This one threatens to be a 90 page term paper but I’ll keep it simple, though it will require two parts to get to the most significant stuff. The line-up changes of Judas Priest are numerous – in technical terms, the band as it exists today contains no original members. Singer Al Atkins formed the group in 1969, then it went by the wayside. A new group joined with Atkins after 1970 and this would include K.K. Downing and Ian Hill. While it’s technically correct that neither were “original” members of Judas Priest, in any common parlance it’s fair to suggest that both are founding members. It’s not like the original outfit did a whole lot.
Atkins would depart in 1972 due to the financial strain of being in a band not making any money. He was replaced by Rob Halford, and second guitarist Glenn Tipton was brought in to the band shortly before setting out to record the debut Rocka Rolla. This, along with what was already the tenth or so drummer, would comprise the core Judas Priest line-up for many years. The changes I’ll discuss will mainly revolve around what’s happened in the 1990’s and since, save for the revolving door of drummer. Today I’ll handle that and also the huge changes at singer, then tomorrow I’ll get into all of the guitarist drama of the 2010’s.
Scott Travis (eventually) becomes the drummer of Judas Priest
The movie This Is Spinal Tap is renowned for its gag of exploding drummers. The joke most likely came from the insane amount of times Judas Priest changed members at that position. I guess there were nine different drummers but that’s just a quick glance on my part.
I suppose it’s fair to use the criteria that the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame used to induct Priest earlier this year. Three drummers were inducted – Les Binks, Dave Holland and current drummer Scott Travis. Binks played on Stained Class and Killing Machine, while Dave Holland was the drummer through all of the 1980’s albums.
In 1989 Dave Holland left Priest due to health issues and musical differences. This led to the arrival of Scott Travis, who had played previously with Racer X and Saints Or Sinners (who became The Scream). Travis immediately made his mark with his drum-in intro to the song Painkiller, and Priest was off to the races.
Travis was the youngest member of the band by a mile when he joined, though this would change a few years later. His drumming proficiency and energy injected new life into Priest, who had flagged a bit in the synth era of the late ’80’s. The band would purse a decidedly metal direction with Travis at the drum throne.
Travis has engaged in some side activity during his time in Priest – he is the drummer for the present incarnation of Thin Lizzy, continued work with Racer X and also lent his talents to a few albums I’ll talk about in a minute. But his time with Priest has been fantastic and he was a great addition to the band.
Rob Halford departs, replaced by Tim Owens
Just a few years after Priest had seen renewed interest with their very metal-forward Painkiller album, Rob Halford told the band’s management about his interest in doing a solo album/side project. For whatever goofy reason, the band’s management told him he would technically have to resign from Priest to do this. In the resulting confusion over Halford’s statement, he was gone from the band for a decade. How anyone let that happen is beyond me, but there has been some dysfunction in the Priest camp over the years.
Halford would spend his time with a variety of projects which I have previously covered here. The first one happened to also involve Scott Travis, who was still a member of Priest yet the band was inactive during that time.
Priest would eventually seek to find a new singer and, due in large part to Scott Travis’ suggestion, picked Tim “Ripper” Owens. Owens had done work in the band Winter’s Bane and also the Judas Priest tribute act British Steel.
Judas Priest’s “Ripper” era would be defined by a very heavy sound and subdued interest, though not the same level of vitriol aimed at fellow British metal legends Iron Maiden and their late-90’s period. The band would offer two albums as well as two live efforts during this time.
As with any kind of replacement like this, it was a struggle for Tim Owens to step into the shoes of one of metal’s most renowned frontmen. While I personally always liked him and thought he got a fair bit of unfair treatment, there was no replacing Rob Halford in the hearts and minds of Priest diehards.
The fortunes of Judas Priest were flagging in the early 2000’s, just as they watched Iron Maiden spark new interest with a much-hyped reunion with their legendary singer. And the inevitable came in 2003.
Rob Halford returns to Judas Priest
After some success with a few solo efforts in the early decade, Halford was a rising star again just as heavy metal was finding its way back into fashion. The no-brainer reunion with Judas Priest came in 2003. This left Tim Owens the odd man out, of course. He would go on to sing for Iced Earth for awhile and also participate in a variety of other projects.
Judas Priest have essentially ignored the Ripper period in retrospect. The songs from his albums are not performed live and the albums remain almost untouched reissue-wise, save for the super mega huge box set that came out last year. A bit unfair to not even acknowledge that period, I think, but again, there are some shifty decisions that come out of the Priest camp from time to time.
Priest themselves were back in form with their signature frontman in place. Rob Halford has since taken on a legend all his own and is one of heavy metal’s enduring icons. The band would see mixed success with their post-reunion albums, with the greater success coming from the more recent offerings.
If that were the whole story on Judas Priest line-up changes, it would be more than enough. But some huge moves came in the 2010’s and led to a lot of drama and headaches for all involved. Tomorrow I’ll get into the shakeups at the guitar positions.