Welcome back to Priest Week! It’s a pretty universal opinion that Judas Priest is one of the most important, most influential, and downright greatest heavy metal bands in history. If you came here to argue that point, during Priest Week, you’re going to find yourself in the smallest of small minorities. Enjoy being special.
However, it’s also pretty universally agreed that Judas Priest never released a perfect album, even in their most classic of classic eras. The nature of radio-friendly album production in the 70s and 80s was that labels wanted a new 30-40 minute platter every 12 to 18 months, and bands generally released what they had ready. Add to that the fact that Priest was, to be fair, mostly writing incredible music and didn’t want to let the iron get cold, and you had an insanely prolific period to the tune of nine albums in their first 11 years and 12 albums in 17 years (that’s Rocka Rolla through Painkiller). For the amount of quality in that classic run, that level of output is bonkers.
So yes, the occasional lesser track or downright stinker occasionally slipped through. Some albums had more than one lesser track, or several stinkers (Ram It Down somehow sounds worse with every passing year, no matter the angle from which you approach it). We set out to permanently (not permanently) “solve” the age-old question that so many of you (none of you) have asked yourselves: What is the worst song on each album of the classic Judas Priest run?
Said run is the aforementioned stretch from the beginning through Painkiller. The period after saw Rob Halford leave, two dunderhead albums with Ripper Owens, and a few new albums with Halford that range from more mediocre than decent to more decent than mediocre. Point is, Painkiller was the end of a run that saw the band making small or large adjustments with each album, always in search of that slightly new direction. It’s also 12 albums, which is more than enough music for this exercise.
Each of us chose our least favorite song from each of those 12 albums; votes were tallied and ties were broken. Then we decided we’d do the most obvious thing: say a bunch of nice things about these songs… to the best of our abilities at least. Some of these tracks are legitimately loved by at least one of us (Mr. Obstkrieg was regularly angry through this process), because even at their worst, Judas Priest was (usually) still pretty great.
We had fun with this one, because it was an excuse to spin a whole lot of one of rock and roll’s greatest bands. Even when searching for the blemishes, that makes for a helluva weekend. As always, chime in with your arguments!
ROCKA ROLLA – THE SUITE
That my supposedly esteemed colleagues here at LR decided to vote in the Rocka Rolla suite — that being the combination of “Winter,” “Deep Freeze,” “Winter Retreat,” and “Cheater” — as the worst song on Judas Priest’s debut isn’t just mind boggling, it’s insulting. After all, The Suite was the first appearance of Priest’s all-too-rare progressive side. Outside of a “Victim of Changes” here, a “Sentinel” there, or a “Let Us Prey / Call for the Priest” everywhere, the boys in leather didn’t veer from traditional rock structures all too often. The Suite, however, saw the young band spreading their wings fearlessly, simultaneously offering a scope and looseness that they never would again. It bursts forth with the Iommi-est riff ever penned by messrs Downing and Tipton, with early drummer John Hinch even doing a decent Bill Ward impression. Sure, part 3 (“Deep Freeze”) goes a bit too deep in the Trippy 70s Interlude department, but soon the soft balladry of “Winter Retreat” gives way to the swaggeriffic swag-a-tronics of finale “Cheater.” It’s a combination of Halford at his most naturally cool, a nice touch of cowbell, some key harmonica, and great leads (obviously). When it all wraps up, The Suite provided some lumbering 70s heft, gets a little weird, drops into balladry, and then lands on one massive boogie, showing signs of Priest’s full future potential.
This isn’t the worst part of Rocka Rolla. This is the best part of Rocka Rolla. [ZACH DUVALL]
SAD WINGS OF DESTINY – EPITAPH
Residing in the penultimate position [editor’s note: or is it?] on what many people consider their favorite Judas Priest record, Sad Wings of Destiny, “Epitaph” comes on the heels of “Genocide,” one of Judas Priest’s more basic, nuts and bolts types of rock songs. It also precedes “Island of Domination,” a swinging tune full of bluesy twang, a solid thematic riff and more than a couple changes of pace. Played on piano with overly active hammers, “Epitaph” feels like a nod to England’s highly decorated rock quartet Queen. Halford affects a tenor pitch for his verses while layering vocals that range from Freddie Mercury to Paul McCartney to Elton John-like to his famous falsetto. While “Epitaph” clearly deserves a spot on Judas Least, it also deserves a pat on the bottom (that’s been stuffed into some very, very tight pants) for being bold, experimental and definitely out of Halford’s comfort zone even using vocal descents more commonly found in pop music than leather-clad, in-your-face rock and roll. Sure, it’s not as successful as Ozzy taking things down a notch on Vol. 4 and it’s certainly not a ballad by Queen, but it’s certainly Halford being vulnerable and brave at the same time and that alone is worth more than most bands. [MANNY-O-WAR]
SIN AFTER SIN –
LAST ROSE OF SUMMER
Sure, when you’re slammin’ Hamm’s with all your tuff-as-nailz metal bros and hoes, you agree that “Last Rose of Summer” is a blight on an otherwise stellar record; skippable, embarrassing even. But when you’re simmering in that steamy lavender bath, surrounded by sandalwood candles, at one with your most compassionate self, you embrace it for what it is: a real love song. It’s beautiful in its softness and warmth and in Halford’s heartfelt delivery. No, it’s not John Donne, but it is real and you get it. Halford’s unyielding love is honest and you love the idea that he gets you.
Detractors rail against the song’s back half but you know the closing stretch is its greatest strength. They’ll say it’s too long, too repetitive – yes, Halford repeats the main line more often than mothers-in-law quote The Secret – but you know they’re missing the forest for the trees: the sweetness of that ringing drone, the impassioned longing in Halford’s backing vocals, the yen in those chiming bells. Ennui for the casually cynical, meditation for the self-aware; an abiding reflection of quiet joy in anticipating True Love one day fulfilled. You ol’ softy, you. [LONE WATIE]
STAINED CLASS – SAVAGE
Look, there ain’t a thing wrong with “Savage.” You know it, and I know it too. The problem here is that it’s nestled in the middle of what is, if not the best, at least the most consistent Judas Priest record. In every Olympic race, one of a small handful of the most elite athletes in the world comes in dead last. Some superhero has powers that are the least super (help me here, nerds). And “Savage” is the least great song on one of the best albums ever made. Even though there’s not really any specific complaint about the song it was the clear consensus among the staff vote. Perhaps its the unique cadence during the verse and the contrasting chorus. For me, tracks like “Savage” serve a role in rounding out a full album experience. [MATTHEW COOPER]
KILLING MACHINE – BURNIN’ UP
Although Judas Priest is one of the most successful and influential bands in the history of heavy metal, for a long time, the band had nasty habit of hurting otherwise excellent albums with a few tracks of lousy cock-rock. Up until Painkiller, the band always seemed like it felt like it was in competition with the likes of Van Halen and Motley Crue as much as it was with Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. While most of these hard-rock endeavors are embarrassing, and you’ll no doubt read about some of them in this article, “Burning Up” from 1979’s Killing Machine (Hell Bent for Leather to you colonials), is one instance where Priest’s cock-rock aspirations almost hit the mark. The main riff is pretty funky for a bunch of white dudes. Lord knows Les Binks, arguably the best drummer the band ever had, can groove, and Ian Hill lays down some of the biggest sexiest bass he’s ever played. The verses with their simple, sinuous chords slide in smoother than a….really smooth thing, and the little kicks at the end provide just enough rough stuff to remind you this is metal. The lyrics are the fatal flaw: clichéd, yes, but more than anything, Rob Halford just sounds awkward as all Hell when he sings about sex. Priest, oddly, can walk the walk, but they can’t talk the talk. [JEREMY MORSE]
BRITISH STEEL – UNITED
It’s easy to look back on this song now and laugh/scoff at it as a flaccid attempt at an anthem (and even when I first heard it in 1993 it was pretty forgettable). Arguably the biggest clunker on an album otherwise loaded with classics, it plods along with simple musical lines whose only purpose is to prop up the sing-along chorus… and repeated over and over again. But, at a time when heavy metal was just starting to break stateside, it gave fans assurance that they weren’t the only weird kid in the world with these tastes and full license to let their freak flags fly loud and proud.
“United” took on new life in 2003-2004 when it became the unofficial theme of their reunion tours preceding and following the release of Angel of Retribution. It felt so right and fit the vibe so well one would almost think it was written just for the occasion rather than being over 20 years old. For that reason, marking my first opportunity to see the proper, Halford-fronted version, it will always hold special meaning for me. [DAVE PIRTLE]
POINT OF ENTRY – YOU SAY YES
So, let’s say you really miss Judas Priest’s humbler beginnings as a blues rock outfit. And let’s say you also really love cloying, simplistic choruses. And let’s also say you’ve suffered a recent head injury and can think of nothing more intellectually stimulating and satisfying than bopping your head absent-mindedly to a frankly embarrassing barroom shuffle. And, hell, just for argument’s sake, let’s say you’ve always wanted to hear Rob Halford do some sort of weird, almost-scatting type of vocals over a meandering and low-key instrumental bridge that bears no resemblance to the rest of the song in which it occurs (but invites extremely uncharitable comparisons to the mid-section of “Victim of Changes”). If you found yourself nodding along enthusiastically to most of the above statements, then, friend, “You Say Yes” is your triumph, your Mecca, your Everest, your Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. The rest of us will be over here, plugging our ears and trying to find more productive uses of our time (such as eating piles of radioactive waste). [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE –
PAIN AND PLEASURE
I like “Pain and Pleasure”. Yes, generally, but also this song. It is the weakest song on one of the greatest heavy metal records of the 1980’s, and really all time. Why do I not hate it? For one thing, Judas Priest has always had an affinity for the busy riff on a lazy rhythm, and they do it right. It is their method of sexing a song up, and frankly it works pretty damned well here.
For another, the whole fucking record sounds AMAZING. I never stop referring to texture because texture matters, and Screaming For Vengeance drips texture. “Pain and Pleasure” has its own feel, its own sleaze and weight and it closes out side one and sets up the insanity of “Screaming For Vengeance” on side two perfectly because it has some mud and some acid on it.
Are the lyrics dumb? Yes. It is a testament to Rob Halford that when he is belting this out you don’t care how silly it is. You are in the moment with him. So “Pain and Pleasure”, though by no means a classic, is a good side one closer and a cool song about allegorical BDSM. And I’m at least 90% sincere. I fucking mean it. It’s a good song. [CHRIS SESSIONS]
DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH –
With all due respect and love to my esteemed colleagues here at Last Rites, in choosing to vote “Love Bites” as the worst song on Defenders of the Faith, they have showed their true colors as a mongrel band of diesel-guzzling charlatans. Yes, the slickness of “Love Bites” is a significant preview (for better or worse) of Turbo, and yes, the song mostly works itself into one shimmying groove and stays there, but what this song’s piss-eyed and ass-elbowed detractors miss is the way “Love Bites” turns a robotic slide into a lustful sneer. The guitars don’t do a whole lot other than punctuate the verses with lewdly thrusting chord stabs and then caress the chorus with that silky smooth, attack-less slide down the fretboard, but that’s more than enough. The synth-guitar flutters like a convocation of bats, arcing the dusk in search of prey. “Love Bites” is Mortiis’s codpiece riding a Harley. Get bent, haters. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
TURBO – PARENTAL GUIDANCE
Defending “Parental Guidance” against claims of being Turbo’s worst track is easy and twofold – one, it’s a silly pop-rock romp with a catchy chorus that, while not Priest’s most metal moment by a thousand longshots, isn’t nearly as embarrassing as many long-time fans believe. It’s their most blatant attempt at a Sweet-esque pop song, and it works perfectly fine as such, although I, too, prefer Priest to be heavier, meaner, darker, and louder. Quite clearly a direct response to conservative attempts to censor heavy metal in the mid-80s, “Parental Guidance” is given a slightly new twist when placed against Priest’s infamous 1990 “subliminal message” lawsuit, but really, it’s just an update of rock ’n’ roll’s eternal generational disconnect – c’mon, old farts, you were young once, too, and remember how you felt when Mom and Dad said the Beatles were just a bunch of long-haired goons making awful noise…?
Of course, there are infinitely better Priest songs, and even far better tracks on Turbo – the title track is a Priest classic, synthesizers or not, and both “Out In The Cold” and “Reckless” remain eternally underrated – but there are worse, as well…
… which leads us to second defense of “Parental Guidance,” and that is this: Turbo contains “Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days,” which IS embarrassing, and is not only Turbo’s worst tune, it’s one of the top three worst moments in all of Priest’s canon, right alongside “You Say Yes” and the final nine songs on Ram It Down. “Everybody’s rockin’ in the summer heat,” Halford intones, in a fine vocal performance in a crap song with abysmal party-hard lyrics. Now that song… well, that one is just garbage. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
RAM IT DOWN – JOHNNY B. GOODE
This is one of the most recognizable songs not just in the annals of rock, but in the annals of music, period. Rolling Stone ranked it #7 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2010) and #1 in their 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time (2008); the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame similarly honors it as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1995). It is an aural historical and cultural landmark, brilliantly crafted and years ahead of its 1958 release. Today, musicians of all genres can still look to this song and find inspiration to become not only as great as its composer/performer, but as its protagonist, as well.
So then it remains a mystery why Judas Priest decided to take a big ol’ shit on it by including this deconstructed and reconstituted rendition on 1988’s Ram It Down, though undoubtedly the suits at Columbia Records were involved. The album was critically panned for its lack of creativity and substandard songwriting (clearly this was NOT the new sound they were looking for). One can only hope that Rob, Glenn, K.K., Ian, and Dave all had the opportunity to apologize to Chuck Berry before his passing last year. [DAVE PIRTLE]
PAINKILLER – METAL MELTDOWN
As soon as I saw this on the list I knew exactly why it was picked: the chorus. Granted, it’s not the strongest Priest chorus by a long shot, but it’s not what sells the song. The verses are fantastic, with Halford climbing the octaves for a great buildup. Sure, the payoff is a little disappointing, but damn guys, sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination. That chorus is coming, you can’t stop it. Two choices remain: run for your lives or just unabashedly sing along; it’s not hard, the vocals cleverly follow exactly what the guitars are doing. The signature Tipton/Downing trade-off solos sound like they are melting down after a few bars, you can’t tell me that wasn’t a clever use of artistic license. Seriously though, lighten up a bit and just enjoy a cheesy song! At least it’s over faster than “A Touch Of Evil.” [RYAN TYSINGER]
Where were we a little wrong? Where were we batshit insane? Chime in, and tune in tomorrow for the next phase of Priest Week.