Part one of two. Today we’ll be looking at Judas Priest’s landmark album British Steel. Tomorrow, the second and third discs of the 30th Anniversary Edition: British Steel live!
JUDAS PRIEST – British Steel (30th Anniversary Edition, 2010 Sony)
Man, does this make me feel old. Back in my highschool days when I first got serious collecting music, British Steel was a must-have. It was considered the quintessential Priest platter, and even back then when it was only in the recent past, it still had all the makings of a classic. Then, on its 30th (!) anniversary in 2010, it was given the treatment it deserves, perhaps not the exact treatment we dreamed of, but it is certainly satisfying enough.
I’ve bought British Steel five times now. First was my original cassette back in highschool. Then I picked up a used vinyl, probably from a co-worker named Chris that was purging all his metal (for shame, but I got a lot of Priest from him). I bought the remastered CD (with bonus tracks) when it came out in 2001, then a 180 gram vinyl reissue a couple years ago. Let’s just say I’ll be really pissed off if Priest decide to do a 35th anniversary edition.
Disc one appears to be the same audio as the 2001 remaster. The credits are not clear, but that would be logical since the CD is identical down to the two included bonus tracks. These are a live version of “Grinder” from an unknown tour, and the completely unrelated “Red, White & Blue”. This song has no place on the album as it was written and recorded for the Turbo/Ram It Down sessions in the late 80’s. I’m not sure why it was retained for this 30th anniversary edition; it seems sloppy to leave it.
My original cassette edition of British Steel had a different track order. “Breaking the Law” commenced the set, so it is still shocking to me to hear British Steel open with “Rapid Fire”. Beginning with your heaviest guns can be a big gamble. “Rapid Fire” was borderline thrash metal, before that term had really been coined. The brutal lyrics are among Halford’s most enjoyable to listen to due to clever internal rhymes:
“Wielding the axe comes the one culmination
That’s always seemed certain to bring down the curtain on greed
Sifting the good from the bad it’s the age for the rage
Of the dogs which must fall to the just and be free.”
Unfortunately “Rapid Fire” also introduces the big problem with British Steel and every Judas Priest album for the next decade: The robotic combination of producer Tom Allom and new drummer Dave Holland (ex-Trapeze). Where Priest had enjoyed the lyrical swing from great drummers such as Simon Phillips and Les Binks, they had chosen Holland to usher in the 1980’s. Coming from a funk rock band such as Trapeze, I’m still not sure how Priest arrived at Holland. His style is certainly not to my taste. While he is known for some simple but tasty fills from time to time, as far as I’m concerned a drum machine could have done the same job.
The second track is the classic “Metal Gods”, complete with the banging of silverware on Ringo Starr’s kitchen countertops to simulate the marching of a robot army. On a track like this, Holland’s robotic rhythm works perfectly. “Breaking the Law”, made immortal by Beavis and Butthead, is a song every metal fan should know. Though heavy, it was simpler and more accessible than much of the music Priest had recorded before.
Some of Priest’s worst lyrics can be found on “Grinder”. It’s too bad because “Grinder” has a cool relentless beat. But I just can’t sing along to “Grinder, looking for meat. Grinder, wants you to eat.” On the other hand, I do love lines like, “Got no use for routine, I shiver at the thought. Open skies are my scene, this boy won’t get caught.”
“United” is a cool slow anthem, marked by Dave Holland’s echoey drums. I always considered it a brother song to “Take On All the World” from Killing Machine. It has a similar vibe and direction. On the original LP, it appropriately closed side one.
Side two was introduced by “You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise”. You gotta love that title. This is a pretty standard hard rocker, catchy and strong. It also fits with the more accessible direction of British Steel in general. Following it is the ultimate Priest single “Living After Midnight”. I still enjoy this song. I enjoyed it when I was a kid, and it was the theme song for the WWF tag team, the Mightnight Rockers (later The Rockers: Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty)! It’s one of those songs that everybody knows.
“The Rage” was estimated by bassist Ian Hill as one of only two bass intros he got to play. It’s a slow groove, angry musically and lyrically. The guitar solos absolutely complete this song as the classic that it is. From slow to fast, “Steeler” is next, the final song of the original nine. KK and Glen throw down some serious guitars on top of this scorcher. Lyrically, the title seems to be quite blunt as to what this song is about. Sounds like Priest are pissed off about being robbed, as so many bands were:
“Check for decoys, stay sharp edged,
Double crossers get your head,
Carpet baggers bluff and strike,
Kiss of Judas, spider like.”
What a statement to end an album like British Steel on, as it crashes to a close on one final power chord.
…Only to be followed by “Red, White & Blue” which sounds absolutely silly and out of place by comparison. I don’t think it would have been a good song if it were included on Turbo or Ram It Down where it belonged, and it’s definitely not a good song on British Steel. I don’t know how to describe it but to say it’s definitely of outtake quality.
Then from Long Beach, California comes “Grinder” live. This is probably from 1984, Defenders of the Faith tour. It’s interesting to compare the live versions on discs one and two, since it’s so many years later. There is no question Rob’s voice has changed, but that’s stating the obvious.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the live portion of this 30th anniversary set. Be sure to come back then, or better yet subscribe! As for British Steel?
1. “Rapid Fire”
2. “Metal Gods”
3. “Breaking the Law”
6. “You Don’t Have to Be Old to Be Wise”
7. “Living After Midnight”
8. “The Rage”
2001 bonus tracks
10. “Red, White & Blue”