How could I not dig Judas Priest Stained Class, opening as it does with a great tune about me?
Racing’ cross the heavens
Straight into the dawn
Looking like a comet
Slicing through the morn
Scorching the horizon
Blazing to the land
Now he’s here amongst us
The age of fire’s at hand
With combustive dance
All shall bear the branding Of his thermal lance
Oh yes! How did they do it? I was only six in 1978 when they cut ‘Exciter’. I have a bit of an issue with Rob Halford sounding a bit shrill around this period of Priest, but the production of Dennis MacKay keeps enough bass in the mix here to keep it all grounded enough* and what we have left makes for some real, umm, exciter-ment. We get some very meaty riffs, some brilliant harmonising dual lead guitars later on and Ian Hill bass-ing** away like a crazy ass bass-beastie.
The first sound we hear on Stained Class though are the barrelling drums of Les Binks, smashing forwards at a bazillion miles an hour, they set the tone not only for ‘Exciter’ but for the whole album and they are thrilling. No wonder the man is a French plural noun, he sounds like there was at least three of him! The band almost sound too fast, it’s like watching a marathon runner sprinting away from the start like Usain Bolt, you think both ‘he’ll never keep that up’ and ‘Ooh, that’s gonna hurt’; now the latter may well have been true but the first shows just how little I know. He was a much better fit for the band than session drummer Simon Phillips on the previous LP, Binks’ sound is far more martial and harder, making the band’s sound punchier and more metallic.
Proof? just listen to the title track, it stomps and parades around, Halford hitting all the operatic highs and the guitars riffing and playing in that regimented tandem they did so well. As always with Priest there’s an element of self-parody involved, or at least I hope so for the sake of the sanity of everyone involved; I find a lot of their posturing funny anyway^. I hear a large amount of what NWOBHM became in this track, a lot of spotty youths in bedrooms as far-flung as Rochdale, Canterbury, South London and Newcastle were clearly listening to the that churning galloping riffage and taking note. I remember hearing ‘Stained Class’ on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show in the mid-80s and thinking ‘Wow, that’s proper metal’; it still is.
I will spare you the full autopsy on Stained Class, but here are some personal highlights:
- The almost Hawkwind-like opening of ‘Invader’, before it gets a bit too well-mannered.
- The line in ‘Saints in Hell’ where Rob, anticipating this blog post by 39 years, yowls ‘Abattoir, abattoir, mon dieu quelle horreur!’^^.
- The sheer menace in the riff for ‘Heroes End’^*
- The incongruous Abba-esque quality to the melody of Spooky Tooth cover ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’.
It’s difficult not to write about Judas Priest, surely the most metallophile of all the metal bands, without using words like burnished, steely and gleaming to describe their music, so I won’t. Most of Stained Class gleams like a burnished steel broadsword, there isn’t much blues flesh left on the robot by this point and you can hear the band’s excitement at the progress they’re making. Unfortunately it isn’t a flawless triumph yet (that came later), you can keep the decidedly third-rate ‘Savage’ and I know folk hail ‘Beyond the Realms of Death’ as a classic, but great guitar solo aside, it just doesn’t spark my thermal lance any.
So time to fire up les Binks again as le Priest c’est incroyable!
PS. A big thank you to my special guest star, Russell the metal hippo. British museum souvenir and all round good guy.
*I’m really not a treble fan at all.
**I believe that is the proper verb: I bass, he/she bases, we all bass.
^cf. Halford’s wonderfully camp, umm, ejaculation on ‘Exciter’ for us to ‘Fall to your knees and repent if you please’.
^^the whole track is utterly preposterous and utterly brilliant though, this verse may be my favourite non-sexy-sex Judas Priest lyric:
Fetch the scream eagles
Unleash the wild cats
Set loose the king cobras
And blood sucking bats
^*if I ever have to retire to a bungalow I’ll definitely name it after this track, Hell Yeah!