Last week, I asked Marco from the Contrarians to sit in with us for our Top Five Tony Martin albums. Unfortunately he could not join us live due to a taping of the Contrarians that night. Instead he sent us a great video that allowed him to participate, a highlight of the show. And as an added bonus, Marco asked me to participate in his Contrarians taping! My very first Contrarians appearance. The subject was Judas Priest’s Rocka Rolla, an album I have been playing a lot recently due to my recent acquisition of the 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music box set. My part is right near the beginning. After watching the in-depth analysis the group did, I wish I had contributed something a little more insightful. However, this is such an honour and privilege to participate. I can’t thank you enough Marco!
RECORD STORE TALES #922: Running Through Alberta (1990)
A long time ago, in a constitutional monarchy not far away, prices were lower. The despised goods and services tax (GST) kicked in January 1, 1991. This federal tax added a 7% levy to your average purchase. In the before-fore times, in the Canadian province known as Alberta, there was no such thing as a “sales tax”. What you saw on the sticker was what you paid. It was an exhilarating time and place to be. The GST wrecked that, but our last trek out west before the hated tax kicked in was nothing short of glorious.
School was out for summer, and I quit my part-time job packing groceries to hang out at the cottage and take a special trip to Calgary. It was time for a visit with cousin Geoff, formerly known as “Captain Destructo”. The most important things to do on any trip were two-fold:
- Pack appropriate music for the journey.
- Buy music on aforementioned journey.
I had just received two albums that were brand new to me from the Columbia House music club: School’s Out, by Alice Cooper, and Come An’ Get It by Whitesnake. As my newest acquisitions, they had to come along. I also brought Steve Vai’s Passion & Warfare which I was recently obsessed with. Finally, I carried enough cash from my job that I had just quit, to buy as much music as I could find. Stuff that none of the stores in Kitchener had in stock.
The clear memory of driving through the mountains with School’s Out blasting in my ears brings a smile to my face. While some moments were undeniably weird (“Gutter Cat vs. The Jets”), I couldn’t believe how catchy the album was. I still can’t. Alice Cooper records were not necessarily designed to deliver catchy songs. They were twisted, and School’s Out was like a Twizzler. Regardless, “Gutter Cat” was entertaining while being unforgettable. I couldn’t wait to share it with my best friend Bob. He loved cats! Another track that took me by surprise was “Alma Mater”, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. The fact that I’d be graduating in a year was scary. But the roaring “Public Animal #9” just made me sing along. I also dug “Blue Turk” although I had no idea how to categorize it. To me it sounded like something from an old musical from days gone by. Here I was discovering this ancient music for the first time while the Rocky Mountains zipped past me in the back seat of a minivan. I like to appreciate moments like that. I just stared out the window while Dennis Dunaway buzzed my ears with bass.
Next up was Whitesnake. I still love Come An’ Get It; it’s probably my overall favourite Whitesnake. A few songs don’t click, such as “Girl”, but lemme tell you folks — “Child of Babylon” is another one of those songs that you just have to experience while driving through the Rockies. Bob and I were slowly discovering old Whitesnake. He was the first to have Saints & Sinners, but I was the first to have Come An’ Get It. It was something of a “blind buy” for me, since I didn’t know any of the songs. By the end of the trip, I’d already love “Wine, Women An’ Song”, “Come An’ Get It”, and “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights”.
Two favourites in the making, it was already turning into a memorable vacation. I enjoyed shopping at corny gift shops. I bought some goofy round sunglasses with flip-open lenses. Alberta is dinosaur country, and so I bought a casting of a Tyrannosaurus tooth. At another gift shop I bought a totem knick-knack. I remember Geoffrey and I climbing the modest mountains around the hoodoos at Drumheller, and finding a cave near the top where we paused and caught some shade.
When we hit the Calgary Zoo, Geoff showed us how to put coins on the train tracks to be crushed into minature copper and nickle pancakes. They had a little train that took tours of the park. It ran on a regular schedule so we always knew about when we should put the coins on the track. I had heard that copper guitar picks were the best, but they were hard to find, so I crushed a couple pennies. I turned them into guitar picks once we got home. We didn’t crush anything more valuable than a dime, but sometimes you’d lose the coin if it went flying off the track. (Incidentally, you can’t derail a train with a penny, that is a myth.) We could tell the conductor knew what we were doing and was getting annoyed, so we cut it out.
When we finally hit a music store in a Calgary mall, I was elated. I was always on the lookout for singles, and here I found a few notable ones. Aerosmith’s The Other Side EP was an easy “yes”. It had a number of remixes that, while not great, were exclusives. It also had something called the “Wayne’s World Theme” live. What was this “Wayne’s World”? I knew not, but it wasn’t on the album, so I was happy enough.
Poison were hot on the charts with their brand-new album Flesh & Blood. Bob was already raving about the album, and one song he pointed out was “Valley of Lost Souls”. I found the cassette single for “Unskinny Bop” which included this song and an instrumental pretentiously called “Swamp Juice (Soul-O)”. I never particularly cared for “Unskinny Bop”, but it was the current Poison hit, and “Valley of Lost Souls” was as good as advertised. I also located Jon Bon Jovi’s solo single “Blaze of Glory”. I didn’t know it yet but this single had some slightly edited versions of the album cuts — another exclusive.
The purchase I might have been happiest with was a re-buy. Although it seems ridiculous that at age 18 I was already re-buying albums, it had begun. My cassette of Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny was shite. For all intents and purposes, it only had one channel. I owned Rocka Rolla on vinyl, but didn’t really have a good way of playing it and making it sound decent back then. I knew there was a cassette on Attic records with both albums on one tape, and I found it in Calgary. I was glad to finally have a copy of Sad Wings that I could properly listen to. I even gained new appreciation for Rocka Rolla on those mountain drives. “Caviar and Meths” sounds amazing drifting through the mountains.
Not only did we find some cool stuff we couldn’t easily locate in Ontario, but we paid no tax. Since Alberta had no provincial sales tax, everything we were buying, we were buying cheaper!
I wanted a cowboy hat. We went shopping for them, but I was having a hard time deciding and then Geoffrey told me about an Alberta saying. Something about “everybody in Alberta has an asshole and a cowboy hat.” Either that or “every asshole in Alberta has a cowboy hat.” Same difference. Either way, I was dissuaded.
Geoffrey could be exhausting and I really wanted nothing more than to lie down and listen to some new tunes, so I was granted a couple hours of privacy. We traded tapes back and forth for listening. My sister Kathryn had the new single for “Can’t Stop Falling Into Love” by Cheap Trick so I listened to that while she borrowed my Poison.
Here’s a funny detail. For the car trip with Whitesnake and Alice Cooper, I can remember being on the left side of the vehicle. For Rocka Rolla, I seem to remember sitting on the right. The view was always great. Nothing like Ontario. The air was different, and even the weather was unusual to us. People left their doors unlocked, we were told by Uncle Phil.
Auntie Lynda spoiled us and took us on all these day trips; it was fantastic. It was the last great summer holiday. I know I kept a journal of the trip, which seems to be unfortunately lost. Great trip though it was, I looked forward to coming home and seeing my friends. Showing off my new purchases and sharing my new music. The flight home was uneventful and we arrived late at night and exhausted. I didn’t sleep much that night — I had recordings of WWF wrestling matches to catch up on. The last great summer holiday was over, but never forgotten.
It’s true: By all measurements, Hero, Hero is an exploitive compilation of Judas Priest material. Their first record label, Gull, was prone to do this. However this is no typical “hits” set; this one is of interest to collectors and die hard fans.
Hero, Hero (named for a lyric from the song “Dying to Meet You”) was originally released in 1981 to take advantage of Priest’s rising star. The original two releases on Gull records, Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings Of Destiny, had been exploited previously in a compilation called The Best Of Judas Priest, which was a single record. Hero, Hero was a double record which included all of Rocka Rolla and most of Sad Wings, as well as the crucial Joan Baez cover, “Diamonds and Rust”, in an alternate take (previously heard on Best Of).
So, if you have all that material already, why is this album required at all? Cover art aside, of course. That cover (a pre-existing painting) is brilliant. There is also a Kiss bootleg called Barbarize with the same cover.
The reason is revealed in the liner notes. All of Rocka Rolla had been remixed for this release. Why is unknown, as that record sounded just fine for what it is. The remixes are, in general, not even all that different. The major changes are made during “Cheater”, the “Winter” suite, and “Rocka Rolla” itself, during which major portions of the songs are noticeably shifted around. “Rocka Rolla” has its verses rearranged, and there’s a burst of harmonica in “Cheater” where there never was before.
The remix done to Rocka Rolla doesn’t really add or subtract anything from the album, which makes it that much harder to understand why it was done. Why Gull records spent the money to remix these tracks is unknown, and the names of the engineers involved are a mystery. But there it is: Rocka Rolla remixed in its entirety but not in order, here on the Hero, Hero album. Because they’re less familiar to the ear, they sound fresh, but in many cases you’d struggle to point out differences. A little reverb here, a little echo there.
Highlights including a bluesy “Cheater” and the flanged chug of “Diamonds and Rust”. The six tracks from Sad Wings of Destiny are brilliant. “Dreamer Deceiver” and “Deceiver” are used to open this CD, but that is not the original running order. Normally the album begins with “Prelude” and “Tyrant”, also from Sad Wings. The original Canadian cassette version on Attic maintained the original running order with “Prelude” at the start. Essentially, the Connoisseur Collection CD has side one and side two flipped.
Fair warning to CD buyers: There are some shoddy reissues of this album that don’t have the remixed tracks. Transluxe is one such version. To make your life easier you might just want to look for an original 1981 LP. The pictured CD from Connoisseur Collection (1995) does have the remixes, so you’re good to go if you spot one.
AL ATKINS – Victim of Changes (1998 Pulse)
Al Atkins was the original lead singer in Judas Priest, before “Bob” Halford was invited to join. You’ll find a number of Atkins credits on the first two Priest albums, even though he was out of the band by that time. In fact, Atkins formed a band called Judas Priest in 1969. The band were named by bassist Bruno Stapenhill. They split in 1970, and Atkins went looking for a new band. He found them in Ken “KK” Downing and Ian “Skull” Hill, who were looking for a singer. With Atkins and drummer John Ellis, they eventually settled on the name Judas Priest, same as Atkins’ prior band. And yes, that means that Ian Hill is actually the only remaining original member of Judas Priest.
Atkins wrote and co-wrote much of Priest’s earliest material. Before he left, he wrote a song called “Whiskey Woman”. Rob Halford used that song and merged it with one of his called “Red Light Lady”. The result was “Victim of Changes”, the first and perhaps greatest of Judas Priest’s epics. Two other songs he wrote in Priest were “Mind Conception” and “Holy is the Man” which were demoed but never released.
Atkins worked a 9-5 job after Priest, but got back into music again in short order. His fourth solo album, Victim of Changes, was essentially a tribute to his Judas Priest years. It is a collection of new recordings of (mostly) a lot of numbers that Priest played live during the Atkins era. As a gimmick, he had Priest’s drummer from the 1980s, Dave Holland, on this album.
Atkins and Halford couldn’t sound less alike. Rob is known for his high-pitched operatics. Atkins has a gutsier, grittier sound, somewhat like a Paul Di’anno meeting Blaze Bayley. There is no question that Rob is the right singer for Judas Priest, so it is really only a matter of curiosity to hear these tunes with Atkins singing. The tunes are at least good.
The unreleased “Mind Conception” commences the disc, re-recorded and very modern sounding especially in the guitars. It is difficult to know exactly what the original “Mind Conception” sounded like, but it’s very safe to say it would not have sounded like this. In the liner notes, Atkins states the original demos were recorded stoned and with a sore throat. “Holy is the Man” has a slower groove to it, and would work very nicely as a modern Priest track. As the only representation of these unreleased tracks available, die-hard Priest collectors will want to hear them. Another track of interest is the cover of Quatermass’ “Black Sheep of the Family” which Priest played live at their earliest gigs (along with Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic”). Rainbow’s recording is still the one to beat.
The familiar Priest tracks are actually anything but. They are probably arranged more like the way Priest used to play them in the early days. “Never Satisfied” is extended with a tough bluesy acoustic intro. The heavy parts have a Zeppelin-y beat, due to Holland’s straightforward style. Same with “Winter”. Then there is “Caviar and Meths” which is a whopping 7:12 long. According to Atkins, this song was their big finale live, but never recorded in full in the studio. This version is the full-length arrangement that they used to close with live. And it’s brilliant. Finally there is “Victim of Changes” itself, and Atkins has some help from a backup singer for the high parts that Rob does.
There are a couple tracks that could be considered filler, since they have nothing to do with Judas Priest. These are the instrumentals “The Melt Down” and “Metanoia”, written by guitarist Paul May. They are excellent tracks, however, and should not be ignored. (“Metanoia” serves as a postscript to “Winter” on the CD.) They are European sounding heavy metal tracks, loaded with guitar drama and ferocity.
Check out Victim of Changes for a glance at what Priest might have sounded like with Al Atkins singing lead. One can hope for those unreleased demos to surface, but one can also wish for the moon.
Welcome to PRIEST WEEK! It’s all Judas Priest, all week. Let’s go!
JUDAS PRIEST – Rocka Rolla (1974 Gull Records)
Years before the glory of Sad Wings of Destiny, Judas Priest was just another Birmingham bar band playing their version of the blues. Original lead singer and founder Al Atkins wrote a lot of the early material, with a variety of lineups. Atkins quit the band in the early 1970’s and “Bob” Halford was brought in, along with second guitarist Glen Tipton. Judas Priest as we know it was born.
I remember the next door neighbor George played me the song “Rocka Rolla” and I immediately loved it. It had a cool riff and a hypnotic chorus. Years later (1989) I walked into Sam the Record Man and bought my LP copy off the near-legendary Al King. Finding a copy on cassette was nigh on impossible so I bought an LP. Little did I realize that was a good move. I can still play the LP and it sounds great, whereas a cassette would be in a Thunder Bay landfill by now.
Unfortunately Rocka Rolla disappointed me. I didn’t like it when I got it in ’89 and I still find it kinda dull. The band wrote a lot of songs with Al Atkins, largely blues-based rock, and that’s what Rocka Rolla is: Leftovers from the Atkins era, slow blues jammers meandering along at a leisurely pace. There is precious little heavy metal here. “Run of the Mill” and the “Winter” suite, for example, run the gamut from hippy-dippy flower power love to amateur British bar blues. Yet, Jethro Tull these guys were not, and Rocka Rolla is strictly second rate. The drummer on Rocka Rolla was John Hinch, a musician that Tipton described as “inadequate” to play Priest’s more challenging material. Maybe that is one reason that Rocka Rolla lacks power.
There are a couple decent moments that keep this album from being a 1-star stinker. The title track is a fun proto-metal number, with a neat classic sounding riff. There is also the outro to “Dying to Meet You”, known as the “Hero, Hero” section which actually has some spark. “Never Satisfied” has some powerful moments. “One For the Road” is a good song. The rest is basically a band trying to find its direction, not sure whether it’s a jam band, a blues band, or a rock band, and excelling at none of those sounds.
There’s a bonus track on some CD versions, tacked-on but unrelated. This is the version of “Diamonds & Rust” from the Best Of album. Great song and great version, sounding totally out of place here. Also of note, there are two album covers. I prefer the soda bottle cap much more than that weird football player bomber guy.
Two years later, Judas Priest laid down one of my all-time favourite metal classics Sad Wings of Destiny. How they turned the ship around so drastically is beyond me. New songs, new chemistry? Let’s be grateful they did turn it around, for if this band failed to do so you never would have heard of them.
More PRIEST at mikeladano.com: