The impact that Rob Halford and his band Judas Priest have had on heavy metal is immeasurable. His black-leather outfits gave the genre its trademark look, his pitch-perfect vocals gave it some drama, and his penchant for riding motorcycle onstage gave it some larger-than-life flair. When Halford came out as gay in 1998, the self-proclaimed Metal God broadened his role-model status to appeal to metalheads looking to break out of the closet.
The singer has now recounted the highs and lows of his life story in his newly released memoir, Confess. He recalls several occasions where he would sing anthems like “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” to 10s of thousands of screaming “headbanging metal maniacs,” only to struggle backstage with denying his true self by hiding his sexuality. His language is vivid and personal — often lapsing into a working-class British dialect he calls “yam-yam” — and his tale is compelling. As he tells the story of Judas Priest — who made a noticeable impact on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Metal Albums, landing the number three spot with British Steel — he weaves in any number of funny, heartbreaking, and interesting tidbits about the obstacles he encountered and the many famous people he has met along the way. Here are 20 things we learned from Confess.
1. Halford feels like he hit his lyrical stride on Sin After Sin.
Although Judas Priest had put out two albums already by the time of 1977’s Sin After Sin — including ’76’s Sad Wings of Destiny, which contains Halford’s vocal showpiece “Victim of Changes” — the singer thought he could have done better. So for Sin, he consulted his Roget’s Thesaurus and settled on many of the lyrical themes that would define Priest’s music. “I was pleased with my lyrics on Sin After Sin,” he wrote, “as I honed my natural style of tackling psychological and philosophical traumas, apocalyptic tales of gods, devils, and warriors fighting epic battles, in which good — and heavy-metal! — always vanquishes evil.”
2. That album’s “Raw Deal” was his coming out, but only one fan noticed.
In 1977, straight rock fans took for granted the tune’s lyrics about “steely leather guys … fooling with the denim dudes” and a reference to the popular gay New York getaway of Fire Island. “I thought it was completely overt and obvious, a bald statement of my sexual need for ‘heavy bodies ducking, stealing, eager for some action,’” he wrote. But nobody noticed until 1981, when a fan asked him to sign a copy of Sin After Sin and asked, “Is that song, ‘Raw Deal,’ on this record about gay guys?” He ended up starting a relationship with the fan.
3. Rob Halford embraced Judas Priest’s black-leather look even if he wasn’t exactly into what it stood for.
The singer credits former Priest guitarist K.K. Downing with the idea of the band dressing in black leather in 1978. But while the look fit into the gay culture Halford so longed to join, leather wasn’t his bag. “I had no interest in S&M, domination, or the whole queer subcult of leather and chains,” he wrote. “My sexual preference was for men, sure, but I was — and still am — pretty vanilla.”
4. He got away with things onstage in the Seventies that nobody would dare attempt anymore.
In addition to brandishing a bullwhip onstage (inspiring his management to sell “I’ve Been Whipped by Rob Halford” merch), he took to firing a machine gun filled with blanks at the audience during “Genocide.”
5. He loved hanging around Gene Simmons but not because he was a Kiss fan.
When Kiss specially requested Judas Priest to open for them in the late Seventies, Halford couldn’t keep his eyes off Gene Simmons’ girlfriend. “It thrilled me that Gene was dating Cher, who is a very big deal for gay guys,” he recalled. “I kept concocting feeble excuses to hang around near her just so I could say, ‘Hi!’”
6. He once handcuffed himself to Andy Warhol.
At a record-industry party at New York’s Mudd Club in the late Seventies, Halford noticed a “small, older guy with peroxide-white hair” taking photos of him. He quickly recognized Warhol and said hello. Small talk went nowhere — Warhol just said, “Oh, really,” to everything Halford said — so the singer removed the handcuffs he had hanging from his studded belt. He attached one to Warhol and one to him and told the artist he had lost the key. “Oh, really?” Warhol said. He laughed, undid the cuffs, and they went to Studio 54 where Warhol disappeared in the throngs.
7. Angus Young is a lightweight drinker.
When Judas Priest opened for AC/DC on a 1979 tour, Priest’s penchant for leaving venues as soon as they were done playing led Angus Young to think Halford and Co. didn’t like them, so he invited the band on their bus. Halford was surprised to find that Young hardly drank. “It’s because if I have one drink, I’m off my tits,” the guitarist explained. “I didn’t know if he was joking, but then one night I witnessed it and saw that he wasn’t,” Halford wrote. “He had literally one glass of champagne and was utterly legless within seconds. He changed before my eyes.”
8. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had matching lovers’ toilet seats.
Judas Priest worked on their breakthrough album, British Steel, at the former Beatle’s former estate at Tittenhurst Park, featured in Lennon’s Imagine film. By then, Ringo Starr owned the place, but it was still filled with relics of the Lennon era, including two toilets that were side by side with nameplates that read “John” and “Yoko.” “I tried to imagine them sitting side by side, holding hands, having a poo,” Halford wrote. “Truly, sometimes love knows no bounds.”
9. “Living After Midnight” started with a complaint.
One night, Halford was trying to get some shuteye when the piercing sound of Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton’s guitar wrenched him from his sleep at 4 a.m. “What are you bloody doing, Glenn?” Halford bellowed. “You’re living after midnight down here, you are!” They stopped, smiled at each other, and Tipton said, “That is a fucking great title for a song!” They wrote what would become one of Priest’s signature numbers the next day.
10. “Breaking the Law” was a rare political statement.
Halford considers himself “apolitical,” but the dawn of Thatcherism inspired him to write Priest’s biggest hit. He was seeing the auto industry in the Midlands, the area of England where he had grown up, collapse, unemployment was rising, and factories were closing. “Writing ‘Breaking the Law,’ I tried to put myself in the mind of a jobless young bloke at his wits’ end,” Halford wrote. “I saw a lot of disenfranchisement and anger and anarchy around me, and I wanted to document and reflect it.”
11. Halford once made a pass at Iron Maiden’s singer.
When Maiden opened for Priest in 1980, Halford got drunk with singer Paul Di’Anno one night and the liquid confidence almost led him astray. “I tried to seduce him!” Halford wrote. “We went to my room to carry on drinking, but I was too pissed to try anything, and he was too pissed to even know what I wanted to try. I think that was definitely for the best.”
12. Freddie Mercury’s style rubbed Halford the wrong way.
When Halford spotted the Queen singer, who he considers a hero, at a gay bar in Mykonos in the summer of 1980, he wasn’t as excited as he thought he’d be. Queen had just put out the Elvis-inspired “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and in the video, Mercury rode a motorcycle and dressed in black leather. “Was he ripping me off?” Halford wondered. Moreover, the Priest frontman was miffed to read an interview with Mercury where he said he didn’t like heavy metal. “It sounds preposterous now … but those things were on my mind when I clocked him,” Halford wrote.
13. The Spinal Tap actors never broke character while recording with Hear ‘n Aid.
When Ronnie James Dio decided that a supergroup of metal musicians should record their own charity single — “Stars,” credited to Hear ‘n Aid — similar to Bob Geldof’s Band Aid, he invited Priest, Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, and many others. The trio that everyone wanted to meet though, was the fictional heavy metal band, whose David St. Hubbins (actor Michael McKean) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) were present. “The Spinal Tap guys stayed in character 24/7, whether the cameras were rolling or not,” Halford recalls of Hear ‘n Aid. “‘Hey man, you’re in Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, right?’ they said to me and [Maiden guitarist] Adrian Smith. ‘You wouldn’t be here if not for Tap. You owe us everything!’ They were hilarious, and I lapped it up.”
14. Judas Priest recorded a few unreleased songs with Kylie Minogue’s songwriters in the Eighties.
Halford describes himself as “a pop tart” and around the time Priest recorded 1988’s Ram It Down, he convinced the guys to work with the songwriting team of Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW). The British trio had written a string of Number One U.K. hits by that point, including Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky.” SAW talked Priest into covering the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” and two originals, “I Will Return” and “Runaround.” Although Halford was happy with the results, the band decided to shelve the songs indefinitely. “Will we ever put the full session out?” Halford posits in the book. “I honestly don’t know. But I still love what we did and that we did it.”
15. Not all of Rob Halford’s concert ideas made it past backstage.
When the singer suggested using a bullwhip and riding a motorcycle onstage to his bandmates, they encouraged him to do so. That was not the case in 1990 when Halford tried to jump on a trend ahead of the Painkiller tour. “Rollerblading was making a big comeback, and I headed into the nearest town and bought a pair,” he wrote. “Soon, I was rollerblading around the stage and singing, as we got the tour production and set list together. ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be a great idea if I rollerbladed during the shows?’ I suggested. … The reaction from the rest of the band was unanimous: ‘No, it would bloody not be a good idea for you to rollerblade on tour, Rob!’ So that was that.”
16. Halford has a theory about why so many of his relationships didn’t work out.
Much of Confess chronicles the singer’s offstage yearning for love, which was difficult since he had to remain in the closet for most of the band’s career. He had had a few relationships with men but was often disappointed to find out that they sometimes cheated on him with women. He eventually came to the realization that many of the men he was with were straight. “I’m sure people reading Confess will think, ‘Oh, he was bisexual!’” Halford wrote of one named Brad. “But gut instinct tells me Brad was a straight guy who made an exception for me.”
17. Jimmy Iovine wanted Halford to make a real porno.
After Halford quit Judas Priest and eventually started an industrial project called 2wo, he signed to Trent Reznor’s Nothing imprint, which was associated with Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope label. Halford suggested making a controversial video for the lead single, “I Am a Pig,” and pitched Iovine on a pornographic clip. “Fucking awesome!” was Iovine’s reply, but the exec was bemused when he saw the clip, directed by drag queen Chi Chi LaRue. “We shot a super-dramatic, high camp, erotic mini-movie, all pouts, licks, rippling torsos, and grinding,” Halford wrote. “It was homoerotic. … Jimmy Iovine hated it. ‘That’s not porn!’ he told me angrily when he saw it. … ‘I wanted it to be banned!’”
18. Korn inspired Halford to start using a teleprompter.
When Halford reunited with Priest in 2003, he found himself forgetting some of the lyrics, an occurrence he chalks up to years of alcohol abuse. Even though he was sober, it was still difficult to remember it all. “Then I went to see Korn — a great band — and noticed [frontman] Jonathan Davis squinting at a screen once or twice during the show,” Halford wrote. Backstage, Davis extolled the virtues of the autocue to Halford. “It’s great!” Davis told him. “I’ve got so many Korn songs to remember. If I forgot a few words, it’s a safety net!” In the book, Halford figures, “If it was good enough for Korn, it was good enough for me.”
19. He once gave Queen Elizabeth a heavy-metal education.
In 2005, Her Majesty threw a reception in honor of British music and Halford received an invitation. When he finally met her, she asked what type of music he played. “Heavy metal, Your Majesty,” Halford said. “Why does it have to be so loud?” she asked him. “It’s so that we can bang our heads, Your Majesty!” he replied and reports in Confess, “The Queen smiled, regally.”
20. Before Johnny Depp was famous, he was a Rob Halford stan.
Halford met Depp backstage at an event Alice Cooper threw in 2018. When they got to talking, Depp asked the singer, “Do you remember the Treehouse days?” The Treehouse was a club that Halford would show up at in Fort Lauderdale when Judas Priest were mixing 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance. Halford would go there, drink, and sing Priest songs with a cover band. Halford asked Depp how he’d known about that, and the actor said, “I had heard you used to go down and jam on Priest songs, so I’d go down in case you turned up. You always did!” Halford told him that he didn’t remember him. “You wouldn’t,” Depp said. “I was just a long-haired skinny punk back then, in a band that was going nowhere, but I remember you.” Halford wrote that he was “absolutely gob smacked.”