It was announced on December 7th with little fanfare that Judas Priest, pillar of the heavy metal community, integral cog in its formation and champion of its mainstream breakthrough, will retire after the curtain drops on one final tour.
It is all too readily evident that the best days of the prodigious "metal gods" are behind them. No one goes to see their live show and chants for the anonymous singles from 2005's "Angel of Retribution." At this point, the band is largely their own traveling museum, a conviviality of faded luster keeping fresh in the minds of untamed youths the importance of Priest's legacy.
Make no mistake; the significance of Judas Priest in the annals of heavy metal's history cannot be overstated. As the band is unshackled from its proverbial mortal shell and ascends to the mead-soaked halls of heavy metal's private Valhalla, ballads of remembrance shall be sung on this realm as the spirits of doughty warriors on the next are astounded and transfixed by the band's tales of grandeur.
Without the epic rise of "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" onto mainstream rock radio in 1982, without the donning of metal spikes, black leather and a healthy association with motorcycles, metal's idiom would be wildly different from the common perception now. While Black Sabbath may have cleared the way for metal's dominance, Judas Priest was the marching infantry which stabilized its image and long-lasting appeal. If not for Priest and Motorhead, who had such a profound impact on impressionable youths like James Hetfield and Kerry King, what would the thrash revolution have sounded like? Would the golden era of metal's ascension have even happened? Would radio media and the mainstream public at large have been mentally stout enough to accept what those breakthrough bands had to offer?
Those questions are obviously rhetorical, but many others that have been generated by the announcement of Priest's retirement are not....
The mere action of the band deciding enough is enough has made music fans and metal media the world over cast a sidelong glance at their own mortality. In a genre where the pervasive image is to stay as young, virile and destructive as possible, the sudden admission of Judas Priest’s weariness seems a curious foray into heavy metal’s thanatology…or the lack thereof. It had always seemed as though the only acceptable measure of death related to the personages of heavy metal could be through some calamity that occurred during the chase of more hedonistic pursuits. To have a band fall apart because of drugs, alcoholism, women or some other tangible vice is tacitly accepted by the community; to simply retire seems not only unorthodox, but paramount to that, is dreadfully…conformist.
Some of this comes from the fact that heavy metal simply hasn’t aged to the point where retirement is a frequent occurrence. Much of the old guard either faded into the past gracelessly, or didn’t live long enough to be faced with the retirement dilemma. So it is that Judas Priest has presented us with a unique chance to pause a moment and see metal through this lens for the first time. Is it okay for a titan of heavy metal to admit defeat to the forces of age? Did Dylan Thomas not suggest that “old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light?” Ultimately, we don’t yet have an answer to that question, but with the advancing age of Priest, Iron Maiden, KISS, Black Sabbath and Motorhead, those demons are pounding on the backdoor louder than ever. Not to mention the advancing age of the forefathers of thrash, including the mighty Metallica.
It has been suggested that there comes an age at which it is no longer acceptable for grown men to go gallivanting about in spikes and chains and leather. I sincerely hope that this idea has not had a hand in the retirement of Judas Priest. Perhaps I am simply not yet of the age where I possess that sense of timidity and personal embarrassment that makes me wonder what people “of my age” should be doing. I hope that I never do. If metal has ever taught me anything in all my years of devotion, it is that the attitudes and opinions of onlookers are worth precisely nothing. It is the individual who must strive for whatever makes him or her comfortable with their own life. If Judas Priest is contemplating retirement out of the idea that “their time has passed,” then they are retiring for the wrong reasons entirely.
So the major question surrounding Judas Priest’s announcement, as phrased to me by a friend, is: “Metal just wasn’t built for 60 year olds, was it?” It is an exploration that gives me pause.
Ultimately, my answer is “hasn’t a 60 year old earned the right to say ‘no more’?” Music is a unique medium in that is separates the age of the performers from their contemporaries who have more common careers. We see this also in sports, where a running back who has crested thirty is considered to be in the twilight of his career. Music however skews in the opposite fashion. Since the advent of recorded music, especially now with modern production techniques, the constant re-releases and digital’s profound talent for sound preservation, no one seems to age. It is a subtle, accidental deception; after all, Rob Halford is still just 29 years old on “British Steel.” He always will be.
It is a shattering moment to realize that while Halford’s timeless four-octave range was 29 then, it is 59 now. Much like every other 59 year old on the planet, his mind is naturally beginning to contemplate retirement. It is a strange, grounding, humanizing concept to think that these larger-than-life musicians could reach retirement age, but here we are.
From the outside looking in, we see it as impossible that a musician experiencing the fruits of fame would ever want to walk away. Yet, music is just as grueling a career, if not more so, than many more common professions. Think of it; Judas Priest was formed in 1968, but didn’t really start to experience widespread fame until 1980. That’s twelve years of clawing, scrapping, endless tours, encounters with labels, seedy managers and all while fighting to find that one big break that finally means a band has arrived. Since then, it’s been a thirty year campaign to try and stay on top. Anyone who thinks musicians, especially metal musicians who rarely benefit from mainstream exposure, have it easy simply doesn’t know many musicians.
Continuing that thought, music is not a hobby for the members of Judas Priest, or any musicians, as it might be for you or I. It is their job. It’s what they do. It’s everything they know. This is what makes music similar to professional sports, and makes it so easy to understand why it is difficult for so many musicians/athletes to know when the time is right to quit. On the flip side, it is not so inconceivable that after a full career, just as you or I might, a musician might simply decide he or she has had enough. Why continue the fight? Why put up with all the stress? It seems as though while the question is whether or not metal is built for sixty year olds, the phrasing could just as easily be changed to read “why should a sixty year old be mandated to make metal anymore? Have they not earned a rest?”
The privilege afforded to these bands from metal’s first generation is that they have earned the dogged and persistent loyalty and defense of the metal community. They have earned their stripes, so to speak; we as fans have judged them worthy. To that end, we will support them in any endeavor and they shall never leave our favor. Therefore, it is entirely up to them when to walk away.
Judas Priest could hang around and go through the grinder to make more music, but to what end? Certainly there is always the chance of a career resurgence (which we’re certainly seeing from thrash lately,) but even if that occurred, what would be the benefit? How many years would they profit from the effort? Conversely, how much damage do they risk by hanging around and possibly producing more music that isn’t up to fan’s expectations?
Halford once sang “You Don’t Have to Be Old to be Wise,” and that’s true. Still, hindsight has a certain value. Judas Priest’s legacy is forever established. Their legions of fans will march to their rhythms so long as they live. They will be remembered for generations to come, as their music is passed down. They will forever sit on one of heavy metal’s thrones.
So, with all the questions that have been raised surrounding the retirement of Judas Priest, there is another question that the band can use in answer that may silence them all: “Why not walk away as metal kings, or more appropriately, metal gods?”