Judas Priest released “British Steel” on April 14, 1980, and there are plenty of fans and historians who would swear by their black leather jackets that the legendary band were at the top of their game with that propulsive and iconic album.
“Sad Wings of Destiny”, Screaming for Vengeance”, “Defenders of the Faith” and “Painkiller”; they hold a prominent position in the pantheon of excellent and important metal releases. But when it comes to influence, consistency and accessibility; «British Steel» is, perhaps, a step above, no less than the mall.
Arriving during the beginning of the new wave of the British heavy metal movement; 1980’s “British Steel” forged a template and set the bar for countless bands, including Iron Maiden, Saxon, Diamond Head and the Grim Reaper.
“When we were making ‘British Steel,’ there was definitely that feeling within the band and stamp that something really exciting was just around the corner. As it turned out, ‘British Steel’ was really the album that launched the band, particularly in America through songs like ‘Breaking the Law’ and ‘Living After Midnight’. And ‘Living After Midnight’ was the song that gave us all-important radio accessibility that we had striven for,” says Rob Halford.
“British Steel” is not Judas Priest’s most complex music album. Most of the songs are simple and direct; but from the anti-authoritarian indictment of “Breaking the Law” to the guitar solos and pre-thrash rhythmic barrage of “Rapid Fire” (track one in the UK) it’s a well-rounded, satisfying and cohesive release. There’s a bit of musical experimentation (“Metal Gods,” “The Rage”), some sung anthems (“United,” “You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise”), and plenty of custom fist-in-the-air headbanging moments.
From the album’s immaculate construction to its natural flow; one could assume that Judas Priest spent months perfecting the songs before tracking them for the same amount of time. In reality, once they entered Tittenhurst Park Recording Studios, a property in the English country of Berkshire, England, previously owned by John Lennon, the band had 28 days to record with producer Tom Allom.
“We were only 40 percent written when we came in,” says guitarist Glenn Tipton. “In this day and age, it would be very difficult for us to go into the studio and record and then write as well. But we had an excess of energy and enthusiasm at the time, and it really paid off. I guess there is a certain argument that if you give yourself a deadline, you have to propose the products. And indeed we did.”
While Judas Priest was recording “British Steel”, their management was already planning a tour. There was no room for error when it came to programming, but being under the gun provided an incentive. Priest had no time to second-guess themselves, so they went with early ideas and early takes, which gave the album a sense of immediacy.
“I think the way we did it probably has a lot to do with why the album still sounds pretty fresh today. It sounds like a live album, and I guess that’s what it was. All the takes were done at the same time, unlike today where everyone writes the parts separately. We played the parts together as a band until we got them right, and that’s what makes it seem like it has this really good live energy. It’s not overproduced and it still sounds raw and great,” says KK Downing.
For singer Halford, part of the strength of “British Steel” comes from the collaborative process the band was forced to create: “We went into the sessions with a handful of ideas, but most of the material came from Glenn and KK and myself sitting down for the first time as a writing team. Previously, one of us would bring a whole song to the table and we’d work on it. The British Steel sessions brought us together as a trio of writers for the first time and we focused as a band in a way we hadn’t before.”
While they weren’t exactly short of ideas, Judas Priest drew inspiration from anywhere he could. One night, after returning from the pub, Tipton took his guitar and began to play along with a catchy riff. Encouraged, he touched it over and over as Halford tried to sleep.
“It was 4 in the morning and Glenn had set up his amp downstairs in the room I was in,” recalls Halford. “I was upset, so I went downstairs and said, ‘Hey, Glenn, can you turn that down a little bit because I can’t sleep. It’s four in the morning and you live after midnight.” And Glenn’s immediate reaction was, “Oh, that’s a great title for this song. Look at these chord progressions.
As good as the chemistry was while Judas Priest worked on “British Steel”, they barely had time to finish the songs let alone sit down and analyze what they were creating. As soon as they finished recording, they were on the next step in their career, rehearsing for a tour that was scheduled for March 7, 1980.
It would be over a month before the album came out and even longer before “Living After Midnight” hit the airwaves. Judas Priest did not play any songs from “British Steel” on the UK leg of the tour, which featured Iron Maiden opening acts. When they arrived in the United States that summer of 1980, they added “Living After Midnight”, “Steeler”, “Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise” and “Grinder” to their set.
“I don’t think we knew until quite some time after the release of ‘British Stee’l that it was going to be that big of a deal,” says Downing. “The combination that made it so important to Priest was the songs, the riffs, the titles, the artwork, and the fact that the actual look of the band had become more uniform and consolidated with the leather and studs. It seemed to be the album that brought everything together for Priest. We finally knew who we were, what we were, and what we intended to do.”