Desert Plains

“Wild Mountain Thunder Echoes My Quest…”

Origins

If one sets out to find Judas Priest’s most controversial and debated album, “Point Of Entry” might be the first one on the list. Later on “Turbo” and “Jugulator” were certainly very much discussed but for entirely different reasons. “Point Of Entry” appeared in early 1981 during an era when traditional metal was more popular than ever, the glam and thrash movements were yet to fully take shape. More importantly their previous album “British Steel” had earned them the recognition as forerunners of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Expectations for a similar follow-up were sky high, but as always Priest decided to push the boundaries and take the music towards another direction.

In late 1980 after a successful tour to support “British Steel” Priest relocated for the first time outside their home country for recording sessions. “Point Of Entry” was recorded at Ibiza Sound Studios, just off the coast of Spain. The decision to record abroad was mainly due to tax reasons although the studio in Ibiza was also relatively fair priced. And the sunny climate didn’t bother the group either. The sessions at Ibiza were preceded by relatively short writing work in their homeland which proved to be unfruitful and the band took off to Sound Studios starting afresh.

The session had a lot of logistical and structural problems but the band were enjoying themselves and distractions hardly had influence on the optimistic sound of the record. “Point Of Entry” from start to finish was a very diverse album. To simply call it lighter than “British Steel” may be simplifying things just a bit. Fair enough, the singles “Don’t Go” and “Hot Rockin'” carried on from previous album’s “Living After Midnight” but the rest of the record once again took off to several different courses. Already track number four on side one, “Turning Circles” in its softness and melancholic feeling was unlike any other Priest song up to that point. It was duly followed by two of “Point Of Entry’s” stellar check points: “Solar Angels” and “Desert Plains.” The latter – according to a mid 1980’s interview – was by that point Glenn Tipton’s all time favourite Judas Priest track. It certainly is up there among band’s greatest ever songs and perfectly displays the essential versatility and dynamics of Priest’s music. It is also a song which would point towards many classic recordings of the future, although Priest would return to it properly only once. But we’ll get to that later.

“Desert Plains” starts simply with guitar and drums, the main riff supported by a pounding rhythm from Dave Holland. The guitar riff varies slightly from earlier songs in its sound, giving the song a more melancholic feeling. Riffs and the arrangement are interesting, compared to “British Steel” it’s more complex. Although what separates it is clearly Tom Allom’s razor sharp production. The days of “Stained Class” are far behind (only three years had passed!). This of course is a large part of producer Allom’s vision. Working on his second Priest studio album he brought new parts and dimensions to group’s core sound which is already miles away from albums like “Stained Class” and “Killing Machine” – done only few short years before.

At 0:16 the drums kick in with incredible force, it is not so much the sound of them – although drums are not any less in the mix than on previous record – but the way Holland plays the fills. He was right at home with material like “Desert Plains” and “Heading Out To The Highway” which is even better example of his drumming style. There are several interesting drum fills throughout the song, for reference points check out 1:37 and 2:50 respectively. Cymbal hits are clearly at the top of the sound picture and are left ringing longer than usual. The essence of the song is its pulsating rhythm. Ian Hill described it perfectly on the “Metal Works'” liner notes: “the drums and bass are very close, playing similar things which give it a great rhythm.”

Rob starts singing and instantly hooks the listener with the timbre quality of his voice. After third line “the road is straight cast” guitars shift gear slowly and the change is very subtle, enhancing the tale of the drifter but never overtaking it. Halford’s vocal delivery is humble and dramatic at the same time, as strange as that may sound. He works mostly within the higher mid-range and especially from the chorus, one gets the impression the love main character’s now bringing is weary and tired, worn by the endless miles spent on the road.

In the chorus there’s only one poignant line “from desert plains I bring you love”. Somewhat unusually Rob sings the beginning of the chorus in lower voice,, enhancing the desolation and loneliness of the main character. Note how the scale rises at the end of the word “love.” The use of backing echo (most likely a touch of keyboard work here) seemingly letting out a sigh during first line of the chorus adds depth into song’s message. This can be heard at 1:50 and it is more audible in the second chorus, than in the first one. The story is carried forward by these tunings in arrangement. Once again this remains a solid proof of both band’s and Allom’s focus on the project.

The music comes to almost full stop before second verse begins. This is another classic example of Priest’s story telling style. The mood switches onto another instantly as the story goes on for a second round. Second verse again takes a listener through an emotional journey; music tightens its pace just a bit and notice the added drum fills again. The arrangement is masterful, the listener actually feels the volume is raised as the song progresses; the effect is done with very small adjustments in different levels on various instruments and tightness of the tempo. Each section of the song is also introduced by notable stop and start arrangement, which are essentially chapters in a book.

On the second chorus the final “love” is sung very high by Rob introducing a tighter variation of the main riff. Guitar theme lifts up the tension before guitar solos take over. Solo section is split into four relatively short parts, K.K. starts off and Glenn continues with short and sharp breaks, each lasting roughly five seconds. Third solo (K.K.) from 2:36 to 2:43 is pure melodic ecstasy and the last one by Glenn brilliantly spins the story forward towards the last verse.

Third verse begins with another excellent drum fill and generally the next 30 seconds are pure drum domination. The rhythm seems to speed up and Halford sounds more majestic than ever during the “on the horizon you raise your hand”– part.

The last “from desert plains…” sees more prominent keyboard effect join in during the word “plains” and following it, the final “I bring you love” by Rob has him pronouncing the words a bit sharper and the last vocal chord is stretched up to 10 seconds. Drums and guitars kick in hard during this and it creates a well done intro for the long fade-out. Despite the lack of vocal and guitar solos, there’s plenty of action going on in the song until the end. Drums rise to lead the sound picture with increasingly pounding rhythm and several fills plus effects. Essentially the instruments continue singing the chorus after the vocalist bows out. At the same time guitars continue chugging out the main riff but withdraw it slightly, now the camera pans out and the road goes on to horizon. However, after the song has faded out, one is sure the journey of the character is far from over, the emotion felt is tangible. It is only fitting that “Solar Angels” follows with similar theme.

The lyrics on “Desert Plains” rank among this writer’s absolute favourites by Priest. They are simply breath taking with fantastic cinematography and like mentioned before, the song is a full mini-movie. It starts with an unforgettable opening statement “full moon is rising, the sky is black” painting a picture of hot, wide desert and a night falling over it. Halford sings with a dose of eerie desperation, listener can easily picture the desert, mountains and the moon. Next line “the road is straight cast” – a highway in the middle of nowhere that a drifter must cross to get to those places he wants to go. This again has multiple meanings, it’s a road of a lonely soul or a path one must take if he wants to take it all the way. Similar sentiments already echoed on the album opener “Heading Out To The Highway” (“I’m going to do it my way, take a chance before I fall”) and later at its bookend “On The Run” (“forget about tomorrow, go for it today”). Theme may not be as obvious as the one of individual power on “British Steel” but it is just as strong. At the end of day, each and every one of us walks their own path and cannot follow others. Furthermore, that’s exactly what Priest did with “Point Of Entry.” Some may not have liked the results but it was the highway the band wanted and needed to take at that point.

Main character’s emotional stance is made clear with “I heed your call, I’m coming back.” Again lyrics echo main character’s restlessness and desolation. As the words point out, his passion screams and his heart bleeds. He’s worn out and tired but will not rest. It is the same restlessness and desolation that has forced the character out to the road; it is not a journey or a mission. It is a quest as the song points out. The difference of course is subtle but still very clear. On the next night he will most likely be riding off again. Desert Plains are his home, the place where he will eventually always return to.

The story moves towards describing the climate and surroundings the character is feeling around him. The wind’s in his eyes and the engine roars underneath him; it’s a motorbike of course which is the true symbol of man’s journey through endless highways of west. It’s the classic western imaginary, you can trace it all the way back to John Wayne and his legendary movies – and even earlier than that. The horse is now a Harley Davidson. Since 1979 Halford was regulary driving a Harley on stage and this comes as no coincidence with songs like “Desert Plains.” His fondness of the two wheel drive is clearly felt throughout a tune like this.

Next we ponder the eternal question of time and direction: “quartz light to guide me, till sunrise leads.” According to a quartz watch description “Light-powered quartz watches incorporate a solar cell that transforms the light into electricity. Motion-powered wristwatches have a tiny rotor spinning in response to motion of the wrist, and generating electricity.” Something the character would certainly use as a map during night and switching to follow the sun at daybreak. The traveller doesn’t even have a compass with him, referring to his desire to leave it all behind and make his own way. His goal is however, near him with “then in the distance, I see you stand.” At the end of the song the final chapter is drawn out: “in burning rubber I end my quest, you fall into my arms at last.” Storyteller has travelled the desert far and wide towards his lover and now they are finally finding each other both physically and emotionally worn out. It is a great end to this epic tale.

Priest would include plenty of dynamics and storytelling on their future albums, but exactly the kind of emotions that flowed through “Desert Plains” wouldn’t be completely recaptured until 24 years later with “Worth Fighting For” – very much a sequel to the “Point Of Entry” track. It is clearly the same man out on the road again; however this chapter is one with achingly more despair. Love has escaped him and he’s now left to wander in desert heat and towns full of ghosts. The melody or the arrangements aren’t particularly alike; it’s more the emotion and the general interpretation of the songs that come across very similar.

“Desert Plains” live

With its melodic intensity and great riffs, it was almost certain “Desert Plains” would make it to Priest’s new tour set and so it did, along with five other tracks from “Point Of Entry.” After “British Steel” had broken the band through all over the world, this was essentially their first full European headlining tour. Thus the stage, lights and other supporting gear were given extra attention. The fact that the band was now playing full 2-hour shows enabled them to feature a full cross selection of songs from each and every studio album with the exception of their debut “Rocka Rolla.”

Of the new songs “Solar Angels” which opened the new show. That number and “Desert Plains”, were centrepieces of the concert. Priest were supported during this tour by rising stars Accept; the Germans were out supporting their third album “Breaker.” One of the classiest metal packages ever, this trek proved to be the most successful yet for both bands involved.

Priest had put together a spectacular stage set, for the first time including hydraulic platforms, huge lighting rig and backdrop. The lightshow on the opening number was something to really look at and “Desert Plains” proved to be the perfect concert track in its dynamics and arrangement. The song remained one of the definite highlights in Judas Priest concert until the “Fuel For Life”- tour in 1986. These performances also rank arguably finest of the song ever done.

The live versions of “Desert Plains” were extended right from the start. Like most of Priest’s material on stage at the time, the tempo was sped up but still in concert the track would stretch to roughly 5 and half minutes. Studio counterpart ran for 4:28. Live versions’ added length was mainly due to a new mid-section where other instruments except drums bowed out and Halford stepped up to command the crowd. Glenn and K.K. would run up to rafters while Halford would scream his lungs out. Rob impressed with several “Are you high?” and “We’ll take you higher!” ad-libs. Finally chorus would be repeated few times before the song reached its majestic end. First officially released live take can be found on 1983’s “Judas Priest Live” VHS release. Recorded in Memphis December 1982 during the “World Vengeance” – tour, this is dramatic and incredibly fast version.

During the “Fuel For Life”- tour four years later this was done with extra effort added, K.K. and Glenn standing on the hydraulic platforms raised above the stage while Rob connected with the audience. Vocally he was in better shape than in Memphis, though of course the level we are talking about here is astoundingly high. Both musically and visually Dallas 1986 was an impressive performance. It was captured live on tape with “Priest…Live” 1987 album and video. Nowadays available as part of “Electric Eye” DVD collection, this is essential viewing for those wanting to witness the dynamic power of world’s greatest heavy metal band in action. This version for some strange reason is not available on any CD as of now, for “Priest..Live” CD remaster, bonus tracks were mostly pulled from Memphis 1982. Unless master tapes are lost, this did seem like a weird move.

Other versions worth mentioning include a live take from 1984’s Long Beach show which released on the B-side of “Locked In” single in 1986. This is a powerful version and fastest I’ve ever heard in regards to this song. Some fan comments have described it as almost entirely different track, in both arrangement and feeling as the song tempo totally changes it. For next tour tempo was brought back closer to “Point Of Entry”-cut.

The song was sadly gone from Priest’s live set after “Fuel For Life”- tour and with few exceptions has remained in the shelf ever since. It was however resurrected for band’s 2001’s Christmas show in London Astoria, which was filmed and recorded for the “Live In London” release. This performance proved Ripper Owens could deliver a convincing rendition. Tempo has dropped closer to studio take and also notable here is Glenn’s very different (down tuned) solo guitar sound while K.K. retains the original feel. The audience interaction-part was cut from the song from this point on. The track survived the following years second “Demolition”-leg, which would also turn out to be Owens’ final tour with Priest.

After the reunion, “Desert Plains” was played only few times in October 2005 during the “Angel Of Retribution” tour. On band’s second US-trek it briefly replaced “Hell Bent For Leather” as the bike track during encores. Furthermore notable was that “Solar Angels” replaced “Metal Gods” as the second track during those same concerts. This wasn’t something to be repeated and by the end of the month set list had returned to a more familiar formula. These live versions of “Desert Plains” were more akin to original studio cut, as again the extended drum/vocal interplay was dropped from the middle. Solos were there and intact and Scott Travis inserted some heavy drum fills throughout – although much less in number than the drum work on “Point Of Entry.” Halford gave a faithful rendition on vocals albeit dropping down the scales on some parts, the arrangement certainly worked well.

Somewhat surprisingly it returned 10 years later for the last leg of group’s “Redeemer Of Souls” world tour in late 2015. Rob sang great version of the song improving the 2005 rendition clearly with extended high notes towards the end. Musically the arrangement travelled the same path with 2005 cut.

Legacy

Despite the claims Priest were going commercial, “Point Of Entry” reached number 14 on the UK charts and just made it to top-40 across Atlantic. It performed less successfully on this area than its predecessor which did substantially better in both sales and in the charts. The band have since its release denied the album was intentionally approached effort to go commercial and indeed, it seemed like a natural evolution from “British Steel” and of course paved the way for next year’s “Screaming For Vengeance.”

During the later years “Point Of Entry” has divided the fans and critics much in the same way as “Turbo” and “Jugulator” did several years later. While particularly side two contained few lighter songs such as “You Say Yes” and “On The Run,” the power of its classics cannot be denied. Glenn Tipton: “I think the album that most people would point out being the most different is “Point Of Entry.” I don’t think everyone understood it.” Now 30 years on from its release, it is worth investigating album’s content further. It was arguably the most diverse record Priest had released up to that point. For reference listen to these three songs in a row as they follow each other on the record: “Hot Rockin'” “Turning Circles” and “Desert Plains.” Each carry its own distinctive sound and feeling, yet obviously originate from the same record. Like mentioned before, “Turning Circles” especially is interesting with very diverse vocal performance by Rob and distinctively bluesy guitar solos.

To date it’s also the only Priest album which carries two distinctive covers, one for Europe and one for America. Today neither might not make it to top-3 of Priest album covers, but they did appear to depict the emotions portrayed on tracks like “Heading Out To The Highway” and “Desert Plains.” The US version had a back cover that distantly carried shades of Pink Floyd. Whether that’s a compliment in context of Judas Priest is debatable but at least it was something different.

Musically it is obvious the epic song writing such as the one witnessed on “Desert Plains” and “Solar Angels” would influence several power metal bands later. Germany’s Iron Savior covered the song in 1999 and did a faithful version. It replicates the song arrangement almost completely, with even guitar solos following very closely to Priest.

Other cover version worth mentioning originates from US power metal pioneers Virgin Steele. Their cut was originally recorded in 1988 for band’s second LP “The Age Of Consent” but didn’t get released at the time. It finally resurfaced as a bonus track on the album’s reissue in 1997. According to band leader Dave DeFeis “the song possesses a similar hunger, lust and longing that many of the “Age Of Consent” songs have. We tried it for the simple reason that we liked the song and felt we could make it our own.” Virgin Steele takes on a different route; keyboard intro opens the track before guitar riff kicks in. The song has been arranged towards other Virgin Steele-material, thus keyboards remain high in the mix. DeFeis adds some shouts in between verses. Here guitar solo is very different when compared to original version. These takes certainly offer an interesting view on how to approach a classic recording such as this. Finally, Mötley Crue vocalist Vince Neil sang this song on the 2008 Judas Priest tribute album “Hell Bent Forever.” The arrangement is similar to Priest-version, but playing is clearly not as tight nor focused. Guitar solo is not on par with the original cut; it starts with same chords but then sounds like unsure where to go and how to finish. The ending also sounds weird as one is used to long fade-out. However, Neil delivers a great performance on vocals. He has often been labelled as a limited singer, but on “Desert Plains” he really makes the best of his vocal range, and overall the track is perfect for his voice.

Along with other Priest albums, “Point Of Entry” was given remaster treatment in 2001. Including lyrics and new liner notes, this version does sound somewhat more dynamic than the original release. Although sonically there was little to complain in the first place, it must be said Priest really struck gold again on the production front with their next release “Screaming For Vengeance.” The last of the two bonus cuts is a live version of “Desert Plains” and it is a fitting closer to the album. The other bonus track “Thunder Road” fits lyrically and even thematically, which is probably why it was included. However, the sound, band’s playing and Robs vocals are very much of the time period in which it was actually recorded: “Ram It Down”-sessions in late 1987.

While Judas Priest certainly was the essential heavy metal band that wrote its fair share of heavy and hard neck-snappers, it was exactly material such as “Desert Plains” that have gained them appreciation over different genres. They constantly pushed the boundaries of heavy metal and have successfully done so for almost 40 years. One has to only listen to “Desert Plains” to understand the reason why.

With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages

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“Desert Plains” stats

• Written by Glenn Tipton, K.K.Downing & Rob Halford

• Recorded at Ibiza Sound Studios, Spain September – December 1980

• Produced by Tom Allom

• First released on “Point Of Entry” album in February 1981

• Also released on “Metal Works” in 1993

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K.K.:

“Desert Plains” to me is just one of those songs that you can get into instantly because of the tempo and where the accents are in the riff. Additionally and particularly in the States the lyrical content making reference to the desert has that extra appeal for the fans in places like Arizona and New Mexico.

Having mentioned the tempo, it was often difficult for us to keep it as per the studio version live because it seemed to work virtually at any tempo. That’s as long as it was faster of course, as is typical of bands when playing live. I guess it’s because of that nervous energy and adrenalin that drives us that bit bit harder and faster when the lights go down.

“Desert Plains” was also a song that none of us really wanted to leave out of the set, and if we did it was only because we did not want fans to say that we kept on playing the same old songs.

The song has that unique quality and feel about it and is hard to replace in the set.

It would be great to think that songs like this are easy to keep writing but believe me I have tried. So unless we come up with something soon there will be – and maybe quite rightfully – only one “Desert Plains.”

“Desert Plains” lyrics

Full moon is rising

The sky is black

I heed your call I’m coming back

The road is straight cast

Wind’s in my eyes

The engine roars between my thighs

From desert plains I bring you love

From desert plains I bring you love

Wild mountain thunder

Echoes my quest

My body aches but I’ll not rest

Quartz light to guide me

Till sunrise leads

My passion screams, my heart it bleeds

From desert plains I bring you love

From desert plains I bring you love

Then in the distance

I see you stand

On the horizon you raise your hand

In burning rubber

I end my quest

You fall into my arms at last

From desert plains I bring you love

From desert plains I bring you love

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About Ville Krannila