Classic Metal Hawk has already regaled you elsewhere on this blog with the bittersweet tale of the ‘Painkiller’ album and subsequent tour. How the band wrote and recorded it, jet-fuelled by their scorching new drummer Scott Travis. How they were side-tracked by the infamous legal battle over alleged backwards messages in their songs leading to the deaths by suicide of two young fans.
How, after being cleared in court, they released ‘Painkiller’ to a rapturous reception from both critics and fans alike. How they embarked on a triumphant world tour. How the ill-fated extension to the tour for Operation: Rock & Roll gigs resulted in singer Rob Halford suffering a broken nose and sprained neck after he rode his motorcycle into a stage beam. How he had to put up with increasing band tensions, especially between guitarists Glenn Tipton and KK Downing, even listening to a full-on row whilst waiting for the ambulance after the injury inducing gig. How he returned home to find his partner had walked out on him.
Now we’re going to carry on the story to cover how he then left the band by accident! Impossible, you say? Let’s hear about it.
Suffice to say that what should have been a period spent basking in glory was no such thing for Halford. He was 40, single and fed up with life. He’d had an idea to have a go at a solo project (all in Judas Priest downtime of course) and now seemed like the perfect opportunity to strike out and try something new.
According to Halford’s autobiography, ‘Confess’, the story went something like this (and Classic Metal Hawk is only giving you the bare bones here – buy the book if you want all the lurid details).
‘Taking a Break!!’
First, he bashed out a letter to Judas Priest’s management team, Jayne Andrews and Bill Curbishley, to outline his plans. It wasn’t a detailed letter – just a few scribbled lines. But also, because Halford had just thrown it out, it was somewhat ambiguous. Here’s the offending passage:
‘I think the band and I need to take a break from each other. I am going to step away and do a solo musical project.‘
Classic Metal Hawk can’t help wondering how he’d feel if he received a letter like that from a partner. Take a break from each other? Step away and do something else? Sounds like a one-way ticket to Splitsville any day of the week. So although Halford hadn’t intended to imply he was quitting Judas Priest, Curbishley got the wrong end of the stick and replied in a somewhat aggressive vein, telling him Halford he was stupid to consider leaving when the band were at such a peak of their powers.
Halford is famously a confrontation avoider – a bury-your-head-in-the-sand kind of guy whenever conflicts arise in life. So he didn’t simply pick up the phone to straighten out the misunderstanding. But he did hurriedly call a press conference, where he confirmed to fans that:
- No, he wasn’t quitting Judas Priest, and
- No, he didn’t have AIDS. (This was a period of hot gossip on that particular topic. Freddie Mercury had just revealed that he was HIV positive, and although Halford was still in the closet at the time, tongues wagged, and the gutter press waited with bated breath for the next victim.
As regards Halford’s status in Priest, the announcement seemed to calm the speculation for the time being (though he still didn’t call either his band mates or management to make sure they were now on board.) He did throw himself into the creative process of being a solo artist though, and started writing songs. He found this immensely liberating – although he’d had a great deal of latitude as a writer in Judas Priest, especially with lyrics, any band involves natural compromises. You want one thing and everyone else wants another.
No such constraints apply as a solo artist, so Halford indulged himself – on the instruments as well as the vocals. He played guitar, bass, programmed a drum machine, wrote the lyrics, everything. The result, he was determined, would truly be a 100% Rob Halford sound.
(In downtime away from writing, Halford started to indulge himself sexually as well, maybe feeling that at his age, and with Priest on a break, there was less call for total discretion. He was a regular visitor to a local Marine base before being banned for lewd behaviour. Then there was an arrest in a Venice Beach public bathroom for indecency. In the latter incident, he got lucky – one of the cops recognized him, and agreed to keep things out of the press in return for a quiet guilty plea and payment of a fine. He’d had a few hours in the lock-up, but returned home otherwise unscathed.)
Focussing again on musical matters, Halford put together a band to perform the new material he’d written – he named the band ‘Fight’ and started rehearsals. But there was a snag. Contractually, Judas Priest’s record label, Columbia had the option to release any new music he wrote but were rumoured not to be very interested in the Fight project. He’d have to write to them ‘officially’ resigning from Priest in order to be able to approach other labels – purely a technicality.
Or was it? The resignation letter was leaked, and before anyone knew it, the headlines were all over the heavy metal press – ROB HALFORD QUITS JUDAS PRIEST.
How had that happened? Had Halford really just quit Judas Priest BY ACCIDENT? It would seem that he had! And unnecessarily as it turned out. Epic Records, a cousin of the Columbia label under the CBS media behemoth were interested in Fight after all, and wanted to do a deal.
Surely now it was time at last to pick up the phone and call Glenn, KK and the others to sort things out? Nope. In the time-honoured tradition, Halford ran away from the problem, and buried his head in the sand, with the result that he was no longer a part of Judas Priest.
He was now 100% with Fight – but now the rules of the game had changed. By now they had a record on the market, but were playing gigs to 500 people if they were lucky. No more sold out 10,000 capacity arenas. Halford probably made certain that crowds would be limited by his refusal to play Judas Priest numbers at Fight gigs. That meant a lot of Priest fans stayed away, such was the clear line in the sand between the Halford’s old and new bands.
Still, being the now ex-singer of Judas Priest still offered the advantage of connections in the heavy metal business. His rolodex bought him some dates as a support act for Metallica after a call from Lars Ulrich. Metallica even invited him on stage during their own set to perform a cover of ‘Rapid Fire’ – not an option for most acts starting out.
After the tour, Halford pined for a return to Judas Priest – the band he now, belatedly recognized as his spiritual home. You really don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. But he still couldn’t bring himself to pick up the phone. Instead, it was back to Fight, with a second album, this one with a grungier feel, compared with the harder thrashy edge of the first album.
All through the ‘Fight Mark II’ process, he was trying to build the courage to reach out to his ex-bandmates in Judas Priest and after a 6-month Fight tour, he felt ready to reconnect and build bridges. But too late. After a 3-year hiatus, Priest had hired themselves a new singer!
After digesting the devastating news that his path back to Judas Priest was now closed, Halford’s heart wasn’t in the Fight project any longer, and they disbanded. The second album had crashed and burned anyway in terms of sales, and the band had just run its course. So now what? Next stop was a dabble in the electronic / industrial scene of the mid-1990s. Think Nine Inch Nails or Ministry. There was a new recording project with a new band, 2wo, and an album ‘Voyeurs’ released on Trent Reznor’s own label. Also a new image – fur coats and eye makeup instead on head-to-toe leather.
That album was another flop – sitting so far between 2 stools that neither metal fans nor techno-heads were interested. The commercial failure was overshadowed though, because in between times, Halford had used an interview on MTV to come out of the closet and announce to the whole world that he was gay. Speaking the words seemed to take Halford by surprise as much as anyone, and the bombshell had apparently not been planned. But it was certainly a weight off after all those years of hiding.
In the meantime, 2wo folded. A European tour had been a disaster with virtually no tickets sold. Sitting in a US hotel waiting to depart again, this time for a European metal festival, Halford got cold feet. The 2wo image of fur coats, eyeliner and nail art could be safely ignored by metal fans for most of the time, but at a metal festival? It could be the end of him as a serious, credible metal singer. The rest of 2wo tried to change his mind, but Halford made his feelings clear on the matter by hurling a TV remote control at the wall, where it embedded itself in the plaster, and that was that.
Back to Basics
Halford now decided to play the long game to get back his place in Judas Priest. He resolved to signal to his former band that he was, once again, a heavy metal singer pure and simple. He formed a new metal band, this time under the no-frills moniker of ‘Halford.’ The new album title – with all the tact of a sledgehammer – was to be ‘Resurrection’, and in a further act of symbolism, Bruce Dickinson, who had quit Iron Maiden but was now on the verge of re-joining, contributed a song, ‘The One You Love to Hate.’
The only missing piece was Judas Priest – and by this time, 10 long years had passed since Halford had last exchanged a word with any of them. Only a long trip down back to Priest’s roots would be enough to break the ice by this point. Halford made a trip back to Walsall, where to all began, ostensibly to attend his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. The family reunion was the main point, but he knew that fellow Walsall and Priest alumnus KK Downing would be there. They had a nice long chat over a few beers – carefully avoiding any emotional subjects, naturally – the split and / or potential reunion were firmly off conversational limits. After all, the replacement singer, Tim Owens was still in situ. But it was a start.
Halford’s new metal band was invited to support Iron Maiden in their first tour to celebrate the ‘second coming of Bruce Dickinson’. Unlike with Fight, he threw a few Judas Priest numbers into the mix. Hint hint!!
But the timing still wouldn’t work out. Judas Priest made another album with the other guy. Halford returned to the studio themselves. The second album did ok.
(In all this Halford-centric commentary, you do have to feel a bit for ‘the other guy’, Tim Owens, who felt that once Halford turned up on the Judas Priest scene again, his own contribution to the band was wiped from history. That’s show business, but must have felt bruising.)
Eventually Halford did what he should have done at least 10 years earlier. He sat down with a sheet of paper, and wrote a letter to Judas Priest, pouring his heart out. He had never wanted to leave. It had all been a terrible misunderstanding. He had missed them everyday in the meantime. Would they have him back?
The answer came back in the affirmative. The band along with managers Andrews and Curbishley got together for a meeting, and sure enough, it was as though they had never been apart. The old chemistry was still there. Conveniently, there was also an offer on the table for Judas Priest to play at Ozzfest, but only if Halford was back in the band. Stars and planets suitably aligned, Halford was back.
They duly did the Ozzfest gig, then got together for to write and record a new album. After the second coming of Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden, we now had the second coming of Halford in Judas Priest. He found that the tensions between Glenn Tipton and KK Downing that had played a role in Halford’s departure in the first place had never really been resolved, but the old line-up was back and firing musically, much to everyone’s delight.
Following Halford’s ‘accidental’ departure, it had taken 12 years to put things right, a journey taking Halford from a solo metal project with Fight, through to the weird and (not so) wonderful 2wo, through to Halford. But Judas Priest were always his one true home.
That second era didn’t quite match the heights of Painkiller from a musical point of view, but they sure had their highlights. Let’s check out one of them now from the reunion album in 2005, ‘Angel of Retribution.’ Welcome home Rob.
What did y’all make of Rob Halford’s career during his ‘in between’ years? It was certainly varied, more so than he’d first imagined, especially that 2wo interlude. As an old fashioned classic heavy metal blogger, The Hawk naturally prefers the ‘Fight’ and ‘Halford’ material – but is basically happy that Halford eventually made it back home.
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.