Although Judas Priest had already enjoyed an extraordinary career by 1979, with five landmark albums and a superb live album already behind them, what remained out of their grasp was the much sought-after American market. Sure, the Birmingham quintet had played a pivotal role in reshaping mid-’70s heavy metal with Rainbow and Scorpions. The trifecta of Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, and Stained Class remains one of the most towering three-album runs in the genre’s history. However, for a band as preoccupied with global success as Priest was, innovation didn’t amount to a hill of beans if the US sales weren’t there.
1979’s superb Killing Machine (renamed Hell Bent For Leather in North America) streamlined the band’s sound considerably. Tracks like “Delivering the Goods” and “Evening Star” incorporated a strong pop element into the music, but it remained a rather dark album. Despite a wickedly good cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)”, the album was a commercial disappointment, barely making a dent Stateside. With a new generation of British heavy metalers set to steal the spotlight in 1980 (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Diamond Head would release explosive debuts), it was imperative that if Judas Priest was going to make a statement, it had to happen immediately.
The end result was the sleek, über-catchy British Steel, and it was the crossover success they’d been striving for all that time, peaking at a very respectable position at number 34 on the Billboard album chart. While it’s not the band’s best album, they’re still very proud of it because it was such a major turning point for them, and it remains a very popular title among their worldwide fanbase. So it’s no surprise that they’d celebrate its 30th anniversary like they have, presenting the album along with a DVD of a complete 2009 live set in which they play the album in its entirety.
Several crucial factors separate British Steel from its five predecessors. Most noticeably, it’s incredibly hook-oriented, led by two of the band’s most enduring singles. At a paltry 2:43, “Breaking the Law” is the most immediate song in Priest’s discography and also the most timeless. Guitarist Glenn Tipton’s main riff is one of the simplest and most recognizable in rock history, and singer Rob Halford leads the charge with a performance that exudes swagger. To this day “Living After Midnight” is an anomaly, an oddly ebullient, slightly forced rave-up that resembles Kiss more than Judas Priest, but anyone who claims to be immune to the tune’s positive energy and singalong chorus is lying. It’s a great rock ‘n’ roll song that continues to bring down the house at concerts.
This album is also the band’s first collaboration with producer Tom Allom, who would helm all of the band’s albums in the 1980s. Previously an engineer on Black Sabbath’s early work and producer of prog rockers Strawbs, Allom strips away the density of Priest’s early sound in favor of a far cleaner tone. While it does render “Rapid Fire” and “Steeler” a little stale compared to Stained Class‘s “Exciter”, it suits the more accessible fare perfectly, as well as the slower, heavier material like Halford’s colossal signature song “Metal Gods”, the churning “Grinder” (highlighted by Halford’s brilliant use of lower-register vocals), the hugely underrated “You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise”, and the stately march of “The Rage” (complete with an inexplicable yet oddly fitting reggae intro). The album’s only big misstep is the plodding “United”. This blatant knock-off of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Killing Machine‘s single “Take on the World” is more boring than anything, a three-and-a-half-minute slog that kills the momentum between “Grinder” and “Living After Midnight”.
Unlike past albums, this one is very focused lyrically. Metal “epics” like “Rapid Fire”, “Metal Gods”, and “Steeler” aside, youthful energy dominates the bulk of British Steel. The anti-authoritarian “Breaking the Law” speaks to disenfranchised teens (“You don’t know what it’s like!”), “Grinder” is a thinly veiled metaphor for conformity (“Never straight and narrow / I won’t keep in time”), “You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise” is fairly self-explanatory, and “Living After Midnight” is sexually charged to an almost tongue in cheek degree (“My body’s coming all night long!”).
As for the DVD, it gives the fans exactly what they want. Shot in high definition at a cozy arena in Florida’s Hard Rock Casino, the concert is an excellent glimpse of Priest in the present day. Sure, they’ve aged, and Halford’s pipes aren’t like they used to be, but Tipton and longtime co-guitarist KK Downing sound as flawless as ever. Halford uses his limited range to his advantage, offering unique vocal interpretations of classic songs, while still displaying the ability to dish out those glass-shattering screams every once in a while. Ironically, of the British Steel songs these old guys perform, “You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise” is the biggest revelation, the song having more bite in a live setting than it does on record. Of the seven other songs that comprise the concert’s second half, early classic “The Ripper” and the oft-overlooked speedster “Freewheel Burning” are the two biggest standouts.
Also included on the DVD is a segment that goes into the making of the album. It’s very straightforward, simply a hotel interview with Halford, Tipton, Downing, and bassist Ian Hill chatting away politely, but the band does an excellent job offering a detailed back story, even going over each and every song, something diehard fans will appreciate.
Oddly enough, on this special anniversary edition the album actually feels like it was lazily tossed in as a companion to the live DVD. The original artwork is nowhere to be seen, the bloody razor on the reissue paling in comparison to the iconic image designed by graphic artist Roslav Szaybo. In addition, the CD is sonically the exact same as the 2001 remaster, even coming with the same two pointless bonus tracks, and even worse, none of the album’s credits are included in the booklet, with nary a mention of drummer Dave Holland. The fact that the band is trying to distance itself from Holland (who was convicted of raping a 17-year-old music student 16 years after leaving the band) is understandable. However, Holland played an important role on British Steel, providing the kind of taut rock ‘n’ roll backbeat that the material needed, and to simply turn a blind eye to his musical contribution to the band is a mistake.
In the end, although this 30th Anniversary Edition turned out to be a bigger mess than it needed to be, it’s still easily worth purchasing. If you own the 2001 remaster, you will want to see the excellent DVD. If you’re new to British Steel, this is as good an introduction as you’ll find. Whether it deserves to be a canonical metal album is debatable, but it’s one of the most important albums in the Judas Priest catalog, and for the most part it has aged wonderfully. It definitely deserves to be celebrated.