“Listen to our first album and then listen to our latest one and the difference is immense. I’m not just talking about production either; the style of music, the way we played, and even the scales we used are different.”
Fifty years is a long time to do anything regardless of what it is, just ask heavy metal legends Judas Priest. In the late ’70s and early ’80s they pioneered the amplified style while led by the legendary screams of vocalist Rob Halford along with two guitarists, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, which was a rare lineup for a band at the time.
With bassist Ian Hill and drummer Dave Holland rounding out the rhythm section, the British act from Birmingham took the world by storm with landmark albums like 1978’s Killing Machine, 1980’s British Steel, and Point Of Entry and Screaming For Vengeance coming out the following two years.
Since those days, the lineup has changed, with Scott Travis taking over on drums after Holland’s passing in 1989 and guitarist Richie Faulkner entering the fold after Downing’s departure in 2011. But of course, they haven’t let up in their approach.
As part of their 50 Heavy Metal Years Tour, Judas Priest will take the stage at the MGM Music Hall on Oct. 16, with Seattle metal icons Queensrÿche kicking things off at 8pm. Hill and I spoke ahead of the show about how he started playing the bass, the early days of the band, his proudest moment as a member of Judas Priest, their upcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a new album that’s almost fully completed.
You originally learned how to play bass from your father who played in local jazz bands while you were growing up in West Bromwich. Coming from that background, what initially gravitated you to getting into hard rock and heavy metal music?
My father passed away when I was 15 so he only was able to teach me the rudiments of the bass. I was surrounded by jazz music all the time as well, those were the records he played in those days. After that I lost interest, it knocked the wind out of my sails, but then I got a bass guitar because it was easier to play and definitely more portable.
It went from there, I got into my own kind of music and I started getting into the old blues-rock players like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Cream, and even Jimi Hendrix. There was also Fleetwood Mac, of course. We’re talking about 1968 and ’69 and during the latter year I met up with K.K. Downing to start the band that was to become Judas Priest. We sort of evolved from there, it was still very much blues-rock and rhythm and blues but it was also heavily influenced by our heroes.
I don’t think the term “heavy metal” was even coined until the mid-’70s and probably around 1980 during the release of British Steel was when everything gelled. We became a definitive heavy metal band.
During the early years of Judas Priest you played bass in a finger-picking style but you’ve used a pick ever since the making of the album Killing Machine that came out in 1978. Did you make that transition mainly out of comfort to prevent blisters on your fingers or is there another reason for using a pick?
It’s to keep up, really. I’m actually more comfortable playing with my fingers and whenever I’m noodling on my own I always use my fingers. It was when Glenn Tipton joined the band in ’74 that I made the switch. You get a softer sound when you play with your fingers and when you got one distorted guitar that’s okay because you have room to fill everything in, but when you got two it tends to waffle along with everything that’s going on. I started to play with a pick just to clean it up, to get a sharper tone if you like and to cut through the two guitars, that’s the reason why I started to use one.
Some of the stuff we play now I could do with my fingers, it’s just better for me to use a pick with the pace we want to play at. You couldn’t handle some of it with only your fingers with the shredding and all of that.
I totally get that. This current tour Judas Priest is embarking on is following up the release of the photographic book, Judas Priest: 50 Heavy Metal Years, and a 42-CD box set. Being the sole original member of the band now, how would you describe the band’s evolution from the early ’70s to the present day and what are some of your proudest moments and accomplishments?
We’ve evolved a hell of a lot since the early days and we still are evolving, you never stop learning. If we have any sort of idea when we go into the studio to make a new record, we just try to make things different from the last one and make it better. Some bands find that formula, they stick with it and people love them for it, but we’ve always tried to be a little bit different with each album. Just listen to our first album Rocka Rolla and then listen to our latest one Firepower and the difference is immense. I’m not just talking about production either, the style of music, the way we played and even the scales we used are different.
For proudest moments, there’s been loads of them over the past 50 years. I think the one that always stands out is when you see your record on the shelf, the first record. I remember walking into Turner’s Record Store on Paradise Street in West Bromwich and there it was on the shelf, Rocka Rolla right next to Cream, Hendrix, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. It was all the bands you love and all of your heroes, that’s when you know that if it all stops right now that’s never going to go away and I think that’s probably my proudest moment. There’s been other things along the way, playing the US Festival in the early ’80s was enormous with 340,000 people. Doing Live Aid was another one and we’ve won Grammys, had gold records, and things like that. They’re all very proud moments but that record, as poorly produced as it was, being placed among the greats in record stores was an immense thrill.
Speaking of proud moments, Judas Priest is going to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame this year. What are your thoughts on this honor and do you view it with any high esteem?
These things come along every now and then and it’s very flattering when they do. If you’ve been recognized by your peers, this is going to sound terrible but it means more than being recognized by other people because they’re your peers and they’ve gone down similar paths you have. It’s very flattering and it’s always nice when it comes along, especially at this late stage in the game. I don’t think it’ll make that big of a difference to our career now one way or another, but we’re there and it’s another proud moment. I think we’ll all be proud to be part of it and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s all about, I don’t have the slightest idea of what to expect. I have to get there at a certain time, I know that.
The whole ceremony should be very interesting to see how it all comes together. You just mentioned Firepower, which is the most recent album from Judas Priest that came out in 2018. It’s been a few years since then, so can we expect a new record from you guys in the near future? Or do you just plan on doing this tour while seeing how everything works out when it comes to writing new material?
There’s a new album that’s pretty much completed and ready to go. I’ll be putting my final bass lines on it on the last leg of the tour. We’re going to have a lot of time off from the road and our producer Andy Sneap, who is a guitarist as well, has a portable studio with him on his laptop. The things you can do these days you couldn’t do with when we started out, but it’s sounding great with some vocals on there now and we’re excited to put it out. When it’ll be released, I don’t know and we’re obviously going to have to give it some breathing space. The rest of the tour is going to take us right up to Christmas, so we’ll take some time off to recharge and then we’ll think of the best time to release it.
Judas Priest: 50 Heavy Metal Years at MGM Music Hall at Fenway
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.