Interview: Rob Halford on the 30th Anniversary of Judas Priest's 'Screaming for Vengeance'
When Judas Priest convened at Ibiza Sound Studios in Ibiza, Spain, to record the follow-up to the previous year's Point of Entry in early 1982, the band were not yet the heavy metal juggernaut that would play to more than 300,000 fans just over a year later in San Bernadino, California.
In fact, in spite of releasing fan-favorite British Steel in 1980 and building a massive cult following in the States through more than a decade of hard touring, the band had yet to really break in America.
It would take a hit to make Judas Priest a household name, but pandering to radio was the furthest thing from the minds of Halford, Downing, Tipton and Co. when they began work on what would become Screaming for Vengeance. Indeed the hedonistic atmosphere of Spain's beach-party capital would offer much in the way of distractions for the band, who didn't shy away from enjoying the excesses of the dawning 1980s.
"I think every band has to hit that moment where you get so enraged and get so crazy and fucked up," says Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford. "It's an important moment to do, because after it's all over, you're either able to hold it all together or things start to get acrimonious and the difficulties start to set in."
Thankfully, in the midst of perpetual partying and wanton vehicular destruction, Priest were able to not only hold it together, but deliver the album that would finally break them in America, thanks in large part to a catchy little tune toward the end of the album.
"Who knew that the eighth track was going to be the song that would catapult the song into such success in America?," says Halford of "You've Got Another Thing Comin'," the album's surprise hit. "Cause that track was buried. Normally the tracks you think are going to do stuff are at the front end of the release. But our friends at Sony said, 'We're going to go for this song.' And we didn't really know what was going on."
As it turns out, the label was on to something. A little bit of buzz around the song quickly turned into a full-on fever, rocketing Screaming for Vengeance to No. 17 on the Billboard 200 chart and ensuring that fans on both sides of the Atlantic knew just who the Metal Gods really were.
With a deluxe 30th-anniversary edition of Priest's best-selling album on the way, we recently spoke to Halford about the trials and tribulations of success and what's next for Judas Priest.
GUITAR WORLD: How does it feel looking back on Screaming for Vengeance as something that happened three decades ago?
It was a different time when we were making Screaming for Vengeance. In the '80s, there was just money all over the place. Great things were coming from it; it was lavish but the results were good.
Man, some of those crazy times we had during the making of Screaming for Vengeance ... it's a wonder we got it made, you know? The cars being destroyed, the cross-track motorcycles we just smashed into walls through the weeks we were there, the absolutely insane partying the crew was doing at places like the Zoo Club, where K.K. got run over by a taxi.
Put all that together and we were still able to make a good record at the end of the day.
In retrospect, how do you think the band handled that sudden success? Did it help that you were on your eighth album and had been struggling hard to get to that point for more than a decade?
I think that's important. If you can go through, again, that apprenticeship, when you do finally get success. You say "struggle" — the sleeping in the van, everyone crammed into the back in the winter somewhere in Germany and you've got no money for a hotel and barely enough cash for gas. Is that useful? Is that helpful for you to deal with when you get to the success part of it? Yeah, that's important. But I think maybe the reason bands kind of blow up for a bit, it's like, "Oh, thank God, it's all paying off." You get the feeling that this is the magic moment. You've reached the land of Oz, and everything's going to be great from now on — which is a misguided thought. But at the time, you're king of the world, man, and that's a great feeling.
But putting all that work into it before you get any modicum of success, that's got to be really important. In today's world, when you can be suddenly launched into the stratosphere from YouTube or whatever, that's got to be very, very difficult to deal with. I don't know how the artists who've had the launch have been able to cope, quite frankly. Some of them do, some of them don't.
For a band, and a metal band especially, to achieve success the way we did with a slow and steady climb is the best way to go, I feel like.
What do you recall of the songwriting process for Screaming for Vengeance?
We were just going from the gut, and I think we still do, even until today. The only record where I think we can say we had a full-on focus on was the Nostradamus album. Everything else has been, "This is who we are in 1980," or "1985." It's just the way Priest has put material together.
There hasn't been a moment aside from Nostradamus where we've sat down and said, "OK, we're going to make this kind of record." We've always had a very open kind of forum when it comes to ideas.
My favorite track will always be the title track, just because it's so in-your-face. It's just a very intense song with a very intense message.
And let's not forget the breakout success of "You've Got Another Thing Comin'."
Who knew that the eighth track was going to be the song that would catapult the band into such success in America? 'Cause that track was buried. Normally the tracks you think are going to do stuff are at the front end of the release. But our friends at Sony said, "We're going to go for this song." And we didn't really know what was going on. But then the feedback was coming over: "Hey, the record's buzzing in this town and that town," and it just took off.
When you were writing the song, was there ever an inkling that this would be a song you would be playing 30 years later?
No, we had no idea. I think that's why we buried it. When we were putting the track listing together, we knew we loved the song. We loved that grove. Even now, when it comes on — it popped into a Honda commercial last night while I was eating dinner. [laughs] I knew that our management had put that together for us, but the guy's driving off into the sunset and the beginning of the song is playing, and it's just got that amazing rhythm that jumps into your system right away.
But at the time, we thought it was a good track, but we didn't think it was that valid where we were going to stick it in the first three or four tracks of the release, which is what bands do even now. Your label will ask you to put the radio tracks at the front end, and, of course, on Screaming For Vengeance it was track eight. So we didn't think it was anything special, we just thought it was a good tune.
After its blowup success, was there ever any pressure from your label to do more tracks in the same vein?
No, they've been great. We've been with the Sony family in one way or another pretty much since the band's been together. There's been tremendous support. Even now, the attitude is just, "Let them do what they want. They know what they're about." And at the same time, we have been and always will be open to everybody's feelings.
I know at the moment, as we're writing this new record, there's a very strong support line coming from the U.K.-based Sony people and the people in New York. They want this record to be another good, strong moment for the band. So we're always listening to what can be said. And I think you need to do that. You can't just put the blinders on. That's silly.
Even now, we've always got our eyes and ears out to what's going on around us in the music scene. You're a fool if you ignore all the great things that are happening in your world. But having said all that, I suppose in the chemistry of what makes a great writing team, we just bumped into each other in life and that magic started happening. And it still does even to this day.
Speaking of the new album, I think a lot of your fans are relieved to know you're not done making music. Was there ever a time when you thought Nostradamus might be your last album?
I don't recall us ever feeling that way. I personally remember us making Nostradamus and thinking, "We need to do something else after this one, whatever it might be, because to leave it at this place" — as wonderful as that album was in the sense of an achievement for the band musically, because it is an enormous body of work, and is slowly gaining more and more attention and focus and critical approval.
Priest is a metal band, plain and simple, and we need to make another heavy metal record. And that's what we're doing right now.
If you knew going in that a record would be your last as a band, would that add any extra pressure to the making of that album?
No, I think if you do that ... You can't push time back, can you? It can be very dangerous thinking to put yourself in kind of philosophical frame of mind. I think that can fuck up your mental image of what you're trying to be and do. So no, I think this is just going to be another great moment for us carrying on the legacy of Priest.
Since Nostradamus, you've obviously had a new addition to the band in Richie Faulkner. How has it been writing with him so far?
Really, really strong. Exciting. He's riffing and saying, "Robby, I'm thinking of this and this and this." It's really exciting to have that kind of energy, because you feed off of it. It'll be great after having this two-month break from not seeing each other to reconvene in the studio in England and just sit in a room and go, "OK, what've you got?"
I know Richie's got a lot to share with us. He went through the ritual on this tour, did great work on stage, the fans embraced him, so it's now time to see what we're capable of, the writing trio of Glenn and Richie and myself.
We've already got a lot of stuff in the flash drives, stuff that basically Glenn and myself put together while K.K. was mulling over whether he was going to stay or go. So before we launched the tour with Richie, we had a lot of material, and the bulk of it is very, very strong.
Has technology changed your songwriting process at all?
It's dangerous to walk around with a flash drive on a bunch of keys. [laughs] To a great extent, it doesn't really change. The technology is amazing in terms of the advantages it brings to music now, some of it good, some of it very bad. It's all about discipline and self-belief, determination, wanting to do the best you can do and not accepting anything that's below par.
We've always had that attitude in Priest. We've always felt really strongly about any track that goes out for our fans. We're still doing it like we always have: firing up the riffs and finding a vocal melody to go with it, me going into me wonderful world of the Roget's Thesaurus and trying to come up with a new lyric and a new idea. And that's what we've been doing for four decades.
The 30th-anniversary deluxe edition of Judas Priest's Screaming for Vengeance is out now. Pick it up on iTunes here.