When Judas Priest unveiled their sixth studio album, British Steel, on April 14, 1980 – hence 40 years ago, already! – heavy metal found itself at a true historical tipping point, or, if we take the album’s striking cover art at face value: on a razor’s edge.
Throughout the second half of the 1970s, Priest had almost single-handedly defended the heavy metal faith, as other pioneers either floundered (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin) or broke up outright (Deep Purple), and next-generation outfits like Kiss, Aerosmith, AC/DC, UFO, Thin Lizzy, and Van Halen placed their bets on more commercial, often upbeat hard rock formulas.
Why, Priest themselves weren’t averse to trying out this new, simplified approach (especially popular with party-ready American audiences) on 1978’s Hell Bent for Leather (a.k.a. Killing Machine); but as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s, our leather-clad heroes finally faced some fresh blood – and competition – by way of New Wave of British Heavy Metal upstarts like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard.
Even as Priest was teasing British Steel in March with their first single of the 1980s, the surprisingly radio-friendly (almost danceable!) “Living After Midnight,” metal’s young guns were also readying their first long-players, as were an unexpectedly revitalized, Ronnie James Dio-fronted Sabbath (Heaven and Hell), and those already high-flying speed merchants in Motörhead (Ace of Spades).
So it goes without saying that British Steel couldn’t just skate by on Priest’s iron-clad credentials; it would actually have to earn the metal faithful’s hard-earned cash by (forgive the song pun) “delivering the goods.”
And that’s just what it did, bringing fire and brimstone via newborn metal classics like the blistering “Rapid Fire” and the deliberate, relentless, soon to be ubiquitous “Metal Gods,” while effortlessly cranking out capable head-bangers like “Grinder” and “Steeler,” then achieving a brilliant economy in a second single “Breaking the Law.”
At the same time, singer Rob Halford, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill and new drummer Dave Holland (ex-Trapeze) weren’t afraid to just plain rock out, via the aforementioned “Living After Midnight,” the long-winded but still imminently sing-able “You Don’t Have to Be Old to Be Wise,” the almost subtle, bass-driven “The Rage,” and the anthemic, if relatively flat “United.”
Hey, we didn’t say it was perfect…
But, man, was British Steel a hit: climbing to No. 34 in the U.K. charts and topping out at an amazing No. 4 in the U.S., with a little help from the newly launched MTV, which put low-budget but lovable music videos for “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” (both of them directed by punk rock survivor Julien Temple) into high rotation.
Not only would these videos help Priest navigate the challenging transition from the ‘70s to the ‘80s (a process that killed many other groups), but it proved that the group was well aware of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s potential and importance to heavy metal’s long-term cause, by featuring Heavy Metal Soundhouse regular and air/cardboard guitar hero Rob Loonhouse.
In fact, all these years later, it’s safe to say that the N.W.O.B.H.M. saved heavy metal from itself, but so did Judas Priest, by sticking to their guns while so many other bands succumbed to changing trends and hateful disco in the late ‘70s, then revitalizing its sound (and redefining its leather-clad uniform) with their inimitable brand of British Steel.