Remember those black-and-white parental advisory stickers? The music industry used to slap them on CDs to warn parents about explicit content.
Well, you can thank Judas Priest for them — at least in part.
Priest’s “Eat Me Alive,” along with songs by Prince, Def Leppard, Madonna, and the Disney-princess-like Sheena Easton helped make up the “Filthy 15” — songs so vile they required a warning label.
Compared to some of today’s lyrics, the Filthy 15 seem almost comical. But at the time, emerging censorship was no joke. Censored artists had the last laugh, though, because the more parents hated them, the more kids loved them, and Judas Priest was no exception.
Today, after being spurred to notoriety by both controversy and kick-ass metal, Judas Priest is back on top.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” lead singer Rob Halford says as Priest approaches its 50th anniversary. “It’s given us the motivation to look ahead to what we might be doing next. You can’t control music. It’s got a life of its own. Success can come at any given moment.”
It can, and it has. Priest’s last two albums have been the highest-charting of the band's career. Last year’s Firepower and 2014’s Redeemer of Souls peaked at number 2 and 1, respectively, on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums. Riding that wave, Judas Priest will bring five decades of unadulterated metal to the Seminole Hard Rock Friday, May 3, on the Firepower 2019 tour.
“Nothing lasts forever in the true sense, but I think the power of metal is still a very substantial force in the rock 'n' roll world right now,” Halford says.
Dubbed “Metal God” by Priest's ravenous fans, Halford is the quintessential heavy-metal icon, with an imposing stance, a shaved head, a menacing glare, and a seemingly impossible voice that has quashed the dreams of many a tribute singer. Hits such as “Painkiller,” which contains some of the most challenging vocals in metal, “Living After Midnight,” “Heading Out to the Highway,” “Breaking the Law,” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” have helped the band sell more than 50 million albums.
But Priest is more than shredding guitars and piercing vocals. It is the epitome of everything metal: black leather, silver spikes, and that untouchable, bad-ass attitude.
Halford is particularly terrifying on social media, where he regularly celebrates “Caturday” by wearing a seemingly endless supply of kitty T-shirts while fans post parodies of Priest song titles like “Meowing for Vengeance,” “Hell Bent for Catnip,” and “Hairballs Are Gonna Roll.”
Surprised? Don’t be. Halford is not the monster the self-appointed defenders of righteousness contend. In fact, he’s quite the opposite: well-mannered, pleasant, and remarkably candid.
But he wasn’t always this way.
“It’s really leading a double life,” Halford says of living privately as a gay man before coming out live on MTV in 1998. “It was a very strong alpha-male, macho image, not only in rock 'n' roll, but in the world in general... It led me down my drug-and-alcohol phase.”
Halford almost died in the mid-'80s from an overdose of sleeping pills after years of alcohol abuse and the suicide of his then-partner.
Today, sober for 33 years, Halford still has trouble shutting his brain off. “I’m like the heavy-metal Michael Jackson,” he says of their respective battles with insomnia. “It’s a nightmare for me to sleep.”
Sobriety has been a long and painful road, but it is one on which Halford is grateful to walk.
“After all those years that I’ve gone onstage in a bit of a haze, I suddenly realized how great and wonderful and glorious it is to be sober and to be consciously aware of everything going on around you,” he says.
But awareness can be as painful as haze, as Halford learned when Priest was sued in a very public, precedent-setting civil trial that remains a relevant case in mass-media study today. The suit alleged that in 1985, subliminal messages in Priest’s cover of the song “Better by You, Better Than Me” drove two fans to shoot themselves in the head. One young man died instantly, and the other perished from an overdose three years later.
“I was terribly confused, angry, upset,” Halford says of the accusations. “It’s a very strange, nebulous area, this whole discussion about subliminal messaging... But to utilize it as a weapon against us, I thought, was terrible.”
The case rocked the metal world, and though Priest ultimately prevailed, Halford says there were no real winners.
“The main tragedy was the death of those beautiful boys,” he says. “Music was their light source.”
Halford credits friends, fans, sobriety, and the power of human resilience with helping him cope.
“Life is still a beautiful thing for me, and I look back on those moments still with a tremendous amount of sadness and grief,” he says.
Staying sober is of paramount importance to Halford, but he admits that even after all this time, he is sometimes tempted.
“It’ll come out of the blue, and you’ll go, What the fuck is going on?” he says. “The most important thing is not to be alone when those feelings kick in.”
He says that today he has the tools to deal with whatever life throws his way. “You wrap yourself in the music, and the music heals you and helps you get through those difficulties,” he says. “You’re blessed by the people that love you and help you, and your own self-strength and determination to pull through.”
Halford might need to tap into that inner strength to perform this leg of the tour, which will be the first since 1974 without guitarist Glen Tipton.
“You can’t express the feelings when someone you love is going through this thing in their life,” Halford says of Tipton’s 2018 announcement that he has Parkinson’s disease.
Halford says Tipton is still a member of the band and will play whenever his health allows. “That’s the great flag of hope and light that he still spreads throughout the Priest world,” he says.
In the meantime, Halford is looking forward to returning to South Florida, where Priest made Screaming for Vengeance and parts of Turbo and Defenders of the Faith, he says.
“We lived there for months at a time, so it’s always a thrill to go back and see all the old haunts, old stomping grounds and rock 'n' roll bars. Really, really strong metal memories from the Miami area.”
Judas Priest. 8 p.m. Friday, May 3, at Hard Rock Event Center at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood; seminolehardrockhollywood.com. Tickets cost $40 to $130 via ticketmaster.com, myhrl.com, or 800-745-3000.