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 it is the sound of the legends.
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 single’s 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” 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 27 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 and particularly in “Steeler.” They drive the song along and work as catalyst for different emotions, like guitars they are telling the story with vocalist, sometimes filling in the gaps, sometimes strengthening the statement.
The message “Steeler” carries is made clear right from the start. Guitars kick off the song in furious style, with fast riff sounding exceptionally sharp and heavy here, clearly very different to the last studio album. Holland’s machine gun-like drum attack soon takes over and the song settles into its groove. There’s actually only one word proper enough to describe it: metal. The energy level right from the beginning is incredible, the song seems to be stampeding on a tight leash, ready to snap and break free at any second. What comes across instantly is the impressively tight bass line, the playing of Ian Hill being woven into the song, you might not give it much attention during the first listen, but you would definitely notice were it to be extracted away from the song. It is nothing flashy, simply supporting the track giving it extra heavy power. Through the album it is obvious the songs come first before individual performances. Yet there is much to talk about on that front as well.
Rob Halford begins singing in powerful commanding fashion, he stays in mid-range throughout like on the most of the album. Again this was a different approach but worked incredibly well. Halford’s voice always had depth far beyond his amazing high register. During first verse’s “for attack” and second verse’s “spider like”– phrases, he goes low and sounds truly sinister. Guitars answer it with short riffs before tempo picks up again. There is no doubt the threat is real, the enemy preys upon and could strike at any minute.
At the end of second verse (from 1:09 onwards) K.K. Downing plays an excellent 15-second solo. It first rounds up energy and then delivers several tasteful licks going up and down the scale before giving way to another twin guitar riff (this song is one hell of a rhythm guitar machine, counted at least 5 different ones throughout!). Dave pounds the drums on top of it from one speaker to another nicely creating tension that erupts to a power chord and faster tempo again. At 1:41 Rob comes back in with different vocal melody first singing two lines and guitars answering with more power chords. Notice how the axe-sound gets considerably louder here and drums perfectly enhance the heaviness with cymbal hits.
Rob goes slightly higher on “lurking in shadows they pounce least expected” and the effect that follows (guitars just a little bit higher as well) conjures up an instant image of a prowler striking its victim. At 2:16 drums explode and the song returns to its original tempo and the first guitar riff gets repeated. As Halford sings the final line bringing his voice down to almost a growl, it transcends a feeling the character has given his all. The alert has been given, there’s nothing more to say. Guitars assume control, in this song on more than one occasion I felt guitars were representing the powers of the oppression if you want to call it; and fighting on with the character on the lyrics. Again a power chord is left ringing while the drums keep on charging on. The utterly amazing new riff begins at 2:54, one of the heaviest moments on the album is right here.
The song rocks on for another minute or so, the tempo seemingly getting tighter every second. In the beginning there’s only one guitar carrying the rhythm but at 3:21 second one joins in to add extra blast of heaviness. The end lead breaks are split in four parts and the first one albeit lasting only for few seconds is enough to create a clear image of – to quote another song – “deadly as the viper.” Rhythm guitars keep the riff going between solos as the mood grows heavier, faster and menacing, danger is approaching rapidly. Second solo is basically a long bend with whammy bar ending to something resembling a sound of thunder.
Again notice Dave Holland’s drumming during this part, it is exceptional with several supporting cymbal hits driving the song along. Furthermore check out his fills at 3:38 and 3:56; tempo if only slightly speeds up a notch every time, simply essential magic in the music of Judas Priest! Third solo by K.K. is reaching back to his classic work in “Sinner” and the echoing sounds perfectly lead to final howling guitar part drifting from one speaker to another, almost out there to wound the listener. In the most positive way of course. These solos work exceptionally well in the context. They seem to spin alongside the track’s pounding rhythm, stalking like vultures executing the attacking we clearly got warned about just few moments earlier.
At 4:06 the drums start to gather up power, now there almost seem to be four different guitar tracks here compared to one that kicked off the riffs a little over minute earlier. The final stop and chord left slowly fading away bring to mind another evil enemy attack. It completes the record in style.
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” “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.
In the first verse, one is advised not to let “chances pass you by.” As the song progresses it becomes more of a warning to check for decoys and staying sharp edged. By the end the announcement is stated coldly; they are “all the same.” Again 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.” At the end the story is left hanging as we picture a “masquerader in his lair.” Through the final moments, it transforms in to a game of hide and seek. A battle for control, to which no winner is ever formally declared. There was no need for it really, as the prize had already been reclaimed and Judas Priest in “British Steel” had the ultimate victory.
It is interesting to waffle through band’s first set-list on the “British Steel”- tour in the summer of 1980. While they added four songs from their brand new album, apart from the latest single “Living After Midnight,” looking back these weren’t exactly the most obvious choices: “Grinder,” “You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise” and “Steeler.”
At that time “Breaking The Law” was still “just” the shortest, catchiest number on the album and quite amazingly that tune and “Metal Gods” – one of band’s most loved live renditions were played for the first time in the following year’s tour in support of “Point Of Entry.” In the meantime, the third single from the album “United” was first introduced during “Demolition”- World Tour in 2001, although it did get (playback) airing on TV’s Top Of The Pops- program in 1980.
However, back to “Steeler” judging from few informal recordings, was a killer live track filled with passion and energy. The powerful feedback from the audience was also notable during this one. It was played fairly close to studio version, which was still pretty fast. The tempo even proved problematic for Halford who during a New York performance sang: “When you come through you have gone right through you.”
“Steeler” was played towards the latter part of the set before encores and the final part offered a great opportunity for both guitarists to stretch out and improvise. In concert “Steeler” was extended to over 5 minutes. As the song ended this often left the audience drained, it took some time before Rob called for the next number “Genocide.”
Despite the track working well as a live rendition (in all honesty, the whole “British Steel” was perfect material for a concert stage) it was dropped from the set after the conclusion of 1980- tour. In 2009 at tail end of “Nostradamus” tour Priest announced British Steel 30th anniversary trek playing the album from start to finish. Tour only stayed Stateside with the exception of few dates in Japan in October 2009. These were also (although no one could see it at the time) K.K. Downing’s final performances with the band. “Steeler” sounded exceptionally well with their then current sound and scope of the band and live rendition was released in the summer of 2010 as part of “British Steel” 30th anniversary 2CD/DVD reissue.
Even up to 2009 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.
It laid down a blueprint for NWOBHM and is still being followed all across the genre. It’s asset was tightness and different moods, there were fast songs, mid-tempo numbers, slow burners and songs like “Steeler” that simply crushed its way into listener’s sub-conscious. Aup tond then of course a track like “Steeler” benefited greatly from a catchy title and by late 1980’s there already was a band named after the song. The ultimate tribute if you need one. During the last couple of years there’s even been a festival in the UK called British Steel. And finally there’s the cover; a hand gripping tightly to a razor blade. “Steeler” talked about that as well but it’s message was also more universal, 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
• Written by Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing & Rob Halford
• Recorded at Trident Studios, England 1980
• Produced By Tom Allom & Judas Priest
• First released On “British Steel” album in April 1980
“With the album title “British Steel” I think it was somewhat predictable that we would quickly jump on the opportunity to compose songs with metal in the titles and one of those songs was of course “Steeler.”
Lucky for me I had the privilege of playing the lead parts in this cool song and especially being the last song on the album it was an extra treat.
As this song in particular has a very strong machine like groove I felt it was very important not to let the lead playing unbalance the song in any way, so I concentrated on creating parts that would if anything enhance the hypnotic rhythm, especially at the end where the more wilder style of licks literally played if anything, second fiddle to the backing riff.
It was especially fun to play especially live, in the early days I naturally couldn’t resist stretching out the ending solo as long as I possibly could, and you can be sure that given the opportunity I wouldn’t mind giving it another go at sometime in the future.
I would like to thank Ville for another great write up this month and also thank you all again for feeding the flames of the metal forges.”
Catch the flame now
Eye to eye
Don’t let chances pass you by
Always someone at your back
Biding their time for attack
Check for decoys
Stay sharp edged
Double crosser’s get your head
Carpet baggers bluff and strike
Kiss of Judas spider like
Waiting like jackals
To sneak up and trick you
Wolves in sheep’s clothing
So deft in consoling
Lurking in shadows
They pounce least expected
When they come to
They’ll have gone right through you
Play their game
Slight of handlers
All the same
Masquerader in his lair
Wants to tangle in your hair