Painkiller – How The Greatest Judas Priest Album Was Crafted

My project

Judas Priest had a drummer problem. When they’d first hired Dave Holland way back in 1979, they were impressed by his directness and simplicity, his no-frills heavy metal drumming. That worked well for a time, but almost a decade later, it was beginning to chafe, as the band sought to expand their musical range, and started to find that very same simplicity a limitation. What would be their answer – and how would it lift the band to new heights? Carry on reading to find out.

Robot Replacement

Long story short – when it came time to record their 11th studio album, ‘Ram it Down’, a solution was found to said drummer problem in the shape of a drum machine. Poor Holland was unimpressed at being usurped by a robot. He did very little drumming on the album, and the pent-up frustrations had not diminished by the time the band started their tour in support of the album. In New York, things came to a head when Holland claimed that back pain would mean he was unable to perform that night. The others managed to talk him round, but the die was cast.

After the gig, the pent up emotions came tumbling out – he was fed up with road life, pissed off with the band for their drum machine shenanigans, and had especially choice words for guitarist Glenn Tipton, who he saw as the main instigator of the drum machine plot in the first place. He agreed to finish the tour, but after that, he quit the band for good.

One Door Closes…

If the band were upset by this sudden schism after a decade together, they didn’t let it get them down for too long. After all, they now had a vacancy for a drummer, and could recruit one with a better range of abilities than Holland. And, they already had the perfect candidate in mind. Already a drummer in a band, Racer X, Scott Travis was also a big Judas Priest fan, and had a long-held ambition to play for them – so much so that when they played a gig near his home in Virginia, he set up his drums in the car park, and played an impromptu set for Priest when their bus pulled in, later leaving a demo tape with the crew.

At the time, there was no vacancy, but now that situation had changed. Priest called him over to their base in Spain where he was offered the gig. There was never any issue with his ability – his high-octane double bass playing was exactly the kind of new driving force they were after. The only doubts that were raised were whether it was thought acceptable to hire an American drummer into a British heavy metal band. But they were soon put to one side.

Death Camps 1 and 2

Making his first trip outside of the US for the Spain audition, Travis did encounter certain cultural issues, such as the fact that the Spanish base had no local fast-food joints or convenience stores. Come to that, nor did the studio in Southern France where Priest next decamped to start the recording. The locations were duly nicknamed Death Camps 1 and 2 as a result. But the remote locations were chosen deliberately to ensure that no distractions would be felt. Like many heavy metal bands of a certain vintage in 1990, Priest could see the world changing around them.  The 80s were gone, Grunge was galloping onto the scene, and everyone had to ask themselves, ‘What Next?’ For Judas Priest, that meant putting out maybe their ‘most metal’ album ever, cranking up intensity and power, which their new drummer would facilitate.

The plan worked perfectly – the writing, recording and mixing all came together to create ‘Painkiller’ – probably the culmination of all Priest’s earlier recording efforts. There may have been the odd snag, like when singer Rob Halford dislocated an elbow falling off his bike in Amsterdam where the album was being mixed. But musically it was close to note perfect.

Classic Metal Hawk has already dissected the title track in a Song Blog – check that out here. But there are plenty of other highlights, so The Hawk will share a few of his own favourites. There’s the relentless riffing and bass drums, along with the chorus hook on ‘Leather Rebel’.

Gay Anthem!

The spooky imagery of ‘Night Crawler’ – especially the spoken / acoustic interlude in the middle. The whole of ‘Between the Hammer and The Anvil’ – great intro, top lyrics, just an overall really strong composition. So-called Gay Anthem ‘A Touch of Evil’ gets high marks – especially for the fact that nobody seemed to realize at the time.

The video even has a bare-chested dream boat shovelling coal into a furnace, FFS.  Then it all finished super strong with ‘One Shot at Glory’ – a good versus evil battle hymn in the time-honoured Judas Priest tradition.

An Unexpected Journey

Then came a major snag. Priest were sued over allegations that subliminal messages on a previous album had led to the suicides of 2 young men in the US. You can read the full story of that on another Classic Metal Hawk blog, but the release of ‘Painkiller’ and the tour had to wait until those legal proceedings had been completed – a process of several months.

The case was eventually decided in Judas Priest’s favour, though, and the album came out to rapturous reviews from critics and fans alike. Rehearsals kicked off for the tour, starting, conveniently, in Canada. Halford heard a TV interview with Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell – Pantera being a little known up-and-coming band at the time. Pantera also happened to be in Canada for a gig, so Halford went along, and was blown away – here was another band trying to reshape heavy metal for the 90s. The support act for the European leg of the Priest tour was providentially provided.

Back on the Road

Performing the intense songs from ‘Painkiller’ for their fans was cathartic for the band after all their legal difficulties, with Travis’s drumming bringing a whole new dimension to the band’s live sound, just as he had in the studio. It was at this point that Halford gave in to his advancing age, and shaved off his thinning hair altogether. His new skinhead / tattoos look was born.

The tour took in Rock in Rio, which also happened to be Priest’s first ever trip to South America. As per normal, the bands were trapped in their hotels because of the masses of screaming fans camped outside, but Priest were champing at the bit to play – second on the bill on their night to Guns ‘n’ Roses.

There was a lengthy standoff at one point when Guns ‘n’ Roses tried to prevent Halford making his trademark motorcycle entrance onto the stage. Axl Rose being a dick again? We’re not sure what the exact objection was, but everything was resolved and the Harley Davidson made its usual noisy way to the stage to kick off a triumphant gig. Back in Europe, they were duly joined by Pantera, quite an unknown quantity, but another big success.

Out Cold

The tour was eventually extended as Priest were invited to join the ‘Operation: Rock & Roll’ tour back in North America, a set of tribute shows to Gulf War veterans. The band pondered long and hard – they were tired after a long tour, and generally unenthusiastic about continuing, but reluctantly agreed to join anyway. It would prove a bad decision. Ticket sales were generally underwhelming, and it all culminated in a disaster in Toronto.

As usual, Halford was to roar onto the stage at the start of the opening number on a motorbike. But on this occasion, his transport from dressing room to stage was running late. Rushing to fire up the motorbike, he opened the throttle and rode at speed into a zero visibility mix of dry ice and smoke – and then directly into a section of stage that had not yet been raised as planned, which hit him on the head and knocked himself out cold. (Remember kids – always wear a crash helmet!!) Later on, after an ambulance ride to hospital, he was diagnosed with a broken nose and sprained neck that would require weeks-long immobilization in a brace.

Between the black-out and the ambulance ride, he miraculously managed to finish the show – god knows how, but the level of commitment and professionalism takes some beating. Waiting for the ambulance in Priest’s dressing room after the show, though, Halford had to sit through yet another row between the band’s ‘old married couple’, guitarists Glenn Tipton and KK Downing – something that had been all too commonplace as the tour had progressed.

New Beginnings

So in spite of the overall success of the tour, especially the bit prior to Operation: Rock and Roll, Halford was ready to get home for a breather. He staggered back to his home in Phoenix, Arizona to recuperate only to find that his long-time romantic partner had walked out on him.

The combination of that abandonment, his injuries and the ongoing tensions within the band left Halford in a bad place mentally, and he resolved to do something new. A solo project. It would be another momentous decision, and one that would see Halford involuntarily out in the out in the cold from Priest for 12 years long years.

According to chaos theory, the butterfly effect means that when a butterfly flutters its wings, it may lead to a tornado somewhere distant in space and time. And in this case, the butterfly was flapping away madly.

That’s a story for another blog (right here on Classic Metal Hawk, naturally), but just as Dave Holland’s dissatisfaction with the band one tour earlier ultimately led to the triumph of Painkiller, Halford’s desire to dip his toe in new waters musically would have similarly dramatic consequences.

But none of that detracts from the quality of ‘Painkiller’ – still an all time great work in the Classic Heavy Metal pantheon. They’d taken their shot at glory with the album and hit the bullseye.

Let’s hear some takes on the Scott Travis situation. Worthy addition or usurper? And comment on your own favourite tracks from ‘Painkiller’ – The Hawk had a hard time picking the ‘best’ examples for the blog.

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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