“Perseverance and Patience”: Judas Priest Bassist Ian Hill on ’50 Heavy Metal Years,’ Anniversary Tour and Longevity

Ken SharpCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Celebrating 50 years of service on the hard rock battlefield, Judas Priest is routinely championed as one of the most important and influential heavy rock bands in music history.

Their sweaty, blue-collar Birmingham, England roots, combining hard work and intense dedication to their craft, helped them secure a spot as metal legends. Breaking internationally with the Screaming for Vengeance album, bolstered by Rob Halford’s spectacular, multi-octave vocal firepower, Judas Priest is hard rock royalty.

Recently nominated for (long overdue) induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Judas Priest just launched a global tour celebrating five decades of musical mayhem. Join us for an illuminating conversation with founding member Ian Hill for a look back at Priest’s remarkable career.

Rock Cellar: In 2022, we’re celebrating 50 Years of Judas Priest. When did you first realize that you could make a living playing rock and roll? When did it hit you that the band had broken through and no one was going to have to get a real 9-to-5 job?

Ian Hill: I don’t think it ever has. [laughs] Early on, when we started gigging at about 1971 in the local Birmingham area and as a semi-professional, you could make a very modest living just being out playing in the local area, if you know what I mean.

Judas Priest circa 1971: Ian Hill, drummer Chris “Congo” Campbell, K.K. Downing, singer Al Atkins

Then you start to get offers of work coming in from 200 miles away and things like that, on a Wednesday night. If you’ve got a nine-to-five job you obviously can’t do that, so there’s a watershed moment there. It always comes in the shape of a very attractive, lucrative chance, but a very risky one as well.

Click here to pick up Reflections: 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music on CD from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pick up Reflections: 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music on 2-LP from our Rock Cellar Store

Long story short, by the end of 1971 and 1972 we had to make a decision whether we were going to make a go of it or just keep doing what we were doing with ordinary everyday jobs and doing it in the evenings. Myself, Ken and Alan Atkins, who was the vocalist of the time, we all said, “Let’s go for it,” and the only one who didn’t was John Ellis, the drummer.

He got a decent job and he wasn’t prepared to risk it, and I’m sure he probably regretted it but nobody knew where this was going to end up.

Once we’d done that, we just got more and more determined. It took us a long time to get a record deal. It wasn’t until 1974 before we got a record deal, and it just went on from there. We were lucky enough to be able to build every time we did a new record and a new tour. We got a little bit better and a few more people showed up, a few more people bought the album right up to Screaming For Vengeance, when what these days I suppose will be called mainstream media picked up on “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” and then suddenly everything went into the stratosphere.

But for us, with Priest, we were living day-by-day and just had a lot of self-belief, a lot of dedication, and hard work. We were pretty sure we could make a go of it.

Rock Cellar: Judas Priest hails from Birmingham, England. Black Sabbath is from there, as is The Move and others. What characteristic of Birmingham do you carry with you? Any traits that you have that you think have benefited you in your life and your career?

Ian Hill: Birmingham was a very industrial area, but these days the industry has gone by and large. But back then, Birmingham was a very industrial area. Everybody pretty much was working class, and I think I brought that.

It doesn’t matter what you acquire. I think “working class” is a frame of mind, and I’ve sort of brought that with me all the way. I like to make myself available for anybody and I’m not shunning anybody. I’m basically an ordinary chap. We’re all the same as that.

Even Rob [Halford], deep down in his heart, is another working class lad, and we appreciate how lucky we were to being able to get out of it. The thing is, when you look at it back then, back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, entertainment or some sort of artistic expression was one of the few ways out of the factory scenario. You went to school and basically you were factory fodder; career officers come ’round and ask you what you want to do when you leave school.

If you said, “Oh, yeah, I think I want to be an airline pilot,” they’d laugh their heads off. What they meant was, “What factory do you want to go in?” But all that sticks with you, and thankfully we’ve done well over the years now, but you’re still the same person deep down from all those years ago, and you still appreciate what you have.

Every day I wake up and give thanks for being able to do what I do for a living.

Judas Priest’s 50 Years of Heavy Metal tour:

March 7 – West Valley City, UT Maverik Center
March 9 – Everett, WA Angel of the Winds Arena
March 10 – Portland, OR Moda Center
March 12 – Oakland, CA Fox Theater
March 13 – Las Vegas, NV Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood
March 15 – Los Angeles, CA The Shrine
March 16 – Phoenix, AZ Arizona Federal Theater
March 18 – Irving, TX The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory
March 20 – Cedar Park, TX H–E–B Center at Cedar Park
March 21 – San Antonio, TX Freeman Coliseum
March 23 – Nashville, TN Nashville Municipal Auditorium
March 25 – Alpharetta, GA Ameris Bank Amphitheatre
March 27 – Charleston, WV Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center
March 29 – Philadelphia, PA The Met Philadelphia
March 30 – Newark, NJ Prudential Center
March 31 – National Harbor, MD The Theater at MGM National Harbor
April 2 – Mashantucket, CT Premier Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino
April 4 – Lowell, MA Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell
April 7 – Halifax, NS, Canada Scotiabank Centre
April 10 – Quebec City, QC Centre Videotron
April 11 – Laval, QC Place Bell
April 13 – Hamilton, ON FirstOntario Centre

Rock Cellar: Well, it’s interesting. Birmingham is the homeland of Black Sabbath, too, so two legendary hard rock/metal bands hail from your homeland. Can you characterize how coming from that environment may have played a part of framing the sound of a band like Judas Priest?

Ian Hill: Well, I think it is that. I think it’s the industrial atmosphere. I used to catch the bus to school and go to past the factory that made grenades and stuff like that, the locomotive works. There was Spring Works, coal mines, you name it. Iron foundries.

You’re not going to come out singing about flowers and birds and bees being in that sort of atmosphere. So you pick up on the heavier and occasionally darker side of things. That happened with Sabbath and ourselves and it happened with part of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and John Bonham, who came from the same sort of area. They all have that edge to the music, that heavier edge.

Rock Cellar: In your career, Judas Priest has gone through some lineup changes, but there was a long period where it was that same core lineup. What were the greatest challenges in keeping the core lineup together for so long?

Ian Hill: I think we realized at an early age that changing personnel doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere. In the small town where Ken and I are from, West Bromwich, there’s a little nucleus of musicians there that all split up into various groups, they’d stick together for about three or four months and not get anywhere.

Then it all jumbles up and they’d all form different groups of the same people, if you know what I mean. And they’re still doing it.

The thing is, people ask me all the time, “What’s the secret to Judas Priest’s longevity?” and I think it’s perseverance and patience. If you’ve got some sort of talent and you keep at it, sooner or later somebody will recognize that and you’ll start to get your just desserts. But if you’re constantly chopping and changing, nobody can get a hold of you. If you’re only going to stick together three, four, five months or whatever, and then split up, you’re fragmenting your fan base as well.

Rock Cellar: Once Priest made it big, and with it came fame and fortune and renown, how did that affect you and the other band members both in a positive and negative sense?

Ian Hill: Well, in a positive sense, we got to eat every day. [laughs] But in a negative sense, obviously, anybody that doesn’t have a great deal and you give them a load of money, the first thing you do is you go and start buying stuff you really don’t need. [laughs]

We all did that, we bought big cars, boats, planes, all kinds of things. But that that wears off in time, though. You see it for what it is and that it doesn’t help you or your character or your situation, really. They’re just symbols of wealth, so those are the pluses and minuses.

The plus side, of course, is you’re socially secure with a bit of luck anyway and you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. You can possibly give your kids a leg up here and there and help them out.

Rock Cellar: In 1979, Judas Priest landed a big break by opening for KISS on their Dynasty tour. What do you recall about that?

Ian Hill: That was a great opportunity. I don’t know how the hell we got on it, I really don’t know. But we jumped at it. We went through a sort of apprenticeship.

When British bands came to America, the first time you came over you were playing bars and clubs and things like that. The second time, you might be picked up as a third act with a bigger band. The third time, maybe you’re a special guest on some big bills, and then the fourth time, maybe you’re playing your own theater shows to 2,000 or 3,000 people. And of course, we ended up on the KISS tour in 1979 and that was a big opportunity for the band.

We were suddenly playing in front of tens of thousands of people every night and certainly your profile goes through the roof. I think Priest did appeal to a lot of KISS’s audience and it helped out. It helped us tremendously in getting our name around, and that’s the major thing. Then it’s up to your record company and your agent to make sure that these people know next time you’re coming into town.

But opening sows for KISS was a great opportunity. It was a great tour as well. KISS were a bunch of good lads, as well, and we still run into them from time to time on the road and get to have a chat with them and reminisce.

Rock Cellar: 37 years ago, Judas Priest took part in the massive global concert event, Live Aid. You and Black Sabbath were the among the few hard rock bands on the bill. What do you recall about Live Aid?

Ian Hill: I think we were in the studio at Compass Point recording the Turbo album and then this phone call came in from Bob Geldof’s people, who were putting this show together to help the people of Ethiopia. And we said, “Yeah, we’ll help if we can.” So we got on a plane and flew our backline in and went to Philadelphia.

Once we got there, we set it up and played and we went back the next day, back in the studio. It was sort of a whirlwind.

There was a brilliant vibe at Live Aid. It was an incredible atmosphere there, like a carnival atmosphere. Everybody’s there, not just to put themselves across, but they were there trying to help poor people elsewhere in the world, and it was a great vibe.

The whole thing from start to finish was a whirlwind; like I say, in and out, but it was a great vibe and it was well worth doing.

Rock Cellar: Since we’re celebrating 50 years of Priest history. Looking back, is there a particular album and era of the band’s history that deserves a greater appreciation?

Ian Hill: I think probably Defenders of the Faith. It was about as far as we could have took that particular route because we always try and improve and get better with every album, trying things new. And I think that was about the pinnacle of that direction. It didn’t sell as many copies as Screaming for Vengeance but it does deserve greater recognition.

Of course, after that, it was the experimental Turbo album, which met with mixed reviews. Some people loved it, some people hated it.

We lost fans and we gained fans. And then after that, we were off on a harder edge with Ram It Down and Painkiller. The other two albums that don’t get mentioned much as well are Jugulator and Demolition, and there’s some good material on there.

It’s just a pity those albums didn’t sell as well as they should have.

Rock Cellar: There was such a great explosion of hard rock bands in the ’70s, everyone from Priest to Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy to Aerosmith, KISS to Humble Pie. What do you think led to that explosion?

Ian Hill: It was something different from pop music. You always had your mainstream pop, even if it’s Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. There’s always been poppy, Top 40-type of acts — and there are some great ones there — but it’s all very commercial. All those years ago when I started listening to music, it’s when I started to listen to bands like John Mayall and Cream and Hendrix, because there was more going on musically.

There was more going on musically, rather than lyrically. I think that’s a big difference, not just with heavy metal, but heavy rock or anything other than than pop music, it’s more involved. You’ve got to think a little bit more about it.

It’s something where you can’t put it on at work and just have it in the background. You’ve got to listen to it and get more involved. I think it’s more music-based than vocal-based and I think that’s the difference. You know, people wanted something other than pop music.

People ask, “Is heavy metal dead?” and of course it’s not dead. If you take heavy metal away, what are you going to replace it with? You’re still going to need that other type of music, which is why it will stay around forever.

Rock Cellar: Looking back, what was the toughest track for the band to nail in the recording studio?

Ian Hill: Well, it was not so much in the early days because we had a pretty small budget anyway. You had a finite amount of time to get everything right, and you’d let things go.

You know, “I think I can do something different there,” but there’s always something else to do and you’ve got to move on to the next one so you let it go and all five of us have done that over the years in the early days. But when the budget gets a bit larger and you can spend more time or as much time as you like … these days, you can spend days sometimes putting together just a few minutes of a song, but then again, you’ve got the budget to do it.

You can tinker with the songs and you can continue to play with it and change it — and in the end there’s no relation to what you started with.

Rock Cellar: So what was the toughest, most challenging one to nail in the studio?

Ian Hill: Good question. Some of the more epic songs like “One Shot at Glory,” things like that. There’s a lot of light and shade in there, and you can’t really do it all in one go. There’s so many layers to put on and not all of it works, so you end up liking one bit and continuing to have to work on it. It’s the production pieces and epic numbers that take the most time.

Rock Cellar: Do you think the songs Judas Priest are most known by are the songs that are the band’s best?

Ian Hill: The catchiest and most commercial songs, those get played and get your music across to people that wouldn’t [otherwise] put in to see you live. But if you can get it on some AM station or some mainstream radio station or whatever, you’re going to get across to a lot of people so it is extremely important because those people might buy your new album or one of the older albums and you get them into the music in general.

It’s a commercial side of things, and it is really just as important as the heavier side as well. You always wish that people would listen to the more involved songs, but those tend to be five or six minutes long — but those never get played on the mainstream radio stations.

Rock Cellar: The Rock and Roll Hall Fame has nominated Judas Priest. What would it mean to the band to be inducted?

Ian Hill: It would give me a great sense of pride for Priest to be inducted. If we go in there, it’s always great be recognized by your peers. But on the other hand, it’s not something we strive for ourselves.

It’s not one of those things where we’re thinking, “If we keep on doing this we’ll get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” That’s not what it’s about. When you do get recognized by your peers, it’s always nice. It’s my great honor.

On the other hand, if we don’t get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that’s okay too, because the main people that you need to keep happy, of course, are your fans.

Rock Cellar: Talk about the legion of Priest fans, many who have been with the band since the beginning.

Ian Hill: We were never a fad. When you’re a fad, you’re in fashion one minute and the next you’re not and when people drop you, they drop you totally.

We’ve never been trendy, we’ve never been that commercial. Our fans appreciate us keeping ourselves on the same straight-nosed path.

If you’re into football, you’re gonna follow your favorite football team. You might follow a basketball team as well, but that will be secondary. You might move to another town but you will always follow the first football team you’ve ever followed. You know what I mean? That sort of thing doesn’t mean to say you don’t like any other kind of sports or whatever, but you just prefer the one, and our fans have been incredible and so loyal.

I’ve been really lucky over the years. We’ve changed directions slightly ever and again and the fans have stuck with us, and we do appreciate the support … and their tolerance.

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