A long essay about Judas F-ing Priest

Estimated reading time: 23 minute(s)

So, I’m covering the hospital for the first time in a couple of years… It’s a two week stint, and I’m almost done with my first week. It’s been really great; I‘ve been totally enjoying myself working with the team, seeing patients, doing a lot of teaching. The part that’s more relevant to you, however, is that I have a 35 minute drive to and from the hospital, as opposed to my usual 10 minute commute, which allows for the return of Band of the Week™! (A refresher—in BotW the goal is to listen to as much of a band’s discography in chronological order as I can, usually 1 album/day, for 7 days).

I decided to do my repeat player for this first BotW, actually, bringing back the venerable Judas Priest! I have now listened to their first nine studio albums in the last seven days (I haven’t decided if I will extend past the seven days to slog through Turbo and Ram It Down; I’m definitely not listening to the Ripper Owens albums—I’m only willing to suffer so much for BotW!)

Here we go!

To start with, I have to say that Priest is a band I appreciate more as I get older. I’ve always enjoyed them, but in the heavy metal version of Beatles vs the Stones (only one can be YOUR BAND), my heart has always belonged to Maiden over Priest. The more complex musicality, bombast, and pretentiousness always appealed to my overly serious nature when it comes to music; I always felt there just wasn’t as much depth in JP’s music.

When you listen to their oeuvre as a piece, there is a somewhat familiar arc. In their first few albums, you can see them still finding their way, first as a hard rock band exploring different avenues: heavy blues rock (“Rocka Rolla,” “One for the Road”), experimental freak outs (“Winter/Deep Freeze”), and most surprisingly, some strong Queen influence (“Epitaph”). Unsurprisingly, some of this works better than others (“Epitaph” is…less than successful, to be charitable).

They continue feeling around through their first four albums, adding heavier elements, and really inventing post-Black Sabbath, modern heavy metal, including thrash (check out “Exciter” if you don’t believe me!) I don’t think they were necessarily a better band, but an argument can be made that they were a more interesting band in the early days, in part because of this willingness to experiment a bit. Actually, to qualify that, there were later experiments, but mainly with adding poppier elements (see Point of Entry), that seemed to me to make them less authentic. I would say that they really hit upon what would become their trademark sound on the Hell Bent for Leather album, which they refined on British Steel and perfected (or turned into a formula?) by Screaming for Vengeance. BTW, this trajectory almost exactly tracks with what the Scorpions went through, with their initial experimental/transitional periods (which in their case were definitely more interesting than their later stuff) that then reached their “mature” Scorpions sound by Blackout, which then become their formula. Both also added more pop elements, not incidentally.

Next, let’s explore their lyrics, shall we? Rob’s lyrics fall into a few main themes. Let’s start with: Freedom (which includes tunes about cars, motorcycles, and airplanes (see “Riding on the Wind,” “On the Run”)) and the closely related Rockin’ (see “Hot Rockin’,” “Delivering the Goods,” many others) which crosses over into Metalhead Motivation (“United,” “Take on the World”),

The next most common involves vague apocalyptic scenarios, usually with a dominant character that is either malevolent, a savior, or ambiguous. (As a side note, is there any other band who has had more titles involving characters who do stuff? There’s Sinner, Exciter, Ripper, Starbreaker, Invader, Dissident Aggressor—and that’s just in a span of three albums!).

On closer analysis of the aforementioned “Exciter,” one of these seems to more directly represent Jesus:

“Stand by for exciter
Salvation is his task
Stand by for exciter
Here he comes now
Fall to your knees and repent if you please

Who is this man?
Where is he from?
Exciter comes
For everyone”

But then again, the rest of the tune has him frying people to a crisp, so I could be wrong about that.

Very rarely, the songs enter the territory of the real world, the best of which would be “Electric Eye” about the burgeoning surveillance state. The other main theme would be sex and relationships, which usually partners who are far from ideal and/or engage in some S&M-ish elements.

We have to get into the two notable songs in which Rob clearly outs himself, years before he did outside his lyrics. In one it’s fairly straightforward (Point of Entry’s “All the Way,” which is unfortunately one of the lousy songs from that album), which starts with a generic:

“Alright baby
You know how to have a good time don’t you?
It’s the way you stand
You’re always attracting attention”…

But later throws a curveball with:

“You never do things by half / You’re a man with a reputation.”

That is a big change from the “whiskey woman” he sings about on “Victim of Changes” from their second album. It’s on the Sin After Sin album, however, where Rob is really working some issues out. On the now notorious (but inexplicably unnoticed at the time) “Raw Deal”, Rob lets it all fly with a tale that is obviously a bildungsroman about his encounter with rough sex at a gay bar. There was no lyrics sheet for the album, but the most common lyrics are noted online as:

“I made a spike about nine o’clock on a Saturday
All eyes hit me as I walked into the bar
And seeing other guys were fooling in the denim dudes
A couple cards played rough stuff, New York, Fire Island”

While the angle is already pretty clear from what’s there (denim dudes, Fire Island, for God’s sake!), with further research it’s likely that the first line should actually read “The Spike”, which was a gay bar in NYC, and the last line “A couple of cops”, both of which make it even more evocative.

The end of the song becomes less lurid, and more poignant, when it suddenly changes from a very gay sex romp into a plea for tolerance and an outburst of frustration regarding his life in the closet. The online lyrics are listed as:

“The true free expression I demand is human rights, right…
I’m going, no loss” [which is most likely really “Love knoweth no laws”, which he repeats several times in an anguished wail], followed by:
“Nightmare, just a bunch of goddamn, rotten, steaming
Raw deal”

As if this isn’t enough, it is directly followed by the song “Here Comes the Tears”, which in sequence can only be read as a cry for help from Rob:

“All alone, no one cares, so much to give to you all out there
Take me now, in your arms, let me rest, safe from harm
Oh, I want to be loved
I need to be loved
Won’t somebody love me?

Here they come, here come the tears…”

As the band falls into a pattern, there is less variety of human emotion in their lyrics, and we are left only with songs about Rockin’, Freedom, and Apocalypse, with mythical strongmen/aliens/monsters that I view as Rob’s sublimation of a desire for personal agency and dominance and/or a desire for someone to save him (“Sin After Sin,” remember?). Oh, and there’s also still some fucking, usually rough (the apotheosis of which is, of course, “Eat Me Alive”), and sometimes still pretty gay (the lyrics to “Jawbreaker” read a bit differently now than when I was 11). And as much as I love the Painkiller album, at that point the lyrics have become so impersonal as to seem they are about not much of anything at all.

Some other tidbits:

  • Point of Entry is only a HALF shitty album—the other half is pretty great and includes some of my favorite Priest tunes, like “Headin’ Out to the Highway” (a Freedom/car song with one of Rob’s best lines: “Everybody breaks down sooner or later…”), “Hot Rockin’,” and the sublime “Desert Plains.”
  • Screaming for Vengeance” is one of the few songs outside of the Death Metal genre, and Michael McDonald’s body of work, that I have heard hundreds of times yet know literally NONE of the lyrics to besides the title.
  • Please, for the love of God, do not listen to the British Steel bonus track “Red White and Blue” (actually an unreleased track from the Turbo sessions), which is so vapidly patriotic that it could be used at a Trump rally; the only consolation is that it may be about the Union Jack.
  • If you can, check out the live show from 1978 that you can find on YouTube. It’s a great set, with blistering vocals from Rob, but most entertaining is his pre-leather and spikes wardrobe, which trends at one point trends close to Rush’s 2112 gatefold kimono territory.

TL;DR: While my allegiance remains in the Maiden camp, there will always be a place in my heart for the mighty Priest!

I welcome your thoughts and comments.