Lifelong Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill discusses his band’s legacy
Iconic British heavy metal band Judas Priest has set the bar high throughout its five-decade career. The initial incarnation of the band was formed in 1969 in West Bromwich, England by first vocalist Al Atkins and various other members who never panned out. However, when bassist Ian Hill and guitarist Ken K.K. Downing joined forces with Atkins, they officially became Judas Priest in 1970.
After adding vocalist Rob Halford in 1973 and second guitarist Glenn Tipton the following year, the band’s main core has survived a rotating cast of drummers up until 1990’s Painkiller album, which introduced current powerhouse skinsman Scott Travis. After Downing left the band in 2011, former Lauren Harris (daughter of Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris) guitarist Richie Faulkner came aboard. Meanwhile Tipton, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, has kept a low profile on the touring front, with Firepower producer and former Sabbat and Hell guitarist Andy Sneap has filling in admirably.
Judas Priest’s third U.S. leg of its Firepower tour with fellow British icons Uriah Heep as openers, kicked off on May 3 in Hollywood, Fla. and is hitting spots that the band didn’t get to on its previous tours. On its last two legs, the band unveiled a few hidden gems such as “Saints in Hell” and “Killing Machine” into its setlist, which the former had never been played live before. This time around, Priest is switching up the setlist with some other jewels from their arsenal of fist-pumping metal anthems.
“It’s going to be a fresh experience for everyone,” Hill told Rock and Roll Globe. “We’ve been around twice already, so we’ve got to shake it up a little bit. There’s going to be three new songs from the new album that we haven’t played before. There’s going to be a lot of old stuff that we haven’t played before. Obviously, the fan favorites are going to be there, we can’t drop those. I’m really looking forward to this tour, it’s going to be great.”
On Priest’s 1974 debut album, Rocka Rolla, the band were still developing into the style and sound as we know it today. The band’s early influences were littered with the Blues, especially what was coming out of the UK during the early ’60s with acts such as The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Cream and Fleetwood Mac, among others.
“Initially, we were influenced by the blues,” Hill admitted. “John Mayall was like the leader really, and he had a lot of musicians go through the Blues Breakers, including Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. We were all influenced to some degree or another by the blues.”
Speaking of Peter Green, Priest’s Fleetwood Mac cover of “Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)” was an odd surprise for a metal band to cover, but they made it their own song, which soon became a concert staple, even appearing Priest’s Unleashed in the East live album.
“I think it might have been CBS who came up with that one,” Hill said. “We signed with CBS in ’76, someone there, it was probably their favorite song or something like that. I don’t remember exactly how it came to pass, but we really worked it. So, it sounded more like us and not so much Fleetwood Mac. It went down a storm with the fans. We still play it now from time to time, it’s a staple in the setlist.”
The band’s additional cover version of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” which appeared on its Sin after Sin album, proved that Priest developed a knack for making cover songs sound as their own. Initially thought to be from a suggestion by producer and Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, it was actually a suggestion from the record company Gull Records, according to Hill.
With 18 full-length albums in the vast Priest catalog, I was interested in knowing which is Hill’s favorite recording.
“My personal favorite is probably Defenders of the Faith,” he admitted. “It was sort of the end of that run, if you know what I mean. Everything sort of gelled with British Steel and then from there, right away we just kept on progressing. A step forward and a step forward until we got to Defenders of the Faith, and that was the right direction we were going at the time. Of course after that it was the more experimental Turbo album, and then from there we went into the harder stuff, Ram it Down and Painkiller.”
Speaking of the adrenaline-fueled 1990 Painkiller album, Hill’s recollections of writing and recording this iconic album stirs up great memories, even though it was the last one before Halford left the band for several years before returning in 2005.
“We really enjoyed doing that,” he said. “Heavy metal was changing in those years, it was starting to fragment. Suddenly there was a death metal band, there was a speed metal band, there was a groovy band, there was a goth metal band… Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s all they did. That was their thing, to move in that one direction, where we were not. I think Rob was into the more grunge stuff, which is why he wanted to go off and do his own stuff for a while. But when we went in to do Painkiller, in turn, it was a great album. The material was strong. We got a great new drummer, Scott Travis, it was the first album he was on which allowed us to do a hell of a lot more pacey stuff. Dave Holland was a great drummer, but he couldn’t play the sort of stuff that Scott was. We were all enthusiastic and we had a great time.”
Watch for Priest’s official 50th anniversary in 2020.
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