Seriously, what is there left to be said about Judas Priest’s British Steel album, which celebrates it’s fortieth birthday this week?
From it’s Rozlav Szaybo-designed cover onwards, it is one of the albums that defines traditional heavy metal in the early eighties – especially British heavy metal; gut wrenchingly heavy yet always melodic, and with not one, not two, but three chart-bothering pop singles thrown in to boot it hearkens back to the time when heavy metal bands weren’t ashamed to court mainstream acceptance. If it’s studio predecessors, Stained Class and Killing Machine (both released in 1978 – and how many other bands can claim to have brought out two albums of that calibre within eight months of one another?), had established Priest as leaders in the British metal scene, then British Steel was the record that truly catapulted them to world prominence.
I should know. As a young metal fan at the time, Priest were, alongside Iron Maiden, key to framing my musical worldview. Before thrash metal levelled the landscape, Priest were a reliable barometric test for heaviness. From the fifth form onwards, we were allowed off school grounds at lunchtimes, and would often head home to James Dunsbier’s house – he lived closest to school, thus maximising headbanging time – and British Steel was always the first album to get slammed on the rather deluxe Dunsbier stereo. One memorable afternoon, with volume inevitably superglued to eleven, we failed to notice Mrs Dunsbier watching as I – wielding one of her husband’s antique rifles – and James, with a snooker cue, re-enacted KK Downing and Glenn Tipton’s high-speed lick trading on opening track Rapid Fire – the heaviest (and therefore in our young minds, the best) track on the album. ‘You’re both slightly out of tune’ was all she said as we stared, open mouthed on discovery that we’d been sprung.
But if heaviness was all we cared about, Rob Halford and company (the rest of that company being Ian Hill on Bass and Dave Holland on drums – the sub-members as my dad called them, rather unkindly if accurately) were more than capable of catering to the tastes of other more melodically-inclined metal fans. The martial Metal Gods, still a live staple, married muscle and melody in fine style, whilst Living After Midnight and United carried never-ending earworms of Ourobotic durability. In simpler times, a guitar solo you could whistle was often all you needed to snare the ears of a nation, and Living After Midnight served that purpose in spades. And then there was Breaking The Law, perhaps the song instrumental in introducing Priest to a wider, not-specifically-metallic audience. Not a bad way to say hi! by any stretch of the imagination…
And then there were what are now known as the ‘deep cuts’… As Priest emerged from the seventies, so they shed much of the progressive feel of their material of that decade, eschewing length for brevity and impact. Consequently, the likes of Call For The Priest or Beyond The Realms of Death were now songs of the past; however British Steel retains a link to those more complex times through a superb brace of cuts on side two in You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise and The Rage, two of the more unsung entries in the Priest songbook yet which both still hit hard in 2020 with their mixture of inventive riffing, superior vocal melodies, and overall commitment to songcraft (the former, now probably this writer’s favourite song on the album) and explorative willingness to broaden the sense of what was acceptable in a metal track (the latter, with it’s then eye-opening – for 1980 – use of reggae-styled guitar playing).
Steeler ended the album, returning to the album’s opening track thematically with it’s reliance on the blitzkrieg axework and staccato vocalising that informed a thousand nascent thrash musicians just forming their first open ‘e’ chords, leaving the listener battered and bruised yet keen to return the needle to the start and do it all over again. British Steel might not always get the kudos it deserves, especially from metal purists, yet there’s no-denying it’s worth to the world of heavy metal overall. Happy birthday!