Rock is my favorite style of music by far, and I have to say, a large part of the genre’s basic appeal to me is so instinctive it’s a disservice to try to intellectualize or quantify it. At the end of the day, it’s that gut feeling I get from listening to the music—the primal sensation of “being rocked”—that often endears a rock song to me. Fact: I will never get sick of hearing distorted guitars that bash out killer riffs—indeed, I often teach myself how to play them on guitar so I can play them endlessly to my heart’s content.
This is a somewhat long-winded setup to explain that earlier this week I taught myself how to play Judas Priest’s heavy metal classic “Breaking the Law”, riff and all, because it’s totally awesome you guys. Yes, that is my well-thought out rationale for pursuing the undertaking. And if any style of rock music is duty-bound to adhere to a criteria of being “totally awesome” to determine its intrinsic worth, it is metal. Priest knows how to be awesome: decked out in studded black leather, singer Rob Halford habitually drives onto a concert stage on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, dismounting to whip the crowd into a frenzy as they are attacked by the twin lead guitar assault of Glenn Tipton and KK Downing. We’re long past the point where such stagecraft can be dismissed by haters as silly macho posturing for dimwitted metalheads. Expert showmen and terrific musicians in any case, Halford and Co. know what the audience wants and how to deliver. The leather, the metal, the sonic onslaught: it’s all honed to perfection for the express purpose of making you feel rocked.
Surprisingly, the studio version of “Breaking the Law” isn’t as awesome as it could be. Moving at a fairly moderate tempo, it sounds positively sedate, a little too considered. It’s certainly not the most thrilling track to be found on its parent album, British Steel (1980). Paired with its lovably ludicrous music video (where the Priest boys pose as a gang of thieves armed with guitars in order to break into a bank to steal… their own gold record) “Breaking the Law” doesn’t seem to have the same bite as the group’s other classics like “Hell Bent for Leather” or “Electric Eye”.
Yet the elements are there: the instantly memorable riff, the driving urgency of the rhythm section, the solid song structure with its forward thrusting pre-choruses and bridge section, and Rob Halford’s revealingly desperate lyrics (“Nobody cares if I live or die”). It’s well-formulated pop song at its heart, albeit one designed to make you pump your fist in unison with the music. Yet the studio incarnation of “Breaking the Law” leaves me feeling rocked only just so. On record, it feels almost as if the band is holding back. Luckily, the quintet doesn’t do the same in concert.
Check out Halford working that crowd. Watching that clip, I find myself almost responding aloud to his demanding queries of “Breaking the what?” (the answer, for those unawares, is “Law”). The concert environment is the true home of “Breaking the Law” and other entries in the Priest canon, where the band (boasting full metal regalia) can speed up the tempo to a more satisfying level and can feed off the energy of a live audience. It’s not that much faster, but it feels far more natural, so much so that that’s the speed at which I automatically find myself playing the song on my own guitar.
I don’t self-identity as a metalhead (teenage years aside) and I have no fantasies of law-breaking destructiveness, yet I can’t deny that “Breaking the Law” rocks me so much that I can feel the music in my bones just by staring at the song title. Listen to that bit after the bridge where main guitar riff comes back into the mix, punctuated by thunderous drum strikes, and tell me you don’t feel the same way. I could go on about this or any other moment of the song worth dissecting to illuminate how it ticks, but really: what ultimately matters to me is that it rocks.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.