Judas Priest's 'British Steel' at 40: Rob Halford and Ian Hill Reflect on the Metal Classic

Judas Priest
Fin Costello/Redferns

KK Downing, Ian Hill, Rob Halford, Dave Holland and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest posed in London in February 1980.

While some musicians live in a vacuum while burrowing in the studio, the real world can still encroach upon and inspire them. Such was the case when British metal band Judas Priest and producer Tom Allom stepped into Ascot Sound Studios on Ringo Starr's 72-acre estate of Tittenhurst Park in February 1980 to record British Steel, unleashed that April 14. Although they were enjoying the splendor of the former Beatles drummer's spacious Georgian mansion and adjacent studio outside of London, the political and social strife going on under the administration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher echoed loud and clear in their comfortable nest.

While Priest were not known for being a political animal, there was a new sense of insurgency to frontman Rob Halford's lyrics and delivery. "I think I was just picking up the topics of the time," says the singer. "As you know, most of that record was made around a really turbulent time in the U.K. We had all the stuff going on with the miner strikes, the steel workers, the trash guys. The whole of the country was in a really angry state of affairs. Like most lyricists in bands, it gets into the front of your mind and into the songs. Obviously, the most specific one is 'Breaking The Law.' 'The Rage' and 'Grinder' also have references for all of these expressions of resistance."

Halford then invokes lyrics from "Rapid Fire" ("pounding the world like a battering ram") and "Steeler" ("wolves in sheep's clothing, so deft in consoling"). "It's probably the most potent Priest album for addressing social issues ever," declares Halford. The anthem "You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise" served as a manifesto of independence, the aggressive "Grinder" and "Metal Gods" conjured images of industrial or alien technology clamping down on human existence, while the pulsing groove and multi-tracked vocal harmonies of "United" inspired a sense of brotherhood that suited the times.

The energy blasting from the album also came from the fact that the band merely had a month to record it, and they only had about 60% of British Steel written before going into the studio. There was no overthinking anything. In fact, "Living After Midnight" emerged after guitarist Glenn Tipton kept Halford up late at night repeating its now famous chord sequence. Unable to rest, the singer went downstairs and worked out the initial version with his bandmate. Tipton came up with his parts in the room where John Lennon shot the video for "Imagine."

The album title tipped to the British Steel Corporation. The band, which came from the steel town of Birmingham, would see one of its factories every time they drove along a nearby motorway to various gigs. "That's definitely a reference to the steel world," says Halford of British Steel. "So many of our fans then and now are involved in heavy industry including steel manufacturing. It all ties into the world of metal."

While an unknown entity to people outside of England, British Steel was battling pushback from its beleaguered employees. "At the time, it was the socialists flexing their muscles, and the whole company did eventually go under basically because of the industrial unrest," remarks bassist Ian Hill. "It was rife back in those days. We all had friends and family members who lost their jobs over it. Some people quit their jobs. It wasn't a very happy time."

Halford's father worked in the steel industry all of his life, and as the singer recalls, "My dad made actually made some very, very primitive kind of lighting stand for the band to use [in the early days]. He got some spare parts from work and had somebody weld some pieces together. It was kind of a truss that went across the stage. That's a cool memory. I don't know whether it was directly related to the British Steel times."

Released as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (a movement Priest helped inspire) was roaring full speed ahead, British Steel marked a crucial transition for the pioneering group. Their sound got faster and heavier. Their leather and studs image, which had come into the cycle for their previous album Hell Bent For Leather, solidified. And they found the producer that helped push them to international acclaim and led to their metal dominance throughout the 1980s.

"Everything clicked into place with British Steel," says Hill. "In the early days, nothing was that defined, but with British Steel we got all the jigsaw pieces in the right place. We started out with a great producer, Tom Allom. It was our first time in the studio, although he mixed Unleashed In The East. We stayed with Tom for a long time after that."

As Hill recollects, Allom was a suggestion initially made to them by Columbia. He was the producer and mixer of their first concert album, 1979's live Unleashed In The East.

"It was a complete culture shock when we met the guy," recalls Hill of Allom. "We're five working class lads from the Black Country, the industrial middle of England, and he's very well upper middle class. I think he was an army officer. I think his first gig was mixing the regimental band. Anyway, it was a bit of a culture shock – who the hell is this guy talking with us in this very plummy accent? But after about 30 minutes in the local pub we got to know him really well. He is a great human being. He really is. He's a wonderful man."

Allom's first gig producing Unleashed In The East "was really important in many ways because that established a rapport for us together to make the production on British Steel," says Halford. Ascot Sound Studios was already familiar to Halford because he and Allom had re-recorded some vocal parts for Unleashed there because the vocalist had been fatigued during their Japanese tour dates. (Oddly enough, his singing on live bootlegs from the time sounds better than that live album.)

"What a wonderful way to create this ongoing production and obviously personal friendship that we've had Tom since since 1980," notes Halford. "It's been 40 odd years. It's a long fucking time. I think we both shared the experience and the fun in making Unleashed In The East together, and it also gave us a little insight into each other. As musicians, you talk to your producer. And your producer gets to know about your foibles, your characteristics, all these things that are all very important from a production point of view. So when we went into make British Steel, there was already an established rapport. Tom's steering and direction obviously made that album turn out the way it did in terms of sound. It was done all in different parts of the house – playing live together and keeping it all stripped down to a bare minimum. Keeping the sound very dry and very light."

Beyond their inspired solo breaks, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing wanted to bring a vigorous energy to the album, seeking to play faster, which would become an influence on the speed and thrash metal movement of the 1980s. "The only way to play that really fast speed was, instead of plucking downwards, plucking the [guitar] strings back and forth quickly," explains Halford. "In many references to Priest, there have been parts of the early beginnings of that whole movement. I've spoken to guys from Metallica, Anthrax, Testament and Slayer. They reference that some of the inspiration came from the way that Priest's guitars made that kind of sound."

"I don't think any of it was done actually in the live room in the studio," says Hill. "We got to go into the house. I think the vocals were done in the library, and we tried the drums in various different rooms. We had guitar rigs in the bathroom, and I think the bass was done in the recreation room at one point."

The circumstances lent the album a special sound. As Hill recalls, this was "going back to the days now where you got to put a mic in front of everything. You could plug it straight into the desk, but there weren't the programs you can get today. You can put anything into a mixing console today and make it sound like something else. That didn't exist in 1980 unfortunately. I haven't miked a bass up probably since the Ripper years [in the late 1990s]."

Starting with British Steel, Hill's bass playing in the 1980s became more streamlined with a lot of the eighth note chug that became popular then. "It became what's necessary rather than what you can do," says Hill. "It paid dividends really. You've got two distorted guitars going on over the top, and there's not much room for busy bass lines doing something different. If you wanted things to be defined, the drums and the bass were pretty straightforward throughout the '70s and most of the '80s anyway. It became the sound of the band."

In a recent Facebook post, Exciter bassist Allan Johnson said of revisiting "Steeler" from British Steel: "This is where the mighty Ian Hill taught me to strum the bass along with the bass drum. I still do it to this day." Concurs Hill: "That was the name of the game in those days. Bass and drums [were] very, very tight, and everything else was built on top." Interestingly enough, Hill's bass has a bouncing feel to it on "Steeler," whereas the slower "The Rage" plays with a reggae feel in the intro and post-solo break.

There was also a shift in Priest's rhythm section on British Steel. After drummer Les Binks departed following their 1979 tour, Priest enlisted former Trapeze drummer Dave Holland behind the kit. Whereas Binks had more swing and double kick dexterity to his playing, Dave was more straightforward. "He was a pretty good technical drummer, Dave, but he had these limitations, you know," recalls Hill. "Things like 'Exciter' we couldn't really do with Dave because he wasn't that good with double bass drums, although the rest of his drumming was very solid, very excellent. It was what we were looking for at the time."

Featuring a more streamlined approach and a robust sound, the resultant album proved to be the international breakthrough that Priest had been seeking. British Steel produced three top 30 singles in the U.K., and the album hit No. 4 there. The songs "Breaking The Law" and "Living After Midnight" received substantial airplay and have become classic rock radio staples in the U.S., where the album peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard 200 chart. Priest did a successful two-month tour of Europe and two more months in America with Def Leppard supporting at different shows, and they were number two on the bill (after Rainbow) for the first annual Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington in 1980.

Judas Priest had arrived.

While British Steel shrugged off the progressive influences of earlier Priest albums, and "Breaking The Law" and "Living After Midnight" were the commercial crossover tracks, the group did not lapse into formula. They only implemented the chorus of "Metal Gods" twice, "Rapid Fire" lacked any chorus, and "Steeler" had an extended coda. Neither "Breaking The Law" nor "United" had the expected guitar solos. Each song was distinct.

Further, the band and Allom created some curious effects for certain songs. There was the crashing of milk bottles for the mid-section of "Breaking The Law" and the swooshing sound of a billiard cue cutting through the air for the pulsing sound effects segueing from "Rapid Fire" into "Metal Gods," which incorporated the shaking of a cutlery tray for its stomping finale.

By following their own rulebook, the rockers from Birmingham created an album for the ages, one that satisfied fans and expanded their audience. "You can't balk at the more commercial stuff," says Hill. "It's what gets the genome around, getting into the mainstream every now and again. Things are different now. Throughout the '70s and into the '80s you'd get on pop programs on TV, especially one in Britain called Top of the Pops, and you'd be on the same bill with Donny and Marie Osmond. It was very eclectic, which you don't get so much these days. Everything's boundaries, and you fit in between those boundaries."

One final aspect of British Steel that can't be overlooked is the striking album art from Polish artist Roslaw Szaybo, who had previously created artwork for Priest's Sin After Sin, Stained Class and Hell Bent For Leather, and later, the U.K. cover for Point Of Entry. The close-up photo of a hand holding a razor blade bearing the band's name and album title was featured on t-shirts and posters, and it was even paid homage to in an early '00s ad from Absolut Vodka.

"He was brilliant and a fantastic guy," Halford says of Szaybo. "He passed away recently. A very important man in that role, especially with British Steel – it's become iconic and been used by many other sources outside the music industry."

The singer fondly recalls how the band worked with Szaybo, the painter, photographer and cover designer who also designed covers for the likes of Miles Davis, Elton John, The Clash, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. "In some instances, we had an idea for a title," says Halford. "In some instances, we didn't. We really just got down to the office and looked through what he got. I think with British Steel we did have a suggestion. It played on the punk reference with the way that the punk movement had the razor blades and safety pins and stuff. We played on that and also played with the actual razor blade being part of the steel manufacturing industry, albeit a very small one. It was important. Originally, he had all the blood pouring off the fingers." (That later became the cover concept for the 30th anniversary reissue of the album.)

"We told him: We don't want to do that. We want to show you that metal is so strong we don't bleed," chuckles Halford. "So he very kindly made that adjustment. A terrific illustrator and cover designer. He was one of a kind, that's for sure."

Just like Judas Priest and British Steel.