In another timeline, Rob Halford and Judas Priest would be wrapping up the Midwestern leg of their 50th anniversary tour, but thanks to the pandemic, Halford is at home in Phoenix, learning how to conduct a remote book tour for his memoir, Confess. So much of Halford's story has been told over the years, particularly his (barely) closeted, leather-clad heyday with Priest, his exit from the band in the early '90s, his public revelation of his sexuality in 1998, and his reclamation of his place in Judas Priest in the mid-2000s. Confess digs deeper into all of these turning points, and provides useful context including his early work in the world of theater, the experiences that helped him discover his sexual identity, and his perspective on the arc of Priest's career.
Halford spoke with AllMusic in the midst of a scorching Arizona heat wave ("it's my vampire month...very heavy metal") to elaborate on many of the tales from his book, including working backwards from a classic song title, the book that helped him get a glimpse of the gay underground before he was ready to enter it himself, and how deliberately he worked to rejoin Judas Priest in the 2000s. Confess is out now on Hachette Books.
AllMusic: One of your first jobs was working at a local theater, how do you think that influenced your idea of what live performance could or should be?
Rob Halford: When you're a kid at that age, you're soaking life up like a sponge and just taking everything in. It was an incredible opportunity, to work in entertainment and be involved night after night with so much variety and texture and all the incredible displays, the production and the variety from opera to ballet, and I'm sure it was on the brain.
So when I became a professional musician, especially with Priest, and we were looking for opportunities to do something more than just stand there with instruments, that's what I tapped into. In those formative years, especially as a teenager, you're just trying to make sense of life and what's going on around you, but some things stay with you forever, and that would be the case with my time at the theater.
AllMusic: You write about being a white album guy, what about that record got under your skin?
Halford: I just sensed a kind of maturity in that music, for me as a Beatles fan. The big record for me was Sgt. Pepper, but the white album was very serious, the Beatles were becoming very serious musicians and were dealing with a lot of issues with their lives, and that was being reflected in their music. So the white album is one that really took hold of me, and showed me how musicians grow, like you look at Priest with Rocka Rolla and then Firepower, there's a vast expanse between the two.
AllMusic: And later you say that 'Painkiller' was Priest's 'Sgt. Pepper.'
Halford: I've always felt that the Painkiller record was a really sheer, determined effort on our part to make something that was very cohesive from beginning to end, and relentless, to a great degree, the momentum was full on. Even on "A Touch of Evil" [the album's midtempo outlier], it's still a strong message.
AllMusic: Decades later, the band still doesn't have the rights to its first two albums. Is that an ongoing struggle, or did you make peace with it at some point?
Halford: Yeah, we're not the first band that went through that type of situation, but it's unfortunate. Those first two records, regardless of how you perceive them, are an important part to the life of Priest, and we've tried so hard to reclaim them. I think there was a bit of spitefulness, from my perception, when I think of all the ways we tried to be English gentlemen, both parties, to an extent, through our lawyers, and there was just this attitude that kept coming back to us.
Eventually you have to let it go, because the important thing is that you can listen to any of those songs, from Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings of Destiny, there they are, on the internet. They may not be of a quality that I particularly enjoy myself, but they're there, so the music is free. The music will always be free, if you see what I mean by that, but the business logistics sometimes banged up against each other, and it's unfortunate, because those are important records. The first record that any band makes is a statement, and sometimes it takes two or three before you figure out who you are and what you're trying to do, and I think with us, we were focused by the time we did Sad Wings of Destiny.
AllMusic: You write about how the introduction of punk was seen as a threat not just to the prog world, but also to the metal scene. Did punk actually make you nervous?
Halford: To me, punk was two ideas: the music and the kind of social position that they tried to expand upon. Some of the punk bands got into it to be rich and famous, like the Sex Pistols, who made a lot of fun out of it, they were very smart. But as far as some of the great bands that came out at that time, like the Stranglers and the Clash, it was great, it was a very volatile, explosive, flash in the pan, crash and burn, rock and roll experience. Some wonderful bands survived, with great sounds and great songs, and it served a good purpose in that respect, because it definitely shook up rock and roll for the short time that it was alive.
AllMusic: One of the key parts of exploring your sexual identity was when you bought Bob Damron's Address Book [a list of gay bars and hangouts]. But you say you never actually used the information in the book until much later; what did you get out of just having the book without using it?
Halford: It brings up so many thoughts and emotions in my mind. I'd be touring with Priest, and as we'd pull into a town, I'd look at the book and sometimes see the street that a certain club or a bar was on, and realize that I was so near and yet so far away from being able to make that connection. The angst of that was really, really strong, and we talk about that quite deeply in the book, because it needs to be talked about, the closeted identity that so many men and women have, where people are afraid to step out and be who they are.
Those parts of my life run quite strongly through the book, to the moment where I come out on MTV. And I think it's important for those who haven't been on that journey, it's of interest and it's informative, and it shows the mental torture that some people have to go through before they can come out. Maybe someone will read this book and say, "That's me." As far as the idea of where this book may go and the good that it could do, that's just a little bit of a beautiful extra dimension that I'm looking forward to, because it will come back to me, everything comes back to me through social media.
AllMusic: I rewatched the clip of you coming out on MTV, and although you say you hadn't planned on it, you seem very composed during the interview. Even if you didn't expect to come out in that moment, had you rehearsed it in your mind for when the day eventually came?
Halford: I remember feeling very comfortable. That was during the 2wo experience, so maybe I did it because I was wearing a disguise. Maybe if I'd been sitting there in my leather outfit with my biker's cap and my handcuffs and whips and chains, maybe I wouldn't have said that. But because of how I looked and the music that I was making at the time, and it was very much part of my identity, so maybe I felt safe, maybe there was a comfort in that disguise, I don't know. But things happen for a reason, and it did, and nothing but good came out of it.
AllMusic: You mention working backwards with the title "Hell Bent for Leather" and making a song out of it. Was that something you did regularly?
Halford: We did it with "Worth Fighting For" on the Angel of Retribution album, "Bring it On" from Redeemer of Souls. Or a phrase like "No Surrender," that's been around forever. But I take out a thesaurus, that's my go-to book when I'm writing, and sometimes something pops out at you as you're perusing the pages. It's great if you can find a phrase that's already in language, so maybe not "hell bent for leather." I was surprised when I first came to America and heard the phrase "Judas Priest," it was kind of a famous crime drama show that was on TV where someone said, "Oh, Judas Priest…" and I said, "Oh, that's us." "You've Got Another Thing Coming," that's just a wonderful one, what have you got coming, what could it be? You never know where the next one may come from.
AllMusic: When you felt like you were ready to rejoin Priest, you made the solo album 'Resurrection,' which in a lot of ways followed the footsteps that Bruce Dickinson took to rejoin Iron Maiden a few years earlier. Was your intention with that record really that canny, to make the album as an overture to your old band?
Halford: I felt that the way it communicated back to Priest was the best way I could make that yearning desire to return back to the fold. It would be untrue to say it's 1,000 percent the reason I made that record, but as it was coming together, I definitely felt that this is the music I'm surrounding myself in, that I'm burying myself in, as a heavy metal vocalist, this is very, very close to where I need to be, with this band that I'm not in right now, Judas Priest, so I'm pretty sure that that record was a catalyst. Just like the letter [Halford wrote a letter to the band expressing his interest in rejoining], and we can't find the letter, it's somewhere, but I think those two pieces made the key that went into the lock that opened the door for me to get back into Judas Priest.
AllMusic: Towards the end of the book you acknowledge your age and how your voice has changed, and you seem to have a healthy attitude about it. But when you first noticed your voice changing, was that upsetting?
Halford: It's frustrating, because it's not like a guitar player, where if you still have the dexterity in your fingers, you can play those notes as long as you want. But as a singer, it's a different experience, particularly if you're an extreme singer, such as myself. I'm glad it's been recorded, because I was able to hit some notes on certain songs that I have difficulty reaching now, but I embrace it. I don't know how my voice will sound next year, a little bit up the road, and any singer will tell you that you have to use it every day to keep it working and in shape, it's like leaving a car in the garage for a year and expecting it to fire up right away.
But I'm encouraged by the band, and particularly this last experience with Andy Sneap. If you whip this old leather dog enough, he can squeak some high notes still. A lot of it is there, and it's wonderful, I enjoy it. It's a mixture of frustration, but also there are times where it's great and I can get to the place that I'm trying to get to. I'd imagine that other singers who take their work extremely seriously can relate to that.