A Judas Priest live show is a thing of rare beauty. On the one hand, it’s metal in its purest form; no-nonsense, head-banging bliss. But it’s also kinda fucking ridiculous. There are more insane props than a Spinal Tap concert. There are explosions and lasers and smoke machines and, holy fuck, goddamn motorcycles on stage. But the real spectacle — the Judas Priest money shot, if you will — is frontman Rob Halford, the original Metal King, a leather-and-Muir-cap-wearing rock titan who for some reason had to come out in 1998 despite sharing a wardrobe with the “biker” from the Village People. Halford has one of the most powerful voices not just in metal but music in general. He could have challenged Luciano Pavarotti to a singing contest and matched him note-for-note. And he would’ve done it while holding a devil’s trident and wearing leather pants tight enough to cut off circulation. Sorry, Pavarotti, you lose.
To celebrate their 40th anniversary, Priest is releasing the concert film Epitaph, a document of their last world tour. You could buy it on DVD on May 28, but don’t do that. A better idea would be to see it in a theater, with other metal fans, or just guys who like dressing in leather and singing along to “Turbo Lover.” (Don’t judge!) There’s an exclusive screening in New York City at the Clearview Chelsea tomorrow (May 14) and then on Wednesday at London’s Forum in Kentish Town. Or wait till Thursday, May 16, when you can see it…. well, almost everywhere. Screenings are planned in Denver, Colorado and Cleveland, Ohio. (Sorry, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, and the entire state of California.) Were you planning a trip to Worcester, MA or Bridgeport, CT this week? Don’t forget to pack your leather vests and studded belts. You’re gonna need ’em.
I called Halford, who’s cooler at 61 than you were at 25, to talk about the vigilante possibilities of his quadri-octave voice, being the most metal guy in the gay-borhood, and of course, devil tridents.
The first thing I noticed about Epitaph is that you’re wearing an outfit that looks like something from Game of Thrones.
I came first. [Laughs.]
Those spikes on your shoulders look really dangerous.
Yeah, there’s a no-go area close to the Metal God.
Have you ever had a wardrobe malfunction that resulted in somebody needing a tetanus shot?
It came close. I wore that same outfit on American Idol a few years ago. Before we went on, Steven Tyler came over to say hello. We were chuckling away and somebody says “Let’s do a picture.” I put my arm around him and he flinches and pulls away. He’s like, “You nearly took my eye out!” My jacket is like the rifle from Christmas Story, but with spikes.
Are the metal spikes really necessary? You’re not having to defend Judas Priest shows from Orcs, are you?
Thank goodness, no. But the thing about Priest is, we’ve always tried to make as strong a visual statement as we have with the music coming out of the speakers. If you go back through the history of the visual side of heavy metal, Judas Priest as the starting point for that whole heavy metal look.
Is the leather-and-spikes look just a stage persona, or is it something you’d wear to a family barbecue or a friend’s baby baptism?
I’ve often been tempted to put that outfit on and push my trolley cart around Ralph’s on a Sunday, just to see what the reaction would be. But in my neck of the woods — I’m in the Gay-borhood — they’d think I was just another preening drag queen in the fruit section.
Speaking of the Gay-borhood.
Do you live there?
No, but I have a lot of friends in that zip code. With the costumes you’ve worn over the years, it’s amazing you had to officially come out of the closet.
Yes, that’s true.
I mean, go to one gay pride parade and you’ll be like, “Oh yeah, that’s a leather daddy. That’s it’s own gay subculture.”
There was a little bit of a discussion about that when I came out, many years ago in New York. But the fact of the matter is, that strong look — the leather, the chains, the whips, the handcuffs — was also synonymous with that really loud, heavy, aggressive, intense music.
So your coming out didn’t give any metal fans homosexual panic?
Not at all. And I think that’s been reinforced over and over again. Metal heads are just as articulate and passionate about their music, and smart and funny as any other music fan. I was absolutely bowled over by the wonderful way that my personal story was accepted. Quite frankly I didn’t expect anything else.
Your ability to hit high notes is legendary. You purportedly have a four octave vocal range. Have you run tests on it?
I don’t personally know if it’s true, but there are people with more classical knowledge than I do who’ve said I have a four octave range, which is extraordinary. I think it’s more like a three now. I’m pretty sure I’ve dropped to three.
You lost an octave in middle age?
I’m not absolutely certain, but it feels like it. Even three is a blessing. Being a singer is not like playing guitar, where the more you play the more efficient you become. The voice is what you’ve got. So I’ve always been grateful that I have these vocal chords that can really push past certain limits. And that’s given Priest many opportunities to do songs that we’d never be able to explore otherwise.
Have you caused property damage with your high notes? Ever shattered a window with the awesome power of your metal voice?
Before I answer that, I want to ask a personal question of your particular age, but I don’t want to be rude.
That’s not rude at all. I’m in my mid-40s.
Do you remember a very famous Ella Fitzgerald cassette tape commercial where she’d sing and it would crack the glass?
Oh yeah, the Memorex one.
Memorex, right! [Laughs.] I used to love those tapes.
They were great. “Is it live….”
“…. Or is it Memorex?” Greatest advertising slogan ever.
MTV Hive is going to be very happy with this interview.
You think so?
Oh yeah. My exact assignment was “See if you can get him talking about Memorex commercials from the ’70s.”
We’ve just alienated anyone below a certain age, haven’t we?
If there’s one thing that lights up the Internet, it’s old guys talking about cassette tapes.
Well, you brought up the voice.
Yes, yes, you were saying, about the commercials.
My point was, unlike those Memorex ads, I’ve never shattered windscreens and television sets. But it’s often been rumored that the only animal affected by the Metal God’s voice are dogs. Because I hit that high pitched note and dogs can hear it.
There’ve been a few Priest songs with notes that could probably take down a criminal.
I was thinking “Victim of Changes.”
Ah yes, good choice.
That part at the end where you’re screaming “No, no, no,” you could stop a mugger in his tracks.
Yeah! That would be really cool, to hear me screaming that song while chasing after a purse-snatcher down a dark alley.
You grew up in Birmingham, a steel manufacturing town in the U.K.
Yeah. It was a bit like Pittsburgh, a bit like Detroit. Very industrial, blue collar, salt-of-the-earth, hard-working people. I feel very fortunate that I was raised in that type of environment.
Your dad worked in the metal industry?
He did, yeah. My lovely dad. He passed away last year.
So you could say that your dad was a metal god and then you became the Metal God.
Yeah, I guess you could say that. [Laughs.] I never thought of it that way before. It’s one of the great mysteries of life. It’s wonderful.
In a weird way, you followed in his metaphorical footsteps.
I did, yes. It’s funny, everything about my childhood was within the context of the steel industry, particularly my high school years. I used to walk the three miles to school from my home and pass the metal foundry. Bits of metal grit would get into your eyes. Our desks at school would literally shake because of the steam hammers next door. I can still remember those big furnaces. You could actually see the metal being poured out into the ingots. That was happening to me when I was about 13 or 14 years of age.
Have you ever thought about making a Judas Priest concept album about your upbringing?
It could be like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but less whiny and with more sinister-looking factories spewing hot liquid metal.
You’re giving me ideas now.
Please make this happen.
You are probably aware that we had some fantastic moments with the Nostradamus concept album. We’re hoping very much that at some point we can tie that into a theater production.
You want to do a Broadway show?
Well sure. It’s got all of the ingredients. It seems very much like a heavy-metal opera. There’s definitely an opportunity. I think it would translate quite well.
Speaking of Nostradamus, you do a face-melting version of “Prophesy” in Epitaph.
Which is only made more awesome by the devil’s trident you’re holding while singing it. Did that come from your own collection?
My own trident collection? No.
Where do you get a trident? Do you have a place? Who’s your trident salesman?
Ray Brown, our costume designer, came up with most of that look. The extraordinary silver cape was his idea. The trident was presented to me in rehearsal. I think there was a little bit of a discussion. I said “I want to look like a heavy metal Gandalf.”
I think I told Ray, I can’t walk around with a big piece of wood going “None shall pass.” I mean, you know, something of the equivalent. So one of our crew designed that staff. The Priest emblem goes way back to the cross that the Sad Wings of Destiny angel is wearing on the album cover. We kind of took that from the ’70s and brought it into the 2000s.
During the ’80s and ’90s, metal bands like Priest, Metallica and Ozzy were blamed for provoking teenagers with low self esteem to do bad things. In hindsight, does it make sense why metal as a genre was so frequently a scapegoat?
I approach this topic with a tinge of sadness, because unfortunately those incidents have always come out of this wonderful country, the United States. A country that has been so wonderful to Judas Priest and many other metal acts from different parts of the world.
Blaming metal for stupid behavior is unique to the States? I didn’t know that.
Circumstances like those have never happened in Europe, never in South America, never in the Far East. When metal has been blamed for violence, it’s only happened in the States. I don’t mean to sound bitter about that. It’s just a reality, and it makes me really sad.
It’s been awhile since metal was considered a public menace. Has the music changed, or is it just less threatening to mainstream America now?
Metal hasn’t changed. Metal is still the same. It hasn’t changed at all, or at least the essence of it hasn’t changed. But I do think the culture has changed. If you’re on the outside and don’t got a clue about metal, then I don’t see how you can have an opinion until you’ve discussed it and investigated it. And those types of attacks generally came from people who were in the dark. It’s a natural human instinct to put up a wall when you’re afraid of something. You immediately go into protection mode. You don’t let things come in.
Epitaph is out May 28.