Steel Mill’s own Priest professor Jari had a chat with his Canadian counterpart, Martin Popoff, a well-known music journalist who, among tens of other titles, has written three excellent books about Judas Priest. A man who really knows his Priest inside out…
You are a well respected music journalist, a writer who has written nearly 8000 record reviews and penned over 75 books about rock, metal etc. Tell us how it all started, your relation to music?
Well, about ten years old, 1973, I suppose I got lit up by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Nazareth, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, soon thereafter, Kiss. Throw in a little BTO, eventually Rush, and I became your basic obsessed music fan. I’d say by about 1976, 13 years old, I was a bit of an expert, getting all the magazines, knowing about albums that were coming out. I mean, I do remember being primed and ready with the record button, when KREM-FM out of Spokane was about to play all of 2112 on the radio, upon release. So yeah, just like we had guys in school that were obsessed by trains and helicopters, for me it was heavy metal.
About the books, how hard work is it to check all the little details?
Books, or a combination of my own interviews, reading and quoting interviews in other magazines and websites, checking out what is said in other books (but not quoting them), seeing what you could figure out online. This is a frustrating question. There are little things that absolutely no one cares about that you want to get right, that are almost impossible to figure out and you spend 15 minutes pissed-off about it, or a half hour pissed-off about it, and then there are other simple things that are super important that you can check in a few seconds. It’s all on a grey scale.
Thinking about Priest books and your detailed approach song-by-song, does it all come from your memory or do you listen to the songs while writing?
Half-and-half. I know the catalogue so intimately that many of my views can be from memory, but what I wanted to do, inspired by what I had to do with the Led Zeppelin and Clash books for Voyageur Press, where it was just straight heavy analysis, 400 to 500 words on every single song, what I did with Priest when I did those two Priest books is yes, I listened through everything through earbuds, figured out what’s happening in the left channel or the right channel, how many tracks of guitar, what are they doing? So I got a little deeper into the analysis, but not as deep as I had to get with The Clash and Led Zeppelin.
Are there more Priest books from you around the corner?
No, I don’t think so. Doing whatever that is, 210,000 words on the catalogue, right up to the present across two books, that should do it for a while. It’s diminishing returns for me as a writer and for my readers if I keep writing about the same thing over again.
Let’s rewind a little – how did Judas Priest come to your life?
Magic moment, to be sure! I can’t remember if I was working there yet at the time, as I would’ve been 13, but I do believe I started working at Rock Island Tape Centre at that age, a stereo, and TV store with a pretty healthy record department, which I ran, or me and my partner in crime, Forrest Toop ran when we worked together, but I definitely do remember that Sad Wings of Destiny was picked up there. I remember thinking, this could be not very heavy Christian rock, or maybe it is something heavy. No expectations beyond that.
We got home and had a listening party, and instantly Judas Priest were at the top of all of our lists, those dozens of lists you would do sitting around the kitchen table about best this and best that. I remember we almost worked ourselves into a lather that it was otherworldly or imbued by the power of Satan or something, because it was a little religious and a little creepy and more importantly than that, way too skilled for a bunch of nobodies. Remember it was timeless too. Outside of the electricity and the references to the Ripper, it could have been medieval music. It’s pretty much exactly the same uneasy feeling we had when we heard Mercyful Fate’s Melissa album. You must’ve sold your soul to the devil if you are this good and you are nobodies.
Decades later, only a few years ago, I finally saw those ads in Melody Maker or Sounds, whatever it is, for the album, that said something like “the heaviest band in Britain.” So damn true. Even though there were two completely quiet songs on it, the rest of the album is essentially the most advanced heavy metal on the planet.
I think Judas Priest is your favorite band of all time, correct ?
No, I wouldn’t think so, but I’ve often said that that run of records from 1976 to 1979 is the greatest creative streak in all music, let alone heavy metal. The only thing for me that rivals it is Queen, 1973 to 1980. But no, I often have this argument with people, but one way to be my favourite band is to get out of the game before you start making bad albums. I usually cite in this respect, Max Webster as my favourite Canadian band over Rush, or why I love The Dictators, Gillan, The Police, Soundgarden, this idea of a half dozen albums and then you’re done. Absolutely, if Priest had stopped with Hell Bent for Leather, they would’ve been my favourite band of all time. Others that break this rule and have been around forever, however, I’ll cite AC/DC and ZZ Top – love all eras.
Why do you think Priest´s era 1976-1979 is the most crucial in heavy metal history?
In all of rock history, as I noted above. Like I say, Priest were on another plane, starting with Sad Wings. And then, with absolutely no competition anywhere close in the rearview mirror, they even bested themselves with Sin After Sin and Stained Class. They were basically heavy metal geniuses while everybody else were mortals. It’s so hilarious reading reviews from that time, how few people noticed how foreign what they were doing was. But you can bet all the thrash-masters of the ‘80s knew it. Killing Machine/Hell Bent for Leather is my favourite Priest album; it just feels like they mixed a little bit of mortality, humanity, in with the mensa metal. I guess what I’m saying is, they were like 10% less god-like and alien, but I liked them even more. Why? Because I’m a human being, and they were being more like human beings? Not sure. At that point. They were a little more like your most perfect version of Scorpions. Just like the greatest crafters of metal, but essentially operating in this world.
So that’s why you consider 1978 “Killing Machine” (entitled ”Hell Bent For Leather” in US/Canada 1979) as a pinnacle of Priest material?
I think here the production is a little beefier. I love that picture of Halford on the back. He looks like a drunken pirate! And his voice is a little earthier too, in accordance with that beard. The songs are just a little less thin and hysterical. Tons of my favourite Priest songs of all time are here: “Burnin’ Up,” “Delivering the Goods,” “Rock Forever,” “Running Wild,” I have no problem putting those as my top four—add “Hell Bent” in too and maybe even “Killing Machine.” And then I love the way the rest of it hangs together as well. Good variety, good sequencing, good pacing. It’s just that perfect nexus or cusp album, my favourite, although, weirdly, like I said above, less unearthly.
What is your take on 80s Priest?
Loved at the time, less now. Every damn album was going to be a disappointment after the band being just so ridiculously miles and miles above any competition for those four records. Ram It Down and Turbo were minor blips, minor news events for me, but British Steel was a huge deal, Point of Entry was a pretty beloved album and is probably my favourite of the ‘80s albums now. Screaming for Vengeance was a massive record for me and my buddies (“You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” was the encore song with our bar band) and Defenders of the Faith was also hugely beloved. But the fact of the matter is Priest had tons of competition by then, and they were just merely one of a dozen great metal bands by that point. The whole NWOBHM had happened, there was thrash…
If you could change something in Priest´s career, what would that be?
I wish they never would’ve dumbed down, which started with British Steel. That’s it right there. Those ‘70s albums, even Rocka Rolla, are so mystical and magical to me, they are just super high-level works of art. I just wish they would’ve done more stuff like that. Same thing with Queen. And even worse with Queen. Basically, Brian May retired halfway through The Game, which is just a miserable thing, because he’s practically my favourite guitarist of all time.
After the re-union with Rob, are you happy with the results?
Pretty happy, sure, but not ecstatic. Again, one of my big disappointments with the band is this dumbing down thing, which started way back with British Steel, and I’m just not crazy about all the primary colours, and the lyrics about monsters and metal.
You think back to the ‘70s and say, well, surely they couldn’t have been any better then. They were even younger and stupider! No, even then there was this kind of non-second-guessing or non-self-awareness, or maybe because it was just fresh, and you are totally into the first three or four metal monster songs, but you had your fill after a dozen. I don’t know. Maybe the lyrics in the ‘70s weren’t so great either, but I definitely surely can’t handle the type of lyrics, all over Redeemer and Firepower.
Now, after K.K. has left the band, how do you feel about the new albums and touring?
You know, I’m such a big lead vocalist and lyric guy, that I believe in almost every case that the lead singer, especially if he writes the lyrics, is like 50% of the band. Now, there’s a complicating factor, and that’s that Rob is sort of in that middle range between singers that are still killing it and singers that are a disaster. Right now, I think he could still hold his head up high, and Priest is a workable live thing.
Records, that can go on forever. But again, I wish it was just more artistic and less sort of perfect, paint by numbers, expected metal. Sure, Ken leaving is a blow, Glenn leaving is a blow, but another funny thing is happening with Priest that I’ve seen happen with other bands, in that if all of these shocks happen over a number of years and are spread out, you can kind of keep going. Look at Queensryche. If Scott doesn’t come back, they’re down to an original guitarist and an original bass player. And yet, because the pieces have been changing gradually, I think the brand is still viable.
I would love to see K.K. back in music, but what I really don’t like is when these bit marquee guitarists make a record with a whole bunch of guest vocalists. I think the most kick-ass thing K.K. could do is get in a power trio or maybe a four-piece with a stand-alone lead singer (so, Who/Zep version of power trio), and everybody of at least a certain vintage and accomplishment level, no young guys. Or get back in Priest!
Highly recommended reading from Martin Popoff:
Judas Priest: Heavy Metal Painkillers: An Illustrated History, 2007
Judas Priest: Decade Of Domination, 2018
Judas Priest: Turbo ’til Now, 2019