TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Rob Halford of Judas Priest

Rob Halford is a legend in the world of metal music. He is the lead vocalist of heavy metal group Judas Priest. He recently released an autobiography called Confess. In it, he shares some truly incredible stories: like the time he handcuffed himself to Andy Warhol or when he explained heavy-metal to Queen Elizabeth. We’re revisiting our interview with Rob from 2009. In this conversation Rob Halford reflects on the legacy of Judas Priest. Plus, coming to terms with his queer identity and his coming out within the metal community. We also talked about holiday music. When Rob joined us he had just released the heavy metal holiday record – Halford III – Winter Songs. If you’re looking for more alternative holiday tunes check out Celestial by Rob Halford with Family & Friends from last year.

Guests: Rob Halford

Transcript

music

Gentle, trilling music with a steady drumbeat plays under the dialogue.

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

music

“Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team.

jesse thorn

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. If you have a computer in front of you, do me a favor. Go to Wikipedia and search for the term “metal god”. Like, the god of heavy metal. As soon as you hit enter, you will not be transported to the page of Ozzie Osborne, not the page of Lenny or Eddie Van Halen. There is only one true metal god. At least, according to the crowd edited website, Wikipedia. That metal god is Rob Halford: lead singer of Judas Priest and my guest, this week. I don’t know if we need much more of an introduction than that, actually. We’re listening back to my 2009 conversation with Rob, because back then Rob had just released his first ever heavy metal holiday record. He called it Halford III: Winter Songs. Since then, he has released another holiday album! Last year’s Celestial. And he has a new book—Confess: the Autobiography. It tells the story of Halford’s life from the man himself. It came out just a few months ago. Before we go into the interview, let’s kick things off with a certified Rob Halford, metal god holiday classic: his take on “We Three Kings”.

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“We Three Kings” from the album Halford III: Winter Songs by Rob Halford. We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts, we traverse afar Field and fountain, moor and mountain Following yonder star [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue, then fades out.]

jesse

You were born in 1951, which means that when you were finishing high school and, you know, you were in your late teens it was as heavy rock music was emerging from early rock and psychedelic rock. What was the music that you heard that made you think, “I like rock and I want it to be loud and hard”?

rob halford

Well, actually, Jesse, it was even before that, because I can remember my aunt Pat giving me an old record player that she wanted to get rid of and it was still in pretty good working order. So, I think I was probably—what? 10 or 11? When she gave me this record player. And I lifted the lid and there was a bunch of 45s in singles, in the deck. And it was Little Richard, Bill Haley & the Comets, and Elvis Presley. And I played them all back to back. And even at that age, at that moment, it was, “My god, this is it. This is it. This is me. This is electric. This is contacting me in such a—such a strong, personal way. You know, something’s going on here! Why’s it making me feel this way?” I just felt alive! And felt genuinely excited and so, even from that point before—as I grew, you know, slightly beyond my teenage years, it was already in my system. So, yeah! You know, obviously Hendrix, the Yardbirds, Cream, King Crimson, early Led Zeppelin, early Deep Purple, the Who. All of these people were the ones that I was listening to.

jesse

The first couple of albums that Judas Priest made didn’t have any huge hits on them and it must have been a—it must have been a bit of a struggle to continue to be working as a musician. Did you feel confident that this was going to become something?

rob

Yes. I think self-belief is absolutely vital, no matter what you do in life. Self-belief. Doesn’t matter what you’re gonna do, you’ve gotta have that—you’ve got to have that inner drive, you know? And particularly in the entertainment business. And I say that rather than the heavy metal business or the rock and roll business, because it is—that’s what we do. You know? There are so many pitfalls and there are so many days where, “Is it worth it? I’m gonna give up. This is crazy. I’m not getting anywhere,” that really puts you through, again, that kind of apprenticeship period of, “Look, if this means so much to you, you will do anything that you need to do. You will go through whatever you need to go through.” And particularly in my role as Judas Priest. We did all of that. We did the sleeping in the back of the van. We did the barely having enough food for one meal a day type of deal. You know. KK scrubbing his teeth in the snow, in Scandinavia, is not a story made up. It’s a real thing! You know. And the first record that we made—Rocka Rolla, it was called—our first label, we went to them and asked them for—I think it was, like, $20 a week each to survive, because if we didn’t have that, we’d have to have second sources of income. And they turned us down flat! So, right through the early part of the band’s career—and Priest, especially—we were doing multiple jobs, you know, just to pay the bills and put some food in your stomach. But most of it went into equipment, obviously. New strings, new drum skins, a new mic, whatever it was. You have to—you have to really figure that out. You really have to figure this out right at the early stage. The thing is, what happens there is your early music is probably sometimes the—your best music, because you’ve got nothing to lose. You’ve got nothing to lose. You’re not famous. You know, you haven’t got a gold record. Haven’t got a platinum record. You’re not playing in front of thousands of people. So, your creativity is coming from a very pure source. So, now, you know, in my 38th, 39th year of being a professional musician, I look back at those early days with a lot of fond memories.

jesse

You came out in the early ‘90s. When and to what extent were you out as gay to your friends and your family and the—and the people that you were working with, in Judas Priest?

rob

Well, with family it was never discussed. It still isn’t discussed, now. [They chuckle.] And I’ve—me and my partner have been together 15 years. You know, it’s like [laughing] the elephant in the living room type of deal. I love my family dearly and they respect me as much as I respect them. And that, at the end of the day, is the issue, isn’t it? It’s respect. Respect each other for who we are. We’re all different. Different sexual orientation, different religion, different colors of the skin, different jobs, different social strata. It doesn’t really matter, if the respect is there, you know, we can get through a lot of things in life. But with me, you know, being a metalhead, being in a—in a—in a—in an essentially—and to some extent still essentially homophobic realm, in music, it was difficult. But again, you learn to deal with it. What I was doing, for the longest time, was putting a lot of things before myself. And when I went through my drug and rehab thing, in 1986—I’ve been clean and sober since 1986—I was taught, “You’ve gotta put your own house in order first.” You’ve got to really—it’s not being selfish. You’ve gotta get yourself kind of figured out and then everything else will not necessarily fall into place around you, but at least you can take care of other things. But look after your own needs first. And I thought, “That’s—is that the right way to live?” But it is. It’s the only way you can remain sane and sensible. And in the—and in the end, connect and be helpful and useful to other people when you need to. So, I struggled with all that, through many, many years until the moment came when very—you know, un-preplanned, I mentioned that, “Speaking as a gay man, yadda, yadda, yadda.” I was on MTV. And the, you know, the producer drops his clipboard and he’s like, “Did he just say that?!” You know. And then it was like a firestorm around the world. What we all found very, very quickly was that, in the metal community, it’s nothing more than the greatest place to be in terms of respect and tolerance and compassion and understanding. And I’m probably—it’s probably easy for me to say that, because I’d already reached a level of success. So—I also found out that a lot of people were going, “Yeah, we knew that anyway.” But I didn’t know that. I mean, it’s one of hose, you know, you can’t see the wood for the trees type of deal.

rob

I need to backtrack slightly and address that statement about homophobic metalheads. That’s not entirely true. That’s not painting the whole picture. I think there’s a small portion, as in all walks of life, where you have that level of intolerance and bigotry and sometimes it’s curable. Sometimes it’s not. For me, it was acceptance, and it was just a wonderful feeling. Everybody in the band, in Priest, knew. You know. I knew that my family and all my close friends knew. I get—because it was, you know, “Well, he—has he got a girlfriend? He did have a girlfriend. Well, da-da-dada.” You know, and the second guessing and innuendo. What you do when you set yourself free is just that. You set yourself free when you step out of the closet. It’s not for everybody. Not everybody can do it. Some people never do. Some people prefer to live the way they live and, you know, again respect is the word. But if you can, if you—if you—if you’re able, I always urge people to consider that moment, because it’s the greatest feeling in the world: all the whispering behind your back, you take the ammunition away from people. You become a stronger person and that’s what it’s all about. And I’m assuming that a lot of young people listening to me talk right now—and I know that in my life, as a teenager, I was going through absolute hell trying to come to issues with my sexuality. And it’s still a—it’s still a problem, now, even in today’s enlightened world. And the self-help groups and all the places you can talk this type of issue through, it’s a horrible thing to try and come to terms with. But you’ve gotta come to terms with it. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not a freak. You’re not weird. You’re perfectly normal. You’re okay. That’s just the way it’s turned out to be. It’s not a choice of lifestyle, as opposed to what the extreme right will say. “We can change you; we can cure you.” Forget it. That’s rubbish. You know. You are who you are. Be proud of who you are and step forward.

jesse

You know, I was thinking—as you were—as you were saying that, about, you know, the spirit of so much of metal and especially so much of Judas Priest is about… uh, is about this kind of outrageous, 11 out of 10, self-expression and, you know, vanquishing foes. [Rob agrees several times.] And freedom. It must have been very difficult to present yourself in that way, while—as a god of that—while you were struggling with those issues yourself.

rob

Maybe that’s why I put some of that—you know, this is like Jesse Dr. Phil here. [Jesse laughs.] Because maybe that’s where it was. Because, you know, I’m the primary lyric writer for Priest, obviously, and all my solo activities. All of my lyrics are full of optimism. All of my lyrics are full of that confrontational situation. I believe the good will always win—will always win over evil. I believe that. I think that’s the way of the world. And I use that. I use a lot of, you know, metaphors and kind of smokescreens and little bit of ambiguity in my lyrics, but you know, when I’m talking about with Painkiller, you can put that up against anything: dictatorship, you know, bigotry, war. You know. Anything where you can overcome difficulty. So, maybe that’s what I was doing, in all those years. I mean, I kind of sidetracked in the Turbo record. You know. And went a little bit more lightweight, so to speak.  But I still think that was messages about evil, in terms of fantasy and escapism and rock and roll. But the bulk of my lyrics have always had kind of a serious content to them. And fortunately, being in a metal band, I was able to utilize those messages in the lyrics in the right way.

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Rob Halford. He’s best known as the front man of the legendary metal band, Judas Priest. Here’s one of their signature hits: “Hell Bent for Leather”.

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“Hell Bent for Leather” from the album Killing Machine by Judas Priest. Hell bent, hell bent for leather Black as night, faster than a shadow Crimson flare from a raging sun An exhibition, sheer precision Yet no one knows from where he comes Fools! Self-destruct cannot take that crown Dreams! Crash one by one to the ground Hell bent, hell bent for leather [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue, then fades out.]

jesse

Starting in the late ‘70s, with one of your signature hits, “Hell Bent for Leather”, you started wearing essentially—I don’t know, like, [chuckling] basically—something between biker clothes and S&M clothes. And doing things like, you know, riding in on a motorcycle and all these—all these crazy things. When did you first start thinking, like, “You know what would be great for this band? Like, if we just went to the bondage store and just bought some crazy stuff.”

rob

[Laughs.] Well, that’s it. In those days, that was the only way you could get that kind of gear, yeah. Mr. S, in London. I think he’s still there, actually. Um, but if you look on the YouTube and put in Judas Priest Japan 1970-something, you’ll see a very different looking band. We didn’t really establish that particular—the correct look. [Jesse laughs.] Until probably, um, Sad Wings? No, Sin After Sin? Stained Glass? There’s—the song you mentioned, Jesse, “Hell Bent for Leather”, which is a great song and actually it was Glen that wrote the lyrics to those—that particular tune. “A glint of steel and a flash of light,” you know. Again, it’s a very assertive, macho type of song. And I remember us talking about, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool—this is a biker song. Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring a bike onstage?” And I remember wherever we were at, we asked someone, “Is there anybody here who rides a bike?” And somebody did and we said, “Hey. We’ll give you five quid, you know, ten bucks if we can—you know, use the bike onstage.” And that’s how it all started. And now, of course, that’s become kind of part of tradition and the heritage of the band. And so, suddenly, heavy metal music—the sound, the power, the dynamic, the aggression. All of the great aesthetics of metal. I had a look. So, now when you see somebody walking down the street, they’re not going to be decked out like we are onstage. But if you see somebody and you go, “There’s a metalhead.” You know, the attributes with the studded belts and the chains or whatever—the wristbands—that’s your—that was your colors, so to speak.

jesse

Were you aware, in the early ‘80s, of the kind of—the kind of odd irony of the fact that this was the—that this was the metal costume? [Rob agrees with a laugh.] But it was also like a gay subculture costume?

rob

Yeah! You see, that’s just me! I mean—I mean, again, I kind of think that’s cool. [Jesse giggles.] There’s something about me—I don’t know whether it’s the inner child or the inner stupidity, but you know—or the naivety, but that never even crossed my mind. And I was walking out onstage with this—you know, a Village People type of vibe going and I thought it was extremely funny. Extremely funny. It’s bittersweet when you think of the torment I was going through, mentally. But yeah. And I’m kind of—I’m kind of glad, really. I mean, in essence, I mean I’m not a—I’m not a—I’m not into that kind of scene, of my particular world. Again, respect. It just doesn’t appeal to me. But it is ironic that there’s a correlation there and people were going, “Come on, Robbie. We knew all the time. You didn’t have to tell us.” [They laugh.]

jesse

You were really hiding in plain sight!

rob

Yeah, hiding in plain sight. Exactly.

jesse

What was the—looking back, the most kind of ridiculous, amazing, delightful, you know, Spinal Tap moment that you had in your presentation?

rob

Well, again, you know. Again, it’s something that’s kind of tinged with sadness, because—here’s the deal, it’s the ultimate Spinal Tap moment. We were on the Painkiller tour. We were coming to the end of the tour. Remember, this is 1991. We’d just come off the back of that very, very difficult Reno trial. Prior to that, the band had been working pretty much nonstop for 30 years. Uh, without a break.

jesse

I should interject here that you’re referring to—you had been, uh, sued in civil court by the parents of two children who had committed suicide and the suggestion was that it was your subliminal messages in your music that had driven them to suicide.

rob

Exactly. And of course, that was complete and utter rubbish, and it was an extremely difficult time to go through. We were in a court in Reno for a month. And we faced these accusers and basically told them that firstly, you should take—you should take responsibility for your kids. And I think that’s what parents should do. And I mean, I know it’s difficult. But you should still be—take responsibility for your kids until they’re old enough, you know, to leave the nest. The kids were out of control. Drugs and booze. The only thing that they loved was their metal. They loved Judas Priest. That’s the irony of that particular situation. They were hardcore Priest fans. But they got messed up with booze and drugs, you know.

jesse

So, you’re coming off of this really difficult period.

rob

Coming off of that, you know. But we held back the release of Painkiller, but now it was time to release it. We released it. We had an incredibly successful tour all around the world and I think the last show was at—in Toronto. And we were playing in one of these baseball fields that, you know, doubles up as a—as an outside venue. Loads of people. 30,000 people, whatever. The stage was in the middle of the baseball field. The dressing rooms were obviously, you know, where the dugouts are. That type of deal. So, we—to get from that location to the stage, we had to get a golf cart. The lights go down. The fans start going crazy. We jump in the golf cart and we’re all going off in different directions. [They chuckle.] For a start off. That’s Spinal Tap. Some of us are going North, some of us going South. We eventually somehow get to the stage, while the intro tape is running. I dash up, get onto my Harley Davidson, which is under the drum riser, at a cue in the intro tape these pneumatic steps come up underneath the drum riser and I’m able to roar out on the Harley. Everything was going to plan until suddenly somebody yelled, “We can’t find KK, we can’t find him. We gotta stop and start again.” Well, that’s what we were attempting to do, but nobody told me this. So, I roared out on the bike. The guy that operates the stairs was bringing them back down, so I just belted into the bottom seat—bottom set of stairs, rather. I don’t know how many miles an hour. Knocked myself—doubled back, you know, gymnastics, Beijing. [Chuckling.] Landed on my back underneath all this smoke and dry ice. The bike’s fallen to one side, almost on top of me. And I’m practically—I’m literally knocked out. Everything’s a blur. Everything’s whoosh—zooming in and out for about a minute or so. Then I feel Glen kicking me trying to find where Rob is. And that was and still will be the only time that “Hell Bent for Leather” was an instrumental, ‘cause it had no vocals on. So, there it is! That’s—that—I mean, how more Spinal Tap can you get than that? You know.

jesse

We should say, too, that you were knocked unconscious, but you finished the show!

rob

Yeah! I did. I—well, you know. The show must go on, as Freddie Mercury used to say.

jesse

Even more with Rob Halford still to come. We haven’t even talked about his holiday recordings! Stick around. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

music

Upbeat, synth heavy music.

jesse

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jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Rob Halford, fronts the band Judas Priest and has a number of solo records. His latest, 2019’s Celestial, gives Halford’s take on holiday classics. Like, for example, “Joy to the World”.

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“Joy to the World” from the album Celestial by Rob Halford. Joy to the world The Lord has come Let Earth receive her King Let every heart prepare Him room And heaven… [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue, then fades out.]

jesse

Rob, we’ve talked a lot about things that are really super metal—like riding motorcycles and wearing outrageous outfits and rocking out and stuff like that. [Rob agrees with a chuckle.] On—probably towards the bottom of that list is “Christmas”. [They laugh.] So—

rob

Well, actually, it’s on the top of my list right now. Thank you.

jesse

[Laughs.] But I think the question needs to be asked. Um. W-w-what led you to think, “I should make a metal Christmas album”?

rob

Because I’m the metal god and I can do what I damn well want. [They laugh.] I sometimes feel that way. You know. Um. I was talking to Jason Bonham the other day. We did a charity show in Los Angeles for the Midnight Mission, I think it’s called. It was me, Jason, Slash, Steve from Toto. Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Toni White on bass, Ed Roth on drums. On the keyboards. It was like a supergroup. And Jason and I were talking afterwards, and we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men, quite frankly. [They laugh.] And that—I thought—I said, “Jason! Just listen to us talk, bro.” You know, this is—this is Jason Bonham, the son of the late, great, Bonzo Bonham—the drummer from Led Zeppelin. One of the greatest bands of all time. And so, we just got a little bit sidetracked and then we said, you know, how cool it is that we can do what we do and that we can really pick and choose where we wanna go in our—in our career. And so, that’s where I feel I have the great luxury, these days, to be able to do that. I’m able to look at where I’ve been and look at the opportunities that still have the sense of adventure attached to them. And so, it—that’s what it is with me. Right now, with Halford III, the first solo from the Halford band in about seven years. It’s a Christmas record, yeah. It’s ten tracks. Six of them quite famous, traditional holiday songs and four original pieces of music. And I love the season. I love the holiday season. It’s a—it means a lot to me. I’ll be there this Christmastime with my family, back in the UK. Mom and Dad and brother and sister and friends and relatives. It’ll be great.

jesse

There’s something very charming about the mix of sort of older Christmas songs—I mean, not “Let it Snow”, but like—you know, “What Child is This”—and the sort of grand scale of your music. [Rob agrees.] Was that part of—was that part of what drew you to this—to the material? To the traditional songs that you chose, particularly.

rob

Well, thank you for acknowledging that. And sometimes, again, wood for the trees. But yeah, there’s a—there’s a vast—there’s a vast dynamic canyon between “O Holy Night”, which is this gigantic opus with crushing guitars and keyboards and drums and big, massive [inaudible] to that really delicate “What Child is This”. And it was like pick and choose. “We’ll, we’re not gonna do ‘Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman’.” That would have been ridiculous. What we wanted to make—we wanted to make a pretty serious record, quite frankly. I mean, you know, I carry a lot of things with me. It’s not baggage, it’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s what I represent. And I wasn’t gonna let the team down by going, you know, completely off the—off the planet, whatever. And so, um… those particular ones that I covered—“O Holy Night”, “Come All You Faithful”, “We Three Kings”—they’re beautiful songs. They’re great songs. A good song will always take interpretation and adaptation. So, you’re able to put your own kind of impression and your own signature whatever you wanna call it onto the piece. And it was—it took a—took a bit of a time to figure out where we were—where we were gonna go in covering those beautiful, beautiful tracks. And then the other—the other tracks, the originals, were kind of spontaneous pieces that came together just because it was such an inspiring recording session. But this is me. You know. It’s the metal god for the holiday season. And there it is.

jesse

Rob Halford. If you feel like getting into the holiday spirit, both of his holiday albums are a ton of fun. [Music fades in.] They’re called Winter Songs and Celestial. Let’s go out on one more tune from Halford. A classic Judas Priest cover of the Joan Baez hit, “Diamonds and Rust”.

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“Diamonds and Rust” by Judas Priest. I'll be damned, here comes your ghost again But that's not unusual It's just that the moon is full And you decided to call And here I sit, hand on the telephone Hearing the voice I'd known A couple of light years ago Headed straight for a fall [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue.]

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is created out of the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California—where, after much consideration, I decided to buy a French door fridge even though it does not fit into my cabinet. I’m gonna have to move a bunch of stuff around and there will not be a waterline to the French door fridge, but a family of five deserves space to store their yogurts. The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. No relation to ASAP Ferg. Jesus Ambrosio and Jordan Kauwling are our associate producers. We get help from Casey O’Brien and Kristen Bennett. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song comes from the band The Go! Team. Thank to them and their label, Memphis Industries, for sharing it. Now is a great time, of course, to buy any kind of music to support musicians who can’t tour. But The Go! Team are a particularly wonderful act that we hope you will run out and buy some records from. If you wanna hear the latest about what we are up to, you can keep up with the show on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We post our interviews there. And I think that’s it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

music

[Volume increases.] And at keeping things vague [Volume decreases and continues under the dialogue.]

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR.

music

[Volume increases.] … yes, I love you dearly And if you're offering me diamonds and rust, I've already paid Oh, we both know what memories can bring… [Music fades out.]

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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