Judas Priest ready to rock MGM National Harbor

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Judas Priest at MGM National Harbor (Part 1)

Their hard-charging riffs pioneered the heavy metal genre for countless bands to follow.

On Thursday, Judas Priest’s “50 Heavy Metal Years Tour” hits MGM National Harbor.

“It was delayed for two years, it’s now 52 coming onto 53 years, but we’re determined to get through it, pandemic or not,” founding bass player Ian Hill told WTOP. “We’re back to doing it now, even if it’s a couple years later — better late than never!”

Expect to hear a mix of new songs and the band’s greatest hits.

“We like to put a cross section in,” Hill said. “There’s fan favorites that you can’t drop that we all love to play and love to listen to, but we like to throw a curveball in here and there. There’s something off the first album, ‘Rocka Rolla,’ we’re opening with ‘One Shot at Glory’ from ‘Painkiller,’ that’s something we’re never played before, so a mixture of old and new.”

Born in West Bromwich, England in 1951, Hill learned music from his father.

“My dad played double bass in jazz bands,” Hill said. “I got the gene from him, but I wasn’t interested in playing really. My dad unfortunately died at [age] 46 when I was only 15. He had just started teaching me the rudiments of the double bass. That knocked the wind out of my sails for a while, then I started listening to the contemporary music: Cream, Hendrix.”

He still thinks of his late father every time he picks up the guitar.

“He’d love what became of Judas Priest,” Hill said. “I don’t think he’d like [the music], but he’d love the success. … He’s looking down on us with a big smile. … I come from a pretty musical family. My dad’s sister had four boys, all of which are musicians … [but] I’m the only person that ever made a go of it. I was the only one that took it more seriously.”

He began playing with future bandmate K.K. Downing in 1969.

“We were only 16 or 17,” Hill said. “We were just picking the notes out and keeping the beats together. There was a rehearsal facility in the local area and Al Atkins, who was the vocalist in the original Judas Priest, there was one before us that only lasted a few months, he walked past our rehearsal room, liked what he heard … and the rest is history.”

Who came up with the Biblical irony to name the band Judas Priest?

“Brian Stapenhill, the bass player with the first Judas Priest, he thought of it,” Hill said. “I think he got it off a Bob Dylan song called ‘[The Ballad of Frankie Lee and] Judas Priest.’ … I’m not a Dylan fan, so I don’t really know. … When I joined the band, I said, ‘Should we call it Judas Priest?’ It already had a bit of a name in the area — and we agreed on it.”

Soon, Atkis was replaced by now-iconic lead singer Rob Halford.

“We were doing alright … earning a very modest living gigging here and there,” Hill said. “Al’s wife got pregnant and based on what we were earning at the time, it wouldn’t have covered [raising a kid], so he had to leave and go get a job. I was dating Rob’s sister, Sue, who I subsequently married. … Sue said, ‘Why don’t you try my brother?'”

Judas Priest recorded their first two albums, “Rocka Rolla” (1974) and “Sad Wings of Destiny” (1976), under the independent label Gull with extremely low budgets.

“Heavy metal didn’t exist; we were what they’d say was heavy rock,” Hill said. “The first album was done at night because the studio time was cheaper! We slept in a van outside and cleaned ourselves up in the bathrooms in the studios and recorded throughout the night. That’s how we made the first album. The second one wasn’t much different.”

They next signed with CBS Records to release “Sin After Sin” (1977), “Stained Class” (1978) and “Killing Machine” (1978), all three of which went gold and charted in the U.K.

“When CBS signed us, there was a bit more of cash,” Hill said. “We could record during the day and afford to stay in a modest hotel. … The first time you went to America, you were No. 1 on the bill. The second time you might have moved up a notch. Then the third time, you’re playing your own small gigs and special guests on large ones [like] Kiss in ’79.”

Ultimately, it was their sixth album “British Steel” (1980) that became a worldwide hit.

“Everything gelled with ‘British Steel,'” Hill said. “It was called heavy metal then. That’s when not just the music, but the image and attitude and the rest that went with it all sort of came together with ‘British Steel.’ It was the basis for what came afterwards, basically.”

The album featured the defiant hit single “Breaking the Law.”

“It’s a sign of the times, a guy couldn’t get [a] job, down and out, no money, and his only way out was to go rob banks,” Hill said. “It was the single, a comparatively commercial song, ‘radio-friendly’ they’d call it these days. … We did a video with [Director] Julien Temple at the helm, which is a classic in itself. … It did a lot to further the band’s cause.”

The same album featured another hit with “Living After Midnight.”

“It speaks to everybody,” Hill said. “You get out of work on a Friday night, you’re not going to go home, put your slippers on and watch TV, are you? You’re going to be down at the bar having fun! … We were doing this at Ringo Starr’s old house, a big Georgian mansion [at] Starland Studios. It used to belong to John Lennon, but he [gave] it to Ringo.”

In fact, the band was there the night John Lennon was killed.

“When John Lennon was killed,” Hill said. “Remember the song ‘Imagine’ and the video he did? The video was John sitting at a grand piano in a house and Yoko was walking around opening these curtains. We were sitting in that room when the news came through! They played the video and we thought, ‘Sh*t, this is the room!’ … It was a spooky, spooky time.”

In 1982, they found another hit with “You Got Another Thing Coming.”

“We had finished the album and were just a few minutes short,” Hill said. “That was thrown together in a few hours and it was down in a day. It was just one of those songs that was magical really, the way it all came together. This was the one that really broke us in the states. They played the hell out of it! People were going to work listening to it on the radio.”

In 1989, the Grammys finally invented a heavy metal category in leading to nominations for “Painkiller” (1991), “Bullet Train” (1997), “Visions” (2009) and “Nostradamus” (2009) before finally winning the Grammy for “Dissident Aggressor” (2010).

“Very few metal bands were getting Grammys anyway,” Hill said. “When these things come along it’s very flattering because it means you’re being recognized by your peers, but it never registered until we were actually nominated. ‘Oh, Grammys! That’ll be nice.’ Just to be nominated is a great honor, but to actually win one, that came out of the blue.”

The band is currently nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They find out in May.

Will this finally be the year they get inducted?

“It could be,” Hill said. “It’s something we haven’t really thought about. It’ll be nice. When you’re recognized by your peers, it’s always an honor, but it’s not something you lose sleep over necessarily if it doesn’t happen. It would be great if it happened, but the people you really need to keep happy are your fans, without whom none of us would be here anyway.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Judas Priest at MGM National Harbor (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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