-By Mike “McBeardo” McPadden
In April 1980, Judas Priest threw down the ultimate heavy metal gauntlet in the form of their flawless, ferocious, and eternally untouchable masterpiece, British Steel. Upon immediate impact, British Steel erupted forth as metal’s perfect embodiment of itself and its power has only intensified as the years pass, with each new extreme rock subgenre having to answer to Priest’s most perfectly molten moment.
British Steel contains no folk, disco, jazz, or psychedelic diversions. Each of its songs rocks hard, heavy, and relentlessly, fueled by electrifying multi-axe guitar attacks and lyrics sung with unprecedented operatic passion. Every note on British Steel lunges forth exclusively for power, glory, and various blunt instruments wielded by iron-fisted destroyer-deities.
In short, British Steel is, as Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider once nailed it, “All metal, all the time.”
To celebrate 35th anniversary of Judas Priest’s British Steel, take a run through these 35 facts regarding both the band and the album. Then please add some more in the comments section.
1. British Steel takes its name not only from all its obvious implications—i.e., Englishmen pumping out heavy metal—but from Judas Priest guitarist Glen Tipton actually once being an apprentice at British Steel, the monolithic metal manufacturing company.
2. The name Judas Priest, in turn, comes from the 1967 Bob Dylan song, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.”
3. The company British Steel and other literal metal makers located in the English Midlands, in fact, played an elemental role in the upbringing of Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford as well as Tipton. As Halford recalls: “When we were kids walking to school, we’d walk past these metal foundries and see the molten metal coming out of the big vats. We were literally breathing in the fumes from these metal works, breathing in metal before heavy metal had even been invented. I’d be in school trying to do English literature and the classroom would be shaking because of the machinery.” Adds Tipton: “We really did grow up in a labyrinth of heavy metal.”
4. Columbia Records released the first copies of British Steel in the UK at the discount price of £3.99 (which was just about two bucks in 1980 U.S. dollars) with an ad campaign touting it as a “British Steal!”
5. British Steel rapidly went gold in the United States, selling 500,000 copies. In the years since, it’s more than doubled that total, achieving platinum status.
6. The album’s two best known hits, “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight,” temporarily got Judas Priest, of all groups, thought of as a heavy metal party band in league with the Kiss and Van Halen.
7. “Breaking the Law,” a fast hit on rock radio in America, instantly became a fan favorite and one of Priest’s live highlights.
8. “Breaking the Law” has been covered by (among many others) Motörhead, Doro, Hammerfall, Arch Enemy, and Firewind.
9. In keeping with the song’s overall streak of mischief, “Breaking the Law” contains recordings of actual milk bottles being smashed against concrete.
10. Pop culture’s two highest-profile non-musician fans of “Breaking the Law” were MTV’s cartoon headbangers Beavis and Butt-Head, who not only regularly broke out singing the refrain, they’d adjust it to their circumstances. Hilarious case in point: when the dim duo attempt to lauder a poodle, they chant to the tune of the chorus: “Washin’ the dog! Wash-in’ the dog!/ “Washin’ the dog! Wash-in’ the dog!”
11. The song “Metal Gods” contains recordings of noise made by dueling billiard cues and slammed-down trays of literal metal: knives, forks, and spoons.
12. Drummer Dave Holland makes his Judas Priest album debut on British Steel.
13. Loaded with double-entendre lyrics and quaking with volcanic energy, “Living After Midnight” immediately established itself as one of rock’s all-time great hell-raising anthems. It perfectly captures the circa-1980 hedonistic moment that podcast funnyman Adam Carolla describes as “pre-AIDS, mid-cocaine.”
14. The hugely popular metal band Disturbed does a killer cover of “Living After Midnight.” Other groups that have tackled the song on record include L.A. Guns, the Donnas, Darkness, and Iron Savior.
15. Rob Halford has been known to have fun in concert with one line from “Living After Midnight” in particular: “I took the city ’bout one a.m.” He often incorporates the name of the location where Priest is performing while he sings it. One the 2005 live DVD, Rising in the East, Halford serenades the audience at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo: “I took the Budokan ’bout one a.m.!” More cheekily, Halford musically announced during the group’s amazing live set at the 1983 US Festival: “I took some acid ’bout one a.m.!”
16. British Steel is the first Judas Priest long-player to contain no cover songs. Singer Rob Halford and guitarists Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing composed each of its tracks.
17. Priest’s three albums prior to British Steel each featured the band covering songs by other artists. Sin After Sin (1977) contains their take on Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” Stained Class (1978) has the Judas-ized version of “Better By You, Better Than Me” by Spooky Tooth. Killing Machine aka Hell Bent for Leather (1978) has Priest blazing through Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi.”
18. “Better By You, Better Than Me” proved to be of particularly notorious note in Judas Priest history, as that was the song for which the band stood trial in 1990. At issue were accusations that the track contained “back-masked” messages that prompted a suicide pact between a pair of Nevada teens in 1985. Priest ultimately beat the rap.
19. Subsequent covers by Judas Priest include their 1988 heavy-metalizing of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
20. “Johnny B. Goode,” the Judas Priest song, served as the theme song for Johnny Be Good, the ill-fated 1988 Anthony Michael Hall college football movie.
21. “United,” British Steel’s second single, instantly achieved its goal as an audience sing-along and a rallying cry not just for fans of Judas Priest, but also for the entirety of heavy metal in all its forms.
22. British Steel’s track sequence is different in the U.S. than in other regions. The American version opens with “Breaking the Law,” while elsewhere the record commences with “Rapid Fire.”
23. Metallica backed Rob Halford on a barnstorming performance of “Rapid Fire” on the last night of their 1994 tour in Miami.
24. Nearly twenty years later, Halford and Metallica teamed up again for “Rapid Fire” at Revolver Magazine’s 2013 Golden God Awards.
25. Side two of U.S. version of British Steel kicks off with “Living After Midnight,” followed by “You Don’t Have to Be Old To Be Wise.” In other areas of the world, the sequence is reversed.
26. Overall, 1980 was a monumental year for heavy metal albums. Other milestone LPs include Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut, Back in Black by AC/DC, Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath, Blizzard of Ozz by Ozzy Osbourne, Permanent Waves by Rush, Wheels of Steel by Saxon, Scream Dream by Ted Nugent, Angel Witch by Angel Witch, and Rock Hard by the Rods.
27. Legendary metal bands formed in 1980 include Exodus, Manowar, King’s X, Vixen, Bitch, Overkill, Blitzkrieg, Bulldozer, Loudness, and Tank.
28. While British Steel gave birth to an entire new phase of heavy metal in 1980, the year also saw the fatal falls of two of the genre’s all-time most towering talents: AC/DC frontman Bon Scott and Led Zeppelin drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham. Blood in, blood out.
29. 1980 also brought two crucial lineup changes to major metal combos: guitarist Dennis Stratton left Iron Maiden and was replaced by Adrian Smith; while original Kiss drummer Peter Criss took off his Cat-Man makeup, making way for new fox-faced skin-slapper Eric Carr.
30. Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford himself turned 35 in 1986. That year proved significant to Judas Priest. They released the album Turbo to some grumblings over the record’s synth-driven moments. On a happier 1986 note, the tailgate revelry outside a Washington, D.C.-area Priest concert serves as the setting for the universally beloved short documentary, Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
31. British Steel’s iconic razorblade cover image is the work of artist Roslaw Szaybo. He also designed Judas Priest’s instantly recognizable logo.
32. The Polish-born Szaybo moved to London as a young man, where he ultimately became the Chief Artistic Director of CBS Records. Among the other album covers he designed or oversaw were classics by Janis Joplin, Elton John, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, and the Clash.
33. Judas Priest recorded British Steel in less than one month. Rob Halford thinks that tight timeframe plays a part in the record’s greatness. “We were just doing what we had to do,” he later said, “and because we didn’t really have that much time to think and ponder and plan what songs we were trying to create. It was just a very unique record.”
34. During the British Steel tour, Halford routinely fired an actual machine gun from the stage. As the singer remembers: “It was a real machine gun full of blank bullets. Yeah, and I had this idea, at the end of ‘Genocide’ … I’d take the machine gun (laughs) and fire into the crowd. And everyone thought ‘Are you f—ing mad?’ … It was a full-on machine gun, a John Dillinger-type thing. Of course, a fire marshal would come to check and it’d be ‘These are the flash pots and this is the machine gun …’ And they’d go, ‘What the f–k? A machine gun?’ The fire marshal had to watch the guy load it with blanks and give it to me.”
35. For the album’s 35th anniversary, Judas Priest released a British Steel blend of Dark Matter Coffee, initial bags of which came with a “cassingle” tape, featuring the appropriately java-indicative “Grinder” and “Snakebite.” Talk about strange brew!