This year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has once again nominated heavy-metal pioneers Judas Priest for induction. The fact that the group has been eligible for 22 years now and isn’t yet in the Hall after three times on the ballot doesn’t sit well with Kerry King, the former Slayer guitarist, who has been a massive Priest fan since high school.
“Some years, you hear who got in the Rock Hall and you’re like, ‘Well, how did they get in above these other bands?’” he says. “So it seems basically like a popularity contest rather than, ‘Do they deserve to get in there?’ Because Judas Priest deserve to be in there. They’ve had a 50-year career — longer than Slayer did, and we had a long-ass career — and they’re still playing when they’re all healthy. So they’ve got longevity on their side. They were a darling of MTV, when MTV came out. And I probably couldn’t count all the hits — or what the common person would call hits.”
When Slayer formed in 1981, King and his bandmates bonded by playing Priest covers — “Breaking the Law” and their favorite deep cuts. By that point, Judas Priest were becoming superstars; they had streamlined and revved up the weighty riffs of Black Sabbath to create their own brand of metal and codified the look of the genre by wearing black leather and riding motorcycles onstage. When thrash metal reached its commercial peak in the late Eighties, Slayer dug deep into Priest’s catalog and recorded a cover of the propulsive “Dissident Aggressor” off the band’s 1977 album, Sin After Sin.
With Rock Hall fan voting open through April 29, King spoke to Rolling Stone about how Judas Priest shaped him, their influence on metal as a whole, and why this ought to be the year they get in.
I must have first heard Judas Priest on the radio. I was a very sheltered 16-year-old, and I didn’t have an older brother or somebody that was already into music to turn me onto it. I was basically force-fed whatever my sisters would have around, and luckily they liked rock. So living in Los Angeles back when British Steel came out the radio stations, KMET or KLOS started playing “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law,” and immediately I latched onto it.
As a young guitar player, I could tell there were two guitars on the recording, and the creativity and early uniqueness of two guitars totally inspired what Slayer became. And then there was the singer, Rob Halford. To this day, he is my favorite singer. He knows it. It’s an uncomfortable thing between us, but we’re friends and he knows he’s my favorite.
Rob Halford’s stage presence, his stage persona, and his stage look were always upper echelon. His entrances at concerts were always pretty grand. On one of the tours, he would be in this basket singing “Electric Eye” that was slowly lowered to the stage from the lighting trusses. The band was always on the stage and then when Rob came out, it was just that much bigger. And his voice — he hits notes and holds notes for a duration that’s almost inhuman. It’s like Eddie Van Halen playing guitar; that’s Rob Halford singing.
After hearing them on the radio, I was on the Judas Priest bandwagon. I bought British Steel and found the real quote-unquote “metal songs” on the album — not the radio hits. And I was like, “Wow, I definitely have to do some homework on this.” So I probably bought the live album Unleashed in the East first, because that was the most recent record, and then Hell Bent for Leather and Stained Class and went backwards. Eventually I got all the stuff and realized that Priest were a metal band first that was trying to break into the U.S. marketplace by doing songs like “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law” — which aren’t bad songs, it’s just my love for Priest is from the metal aspect. Priest were like, “We’re metal and we’re pretty proud of this and we hope you guys become proud of it, too.” And that was cool to me. I think more than anybody, Priest had a hand in what the perception of metal is.
Judas Priest definitely inspired me and Jeff [Hanneman] and Slayer. If we were doing Priest covers in the beginning, he would always play the K.K. Downing guitar parts because he was the blond guy. I would always do the Glenn Tipton ones. We would do “Breaking the Law” because that’s all people knew; if you’re a cover band, you’ve got to play songs people know. But then, we would satisfy ourselves, and the most abstract one I think we ever played was “Steeler,” just totally abstract off British Steel. If you don’t play the record till the end, you’ll never hear it. But it was just a different vibe of Priest; it was a more metal vibe of Priest. We played a bunch of old stuff; we did “Hell Bent for Leather,” and anything from Stained Class. “Beyond the Realms of Death” from that album is my favorite Glenn Tipton guitar solo of all time; I just love the feel of that one. We never played them live, but I guarantee you, we played half of them at rehearsal just because we loved it.
It’s a fair statement to say there would be no Slayer without Priest. I don’t think Priest were our sole inspiration, but I think that’s a fair statement. If I had never heard the hit “Breaking the Law” on the radio, I never might have done the homework and that might not have sent me down the direction I went.
Glenn Tipton was probably my biggest inspiration as far as metal goes. I think he’s super underrated, super overlooked. Just go to the leads that he performs. Even going back into the early, early stuff on Sad Wings of Destiny, you can almost always tell that if it’s Tipton, it’s super fucking tasty. If it’s K.K., it’s a more edgy, almost punky kind of vibe, which is a great mix. But Tipton was the one for me. Like when Painkiller came out, it’s like, “Where did you go and learn how to do arpeggios since the last record? How did you do that?” But he was a dude that would always come out and just slap you in the face with something new.
One of the covers we messed around with in the old days was “Dissident Aggressor.” I always thought it was a super heavy song that maybe didn’t get the recognition it deserved. And during the South of Heaven session, Jeff and I had writer’s block for like the only time in our lives and weren’t getting enough songs together. I don’t know if Jeff said it or me — it was probably me because I was a bigger Priest fan — “Why don’t we do ‘Dissident Aggressor’?” And the funny thing about that is when we did it, it was so abstract, a lot of people thought it was our original song. It was really weird.
Around the time we recorded that, Slayer toured with Judas Priest. We played, like, 13 shows on their Ram It Down tour in 1988. That was one that was like the last remnants of hair metal for Judas Priest, after they did their Turbo album, because when that tour got announced, it was Priest with Cinderella opening and it was bombing. I just thought, “Why would you do tour with them? That’s the stupidest thing ever.” And then we got asked to pick up the last 13 shows, and that was the best thing anybody could have ever said to me at that point. It was such a stronger bill, and thrash metal was becoming something. So I’m very happy and proud they chose us because that kind of re-legitimized them to metal people.
I was such a fan on that tour. I couldn’t talk to any of them. I was just a fanboy. And I value that because it’s OK to be a fan. It’s OK to be a fan today. I see people crazy intimidated by me and I’m like, “Take it easy. It’s fine. I’m normal. I’m a person. I’ll sign whatever you got. Let’s have a picture and move on.” Had Rob been my friend back then, I would have said, “Dude come sing ‘Dissident Aggressor’ with us.”
We didn’t actually play with them again until Ozzfest ’04 when Halford was back in the band, and that was just huge for me. And again, I couldn’t talk to them. On the last show of that Ozzfest, I had all my Priest vinyl, which I got when I was a kid, and my wife asked all the guys in Priest to sign them for me because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to be that guy. And I had some cool stuff. Rob said that: “I’ve never even seen this.”
In 1990, they put out Painkiller and that album was a fucking monster. Painkiller was an exclamation point. And then Rob bailed [in 1992]. When he left the band, they brought in a new singer, “Ripper” Owens. I don’t have anything derogatory to say about Ripper. He got thrown into a very tough situation. It’s like the dude getting thrown in after Peyton Manning or John Elway retires. It’s just an insurmountable thing you’ve got to overcome. And I think he did a great job. It’s just, those records aren’t my favorite. But the first one they did with Ripper, Jugulator, is the only one where I thought they might have been listening to some thrash — not necessarily us, but it sounded like the tables turned and Priest was being influenced by my genre, be it Slayer, Metallica, Pantera.
When Halford came back in the band, it was big for me. Most lineups in bands’ histories are best with the original singer; the few that come to mind that aren’t necessarily that are AC/DC, Maiden, and Sabbath. So to be on that Ozzfest ’04 with them was huge. Fuck, man. That tour was Sabbath, Priest, and Slayer. What the fuck else is there for a kid in Slayer? Yeah, Jesus, I’m done. Mic drop.
Priest’s most recent album, Firepower, in my eyes is definitely the best they’ve done since Painkiller. For a band that had already been in the biz 40-ish years to write an album that a true metal kid like me can say, “That’s a legit record and it’s awesome,” that’s longevity and creativity. They stayed true to what they were, but they know it’s Judas Priest and they’ve got to deliver.
The last time Slayer played, in ’19, Rob was on my side of the stage at one of the shows, and I just I just planted him there and I told all my friends, “Don’t you fuck with him. I want him to enjoy it.” And I’d go over and give him an elbow in the gut and say, “See all this fucking nonsense you inspired?”
If I were going to vote for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I would totally vote for them. Without question. First and foremost, there would be no metal without Black Sabbath. But once you get beyond that, there wouldn’t be a lot of metal bands without Judas Priest. Us being one of them.
The people who do vote are probably going to vote for the bigger bands. That says nothing for Priest’s longevity and the things they’ve done. I don’t know what else to say. If you’re not a metal fan, you’re never going to get it. If you are a metal fan, you’re never going to forget it.