It is hard to believe that 2018 already marks the fortieth anniversary of the February 1978 release of Stained Class by heavy metal icons Judas Priest. Chronologically, this was the fourth studio album from the band and second for juggernaut label CBS/Columbia, after their 1977 major label debut Sin After Sin. Soon after would follow the chart-topping albums British Steel (1980) and Screaming for Vengeance (1982), but at this time the band had not really hit in the United States. It is worth noting the environment that this album was released into: Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart for February 1978 primarily featured the brothers Gibb in all their “Fever” glory, and hits such as “Kiss You All Over” by Exile and “Baby Come Back” by Player. Keep in mind the Judas Priest look and sound we all love was pretty much in place at the time of this album, so subsequent years of touring greatly contributed to their rise in popularity as much as album sales. Stained Class did eventually make it to number 104 on the Billboard Album Chart and has been certified a Gold Record thanks to the legions of Priest fans.
The band members for this record are: Rob Halford on vocals, the powerful guitar duo of Glenn Tipton and KK Downing, bassist Ian Hill (one of the original members from the 1969 version of the band and at last check still touring with the current version) and drummer Les Binks. With the exception of the drummer, this ensemble is the JP most people are familiar with and is responsible for writing and performing the vast majority of their hits. If you’re interested in tracking the whole history of changes throughout the years, there is plenty of online information but I will be referencing this line-up.
The opening track “Exciter” announces its intent from its first drum beats and pretty much challenges the listener to keep up from there. The lockstep guitars roar with precision and Halford’s vocals soar over the speed of the rhythm section. I was totally impressed with the drum work by Binks given that the song has a beat-per-minute count that would scare most drummers (and guitar and bass players!). “White Heat, Red Hot” backs the tempo down slightly but doesn’t lose any of the power – Halford’s vocal is nothing short of stunning, the perfect front to the tightness of the band.
Title track “Stained Class” highlights the guitars of Glenn and KK, in particular their ability to each maintain their own recognizable sound while playing such intricate unison parts. The vocal range required for this song definitely showcases Halford’s abilities and also receives some nice vocal treatment in the studio process. “Saints in Hell” and “Savage” continue in a similar vein sounding best turned up loud to better appreciate the power the bass and drums create. The opening oscillator in “Invader” does admittedly sound a little dated today but the song itself rocks hard and sounds fresh to me as if it could hit radio today. I was surprised that research told me not many of these songs were incorporated into their live show during the ensuing era.2 The exception is power ballad “Beyond the Realms of Death,” which made the set list quite a bit.
The re-mastered CD version released in 2001 also contains two bonus tracks: “Fire Burns Below” is an earlier track that doesn’t have the sonic punch of the rest of the album and a live version of “Better by You, Better Than Me”, perhaps the best known track from the original release. This cover song was originally recorded by the band Spooky Tooth and composed by Gary Wright (yeah, the “Dreamweaver” guy) – a song that unfortunately received notoriety more for a civil lawsuit filed against the band then for its position on the charts. The lawsuit alleged the hidden message “Do It” could be heard in the music when played backwards and contributed to the suicide of two young men after repeatedly listening to the record. The band and its studio engineers were called to testify that there was no such messages intentionally placed during the recording process. The case was ultimately dismissed by a judge stating that any audio artifacts heard were not intentional and were a byproduct of the recording process.2
Given that their subsequent albums are said to have defined the style of “British Heavy Metal,” I would argue that this album had their style and sound well defined before American listeners knew what it was all about. Scores of imitators over the years have adopted parts (or in some cases large parts) of the JP look and sound to varying degrees of success. I recently had a PR rep send me an album to review that was solidly in this genre; while listening to it all I could think is that this young band should have listened to more albums like Stained Class. The audio mix on this album by producer Dennis Mackay is killer and in my opinion holds up well today. On the fortieth anniversary I felt called to revisit this classic, so I grabbed a copy from my local library. I jammed it in my car, I played it on the big speakers at home, I played it on my computer speakers – it rocked on everything! I personally prefer the heavy tracks over the single slower ballad when I want to crank some JP on the stereo. This album is full of fire and energy with all the hallmarks of what would make Judas Priest a popular live and recording act for many years.
- Billboard Hot 100 1978 archives. https://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1978/hot-100
- “Stained Class” Wikipedia page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stained_Class
- 3. Judas Priest Official website. https://judaspriest.com
- Judas Priest Wikipedia page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judas_Priest
- YouTube Judas Priest “Savage” Live 1978.