|Day 107: Judas Priest (Breaking The Law)
August 11, 2020
I am not going to stumble into too many heavy metal songs in this 365 artists in 365 songs series. I know when I might really make a fool of myself. I know when I might really get beat up, literally or figuratively.
However, I will dip my toe in with today's nod to Judas Priest. One of the reasons I never got into heavy metal is that in the 70's, heavy metal songs musically seemed so thunderously ponderous and lyrically so dramatically shocking. I suppose my miniscule knowledge was based on limited exposure to Black Sabbath, the unrelenting drone of "War Pigs," the nasally twang of Ozzy Osbourne's voice throughout "Iron Man." However, as the 70's ended, bands like Judas Priest and AC/DC seemed to understand what heavy metal could do with a heavy dose of pop sensibility. Was it a crime? Who cares? "You Shook Me All Night Long" made AC/DC a lot of money, and shouldn't it have?
Judas Priest stood out for me because they seemed to have taken a punk attitude, applying it to heavy metal. However, I might not even have know that if not for the fact that "Breaking the Law" was included on one of the CBS Exposed compilations, which put them in among such other heavy metal breakthrough artists as . . ., well, Tommy Tutone, Adam And The Ants, Ellen Foley, and The Romantics. How did these guys, already established for about 6 years, end up with "Breaking The Law" on the same compilation as Rosanne Cash's "What Kinda Girl?"
Well, first off, the lyrics could stand side by side with the punks and many of the "we-started-as-punks-but-now-we-are-trying-to-be-new-wave," bands like The Boomtown Rats. When Rob Halford sings
"There I was completely wasted/out of work and down/
all inside it's so frustrating as I drift from town to town/
feel as though no one will care if I live or die/
so I might as well put some action in my life,"
he frankly sounded more genuine than Bob Geldof, of The Boomtown Rats, did on the song directly preceding "Breaking The Law" on Exposed. Geldof's take on the "economic loser" is much more passive, even if focused on a different age group:
"you got the money but who needs the tension/
and fear's no cheaper on an old age pension/
there's just one thing I forgot to mention/
what've you got to lose when you know that/
you're guilty til proven guilty/isn't that the law?"
Halford admits that the chaos in England at the time (right as The Clash's "London Calling" becomes a siren call) influenced his punk attitude in the lyrics. And it worked. In addition, the musicianship was crisp and energetic, not weighed down by the burden of melancholic lyric. The song was also the shortest heavy metal song I had ever heard (I admit that I may not have listened to Sabbath's "Paranoid" long enough to recognize it wasn't that long), and while I would never be one to advocate that shorter is better (don't go there), there's just something about short energetic songs that stop right when you want them to continue a little longer.
The song is a pop song, after all. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, very brief guitar bridge, final chorus. Despite that, it allows itself to be everything that heavy metal loves. Nasty chops, thunderous rhythm section, and screaming vocals. It also lends itself to the visual cliches of rock and roll. During that guitar bridge, just try and not play the lead, rhythm, or bass guitars without synchronization of the classic hard rock pose: leaning forward from bent right leg, weight distributing to forward bent left leg, head and torso bopping in unison. Look up any of Judas Priest live performances of the song and see that for once this synchronized head banging works perfectly with the song.
It also doesn't hurt my appreciation for this song that almost 20 years after releasing this song, Halford admitted he was gay. "Breaking The Law" had already broken down a few misconceptions about the heavy metal song; I was glad to see that its singer could break down some more misconceptions about heavy metal performers. For once, others might be able to "know what it's like" and to "have a clue."
"Breaking The Law." Judas Priest. British Steel. Columbia. 1980. Link here.
Day 106: The 5th Dimension "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In."
Day 108: Carole King "So Far Away."->
See full unfinished list here.