By Alex Distefano
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Classic "British New Wave" heavy metal music—a genre in which Judas Priest is gospel, the easy equal and arguable better of stalwarts like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden—is too easily tagged as satanic, shrill screaming and suicide-inducing (recall the Priest's court date to disprove accusations of subliminal messages in their Stained Class LP). Not true: blame a classist backlash by the then (early to mid-1970s) entrenched and frightened British cultural aristocracy unwilling to admit the imperative cultural vitality of a movement composed largely of (superficially) rough blue-collar youth—because in truth, Priest and its peers were intensely sophisticated proponents of the popularly directed total overhaul of a withering society.
The key, of course, is opera, one of the 20th century's bloodiest creative battlefields. First, consider the most effective (and politically threatening) manifestation of opera during the 20th century: that of the fearsome Italian futurists who rallied around F.T. Marinetti in 1909. They turned their anti-arias and blistering librettos into devastating psychosemiotic weaponry. Sometimes the weaponry was literal: besides performances in which they would discharge firearms indiscriminately into massed crowds, the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun(1913), concluded with an aircraft crashing into the stage.
"We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness!" Marinetti seethed. "Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed!"
Former Priest lead singer Rob Halford's stunning multi-octave vocal range was honed by years of opera training; in interviews, he has professed his admiration for Pavarotti (a sentiment he was later delighted to hear was reciprocated). Certainly, he was exposed to these dark-rebel operas in his studies, appropriating their style and sentiment for his own uses. Indeed, though Marinetti later sadly drifted into fascism and oblivion, there is an obvious Futurist edge to Priest's work. In the throbbing riffage of 1980s British Steel, we hear the "eternal, omnipresent speed"; in lyrics such as "I grow sick and tired of the same old lies/Might look a little young/So what's wrong?/You don't have to be old to be wise," we hear the ghosts of Marinetti and cohorts' appeals to "the young, who are thirsty for the new, the actual, the lively . . . to the [old], no words or ideas but a single injunction: the end!"
And of course, as Futurist disciples, the anti-modernist critique—sentiment railing against the confining dictates of the past—would inform Priest's aesthetic. The metal wing—gloriously incarnated as "the Hellion" on Priest's Screaming for Vengeance cover (1982)—is a long-recognized symbol of anti-modernist art (see Christa Dickson et al.), representing both escape/transcendence through flight by means of the very repression it seeks to thwart: simply put, using the tools of the master against themselves (no coincidence that the album opener "Electric Eye" turns on the lines "I'm made of metal/My circuits gleam/I am perpetual/I keep the country clean/There is no true escape"—a vivid portrait of modernist oppression incarnate). So Priest's alternative vision? Salvation through Satan, of course—but not the Satan you think.
The original Hebrew term (root s'tn) was a nonspecific term meaning to oppose or serve as adversary; the concept of a personified Satan as divine adversary was lifted from the Zoroastrians and incorporated into mainstream Christian theology. Classically—as in Gnostic times—Satanism refers not to those who "worship" some horned cartoon but to alternative political activists working against the establishment (more often than not the Christian Church).
Priest's flirtation with Satanism serves as a neat barometer for their social agenda. 1984's Defenders of the Faithhammered the point home with such lines as "No denyin' we're goin' against the grain/So defiant they'll never put us down/Rock with a purpose/Got a mind that won't bend/Diehard resolution/That is true to the end." Couple that with Priest's provocative name—and the idea that Judas, like Satan, has been unfairly reduced to an inaccurate symbol; see theologian William Klassen's Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?as well as Nikos Kazantzakis' subtle and often willfully misunderstood The Last Temptation of Christ, and expound from there—and we find a band dedicated absolutely to championing the individual over a strangling society.
Viewed in context, then, the supposed backmasked messages on 1978's Stained Class (notably "Do it!" and "Give us the truth!") aren't juvenile exhortations to self-injury but satanic rallying cries for revolution. And what a revolution Judas Priest helped launch, one that manifested itself not in armed battle in the streets but in global commerce in the boardrooms. "Just Do It," of course, became the marketing slogan of Nike, the worldwide athletic shoemaker whose corporate logo is the universally recognized swoosh—a stylized comet or falling star (and one must note that the initial appearance of Satan [Isaiah 14:12] is heralded by—of course—a heylel, or falling star). So was it any accident that Nike—with its dollar-per-day Vietnam mills a harbinger of the single global market that transforms not just business but also language, art, fashion, theology, our very existence—should choose the Beatles song "Revolution" for a 1987 ad campaign that heralded the true dawn of global capitalism? The collapse of the Berlin Wall? The rise to prominence of Michael Jordan? (And in Michael Jordan one receives the final answer to the baptismal question asked of those who, in Jesus' time, were dunked in the River Jordan: "Do you renounce Satan and all his works?" "No," we say as a global people brought together by Judas Priest, the second-best-selling metal band of all recorded time: "Nike products are irresistible.")
As "Do it!" becomes "Just Do It!" one hears echoes of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto: "The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate."
The "capitulation" is the end of the archaic society against which Priest has so eloquently raged ("Long ago when man was king/His heart was clean now he's stained class/Time has slashed each untouched thing/So now he's just a stained class king"), and in this capitulation, we find renewal, salvation and a worldwide eruption of the oppressed against their oppressors. To call it a revolution would not be far off—indeed, talk of revolution, and one has no choice but to talk of Judas Priest.Judas Priest performs with Anthrax at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 8 p.m. $37.50. All ages.