Rob Halford: ‘I’ve Morphed Into the Gandalf of Heavy Metal’
More than a year after Judas Priest's tour was set to start, the band is finally on the road celebrating its 50th anniversary. An overseas headlining performance in August at the Bloodstock Festival offered a preview of some of the surprises that could be in store for fans. During their two-hour show, the group reached back to its first album, 1974’s Rocka Rolla, for a reimagined take on the title track.
The band also shared their first-ever performances of “One Shot at Glory,” from 1990’s Painkiller, and “Invader,” from 1978’s landmark Stained Class album, in addition to a number of other songs that haven’t been played in more than a decade.
Playing “Rocka Rolla," which hasn't been in a Judas Priest set since 1976, left singer Rob Halford in a contemplative and excited mood on the flight home, and he thought about other songs from the catalog that maybe could find their way back into the show.
Halford tells UCR that all songs are "on the table" for consideration and shares some details about the anniversary tour.
You have one of the most epic quarantine beards. Is that going to stick around?
[Laughs] Well, yes. I think it probably will. Maybe it’s appropriate how this thing has taken on a life of its own, much like the virtual cats. This isn’t a virtual beard. It’s a real beard. But as it’s grown, exponentially, over the weeks and months, when I put my pictures up, the fans are going, “Oh, God, that beard is epic!” And then some fans are going, “I hate that beard. Take it off.” So there’s this back-and-forth going on. But I have a feeling that if I stroll out onstage with this beard, in and of itself, that will be a statement. Here’s a guy that’s been with a heavy metal band for 50 years, and I’ve morphed into the Gandalf of heavy metal. Without the hair. [Laughs]
It’s strangely appropriate.
Yes, I think it works. I’m having a final costume fitting on Friday, with Ray Brown, who has been making these incredible clothes for Priest over the years. The last time I had a fitting with Ray, I just had my little goatee. I’m sure he’s going to go, “That beard is the absolute perfect combination with the 50 Heavy Metal Years look” that he’s created. Visually, I don’t think I’ve ever looked like this. I’m going to just go for it.
What are some of the songs you’d like to play on the 50th-anniversary tour?
Everything’s on the table, from those early songs on Rocka Rolla ... it can be anything, quite frankly. Everything that we’ve ever recorded as Judas Priest is doable onstage. We might have a slightly different texture and adjustment, but we’ve always said from day one that whatever we write and record, we need to be able to perform it. So it’s exciting.
I know it's hard to put a list of songs together for a show like this.
It’s tough, man. We’ve talked before about the set list. I’d love to be onstage all day, but my voice wouldn’t. So there’s the dilemma. We’re building together something. I mean, it’s in flux - every day there’s a little adjustment. I look at all of the songs, and I go, “Oh, wow, where do we start?” Obviously, the songs lead the band. But it’s just the experience - you’re going to go see and listen to one of the originators of heavy metal music. Since a lot of our friends have retired in recent years, we’re not the last men standing, but we’re certainly the first metal men standing in that respect.
It’s going to be a celebration, not just for Priest, but for heavy metal, for our fans. Everything’s kind of rolled up into this big metal fireball as we play every one of these shows around the world.
It’s been more than five decades. That’s a lot to celebrate. When you started, you’re not thinking it’s going to run for five decades, you’ll be happy if it goes five years.
Exactly. On the night, you’re thinking of that show, here we are on this specific date, you know, this week, this month, in the year 2021. You don’t think about 1971, although that’s subconsciously in the back of your mind. You’re presenting yourself with the experience that you can create, to try and define everything in the time that you’ve got.
What was the experience like when Judas Priest finally made it to the U.S. for the first dates?
Sensational. I talk a little bit about that in my book, Confess. A kid from the West Midlands, touching down at JFK in New York. I couldn’t believe it. I was in a daze. I think we all were. Because America was the beacon of light for rock 'n' roll and always is, to a certain extent. That’s just one of the many great things about this country, musically. You check into your hotel room and turn on the radio, and there’s this radio show and that radio show and this kind of rock music and that kind of rock music. We didn’t have that in the U.K. We didn’t have commercial radio. We only had the BBC. So for a musician, just to lie in your bed and twiddle the knobs on the radio, all of this music pouring into your ears, it was just unbelievable.
The first show, when you’re playing to your first American audience, is absolutely magical. Then of course we swept throughout the entire nation. We toured America for months and months nonstop sometimes. Five, six or seven shows a week. That’s the groundwork that we put in, and the payoff now is that we’re not just big in Texas. Everybody wants to see Priest. So we have great memories of those early tours.
What can fans expect as far as the staging and production on the new tour?
You’re going to see the band, whoever they might be, that means the world to you. It’s the consummate moment. You know, it’s like going to metal church. You’re going to see the band that you love that has been with you in some instances through your entire life. A band that’s been with you through birth, death and marriages, quite frankly. That’s where we’re at with Priest after 50 years. So you want to, more than ever, make the biggest type of celebration of success and endurance in your show that you can make visually. So, we’re pulling out all of the stops.
We’ve got a very strong and elaborate show that we’ve created over many, many months. I think it will totally fit into this whole thing about Judas Priest. Everything that you think about Judas Priest, to some extent, will connect to the things that you’re going to see showing up onstage in front of your eyes.
There’s a new album that’s been taking shape. I’m assuming there won’t be any new music ready in time for these shows.
Yeah, it’s temptation, isn’t it, just to blast out a new song halfway through the set. I wonder if any band has ever done that? Don’t give me ideas! We’ve got some great stuff waiting in the wings. We’ll sit down and listen again to what we’ve got so far, and the extra material that’s been accumulating for the past year. I think we’ll be able to make sense of it all and have a real strong definition of character, of what this record needs to be. We had a tremendous experience with [2018 album] Firepower. The critical acclaim that that record was given, it was such a boost. It was just amazing. You take that, and you run with it. It’s just the best feeling that you can ever have.
It just adds to what’s already there in substance. What keeps you together as a band and keeps you going as a band has never dissipated for Priest. But to have all of that beautiful stuff thrown at us from Firepower, that just made us even more determined to make a very, very strong follow-up record. That record has become as strong as some of the other highlights of Priest’s life, whether it’s British Steel or Screaming for Vengeance or Painkiller.
What's the timeline as far as completing the record?
I don’t know. We’re doing this tour with Sabaton, then we’re going to take a holiday break and then we’re getting ready to go out with Ozzy [Osbourne], and then we’re going to go out on our own legs to complete the 50th display for Europe and, potentially, the rest of the world. The clock’s always ticking with Priest, and you can’t do too many things at the same time, otherwise things get wonky and they don’t get the care and attention to detail that they deserve. But I have a sense that it’s going to be sooner than later. We’re not going to make you wait three, four or five years as some of us have done.