.K. Downing (a.k.a. Kenneth Downing; guitar) and close friend Ian Hill (bass) originally joined forces in 1969 to become another struggling Rock band. With the line-up completed by Alan Atkins (vocals) and John Ellis (drums), they embarked on their first gig in 1971. The band name came from Atkin's previous outfit who, in turn, had taken the name from the Bob Dylan song The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest; it was the best choice of the names offered at the time.
Regular gigging ensued with Alan Moore taking over on drums and then, shortly later, by Chris Campbell. 1972 was spent on the road, but by 1973 both Atkins and Campbell left (Atkins would go on to a solo career with his first album named after one of the tracks he wrote with Judas Priest, Victim Of Changes). Theatrical engineer and vocalist Rob Halford, and drummer John Hinch, both ex-Hiroshima, joined in. Glenn Tipton (ex-Flying Hat Band; guitar) would join soon later. Their popularity steadily grew.
In 1974 they toured outside England for the first time (they went to Germany and Neatherlands specifically), and returned home to a record deal on the 'Decca' label subsidiary 'Gull'. Rocka Rolla (1974) was their debut. The album was a disappointment and failed to make an impact. Hinch left, and was replaced by Alan Moore, and their 1975 appearance at the Reading Festival gave them exposure to a wider audience. Sad Wings Of Destiny (1976) was a marked improvement. It did not, however, improve their money problems and Alan Moore left again, this time for good. A worldwide record deal with 'CBS' saved their wallets, and the subsequent release Sin After Sin (1977) proved to be a strong effort by making UK top 30. It featured Simon Philips sitting in for Moore on drums. It also boasted a cover of Joan Baez's Diamonds And Rust. They then visited America for the first time with drummer Les Binks, who would stay on long enough for their next album.
Stained Class (1978) was their next effort and showed an example of the future of 'Priest. The album's popularity reflected this new found optimism by going top 30 in the UK Killing Machine (1978) gave them their first hit single, Take On The World; Its hallmark being standard shorter and punchier rock songs. Unleashed In The East (1979) was recorded while on their first Japanese tour. Les Binks was replaced with Dave Holland (ex-Trapeze). Further tours with AC/DC and Kiss propelled their popularity.
British Steel (1980) was a smash hit, soaring up the charts into the neighbourhood of 20, and likewise for the tracks gone singles, Breaking The Law and Living After Midnight. Its NWOBHM feel and powerful instrumentation coming at the birth of that movement ensured it hit status, with the next three subsequent releases following for the ride. British Steel is often considered to be a watershed moment for heavy metal, for it is here, and for the first time, you see all the elements that make heavy metal today come together: everything from the twin guitar attack, the screaming vocals, pounding rythmic beats and last but not least the studs and leather that have become forever coupled with the musical style; Halford buying his first outfits at an S&M sex shop; the band, soon after, similarly attired. These elements had already been around, but it was here that they merged for the first time. It was also at this moment that Judas Priest, who had struggled to succeed at home, fiinally saw success in a big way. It also broke them into the US market.
After attending the Donnington Monsters Of Rock Festival, they got started on those aforementioned next hit records, starting with Point Of Entry (1981). Point Of Entry was a decidedly weaker album, less raunch, less speed but still featuring qualities of a different nature. It would feature the single Hot Rockin', and be followed with a sell-out UK and US tour. Screaming For Vengeance (1982), and its hit single You've Got Another Thing Comin', marked the high point for the band's career. It was followed by a six month US tour with the record going platinum.Defenders Of The Faith (1984) drove down the same road, but Turbo (1986) was not as welcomed by their traditional Metal fans, even dismissing their musical advancements and disliking the inclusion of synthesized guitars. Ram It Down (1988) would return to their true form, but it would mark the end of their high period.
In 1990, the band and their record label were involved in a civil action that alleged they were responsible for the self-inflicted gunshot wounds in 1985 of 20-year-old James Vance and 18-year-old Raymond Belknap in Sparks, Nevada, USA. On 23 December 1985, Vance and Belknap, after hours of drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and allegedly listening to Judas Priest's Stained Class album, went to a nearby church playground with a 12-gauge shotgun to play Russian Roulette. Belknap was the first and died instantly after pulling the trigger. Vance then shot himself but survived, suffering severe facial injuries; he would survive until 1988, three years after their suicide pact. Their parents and legal team alleged that a subliminal message of "do it" had been included repeatedly in the track Better by You, Better than Me (a cover of the Spooky Tooth song of the same name). Hiring audio experts, they attempted to reverse engineer the recording to prove the hidden words triggered the suicide attempt. The trial lasted from 16 July to 24 August 1990, when the suit was dismissed after the judge ruled that the so-called "do it" message was a result of an accidental mixup of background lyrics and was not there by any intent of the band. Comedian Bill Hicks ridiculed the lawsuit as part of his act, pointing out the absurdity of the notion that a successful band would wish to kill off their purchasing fanbase. These events inspired them to record the single Eat Me Alive.
Scott Travis (ex-Racer X) replaced Dave Holland for the return to traditional effort that was Painkiller (1990). Although their popularity was reduced, they were still a major traditional heavy metal act with screaming vocalist, screaming guitars and everyone clad in studs and black leather - the type of British heavy metal rarely seen by this time. But shortly later, the band would run into trouble with Halford deciding to pursue his solo career without Judas Priest. His replacement was Tim "Ripper" Owens (the Hollywood movie Rock Star was based on his arrival).
Halford, for his part, would work for a while with Pantera (a track for the Buffy The Vampire Slayer soundtrack titled Light Comes Out Of The Black) and Black Sabbath before going solo with his own outfit Fight. His Fight stint lasted long enough to record three albums War Of Worlds (1993), Mutations (1994) and Small Deadly Space (1994), but quickly dissolved into Two and finally, he dropped the so-called Hardcore persona and returned to the classic Priest like Metal with his own pseudonymous act Halford. During this time he would announce that he was gay and always had been. Despite this often career ending announcement; his Halford releases a few years later climbed the charts.
Judas Priest, however, would return with the poorly received Jugulator (1997). Live Meltdown (1998), a live effort and Metalworks 73-93 (1993), a compilation of their "best of..." works would follow as the only offerings until Demolition (2001) came across as more Painkiller-ish than their '70's classics. Another live shot, Live In London (2003), came along, but the band was a shadow of its former self without Halford at the helm, a fact that would haunt them until later in 2003 when Halford returned. Owens, however, was not left in in the cold for he went on to join Iced Earth. Angel Of Retribution (2005) saw Downingand Tipton back for what many believe may be a permanent reunification.
That 'permanent reunification' would last through 2008's Nostradamus, their first concept album that was based on the life on that famous oracle. But, the band announced on 7 December 2010, that their Epitaph World Tour ending in 2012 would be the band's farewell tour.
Not so fast! Retirement might be on their minds, but the act was not ready to throw in the towel quite yet for Redeemer of Souls followed in 2014. The album sold 32,000+ copies in the United States in its first week of release to land at position No. 6 on The Billboard 200 chart, the band's first album to break the US top 10 and the highest charting position in the US after the previous double-disc concept album, Nostradamus that debuted at No. 11.
Firepower (2018) would follow.
Footnote: Trivia buffs should note that the term "Heavy Metal" in definition to a style of popular music was originally coined to describe the music of Judas Priest back in 1975, further to this: Judas Priest is widely considered to be the first rock band to regularly and consistently use black leather, silver studs (specifically on a belt) and chains (rock/biker/S&M) as a part of their costume attire. Rob Halford incorporated it into his look as early as 1978 (to coincide with the release of Killing Machine), and the rest of the band followed. It became a mainstay in heavy metal particularly in the NWOBHM and early black metal movements.
Judas Priest won a grammy in 2010 for Best Metal Performance on Dissident Aggressor.
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Judas Priest, in typical heavy metal attire, performing at the VH1 Rock Honors on May 25, 2006. Typical heavy metal fashion was pioneered by Judas Priest. Photo by: Zach Petersen.
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