By Michael Hamersly
It’s been almost 30 years since British metal gods Judas Priest released the classic album “British Steel,” which included enduring hits such as “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight.” To celebrate, the group – which reunited in 2003 after lead singer Rob Halford left the band for more than a decade – will perform the 1980 LP – in its entirety, plus select other Priest favorites, Monday night at the Hard Rock Live.
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Bassist Ian Hill took time out to talk about Priest’s role in creating heavy metal; the new concept album “Nostradamus”; the film “Rock Star,” which stars Mark Wahlberg and is loosely based on Halford’s replacement Tim “Ripper” Owens; and Halford’s sexual orientation.
For you, is “British Steel” the album that bridged the gap between the bluesy metal of Led Zeppelin to pure metal?
It was a landmark album in the way that it was the first time that we were able to do a headline tour of America. But I think metal itself was a gradual process – there was no “eureka moment.” Maybe we were firm on that track, you’re right there, that we’d left the satin and velvet years behind us and made it to the level of studs and the heavier side of things. If there’s gonna be a fight, it’s probably Black Sabbath that’s gonna win – they were known before we were by a couple years.
The term “heavy metal” wasn’t known till the late-’70s, maybe. I don’t know where it came from – some journalist probably came up with the term. But it seemed to fit perfectly with the music that ourselves and Sabbath and after that, obviously [Iron] Maiden and a stream of others were doing.
Tell me about the new album “Nostradamus.”
That’s very different – it’s the first concept album we’ve ever done. It takes a long time to do and a lot of effort, and you’ve got a record company breathing over your shoulder. It took two years to write and record the album, but they were firmly behind us. That’s one of the reasons it wasn’t done before, because it was so time-consuming.
Was doing a concept album more difficult than doing a normal album?
It was – the album had to flow. There are probably 13 or 14 stand-alone songs on there, but they had to flow. And that was the challenging part, to get it to do that. It was very new. It was the first time we’d fully orchestrated an album – we’d used bits of synthesized strings in the past, but nothing on this scale.
Who in the band was fascinated with Nostradamus?
It was our manager who suggested it. We had a meeting with him at the end of our AOR tour, the Angel of Retribution tour, and wondered where we were gonna go next, and a couple concept albums were mentioned, and he said, “Well, why not go with Nostradamus – he’s a very interesting chap.” Everybody knows something about his predictions, you know, but very few people knew about him as a man. He went through a lot – lost his family to the plague, he was exiled as a heretic from at least one country, and was locked up in jail at one point. And he came through all that and ended up as quite a respected physician.
Will we hear some of the new album at your show in South Florida?
I think we’re just gonna do the one song from that, which will be “Prophecy.” This tour is all based around “British Steel” – that’s the major motivation for the tour. But we’ve got to do other songs as well.
What would you say to the casual fan who knows only the hits, like “Living After Midnight” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”?
Well, there’s a hell of a lot more than the commercial stuff that we’ve done. In fact, we’ve just recently released a new live album called “Touch of Evil,” which is the songs we’ve never released live before – they’re not the fans’ favorites. But maybe give them a listen, you know? You’ll find that we’re quite a versatile band.
For you, what was it like during the period Judas Priest went without Rob as singer, and how do you feel now that he’s back?
It’s something we said we’d do – carry on when Rob went his own way for one reason or another, and we had a very large pair of shoes we had to fill. And it took us about three years to find the bloke to do it, in Ripper Owens, who as you probably know has a tremendous voice and great personality. With all due respect to Tim – if it wasn’t for him, maybe we wouldn’t have done anything until Rob decided he wanted to come back. But we did, and some of the material we did with Tim was excellent on the two albums and the live albums as well. But when Rob started making his move, that he wouldn’t mind coming back to the band, it was a no-brainer. I don’t think I ever did an interview during that time when I wasn’t asked when Rob was coming back. And Tim first and foremost was a fan of the band, and I think he could see the sense of it as well. And he agreed to have Rob back and we split very amicably and we still run into Tim from time to time on the road.
Have you seen the film “Rock Star”?
Yes, I saw it once.
What did you think?
Oh, come on – it’s fiction, isn’t it? You know, it’s Hollywood at its best. It bears very, very little resemblance to what went on. Apart from the fact that the drummer came along with a video, and said, “Hey, look at this guy” who happened to be singing in a tribute band. Apart from that, everything else is pure fantasy.
So why do people say it’s so closely based on the life of Judas Priest?
Well, initially, it was going to be about Ripper Owens and Judas Priest. Our management contacted the production company and said, “Can we help in any way? Do you wanna meet the guys and see what sort of personalities they have?” And they turned around and said thank you very much, but it wasn’t that story after all. You can’t blame them for that – obviously they wanted artistic license. It’s a great movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the story of us in any way, shape or form.
What do you think of Mark Wahlberg’s voice?
Is that really Mark singing?
I’m not sure, but it seemed like it was. He’s claimed most of it was him in an interview.
He did a fine job, if that was him.
How’s Rob’s voice now?
He’s singing as well as he ever has – he’s still got all his range and is still as powerful as ever.
How often do you get to Miami?
Unfortunately, not very. It’s just the nature of the game. I’ve had some great times in Miami over the years – we’ve recorded a couple of albums there and mixed two more, at Criteria Studios. I miss Miami – it’s a great city.
Has the band faced much flak because of Rob’s sexual orientation?
Oh, not really. It’s the worst-kept secret in rock-‘n’-roll, I think. Everyone knew, and most of the fans knew as well that he was gay. Whether he came out or not was always his call, and he decided it was his private thing. What prompted him to eventually come out, I don’t know.