Living the Dream: Gnarly Charlie's Exclusive Interview with Rob Halford of Judas Priest

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Monday, June 21, 2010 @ 11:33 AM

"The music is such an important part of not only your life, but beyond that. It almost becomes like this heavy metal Holy Grail: the musical value of what you do."

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"This is an exciting area around here. You can't help but get excited when you're in this part of Los Angeles. There's always something going on; deals happening, movies being made, records being made, famous people coming in and out of town. So, it's a nice place to come up to and connect and be in the heart of things. It's a different vibe in America, in terms of type of culture, you know? Celebrityism and famousosity (if there's such a word. ), I think the British kind of treat it in a different way. There's more of a buzz when you're in L.A.

"We deify our celebrities here," I say.

"Well, you know. There's something to be said for that," the man replies.

At about that moment, I begin to think that if there was a personality I would be impressed by in the entertainment world, it would most certainly be the man I'm speaking with: Judas Priest singer Rob Halford. We're sitting in a somewhat swanky hotel room located in the heart of Hollywood, about ready to start an interview. The main topic in our conversation is supposed to be about the 30th anniversary of Judas Priest's British Steel, one of heavy metal's most sterling albums. I'm going to extract as much history as possible from this incredibly interesting and kind mortal, a man who many respectfully call the Metal God.

After a few minutes of small talk, Halford prods, "Let's move on, Charlie."

"Let's do it," I respond, and I'm catapulted back into the moment. A few seconds before he broke my preoccupation, I was feeling a bit star struck by Halford, and perhaps, a little nervous. Who wouldn't be, right? Alright, let's get on with it.

KNAC.COM: British Steel was Judas Priest's first platinum Top 40 charting release here in the US.


KNAC.COM: Do you even care? (laughs)

HALFORD: Yeah I do care, absolutely. I think that those are significant deals, you know. I think any band would be foolish not to be excited when you achieve that status through the RIAA when they tell you, "Okay, you’re silver, now you’re gold, now you’re platinum, and now you’re double platinum," or whatever. It’s just a tremendous achievement, definitely. And so it was for Priest with British Steel when it reached that plateau. I think any recording takes on a new life when you've put into that arena, because you realize that you’ve reached a lot of people. I think it's motivational as well. It gives you a "Wow, this is great. Let's try and get a double-platinum next time" type of attitude, which is a healthy thing to do.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of the motivation, it seemed like you had had a lot of momentum from making Stained Class and Hell Bent for Leather, and your live album, Unleashed in the East. Around the time that British Steel was made were you full of momentum or were you all running on empty?

HALFORD: We were really working hard, you know. And that’s the way it is, I think, for any new band. Firstly, when you land a deal with a major label, as we did with CBS. You know, we’d been with the CBS/Sony family forever, but the anticipation from both sides was great. Now let’s get started because we were looking for that kind of global representation from a label, which we hadn’t had previously. And it was, obviously, a look of kind of more than interest from a major label saying “This band is going to go somewhere and this band is going to do something.” So I think both parties were excited, but as a result of that. It’s like, "Let’s make a deal," you know. So we were just literally blasting records out--almost one a year-- for quite a long period because the buzz, the ground swell, was greatly building. And, of course, everything kind of took off around the British Steel time. So, you know, we always kind of reflect that in those days, we didn’t have the communication and we didn’t have the information at the speed of light that we’ve got now, you know. I can take out my iPhone and text somebody in Australia, you know. "I’m here with Charlie, doing a Priest interview in Hollywood," and it could be all over the internet. You know what I’m saying? So, you really have to get behind the combined effort of writing some songs, recording them, and then getting out on the road, and really taking your music to the masses. And to some extent, that hasn’t changed. I mean, Priest is still gaining an audience, which is absolutely incredible, all these years later. But yeah, when British Steel was released, and particularly here in America with the radio connection, the two big tracks “Breaking the Law”and "Living After Midnight", things just went in a totally different direction.

KNAC.COM: You wrote and recorded the album at Tittenhurst Park, which was the former home of John Lennon and where the Imagine album was made.

HALFORD: He had recently sold it to Ringo [Starr] because I think John by then had pretty much moved to New York City. And so, Ringo was in the house occupying it, although he was in LA, but the house had only recently changed hands, so there were a lot of little things around the house that were obvious that John and Yoko had been living in that wonderful place. And I know particularly for Glenn [Tipton] and myself, being the Beatles fans that we are, it was just really very surreal. Especially when you sit in the room where the famous "Imagine" video took place and John’s playing the white piano. I mean we used that room for a lot of recording of British Steel, setting up amps and stacks and so forth. I think that adds to the big story, the big picture, of the British Steel sessions.

KNAC.COM: Is it true that the idea of "Living After Midnight" was derived from a night at Tittenhurst when Glenn was playing his guitar in the room just above you, while you were trying to sleep?

HALFORD: Yeah, pretty much. I was trying to sleep and my room was directly above that Imagine room, as it became known…we’re going to do some tracking in the Imagine room. I’m trying to sleep. It’s like 4 or 5 in the morning and Glenn’s always been a bit of a night owl and so he was like chunking away and really getting into it, and I couldn’t sleep and I went downstairs and said "Glenn, what’s going on man? I’m trying to get some z’s, you know? It’s like you’re living after midnight there." And he goes, “That’s a great title for this riff.” So that’s a real fun connection.

KNAC.COM: Did you guys stay on it when you were already awake?

HALFORD: You know, I can’t really think much beyond my moment. I’ll tell you who’s the expert at that, to some extent, and that’s Ian [Hill], our bass player. He has a bit of a photographic memory. And then Tom Allom, our producer at the time. Tom insists that we were only in Tittenhurst Park 29 days. And that meant that we went in there with maybe three or four songs and the rest of the material and the recording and everything came together in barely a month, which is just inconceivable by today’s standards. So, yeah, I think that was about it, you know? I think that Glenn probably looked at his watch and thought, “Yeah, we’ve got to be up soon anyway to start another day." But the idea was born. The germ...the gem of that track was happening in that way. That’s what happens with a lot of songs, sometimes. Songs are very easy, and sometimes (you) take a bit of a slug to get where you need to get them.

KNAC.COM: You guys all came up out of Birmingham. Does “Breaking the Law”come from a place of hungry rebellion?

HALFORD: We think that we had “Breaking the Law”before we went to the studio. People ask us “Well which songs did you write there and which songs did you have?” And we think that “Breaking the Law”was kind of in the pocket before we went into the studio. But as far as why did we call it “Breaking the Law”and what did it mean, as a lyricist, I have a lot of fun, like everybody in the band does coming up with ideas, and my riffs are usually song titles. So, “Breaking the Law”was just an expression that was used and then you try and think, "Well, what is breaking the law? How are you going to portray this?" It’s an interesting song from a kind of a social commentary level, because it tells a story of rejected youth--rejection in terms of you go through the system and you think you’re going to get something, but you don’t get it, so you react and you rebel. And that’s quite a statement for Priest, because we’ve never been that type of a band. We’re not a social, political band. We never have been. We just want to rock and roll and call it heavy metal, you know? But there have been one or two instances where we’ve had a lyrical message that kind of reflects on the times and the U.K. at that moment was coming out of the 70’s, which was pretty bleak. Margaret Thatcher government, and there was a lot of unemployment, and riots in the streets, and the punk movement was just about to disintegrate. There was just a lot of anarchy in the atmosphere around the U.K. So that song just talks about that simple fact, you know, "Here I am (There I was) completely wasting, out of work and down." It’s just a knee jerk reaction, so I’m assuming that for myself as the lyricist that just came out of reading the newspaper and watching the news and just seeing all of this stuff and it gets into your psyche and then you put it into a tune, you know. And, it’s become quite a bit of an anthem, hasn’t it, "Breaking the Law," even today? Both of those two titles from that record really mean a lot to people. “Living After Midnight,” because that’s just the ultimate metal, party song and then breaking the law, breaking the law. It’s just rebellion, and so it’s become a kind of loved classic in rock and roll. It’s filtered away from rock and roll, to some extent. I think you can ask anybody, "Do you know of this song by Judas Priest called "Breaking the Law?" And they'll go, "Oh yeah." And they may not even be a metal head. It’s reached that kind of level. It’s ingrained itself into other areas of rock and roll besides the heavy metal one. It’s been a good song. It still is.

KNAC.COM: During that period, had you guys come up a bit in your lifestyle, in terms of making money.

HALFORD: Not really. (laughs) I think again you’ll find like for most bands that even though it looks successful in figures, the things that you are having to kind of shuffle around and give back and pay off advances and take care of bills and just keep the operation running, you know, and keep money in the system to keep the band together and to pay the wages and this, that and the other. It was certainly better than it was 10 years before that, but it certainly wasn’t Rolls Royce and swimming pool times, by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, I think that people probably understand the way that it works in rock and roll a little bit more now. That just because you have a gigantic hit, or even a moderately successful hit, that doesn’t mean that you’ve got cash in the bank.

KNAC.COM: When I flash back to a time hearing you sing "One life. I’m gonna live it up." I think, "Wow. He's at the pinnacle..."

HALFORD: (laughs)

KNAC.COM: This guy’s loaded!"

HALFORD: That’s what they say. That’s what I love about the attitude of Priest. We’ve always had this optimistic streak about us in everything we do, we’ve always been encouraged amongst ourselves, and we’ve always been excited to see where we could go and what we could do next. There’s never really been a moment of kind of dejection or cynicism or anything like that because we still believe in ourselves, the band, and in the music that we make and so again, "One Life. I’m gonna live it up." I think it’s just a really good, solid thing to say. And, I just have to just add onto that. when the Seattle scene came around and people started talking about their pain and their sadness and their rejection, I thought, "What the fuck is this? That’s not the rock and roll I want to be around." I could understand what it meant to people. I could understand what it meant to that next generation, and I would never kick it or anything, but I think if you look at Priest, we’ve hardly ever, if very rarely, gone into that realm. We may have touched on it like “Beyond the Realms of Death”, for example, which is a beautiful song. But there’s always been this rallying cry in Priest, I guess it’s just a British mentality or maybe from the time that we were growing up, you know, we always convey that kind of message, and again as the main lyricist for Priest, I still do that now, you know. I’m still talking about winning the battle, the British dare or do, or whatever you want to call it. It’s great. I still am really proud that Priest has just kind of led that charge. For good always trumps evil, that type of deal.

KNAC.COM: What do you attribute your longevity to? That attitude?

HALFORD: It’s got to have something to do with it, Charlie. Hasn’t it?

KNAC.COM: You are a product of what you think.

HALFORD: Yeah, you are a product of what you think, exactly. And I think that it’s not easy being in a band. It’s not an easy job. But, there’s something there. There’s something of such intrinsic value that it becomes…you see for me, Judas Priest is more than the band, more than any of us. It’s become more than that. It’s like The Stones or whomever. Your music has advanced to a place that is just kind of…not untouchable. I’m not trying to get kind of crazy on you here. It’s just that the music becomes bigger than you are, and that’s what I’m trying to say. And then I think there’s a point where you realize that. And that’s why no matter what difficulties you might have to overcome, you have to get to that place so you can walk out on stage and present yourself and play that music live. And that’s a tremendously important thing to do. Why else is Priest still going out on the road almost 40 years later? Why do The Stones do it? Why does AC/DC do it? Why does Kiss do it? It’s just because it’s the music, you know? The music is such an important part of not only your life, but beyond that. Millions of other people around the world and you don’t want to let it go. It almost becomes like this heavy metal Holy Grail: the musical value of what you do. And this is just typical of me as I think about this kind of stuff. I always try and consider why is this still going on, what is the connection, what is the relativity of it all? And, I’ve figured it out. It’s the music is just so, so powerful.

KNAC.COM: Has there ever been a dark period, a really depressive period, where it was really hard for you to push on?

HALFORD: In an individual way, when I was going through my drinking and drugging days, yeah, obviously that was a bleak moment. And, it took me…it took a need for me to get that sorted out and to figure it out in my life and to put things back in its place. And that’s a common trait that a lot of bands have to go through. It’s like a trial by fire. Because it’s again, if you’re a fairly young band, or you’re growing, there’s a lot of excitement and attachment to what you do. It’s going on right now in this town, somebody’s O.D.-ing, or whatever. Because, you have to figure out that the moment is the stage. Everything else is important, but it’s not as valuable as that moment of stage, and sometimes people don’t know when to get off stage. You know what I'm saying? You need to be able to separate the two and almost live like two lives. So, that was a pretty bleak moment for me. None of us would speak for anyone else in Priest. We’ve all got our own stories to tell, but thankfully, nothing has been that heavy to disrupt things, and so you get through those difficulties, if you deal with them personally. You overcome them, and it generally makes you a stronger person.

KNAC.COM: Did you just stop on your own volition or did you have to go get help?

HALFORD: No, you have to get help. You have to get help. Otherwise, you would do it by yourself, wouldn’t you? You have to be an open person. And again, just because you’re successful and you have that celebrity thing attached to you, you need to have somebody in your life to go, “What the fuck are you doing, dude?”

KNAC.COM: A person who will call you out on your shit.

HALFORD: Yeah. “Hey Rob, do you realize what’s going on?” Then again, I think that’s one of the traps that exist in the world of successful people in entertainment. Sometimes they do elevate themselves and they become this demigod, and, "You can’t tell me what to do" and "I know what’s best for me, blah, blah, blah." And that’s rubbish. So yeah, you just get the treatment and you hopefully get fixed and move on.

KNAC.COM: What’s up now for Priest?

HALFORD: Well, it’s just a wonderful moment, isn’t it? This fabulous party with the 30th Anniversary of British Steel. The coolest thing about it for me, Charlie, and it reflects on some of the questions that you’ve asked, when you see the band working, when you see the band at work on stage, it’s absolutely phenomenal to see this band so many decades later, putting so much heart and soul and passion and love into the performance. And you’ll see that when you see the DVD.

KNAC.COM: I've got it.

HALFORD: I think that you can see, can’t you? Because it’s a different kind of thing when you’re actually in the band doing it. I can’t really check out what Glen’s doing or what anybody else is doing. I'm just kind of doing my thing, you know? So, just for me being in the band, to look at how we work on stage, is just really very emotional to see the dedication and the genuine amount of effort that goes into each song, you know, the combined running of the British Steel show. And I think the fans are going to love it. And again, hopefully, there will be a portion of a new metal audience that will witness that for the first time. So it’s amazing. It’s a really, really strong piece of footage for me.

KNAC.COM: You touched on Priest being a kind of high key, optimistic rock and roll band. Yet, probably one of the most melancholy songs I’ve ever heard in my life, "Diamonds and Rust" by Joan Baez--you covered that amazingly well, whether Priest plays it on the slow tempo or when it's pumped up. How did you pull that one out?

HALFORD: Well, the simple story is that our label could see that there was a buzz happening here in America and we were looking for an opportunity to get some kind of radio play. Radio in 1978, when we released that, was a different hybrid, it was before all of the beat things started to happen and I think the label sensed that we’ve got something in us and that there was a chance, and I think they thought, well if we go this route and the radio stations hear that Priest is covering a Joan Baez song, then at least it gets you through the door. The big challenge even now is to get you through the door to get you played on the radio. I think the label believed that we could write radio songs, but they probably thought that this would be a little bit of a way to make a possibly, slightly faster connection. I don’t know. We were actually making the backend of the Sin After Sin sessions, when it was suggested to us that we cover this track. And I remember we were all together and whoever it was came in, whether it was from the label or the management and said "Listen to this song. The label would like you to consider covering it." And when we put it on, all we heard was Joan Baez singing this song with the guitar, and your knee-jerk reaction is, “Are you fucking crazy? We are a heavy metal band.” But again, typical of Priest, we’re like, "What’s the logic behind this?" And then after a couple of listens, "This is a great song." And a good song will take any kind of interpretation. So, it was just a case of, "Well we’re Priest, and if the label wants us to rock it up then this is what we’re going to try and do." So that’s how it came together and it turned out really well. It opened the door for us in radio in a lot of ways, and I think that for the first time, a metal band was able to get the kind of accessibility.

KNAC.COM: Let's go back to your beginnings. I don’t think any one of you came from a silver spoon.

HALFORD: No. I think that for the most part that’s the way it is for a lot of bands, even now. What is it that inspires you to pick up the guitar and play? Like Roger Daltrey sings, "We Won’t Get Fooled Again." It’s obviously that spark, that feeling of, "I don’t want to go anywhere else, but be somehow connected through music in my life, to maybe try and make a living out of it." And everybody wants to be in a rock and roll band. Everybody does. It’s just the way it is. It’s the way music reaches all of us. So I think if you ask any of us, you’ll find that there was this sudden uncontrollable, unstoppable need to play music. To actually go beyond the step of listening to it, and to try and actually make it yourself. I think you’ll get if you ask each of us, “What was the moment?" For me, it was at school when I was a little kid and I took part in these little amateur productions that you have at the school. And that was it. "This feels great," you know. Especially the applause when people approve of what you’ve done, and again, it’s really encouraging. So now, I think if you look at most heavy metal bands, that’s the fact. That’s just the way it is. I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive to metal. I think there are other kinds of music that equally have that kind of story attached to them. Everything besides, maybe, classical music. I wouldn’t say classic music is elite, but I think the training obviously demands some kind of financial connection to actually be a proficient classical performer. But even now, particularly back in the U.K., it’s great, the government encourages and supports all artistic endeavors. So, if you want to be a classically trained cello player, you can get some kind of assistance in achieving that teaching by professionals. But now, rock and roll, it’s self taught. It’s raw. It's just, "Gotta’ do it. Gotta’ be in a band. Gotta’ see what can happen." That was the case with Priest.

KNAC.COM: Who were you inspired by? Any Delta blues musicians?

HALFORD: Yeah. I mean from an early age in my teenage years I used to listen to this great guy who used to be on the BBC radio, called John Peele and he used to play a lot of blues stuff. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker. So for me--particularly the blues--when you hear the blues coming from that source, all the soul and the raw emotion, as a singer especially, it’s really compelling. So again, all of us in Priest have got a story to tell in terms of a particular artist or an inspiration. For me it was some of those early singers, particularly.

KNAC.COM: I asked about the band’s longevity. What do you attribute your health and longevity to? And your voice. Your voice is amazing.

HALFORD: Well for a singer that’s going to turn 59 this year, and considering that I’ve got to do fucking “Pain Killer” when I’m 60 next year (laughs), you have to be sensible don’t you? I mean, sensible things are...I quit smoking again. I’m good now, that’s important for singers, I think. You just try and stay healthy because your singing comes from your voice, you know. So, the physical side of your performance, it’s just as relevant to Scott [Travis] on drums if he doesn’t get his physical rest, or K.K. [Downing] or Glenn--any of us, you know. And time marches on. Your joints get a bit stiffer, you can’t leap out of bed. "Another day of metal!"

KNAC.COM: Another day of metal!

HALFORD: (laughs) "I gotta’ get on the bus and drive 500 miles...blah, blah," which is fun. That’s just the way you are. When you're a 20-year old rock and roller, you can stay up all fucking night. You can drink and you can drug and get two hours of sleep, and you can do it again and again and again. But those are the rigors that certainly don't get any easier as you move on. At the end of the day, what happens onstage is what's going to happen onstage. You give a thousand percent. When you’re in your 50’s it's a little bit more difficult than it used to be, just on a physical level. But then, you get through it, if you’ve got two hours sleep and you’ve got to walk out in front of 50,000 thousand people, well that’s it, you know.

KNAC.COM: That should give you a jolt of energy.

HALFORD: Yeah, well that’s true. (laughs) But it’s great, isn’t it? Again you go out and do it because you love it so much, you love being in Priest, you love the band so much that you gotta get through whatever things have happened in the day to the point where you're onstage and you are doing what you love. And it’s like, "Shut the fuck up and get on with it," because everybody in that audience wants to be where you’re standing and they can’t for a lot of reasons, and you are. So, shut the fuck up and get on with it. And you have to tell yourself that and it’s a good thing, too. I think that’s going to be my t-shirt. (laughs) Shut the fuck up and get on with it!

KNAC.COM: Shut the fuck up and get on with it. We should get a bunch of those t-shirts made.

HALFORD: Motivational speech from Rob Halford. Shut the fuck up and get on with it! (laughs) It’s dedication.

KNAC.COM: Evidently. You've been doing it for over 35 years.

HALFORD: You really don’t want it to stop, quite frankly. You don't want it to stop. You’re living the dream...in a lot of ways.

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