The members of Judas Priest have many fond memories of their 1980 album “British Steel,” which the heavy metal icons are performing in its entirety this summer.
It was the quintet’s commercial breakthrough, logging then-career high positions of No. 4 on the U.K. charts and No. 34 on the Billboard 200, with a gold (and eventually platinum) certification in the U.S. and a silver disc at home. It also got the group on mainstream rock radio thanks to the catchy riffs of “Living After Midnight.”
“It was a very, very important point in the band’s career, obviously,” says guitarist Ken “K.K.” Downing. But for the musicians, the best part may have been recording “British Steel” at Tittenhurst Park an estate first owned by The Beatles’ John Lennon and subsequently — while Priest was there — by his bandmate Ringo Starr.
“For me, it was like a fantasy becoming reality,” says Priest frontman Rob Halford, “because I was — still am — a huge John Lennon and Beatles fan. So to walk through that door with the sign Yoko (Ono) put up, ‘This Is Not Here,’ and wander around the room where John Lennon was playing piano in the ‘Imagine’ video, to jog around the lake where he rowed around with Yoko ... I was like, ‘I can’t believe this, this is just wonderful.’
“I’m sure that subconsciously filters into you, somehow. I don’t know whether it played a role in the writing, but it was definitely inspiring.”
The house factors into “British Steel” in a more concrete way, too. The metallic marching sounds in the track “Metal Gods” was created — in the days before sound sampling — by taking a cutlery tray and dropping it on the floor about 100 times, by Halford’s estimate. “And you have to remember, that was Ringo’s cutlery drawer, so it was special,” the singer says with a laugh.
“Yep,” adds Downing, 57, “it was Ringo’s knives and forks that created the true ‘Metal Gods’ sound.”
“British Steel” did mark a fortuitous shift in musical direction for Priest. Where previous albums were marked by lengthy songs and intricate arrangements, the group’s sixth studio set was punchier and more direct — still loud ‘n’ proud but streamlined into a more fierce and deliberate attack.
“It’s very bare-bones in terms of production,” explains Halford, who’s also 57. “It was one of those records we made pretty much on the fly, ’cause we’d just wrapped up (the live album) ‘Unleashed in the East’ and we were obliged to deliver another record on deadline. So it was literally write a song, record a song, mix a song, add it to the pile ...
“So you had three minutes of ‘Breaking the Law,’ three-anda-half minutes of ‘Living After Midnight.’ It was different, but we figured, ‘Maybe that’s the best way to go about it. Don’t think about it too much.’ Going with your gut instinct is always a great thing to do with music.”
Realizing that the “British Steel” anniversary was at hand, the idea grew from commemorating it by staging one show and filming it in the U.K., to, at the band members’ behest, playing it for the entire North American tour.
“It’s just a special album for us,” says guitarist Glenn Tipton, 61, whose nocturnal noodling — which kept Halford awake — inspired “Living After Midnight.” “It’s great stuff to play on stage, and the songs still sound very contemporary and relevant, which we’re proud of.”
Halford notes that he listened to “British Steel” again in its entirety earlier this year, while Priest was on tour in the U.K. “I thought, ‘Man, this is gonna be so cool to play this stuff live,’” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to really go back in time and just have a wonderful experience of bringing all of that music in one go to the present.”
And to the future.
While a special “British Steel” anniversary edition came out in the U.K. this year, the group’s U.S. label is contemplating an expanded edition of the album for 2010. And a summer show will be recorded and filmed for a possible release as well.
There’s also a present concern, too — “Nostradamus,” Priest’s 2008 concept album, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and No. 30 in the U.K. Two songs from the set, “Death” and “Prophecy,” appear on the new Priest “Touch of Evil — Live,” and the group is giving serious consideration to a full-scale “Nostradamus” stage presentation after it finishes the “British Steel” run.
“We still very much want to do that,” says Halford. “The album has been very warmly and widely received. Management feels confident we should move ahead. Everyone at (the record company) is encouraging us.
“That may be the next thing we’re gonna do. It just became too big an event with all the other things we’re trying to do right now, but we are determined to make it happen. It’s better to have too much to do, I think, than not enough.”
Judas Priest, Whitesnake and Pop Evil perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday (July 15) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $38.50 and $55 pavilion, $20 lawn with a $60 lawn four-pack. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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