Judas Priest are an iconic Heavy Metal band who helped to transform the genre from its 60s Blues-Rock roots to the mainstream phenomenon we know today. Alongside Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, the band are widely ranked among the most influential Heavy Metal bands of all time, and with a career that’s spanned over 40 years, they’re one of the most enduring.
Judas Priest formed in the gritty industrial city of Birmingham, England, in 1971. They spent the next few years playing local shows and developing their heavy, Blues-based sound. Their debut album, Rocka Rolla, was released in 1974 and failed to make much of an impact. Over the next few years the band would change members several times and refine their sound and image. Their music grew louder, faster, and heavier as they emphasized their dual lead guitars and lead singer Rob Halford’s operatic vocal style and high-pitched screams. At the same time, the band’s image shifted from a hippie-inspired look to the spikes and leather that would become their trademark — and to many the public image of Heavy Metal itself.
Judas Priest’s fifth album, 1979's Hell Bent for Leather (titled Killing Machine in the U.K.) was their commercial breakthrough, and it’s often pointed to as a defining moment for the genre, with a great number of the Metal acts that followed taking some influence from the band’s look and sound.
A series of best-selling records followed, and the band’s popularity peaked in the early 1980s, when they become fixtures on MTV and a top concert draw, developing an unusually devoted fan base with their theatrical, special-effect-filled live shows. But by the end of the 80s, newer bands like Metallica were growing in popularity and Metal saw the rise of sub-genres like Speed Metal, Thrash and Glam-Metal, and in an attempt to stay contemporary Judas Priest adjusted their sound with mixed success.
The band made headlines in 1990, when the family of a Nevada teenager, James Vance, sued the band claiming Judas Priest were responsible for their son’s suicide attempt. The suit alleged that Vance and a friend had been influenced by subliminal messages contained in the band’s recording of “Better By You, Better Than Me." After a five-week trial that saw band members take the stand, the suit was dismissed.
In the early 90s lead singer Rob Halford quit the band and was replaced by Tim "Ripper" Owens, an American who had been the lead singer of "British Steel" a Judas Priest tribute band. The movie Rock Star, loosely based on Ripper's rags-to-riches story, was released in 2001 with Mark Wahlberg portraying Ripper. In 2003 Halford returned to the band and their popularity once again rebounded. In 2010, the band won its first Grammy, taking home the award for Best Metal Performance for the album Dissident Transgressor.