia as well.
Going back to British Steel’s recording, is there any one memory that stands out in your mind above all others?
Where we recorded; it was at Tittenhurst Park which used to be John Lennon’s house. It’s a big Georgian mansion and he passed it down to Ringo Starr… well, Ringo bought it from him and then he went off to live in Monaco or France or something. There’s always been a studio there, going back to Lennon’s days, and we sort of just got the keys to the castle and that in itself was an absolute dream. I can remember looking in a closet under the stairs and there are dozens of Ringo’s gold albums just stacked there like he didn’t know where to put them [laughs]. It really was a trip. I tell you something else, during the recording process was when John Lennon was shot*. Do you remember the video he did for “Imagine” where everything was white? The white piano, white clothes and Yoko opens the curtains to this white room. We were watching TV one day in that very room when the video came on and everybody turned ‘round looking over their shoulders, kind of freaked out.
As I understand it, you have a live album coming out soon as well? Is it going to be a live CD/DVD package?
It’s a live record at the moment of stuff that we’ve recorded over the last couple of tours. We’ve taken our own recording machinery with us on the road and there are a lot of songs we were playing that had never had official live releases before. We thought that might something the fans might like and put together an album. It wasn’t supposed to be a DVD package, but there is talk of having a DVD release of the British Steel tour footage, but there are no concrete plans yet.
For 30-plus years I, as I’m sure you, have seen the popularity of metal come and go in cycles. The same can be said for the popularity of various sub-genres under the umbrella of metal itself. Does it amaze you that for a couple years you can be on top of the world and playing stadiums, then a couple years later have it simmer out to where you’re playing theatres, then have it all turn around again?
[Laughs] I think the main point is that heavy metal has never been in fashion really. There’s never been a Michael Jackson of heavy metal sort of thing, with the possible exception of Ozzy, of course [laughs]. So, if it’s never in fashion, it can never go out of fashion and the people who like it, like it for that reason; they like it because they like the music, not so much what it portrays lifestyle-wise. Over the last 15-20 years or so, heavy metal became fragmented. If you look at the old, classic bands: ourselves, Maiden, Sabbath, there’s a lot of variety there, ups and downs, quiet and loud. We’ve done acoustic songs that’ll make you weep, heavier stuff that’ll make you mess yourself and everything in between. But suddenly, it became fragmented and everything seemed to lean on the heavier and faster side of things and, I hate to say it, it got a bit monotonous. The good news is that the up-and-coming bands that I’ve heard are starting to get a little more versatile and are starting to bring variety into the repertoire and that’s a good thing, I think.
Do you think that’s a product of the cycle or the skyrocketing skill of young musicians these days? I remember when I was a kid, the only sweep pickers were Yngwie Malmsteen and a couple of shredders signed to Shrapnel Records. Now, every 16 year-old-kid is a lightning fast sweep picker.
It possibly could be the cycle, but I think it’s that the musicians are getting bored and fed up with playing the same thing over and over again. There are only so many fast songs you can do before they sound repetitive. Yeah, the technique is coming in leaps and bounds, that’s very true. But I think that shows a lot of dedication because of all the practice it takes to get those things together properly. Technology has also played a role; with the right guitar processor and a synthesized drum kit that doesn’t make any noise except what comes through your headphones, you can make a decent album in your garage or bedroom. Technology has made almost professional standard recordings accessible to anyone with a few hundred bucks in their pocket.
Going back to British Steel, when you guys sat down to re-learn the songs outside of “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” was there anything that surprised you about your own material 30 years down the line?
I’m really enjoying playing things like “The Rage,” which has turned out great with that funky beginning and middle part, and “Steeler.” Why we never did that, I don’t know [laughs], what a groove! The piece at the end where it’s just the beat going on, it’s just a great groove and a great summer song.
What else is the show going to be comprised of in addition to the original nine songs?
We’re bringing back some other tracks we haven’t done in a while like “Freewheel Burning,” “Victim of Changes,” and we’re doing the faster version of “Diamonds and Rust.” Umm, what else is there? You’d think I’d know the bloody set by now… [laughs] there are very few songs we did last summer, but the set has changed almost completely.
Judas Priest make their only Canadian stop on the British Steel Anniversary tour this Thursday, July 9th, at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre.
Their new album, A Touch of Evil Live will be released on Tuesday, July 14th on Sony.
[*While Mr. Hill mentions that John Lennon was shot during the recording of the British Steel album, after double checking the release date it appears this is not true. The album was released in April, 1980; John Lennon was shot in December, 1980. However, they very well might have been recording Point Of Entry then – ED]
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