After Black Sabbath, Judas Priest are arguably the most important band in the history of heavy metal. In the late ‘70s, when Sabbath and other bands were hemming and hawing about being called a heavy metal band, Judas Priest embraced the term and encouraged other bands to take pride in being part of a musical subculture shunned by the mainstream. Along the way Priest introduced the now-traditional twin-guitar attack, pioneered the studs and leather look of ‘80s metal and brought the world the first great multi-octave metal vocalist, Rob Halford, who inspired everyone from Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson to Disturbed’s David Draiman. While they were never the absolute wildest band in the genre – which may explain why they’re still around and making great music after almost 50 years – they were responsible for more than a few outrageous moments and other crazy and sometimes horrifying incidents. Below, are ten of the most insane stories that would never have taken place were it not for the existence of the Metal Gods, Judas Priest.
The first commercial breakthrough for Judas Priest came with the 1980 album British Steel, which featured the hits “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight” and “Metal Gods.” While on tour for the album, Halford pulled out a real automatic machine gun filled with blanks and sprayed it at the crowd during the song “Genocide.” Fans flipped out and eventually, fire marshalls put a stop to the wild stunt.
“There were crowds that looked confused and you could tell they were thinking, ‘Surely to God, that’s not a machine gun,” he told Louder Than Hell. Is it plastic? No, it’s real! What’s going on?’ Then I’d point it straight at them [and start firing]. Nobody knew in advance what was going on, so there was this look that was a combination of sheer horror and, “Oh my God, that’s so cool.”
In the early ‘70s, when Judas Priest were in their infancy, the band took the stage wearing outfits that merged velvet-and-satin androgyny with a scruffy hippie aesthetic. And while they wanted to look striking, they had no money. As bassist Ian Hill said, “we tried to squeeze our girlfriend’s shoes.” At the time, their image was far from defined. But with the release of 1979’s Hell Bent for Leather, the band adopted the look of tough bikers, which brought leather, studs and chains into the metal wardrobe.
The ultimate irony is that the idea for their rough and tumble look came from closeted gay vocalist Rob Halford. “To get some of these bits and pieces of my clothing, I had to go to the local S&M sex shops in the UK,” Halford told Louder Than Hell; The Definitive Oral History of Metal. “I could only get the little accoutrements and accessories through these kinds of establishments. I had this whip that went with the outfit... I brought out a whip and whipped the crowd... They’d be shouting, “Whip me! Whip me!”
The thought of potentially homophobic headbangers losing their shit to Priest and worshipping Halford’s immense talent speaks volumes for the era.
It’s not a subject they like to talk about these days, but Judas Priest partied hard throughout the ‘80s. Since Halford wasn’t hooking up with groupies he he amused himself in other ways. At one point, he developed a peculiar fascination with getting hammered and coked up and setting off fire extinguishers in hotels.
But the band’s wildest experiences drug-related happened when they went to the island of Ibiza, Spain to record at Ibiza Sound Studios between 1981’s Point of Entry and 1984’s Defenders of the Faith. During that period, bassist Ian Hill drove motorcycles into ponds and destroyed about 20 rental cars, Halford recalls. The most chaotic incident was when guitarist K.K. Downing was hit by a taxi crossing the street and the band’s other guitarist Glenn Tipton tried to administer first aid.
“Glenn was on an acid trip so he plunged his hands into some boiling water while he was trying to wipe the wounds,” Halford told Louder Than Hell. “Glenn burned his hands, obviously, and K.K. was wrapped in so many bandages he looked like an Egyptian mummy. He couldn’t walk for a week.”
In December 1985, two disturbed young men in Nevada -- Raymond Belknap, 18, and James Vance, 20 -- spent six hours drinking, smoking weed and listening to Priest’s 1978 album Stained Class. When they were done, they made a suicide pact. Each picked up a shotgun went to a local playground, propped their weapons under the chins and pulled the trigger.
Belknap blew his brains out and died instantly, but somehow Vance’s bullet bounced around his skull and exited without killing him right away. For three years he was alive but severely impaired. Then he, too, died. Before he passed away, he and his parents sued Judas Priest and CBS Records for $6.2 million in damages, insisting the band had hidden backward messages in their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better By You, Better Than Me,” and that those messages compelled Belknap and Vance to kill themselves. The lawsuit said the backwards masking, included the phrases “Try suicide,” “Do it” and “Let’s be dead.”