Saturday, November 14, 2009

Where Judas Priest Went Wrong

--ed. These are just some random thoughts on Judas Priest as I wait for someone to finally call my phone so I can test out my new "You've Got Another Thing Coming" ringtone.


The assertion that Judas Priest somehow “went wrong” is less controversial of a statement than at first it may appear. I am willing to wager, in fact, that most experts in the field of 1970s-1980s heavy metal would agree that, through certain avoidable errors in composition, editing, and promotion, Judas Priest sacrificed their chance to attain equal footing alongside such luminaries as AC/DC and Black Sabbath in the lexicon of metal greats. Though their status today is still a far cry from one of complete obscurity, it is nonetheless one of a secondary nature. This is because Judas Priest -- much like the original Judas -- did indeed "go wrong".


Here is where the real controversy begins. In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of 1970s-1980s heavy metal, even those who uphold the notion that Judas Priest “went wrong” are still hesitant to ascribe the blame solely to Judas Priest themselves. Yet unlike the late 1960s/early 1970s pop group Badfinger, for example, Judas Priest was not the hapless victim of shady entertainment lawyers or obtuse management.

Hard rockers are no strangers to pills. Nevertheless, this one still remains difficult to swallow: Judas Priest had the metal world in the palm of their hand and they let it all slip away. In fact, William Shakespeare might have said it even better:

The fault, dear Judas, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.


In the following sections, I will adumbrate two major areas of fault in which I believe Judas Priest went wrong. The first deals with errors in composition and editing; or, more simply, the musical aspects of the band. The second deals with promotion.

ed.--There might be some confusion as regards this second area of fault. That is to say, does not promotion, being a managerial task, lie outside the scope of band culpability? And if so, wouldn’t Judas Priest have been a victim of an external force after all? In a regular entertainment and promotional sense, the answer to this question would be yes. However, as we shall see later, lead vocalist Rob Halford, it turns out, had been sitting on a major promotional opportunity throughout the entirety of Judas Priest’s career and had failed to act in time to capitalize on it sufficiently. No management company or record label could have forced him to undertake such a promotional opportunity. The decision was his and his alone. His failure to act cost the band dearly. And by the time he did act, Judas Priest, as we knew and loved it, was no more. (more on this in due course)

So let us proceed with with the musical error.

A) The Negative Implication Of Poorly Constructed Metal Prologues.

As we examine the first area of fault (musical), let us do a little role-playing. Close your eyes and take a trip back to your childhood. You’re in your best friend’s older brother’s bedroom rifling through a stack of LPs. Suddenly, you come across one from a band with a rather sinister sounding name: Black Sabbath. On the cover is a blurry figure waving a sword. The title is Paranoid.

Even though you’re young, you already know that your Uncle Steve has recently been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Your curiosity gets the better of you and so you urge your friend to play the title track on his brother’s hi-fi.

A mercilessly driving guitar riff sharpens your brain cells as you prepare to undergo an auditory crash course in abnormal psychology. Yet instead of learning about the etymology of the word “schizophrenia” (split mind; of Greek origin) or what demographics are most often affected with your uncle’s recently diagnosed disorder, you hear a young Ozzy Osbourne complain that he’s “finished with his woman” and that he’s “frowning all the time” and that “nothing seems to satisfy”. But none of this matters. The intended effect has been achieved. At this point, you’re ready to break into your friend’s father’s liquor cabinet.

Later in the afternoon, slightly aglow from a gin and whiskey and kahlua cocktail, you come across a different album from a band with an equally--if not more so--sinister-sounding name: Judas Priest. The album is called Screaming For Vengeance.

Even though you’re young, you already know that “vengeance” is what your Uncle Steve was screaming for when the ghosts had taken over your grandmother's attic the night he was removed in handcuffs and placed in a white van.

One title in particular leaps out at you: “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”. The title sounds mean. The title sounds tough. The title makes you think, in your 9-year old inebriated brain, that one listen alone would do for you what Popeye's spinach did for him. “Put it on,” you tell your friend with a snarl. And he obliges.

The first thing you hear is a steady sludge of drums, bass, and rhythm guitar, chugging out an easily comprehensible pedestrian beat. Over the top, a lead guitar blankets this rhythmic mattress with three descending power chords. Following a few quick and simplistic downstrokes of the final chord, the descending pattern is repeated a second time. There’s nothing incorrect with it musically. Everything sounds in tune. Nonetheless, you’re feeling an impatience that you hadn’t felt during the opening bars of “Paranoid”. Twenty seconds of your young life have already passed with nary a cry of vengeance from lead vocalist Rob Halford. You’re about to give up and return to warm embrace of Black Sabbath, but your friend urges you to hang in there. He’s heard it already. And he knows for certain the promise of vocal vengeance will soon be fulfilled.

Finally, you hear a voice that rivals even Osbourne’s in viciousness and disregard for public decency. A beautiful, diabolical warbling emerging straight from the depths of hell makes you shudder at the prospect that one day you might be called upon to murder your parents!

Rob Halford starts out his anthem of vindicating selfishness with relative slowness. You have no idea what he’s saying, but whatever it is, you know it can’t be good for you. One wicked line wraps effortlessly around the next, until--like a linguistic waterfall gushing forth with frothy Satanic pride--Halford’s syllables start to out-pace the instruments. It is at this precise moment--as the freefall begins from verse to inevitable chorus, like a helpless grain of sand passing through the unforgiving vortex of the hourglass--that you know, unequivocally, the music is there to serve Halford and NOT the other way round! Fasten your seat belts, motherfuckers. Here we go!!!!!!!

If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by
You’re thinking like a fool, cause it’s a case of do or die!

Out there is a fortune, waiting to be had

If you think I’ll let it go, you’re mad!

You don’t need to follow a lyrics sheet to know where this is going to end up. . .

You got another thing coming!
You got another thing coming!

Pure. Metal. Ecstasy.

But how long did it take you to reach this musical satisfaction? Or, more to the point, were the means themselves by which you arrived at this anthemic resolution as engaging as what was to follow when Halford’s vocals finally appeared? Qualitatively speaking, how does the Judas Priest prologue to "You've Got Another Thing Coming" compare to the prologue of Sabbath’s “Paranoid”?

And so here it is--the major musical mistake that ultimately helped to prevent Judas Priest from not just obtaining equal footing with the likes of Black Sabbath, but of possibly even surpassing them in the Pantheon of Metallic Victory.

Judas Priest was deficient in the establishment of memorable metal openings.

Black Sabbath, meanwhile, was abundant in the structural gifts that Judas Priest lacked. That’s why the length between a song’s first chord and Osbourne’s appearance so often varied from track to track in Sabbath's discography. Indeed, the one constant between the brief opening of “Paranoid” and the grandiose prologue of “Luke's Wall/War Pigs” is the obvious level of comfort the band feels about its ability to be engaging, with or without the presence of Osbourne’s vocals.

The same can be said for other bands whose strength was not solely contingent on the dynamism of the lead singer; whether one is referring here to the crude, even childish, guitar riffs and drunken chants of "Oy!" that introduce Bon Scott's passionate ode to unprovoked violence and pre-teen molestation in AC/DC’s “T.N.T." Or, even better, the elaborately-syncopated instrumental onslaught that parts the curtains for Ian Gillan's maniacally screaming entrance to Deep Purple’s “Highway Star”.

In fairness, none of the above is to suggest in any way that the band Judas Priest (sans Rob Halford) was without musical talent. It is, however, to suggest that a necessary hierarchy was sadly overlooked; one which should have rendered the band consistently subservient to Halford’s vocals (with, of course, the exception of the obligatory lead guitar solo).

This deficiency could have been remedied in one of two manners. During composition or rehearsal, the introductory riffs could have been significantly shortened to decrease the wait for Halford’s heavily-anticipated appearances. To be sure, some creative egos may have been bruised--but it was Halford's duty, as leader of Judas Priest, to crack the proverbial whip if the integrity of the band was to survive intact atop the scrap heap of memorable metal.

Remember, too, that in the fine art of 1970s-1980s heavy metal, a bad prologue to a song is not just bad, it’s also pretentious. Metal should come from the spirit naturally and not through brute force.

And, speaking of brute force, it is with a brutally honest condemnation that we conclude our discussion tonight with the second, and greater, misfortune of the Judas Priest legacy:

B) Halford Came Out And No One Was There. . .

Now, no one would blatantly suggest that one’s homosexuality be exploited for promotional purposes.Yet it is an undeniable fact that in the field of 1970s-1980s heavy metal, a lead singerof a prominent metal group coming out of the closet would not only have created a fresh idol for the gay community, but would also have enshrined his band at the very vanguard of postmodern counter-culturalism for years thereafter.

It is true that quite some time before the advent of Judas Priest, Lou Reed had already opened up about his particular homosexual experiences--both in his music and in his lifestyle. However, Lou Reed, it should be noted, wasn’t wed to any particular musical genre--unlike Halford. Rob Halford was a visible entityin the world of heavy metal; a world replete with images of bulging cocks in tight pants and big-tittied backstage whores.

Open homosexuality in 1970s-1980s heavy metal had never been attempted before. And thanks to Halford’s shoddy decision to remain in the closet until after leaving the band in the 1990s, it never would be. The reader will understand now why it was stated earlier that this was a promotional opportunity only Halford could have elected to undertake. Just as the band Judas Priest neglected to shorten their introductions to serve Halford, Halford neglected to come out of the closet to serve Judas Priest. By failing to act in a timely manner, he not only did a disservice to the gay community, but to the heavy metal community as well.

Though not a homosexual, I still hold a certain sadness for the LGBT community when it comes to Halford’s puzzling silence. Coming out of the closet in the 1990s was less than auspicious timing. Queen had already entered the twilight of their career--with, I should add, no small amount of well-deserved fanfare and glory. So who could the gays, therefore, call upon as a musical representative for their cause other than the campy douchebag from the B-52s who yapped about a “Chrysler as big as a whale”?

In summation, to all you aspiring 1970s-1980s heavy metal rockers, wherever you end up in your respective careers, don’t ever forget the sad ballad of Judas Priest--the metal band that “went wrong”.

And to all those aspiring betrayers of Our Lord Jesus Christ, wherever you end up in your respective careers, don’t ever forget the sad ballad of Judas--the disciple that “went wrong”.