STEEL MILL SPECIAL REPORT BY VILLE KRANNILA / THOUGHTS POLL BY JARI ASELL
As the 1980’s dawned there was a rumble in the jungle as punk gave away to a new ferocious movement hailing from United Kingdom. New Wave Of British Heavy Metal stepped up to take the crown. Hundreds of bands had already made their stance at stardom and while most of them would not make it past endless pub circuits and (if they were lucky) their first albums, groups like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Saxon and Samson would go on to achieve great success.
The older guard however, faced the challenge head on. Black Sabbath released “Heaven And Hell,” one of their finest records and resurrection of their career. Motorhead scored gold with their fourth album “Ace Of Spades,” still a landmark release. And then of course Judas Priest delivered “British Steel” in April 1980. Although by that time Priest had been around in some form or other for almost 10 years, “British Steel” still remains the greatest NWOBHM-album ever released. In just 40 minutes it captured everything that was essential in the movement. It was sharp, it was steel, it was tight, focused and packed with awesome power. Still today 35 years on, it is the sound of the legends.
In early 1980 the band members were quite pleased with the results they got mixing “Unleashed In The East” at Startling Studios, so they returned to Ringo Starr’s house and called in Tom Allom to produce again. Tom had just wrapped up recording the Def Leppard debut album “On Through The Night” earlier that month at the same house. In mere 28 days, Allom and Priest would pull out all the stops and record the album that would earn Priest several US firsts, including gold certification and a break into the US Top 40. It would also become their highest ever chart position in the UK at #4!
To fully usher in the new decade and establish themselves further as the prime leaders and innovators of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Priest and Tom Allom wanted to add a visual impact to their sonic pallet, painting pictures through sound effects added to their songs. But as sampled sounds did not yet exist, Allom had to become quite creative and inventive. Thus cutlery and other home devices where brought out and used throughout the recording.
The final result was better than anyone could expect. Finally the fire and fury of Priest’s live act was transformed into a studio recording. Following “Unleashed In The East,” this was absolutely crucial. The band needed to put out the album that was part of the era, representative of Priest as world’s greatest heavy metal band and also one that would carry them forward.
Nowadays the album is sometimes rather unfairly packed in the same league with follow-up “Point Of Entry” and in lesser context “Turbo” as commercial, more mainstream effort. You could discuss in length about the two latter albums and their relation to bigger musical climate, and that indeed will come later. As for “British Steel” it was simply one part of the palette the album created, there was plenty more going on within its structure.
Certainly songs like “United” and “Living After Midnight” brought the band success on the singles chart and they were commercially more accessible than most of Priest’s previous output. But the main thread throughout “British Steel” is its versatility, as is the case with most of Priest’s albums. Just think about it for a second: who else could combine the catchy attack of “Breaking The Law” with early speed metal throttle of “Rapid Fire” and reggae of “The Rage,” bluesy “You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise” and anthemic “United” and indeed more commercial “Living After Midnight” together on the same album? And then there were songs like “Steeler” that simply were essential Judas Priest.
In the production side of things, the group ventured onto new era as Tom Allom took over the reins for the first time proper after overseeing the “Unleashed In The East” opus the year before. What Allom brought to the table became obvious right from the beginning, listen to the opening guitar riff on “Rapid Fire” or the merciless cold as steel sound of “Breaking The Law” – his production truly revealed the soul of Judas Priest. To this writer’s ears “British Steel” remains one of the greatest productions in the heavy metal field. And remember, this was achieved 30 years ago, with two guitars, voice, drums, bass and stack of Marshall amps. Pieces of cutlery represented studio trickery. Sonically there was no doubt this was Priest’s finest hour.
Furthermore this was drummer Dave Holland’s first studio work with the band and like his successor Scott Travis on “Painkiller” 10 years later, drums are extremely important instrument in the whole album. Fills and rhythm work in general carry the song’s themes forward. Dave had locked into a tight rhythm with bassist Ian Hill and on tracks such as “Grinder” and “Steeler” their playing is faultless.
Lyrically there’s also much more going on within “British Steel” than first meets the eye. In fact we could be talking in terms of concept album about the strength of individual here! Virtually every song makes a strong statement about self-awareness and emerging from under oppression. It is the same character in “Breaking The Law” who’s putting the action into his life and later needing room to breathe in “Grinder.” Elsewhere it’s either machines representing the oppression (“Better be the slaves to their wicked ways”) or the power of unity (“They can try but they never get near”) or someone having had enough of being told what to do and how to live (“I’ll choose my fate” and “Alone a free man, I got a world of my own”).
Towards the end in “The Rage” this character has reached the limit as “deep inside our blood begins to boil” And then topping it off the album is concluded with “Steeler” – practically a clarion call for arms. This speaks for everything that has gone on before. The vicious attack of the machines in “Metal Gods,” the tyranny represented in “United” and the anger and frustration of the individual going through terror and turmoil in “The Rage” and “Breaking The Law.”
Finally here’s some twists and turns torn from the album’s pages song by song. As most Judas Priest and metal fans know these tracks by heart, there is no need to go through them casually note for note. Instead some thoughts regarding feelings and emotions possibly lying beneath the surface are in order. They might provoke something new out of the listener even with 30 years of worn out playing. And that’s why we keep on returning to Priest’s records after all. The joy of discovering something new is what makes it exciting.
Rip roaring opener, which actually on some of the cassette versions at least was the second song. As most Priest fans know, Rob invented the word “desolisating” to English vocabulary. On the “Live Meltdown ’98” disc, Ripper Owens sang the new bridge lyrics “Rapid Fire, Between the eyes, Rapid Fire, terrifies, Rapid Fire, before you die, Rapid Fire.” This is also one of the two songs Priest re-cut in the studio with Ripper in 1998, the other of course being “Green Manalishi.”
The cutlery track! The legendary effects that emulate the marching sounds of the robots taking over the world. This is probably my pick from the album, it is a stunning metal track, proving once again that the best metal songs are not particularly fast nor slow but mid-tempo. Gamma Ray just recently borrowed this song on their “To The Metal” album and its title track.
Breaking The Law
The opening track on the cassette version, “Breaking The Law” is probably the most famous tune off “British Steel”. The sirens were faithfully recreated on the recent tour, which in the studio were done simply with electric guitar. Live a guitar solo by K.K. was added from “Screaming For Vengeance” tour onwards. Its message about an individual in turmoil due to unemployment and being rejected by society is a stark reminder of times we live in. In rejecting the individual we push the individual to reject society, thus “to put some action in his life.”
It is reasonably difficult to determine the heaviest song on “British Steel” but “Grinder” is certainly a contender. No surprise Priest returned to this song on their “Painkiller” tour in 1990 after it had been laid off since 1981. Halford’s lyrics are really on top form here: “Been Inclined To Wander, Off The Beaten Track, That’s Where There’s Thunder and The Wind Shouts Back.” After hearing so many live versions it’s also interesting to note the subtle differences in vocal delivery, most notable is the fact that all lines here are sung while Rob started to use talking on some parts of the verses almost straight away when performing live. For example the last lines “As the mighty eagle, I need room to breathe.” Talking certainly works in context of this track but give the studio version another listen.
A follow-up to previous record’s “Take On The World,” this anthem had single potential and rose up to number 26 on the British charts. Most remember this song from its Top Of The Pops appearance. The band on the stage in somewhat strange position with Rob lip synching and holding his leather gloves in tight grip. It remained untested in the live arenas until 2001-2002 “Demolition”-tour.
You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise
The side B-opener begins in a slightly moody atmosphere but soon departs into another defiant statement of individualism. Halford pulls several verbal punches while the vocal melodies are different than anything he’d done before. Actually this track more than once echoes the following years “Point Of Entry.” The twin lead by K.K. & Glenn usually isn’t among the top lists of Priest lead breaks but it is definitely underrated, check out the bluesy licks at 3:12 onwards.
Living After Midnight
Everyone knows the story of how this song was conceived during a shredding session by Glenn and lyrical idea by Rob waking up at midnight. No doubt for fans at the time, it represented the most commercial and radio friendly track in the Priest catalogue. But most forget it’s pure rock nature, like “Breaking The Law,” it was considerably heavier live. There’s undeniable crunch in the way the song is played still today.
The one forgotten song from the original LP, not played live until last summer’s tour. Yet it was rather heavily presented on the “British Steel”- DVD release with Ian, K.K. and Glenn displaying their hand on creating this different beast in the Priest catalogue. Up to that point it was the only track in Priest’s catalogue beginning with a bass intro, the reggae-influenced rhythm was something totally unheard then and afterwards. Plus K.K.’s lead work on the song is very innovative in its twists and turns. To cap it off, Rob gives one of his best performances ever on lead vocals. Majestic, emotional and indeed giving the impression of a “tiger in a cage,” this is legendary stuff. The song according to Rob was essentially about freedom to do whatever one wants and the rage that goes along with being suppressed under tyranny.
The second somewhat forgotten number, although this one was in fact played live during the original 1980 “British Steel”-tour. This song was heavily discussed on the fourth part of “The Fuel Of The Furnace” so you might want to check that out for further info on “Steeler.” Let’s just say it’s one of the eternal favourites, and a perfect way to close this perfect album.
Since 1981 “Breaking The Law,” “Metal Gods” and “Living After Midnight” have been performed in nearly all Judas Priest live shows. “Grinder” is also a regular visitor, having missed only few tours. “United” and “Rapid Fire” were both resurrected during the Ripper years. “Steeler” and “You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise” featured in the 1980-1981 set.
In 2009 Priest shot out on tour playing the whole album live from start to finish – the first time they had done so during their long career. It was amazing to think only “The Rage” up to that point remained an unknown entity before a live audience. The band faithfully integrated sound effects of the original record into the live show and if there ever was an album well designed for this treatment then “British Steel” was it.
Kicking off with “Rapid Fire” and concluding with “Steeler” the album-part of the show lasted no more than 41 minutes. After this the selection of other songs was interesting to say the least. “The Prophecy” from recent “Nostradamus”-disc got an airing, “Hell Patrol” introduced on the previous tour re-appeared (this song is a killer and fits well with Halford’s current deeper voice) but also back from the attic were some rare gems like “Freewheel Burning” and full electric version of classic “Diamonds And Rust.” The latter not played by Priest since 1982’s “World Vengeance” tour. The pace of the shows was tight and the whole band seemed to be at ease with playing the classic album and the whole set.
With sole exception being “The Rage,” all of “British Steel” have been played live at some point. This is a testimony on the album’s enduring legacy and strength. It remains one of Priest’s most loved albums and regularly features in the top 10 list of influential heavy metal records of all time.
Like rest of Judas Priest’s back catalogue, “British Steel” received its remaster issue in 2001. The album, which sounded faultless when it first arrived maybe didn’t benefit from this reissue as much as say, “Stained Class” but the digital remaster does sound very impressive at the high end.
In 2001 a “British Steel – making of” DVD was issued. Essentially a part of Eagle’s Classic Albums-series, in almost 2 hours it goes through the creating of the album, interviewing all band members, Tom Allom and several classic rock reporters such as Geoff Barton and Malcolm Dome. K.K. and Glenn also display some of the techniques behind the riffs and solos, roughly half of the album is tackled and presented here.
30th anniversary deluxe edition is due out right as we speak and includes the remastered original album with its bonus tracks, a brand new DVD shot at the Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida on 17.8.2009 and a CD featuring audio of the same show. The usual goodies of lavish packaging coupled with expanded booklet with rare pictures is a given. It is a testament of album’s greatness that it now gets the deluxe treatment.
It laid down a blueprint for NWOBHM and is still being followed all across the genre. It’s asset was tightness and various different moods, there were fast songs, mid-tempo numbers, slow burners and songs that simply crushed its way into listener’s sub-conscious. During the last couple of years there’s even been a festival in the UK called British Steel. And of course Steel Mill also introduces a tribute band feature by the name of, well you guessed it by now!
And finally there’s the cover; a hand gripping tightly to a razor blade. For the band’s tribute to their British roots and the defining album of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, CBS Records’ Roslav Szaybo created perhaps the most famous and defining of all the Judas Priest album covers for ”British Steel.”
Though a tribute to the Priest’s British roots, the cover also made clever use of the most well-known company name where many Midlands folks became part of the workforce. In fact, Glenn Tipton even worked a brief period for the British Steel Corporation, whose stainless steel division produced the popular razor blades depicted on the cover. The cutting edge artwork won many fans, but the establishment saw too much controversy in the original draft/design idea.
Thus blood from the edge of the blade was removed, this “British Steel” would do everything to you but make you bleed. In 2002 “British Steel” as an iconic album and coverart got another tribute in the form of Absolut Vodka. The commercial titled “Absolut Priest” was done by TBWA-advertising agency for Vodka (Absolut company) in the USA. It was released in the April 2002.
Back in 1980 there was of course the infamous hoax story of master tapes being stolen and the band having to pay substantial amount of money to recover them. Story while untrue took a life of its own and has since then appeared on some of the semi-official biographies.
However, what always matter the most was the music. And after all these years the music still stands up and as timeless as it is, it always will. In short the album’s message was simple: stand for yourself and stay true to your beliefs. What Judas Priest and heavy metal always were and will be about.
With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages
“British Steel” stats:
Written by Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing & Rob Halford
Recorded at Trident Studios, England 1980
Produced by Tom Allom & Judas Priest
British Steel album released in April 1980, remaster released in 2001, 30th anniversary edition released in May 2010
“I just love the Album, it is just RAW energy! Striped down and straight to the point…Also there really isn’t a lot of high singing or falsetto and I like that, I like that Rob just went in and laid it down, I just love it!
This is what Priest was always about, making every Album different, that is why I love them!”
“What made this record special were a few key things; raw, heavier-than-anything-else-out-there guitar sounds; compact, ultra-anthemic songs, and Rob Halford’s “genre-defining vocal delivery. For me, this is Halford at his most aggressive. His immaculate pronunciation of EVERY SINGLE WORD(!) influenced the hell out of me and an entire generation of developing “Metal” vocalists in the early 1980’s. Listen to my early days in Pantera! Listen to Tom Araya from Slayer! Listen to James from Metallica!
“I remember seeing an issue of “Kerrang!” magazine, and there was a picture of Rob on the back cover with the lyrics to “Rapid Fire” layered over the top. That song was already my favorite off “British etc”, but when I read what he was actually singing it made the song even better!!! Those lyrics epitomize Heavy Metal attitude!!! I had ’em memorized in 10-minutes… f*cking classic record… and go figure(!), I didn’t even bring up ‘Breaking the Law’, ‘Grinder’, ‘United’ nor ‘The Rage’!”
“Is there really a “BETTER” Heavy Metal record, ever??? Well, I’m not positive, but it’s worthy of debate… “
“One thing’s for sure though, when ‘British Steel’ came out, there was no way in hell there was a better Heavy Metal band on the planet at the time. And for anyone who dares doubt it’s power, just recall the LP “Reinventing the Steel”…ain’t it obvious where we got the title from???”
“British Steel” is a fullblown classic heavy metal record. There’s no disputing that. It’s not the only “masterpiece” in the discography of Judas Priest, but probably one of the more well recognized. I love it from start to finish and still do to this day. Judas Priest are like the Beatles to me in a sense. Their music has been there for me my entire life and it will be there til the day I die. I know I will enjoy their shit til the end of my days. They are quite responsible for me choosing a career as a rock musician and I am forever indebted to them.
I remember K.K. coming up to us once in Greece to say hi which was a defining moment for me. I love them, I love all their albums. I’m the biggest fucking Priest fan on the planet…! Oh, and “British Steel” is still sounding fucking fantastic after all these years, what is it, 30 years now! Fuck me!”
“I think the 30th Anniversary edition is a great idea as it will get younger kids back to this great album. ‘British Steel’ is one of the best metal albums ever, without any doubt.
I remember listening to it on my (cassette) walkman in the backyard of my parents’ house, dreaming to see Priest in concert and maybe meeting them personally some time in the future. As you know, I not only had the pleasure to meet them – Annihilator opened for them on the European leg of the great Painkiller tour as well as about 15 years later on the Reunion tour.
Well, this record (‘British steel’) has got everything on it – great songs, riffs and choruses. There are party songs like ‘Living After Midnight’ and ‘Breaking The Law’, faster songs like ‘Steeler’ and ‘Rapid Fire’. And ‘Metal Gods’ has probably the best slowest riffs in metal. Especially the guitar riff in the pre-chorus was very influential for many, many metal bands out there.
What I really like as well are the fade-outs of songs like ‘Metal gods’ and ‘Steeler’. There is no other band than Priest that can play such long fade-outs without getting boring. And there’s ‘Rapid Fire’ – the song with the most powerful lyrics – ’Pounding the world like a battering ram…’ – this is 100 % metal. If someone would ask me which metal song had to be put in a time capsule, I’d choose ‘Rapid Fire’.
“British steel is the key essential for awareness of our existance. I personally look at it as a history lesson that’s well put.
Long live the Priest!
Long live metal!”
“First of all it’s a great honour to me to get asked commenting on this milestone of a heavy metal album which “Britsh Steel” definitely is!
I remember vividly, banging my head to the first tones of that album without hearing any note from Robs voice as the song Rapid Fire started off…….simply awesome! Of course when Rob came in singing my goose bumps didn’t stop shaking my entire body to the maximum.
Such classic tracks like Rapid Fire, Metal Gods, Breaking the law, United, You don’t have to be old to be wise, Living after midnight, The Rage and Steeler seemed to be a collection of a “best of” album – but it wasn’t.
So this whole collection of Metal Hits was determined to become successful, even if I didn’t think about how successful Judas Priest were already as I was a 15 year old teenager without any Metal background at those days.
You can really say that these tracks became all time favourites which can be heard forever – timeless!
On behalf of millions of metal heads out there I want to say a big THANK YOU to Judas Priest for releasing such an album which is honest and true to the bones!
“When you think of JUDAS PRIEST you think of ‘British Steel’ maybe moreso than any other album. For one, there is the iconic album cover artwork which is possibly the most striking metal cover of all time. The razor blade with the Priest logo across and the album title written on it epitomizes HEAVY METAL like nothing else I can think of. Genius!
Musically, it was the record where Priest really came into their own as the creators of anthemic heavy metal for the ages with ‘Metal Gods’, ‘Living After Midnight’, ‘United’ and of course, ‘Breaking the Law.’ Talk about ‘Hall of Fame’-worthy. On the other hand, there’s stuff like ‘Rapid Fire’, an unbelievably heavy and intense tune for its time, an early blueprint for the more extreme forms of metal yet to come with speed and thrash, the menacing ‘Grinder’ or ‘Steeler’, another unheralded gem. And how cool is that dash of reggae in ‘The Rage’?
Seeing K.K., Rob, Glenn, Ian, and Scott perform these songs on the ‘British Steel’ anniversary tour last summer made me realize anew just how monumental an accomplishment this album truly is.
Thanks guys for inspiring not only me but countless others around the world with your music and ‘British Steel’ in particular. Keep the metal flowing!”