For sixteen years, fans of heavy-metal band Judas Priest have been accustomed to seeing lead singer Rob Halford in his trademark stage dress, a menacing armor of black leather and silver studs that even Attila the Hun might have found a bit too butch.
But a few months ago, as Halford attended court proceedings in Reno, Nevada, to defend Priest against accusations that subliminal messages on one of the band's albums had led one teen to commit suicide and another to attempt it, fans got to see a much more mild-mannered metalhead.
Nattily attired in smart pinstripe suits and constantly jotting down notes on which to build the band's defense, Halford looked more like a nebbishy tax attorney than the high-decibel screamer of annihilistic anthems like "Breaking the Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming." To the hundreds of fans who'd turned the Washoe County District Courthouse steps into a mini rock festival by the time the judge finally cleared Judas Priest of all charges on August 25, the sight of a herringboned Halford was surely a campy kick, like catching Darth Vader in pajamas or Freddy Kruger in formalwear.
But to Halford, who showed up early for court each day during the four-week trial and sat attentively while lawyers and audiology experts sifted through reams of numbingly statistical evidence for both sides of the case, the GQ get-up was no put-on.
"We went in looking that way because the situation demanded it," says Halford during a Canadian stop on the band's current 42-city North American tour. "It was a serious situation, sitting in an American courthouse, going by the rule books."
Halford's businesslike demeanor was appropriate for another reason. This was, after all, a business matter, although the real nuts and bolts of the case were overshadowed by the media's fixation on the First Amendment issue it raised. In the end, the judge's decision that Priest did not deliberately place subliminal messages on its 1978 album Stained Class was not all that groundbreaking. Rather, the most significant outcome of the trial was the definition it ascribed to rock 'n' roll albums. Stripped of all the "music on trial" hysteria, here's how the case was actually regarded in the books: as a common "product liability" matter, alleging that certain features of a mass-produced consumer product--in this case, the passages on Stained Class that seemed to contain suggestive messages--contributed to the wrongful death of its end users.
In this light, Judas Priest was being accused not so much of satanic music making as of shoddy workmanship. Somebody should've caught that dangerous "Do it" backward message (accidentally produced, according to Priest's expert witness, by a combination of breathing noises and guitar strums) before the product rolled off the assembly line.
For the majority of rock 'n' roll artistes, the very notion that their creative, soul-baring musical statements could be described in the same terms as a Suzuki Samurai is more offensive than any charge of Satan worshiping. And Halford, too, clearly favors phrases like "my art" and "artistic communication" over industry jargon like "product" and "merchandise."
Nevertheless, the well-spoken Englishman and Phoenix resident takes no offense when asked if he sometimes felt more like a watchful chief executive defending his company's primary product on that witness stand than a singer explaining his songs' lyrics.
"Oh yeah, absolutely," he says without hesitation. "Well, I mean, they were attacking our work, weren't they? They were attacking what we offered on record, saying this was evil, deadly music that killed people. And it was important for us to prove that there was absolutely no scientific evidence that a communication between an artist and a listener could be so overpowering that the listener could take his or her life. I mean, it was just an absolutely ridiculous claim."
IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, Halford and company have been defending their product--and their product category--for most of the past ten years. "Defenders of the Faith," the appellation coined in the title of the band's 1984 album, has long been their euphemism of choice. But as Halford made clear in interviews at the time of that album's release, "`The faith' [is] heavy-metal music. We're defending it both from the people who will knock it and from it ever going out of style or out of fashion."
Certainly, over the course of fourteen uncompromisingly hard-hitting albums, Judas Priest has raised the practice of heavy-metal music making to something of a fine art. But it doesn't require any great leap of imagination to extend the image of CEO Halford and picture Judas Priest as a kind of corporate entity, leading manufacturers of a musical product favored ten-to-one by America's teens for almost twenty years.
Indeed, the current CBS press package being circulated on the band goes out of its way to position Priest as a kind of Coca-Cola of heavy-metal. "If you want to know what heavy-metal sounds like," reads the biography's opening sentence, "all you have to do is listen to Judas Priest." Celebrity testimonials ("Metal will always be synonymous with bands like Judas Priest," raves Lita Ford) combine to paint a strong picture of Priest as heavy-metal's leading brand. What Crayola is to crayons, what Hershey is to chocolate bars--that's what Judas Priest is to heavy-metal.
Some rock stars might find such comparisons crass and artless. But Halford, exuding the pride of a founding partner whose company has remained true to its objective of making only one product and making it best ("We've never looked into another musical area and tried to do it"), finds the analogies valid.
"It's fantastic that people are saying these nice things about us now," he exclaims. "We've been singled out as leaders in heavy-metal, and that's really gratifying. But it's important that we don't sit back on our laurels and glory in it. We're very aware that we're in a competitive field. So we're still in there trying to do as best we can so that we can stay in a successful position. To a great extent, being in a leading position does create a pressure edge, because you're in a situation where you constantly have to show people that you're able to maintain the standards that you set. And you don't want to be in a condition where you're backpedaling."
Halford describes his group's standards with a company-line eloquence that would make Lee Iacocca jealous. "The standards are those of simply striving to be the best that you can be," he says, "by really putting a lot of time and energy into everything you make and not accepting anything on a substandard level. From an album point of view, we've never been a band that would put, like, two or three hit singles together and fill out the rest of the record with mediocre material. We've always tried our best to make sure that every single track that we've offered people on record is on a par with our best work. To achieve that, we're constantly re-evaluating and pulling apart and reassembling our work and, to a great extent, rejecting the bulk of it because it doesn't come up to the level that we've set.
"It really comes down to quality--making sure that what you finally have to offer in a recorded product is the best that you can do," chairman Halford sums up. "It's really taking care, you know; it's genuinely caring about the work that you do, and that comes from the heart with this band as we start to make each new record."
Understandably, Halford is upset when people suggest his work is dangerous or damaging to the people who buy it, and he stresses that Judas Priest has always strived to make records free of harmful ingredients that many other heavy-metal bands put into their product.
"The irony of it, really, is that if we were a band that talked about gay bashing or racist attitudes or whatever else that some of the other heavy-metal bands have touched on, then I could almost understand the attacks that were made on us in court. I still wouldn't accept that we were fair game at the whipping post, because my feeling is that any artist should be allowed to freely express themselves, no matter how distasteful I might find their work. But the fact is, we've constantly been a source of release and a healthy outpouring for a lot of people.
"We've even brought people out of comas," Halford adds, citing the recent case of an accident victim in San Diego who was reportedly brought around by his friends' playing a Judas Priest album in the intensive care ward. "He's still convalescing, still getting physical therapy," notes Halford, who remains in frequent touch with the young fan. "But to him, and some other people, we're kind of a miracle band."
THERE ARE SOME, OF COURSE, who fear Judas Priest's music is loud and ferocious enough to put people into comas. Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton describes the band's current stage show in a recent press release as "one of the most dynamic visual shows ever to be seen; a massive mountain of metal and speakers--I seriously doubt that anything more powerful will ever be heard by the human ears of our fans or anyone else!" A somewhat frightening thought, given the way the live Priest sound was described the last time the group passed through the U.S.: "a sternum-thumping, stomach-wrenching wall of sound," wrote one critic. "The sound literally touches you all over; the heart quails; the water in the inner ear trembles."
Obviously, if this were a car we were talking about, the product would be immediately recalled. But customer satisfaction in the heavy-metal game is based on a somewhat different set of criteria. If Halford were to compare his product to any other large consumer item, it would have to be the Harley-Davidson he's famous for riding both around his home in Phoenix and out onstage at the start of each concert.
"Motorbikes are loud, and they're heavy and metally, and they smell, and they spark, and they make a lot of noise," Halford laughs. "So to me, the qualities of a Harley-Davidson are not that far removed from the qualities of heavy-metal music."
The singer has trouble describing the appeal of this loud and heavy and smelly sound, but figures that "there's always been a real need among the younger people for this kind of music." As for the older people, Halford is intrigued by the tributes Judas Priest is now receiving from the media and the record industry--essentially baby boomers who would never personally go within ten square miles of a Priest concert.
"Well, you have to bear in mind that heavy-metal has now become a respectable financial commodity," he explains. "Record companies are making money with this music in a big way now, in a way they never did before."
If that fact alone causes nonheavy-metal fans to look at Judas Priest as a mere product-category leader with the kind of longevity and performance record to warrant some degree of detached respect, Halford doesn't mind.
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"It's nice to finally be appreciated by all the people in the recording industry and the media," he says graciously. "That's a new thing for a lot of heavy-metal bands--and certainly for Judas Priest."
Judas Priest will perform at ASU Activity Center on Wednesday, November 7. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
Halford looked more like a nebbishy tax attorney than the high-decibel screamer of annihilistic anthems like "You've Got Another Thing Coming."
"If we were a band that talked about gay bashing or racist attitudes, then I could almost understand the attacks that were made on us in court.