Judas Priest has finally — finally — gotten into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, it’s via the “Musical Excellence Award,” an award decided on by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominating committee because the band has not been voted in by the general voting body. But why is that? And does it really matter?
Priest was first eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, 25 years after their debut, 1974’s Rocka Rolla. Unbelievably, they didn’t even make the ballot until 2018; they were nominated again in 2020, and again for this year’s induction class. But they never got the votes. To me — someone who grew up on heavy metal, and who has worked in the genre for a good portion of my career — it’s inconceivable that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters would not have voted them in a long time ago. After all, they’re probably the second most influential metal band of all time, after the almighty Black Sabbath (Motorhead would probably be the third most influential). Sabbath spawned the genre, but Priest refined it. Rob Haford’s oft-imitated, never duplicated operatic vocals set the standard for countless singers, from Bruce Dickinson to King Diamond. Then, there’s the insane twin guitar attack of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing which set the template for guitar teams forevermore: Hetfield and Hammett, Smith and Murray, Mustaine and whoever was his six-string partner in Megadeth at any given time would all surely agree. Judas Priest added speed to the genre: Sabbath was loud and creepy. But Priest was loud, creepy and really fast. And they inspired the look of metal for decades to come, and let’s be real: metal is an audio medium, but it’s very much a visual one, too. They sounded awesome and they looked cool (at least until the Turbo era; sorry, guys, that look did not work!).
You don’t have to like metal — hey, it’s not for everybody! But any music “expert” should acknowledge that it’s an important subgenre of rock music. Go to any festival this summer where rock music is predominantly featured. Every band on the bill was either influenced by Judas Priest, or was influenced by a band that Judas Priest influenced.
Tom Morello’s famous criteria for Rock Hall induction is based on three factors: impact, influence and awesomeness. Obviously “awesomeness” is in the ear of the beholder, and “impact” is more easily measurable. In Judas Priest’s case, they’ve sold lots of records and tickets, and still play large venues today (they have an arena/festival tour booked through 2023). And “influence?” You cannot argue that they haven’t been influential. You’d have a harder time arguing the enduring influence of many other inductees of the past decade. For me, with any inductee, I try to imagine a “What if?” scenario: if this artist never existed, how different would popular music be. Without Judas Priest, it’s impossible to imagine the last four decades of heavy metal. I hate to name names, but would popular music be that much different if Dire Straits (who I love) never existed? Did the Lovin’ Spoonful really change the course of rock and roll?
So, why haven’t Judas Priest gotten in? Well, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame started out with a body of voters of people in the Rolling Stone scene, and that magazine has never been kind to metal bands (although it’s wild that even RS darling Warren Zevon has never been on the ballot). A member of the nominating committee personally told this writer (full disclosure, I’m a voter) that when Priest was on the ballot in 2018 they drew very few votes, one of the lowest of all the nominees. The nominating committee, he admitted, had few metal fans, but they all acknowledged Judas Priest’s importance. But the result was the result. I imagine that Priest didn’t do much better in 2020, or this year.
So I’m glad that the committee decided to present the band with the Musical Excellence Award. The award traditionally has been given to musicians who don’t quite “fit” on the ballot: people like Elvis Presley’s sidemen Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black; Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads, or solo artist/sideman Billy Preston. But more recently, the nominating committee has used it as a corrective measure, when the voting body just doesn’t get it right. Nile Rodgers was presented with the award after his band Chic was nominated unsuccessfully eleven times. And last year, LL Cool J was presented with the award after being nominated six times.
Does it matter that LL Cool J is a Hall of Famer with an asterisk? Maybe, but he still performed at the ceremony last year, alongside inductees Foo Fighters and the Go-Go’s. He was presented by a prestigious peer, Dr. Dre. And he seemed moved during his speech. There wasn’t a real obvious distinction between LL’s induction and anyone else’s. And rightfully so.
Having interviewed Rob Halford a few times and having discussed the Rock Hall with him, I know he’ll be grateful for the honor and gracious when he receives it, and the same likely will be true for the rest of the band. We’ll get a great speech from their peers or influences (maybe the guys from Metallica? Maybe the guys from Black Sabbath? Maybe Scott Ian of Anthrax — who actually have a song called “Judas Priest”?). We’ll have a great moment when Rob, Glenn and Ian Hill accept this so richly deserved honor. We might even get some Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drama — will K.K. Downing show up? Will he perform with them?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how they got in. I’m just glad they’re in. And now we can focus on getting Motorhead and Iron Maiden in (and Dio and Slayer after that!).