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Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Judas Priest, "Ram It Down"

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I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

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Judas Priest, "Ram It Down"

(Columbia Records, 1988)

10 Tracks, Run Time: 49:33

1988's Ram It Down occupies a strange place in the Judas Priest pantheon. While it's not a bad album in this writer's estimation, it seems to get overlooked by all but the most die hard, gotta have everything Priest fans.

Ram It Down's lack of notoriety today may be due to the timing of its release. 1988 was a huge year for hard rock and heavy metal, and though Ram It Down performed respectably enough at the time to earn the Priest another gold record in the U.S., it was soon overshadowed by higher-profile 1988 releases like Metallica's ...And Justice For All, Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime, and Slayer's South of Heaven.

Ram It Down also happened to come out between two of Priest's best-known albums -- 1986's slick, pop-metal inspired Turbo (which, while popular at the time, is considered one of their lesser efforts today) and 1990's lean, mean, speed metal comeback Painkiller (generally hailed as one of their best). Ram It Down straddles a line between those two sides, maintaining the slick, Americanized, radio-friendly feel of Turbo but also bringing back elements of the heavier, nastier, classic Judas Priest sound.

"Ram It Down"

Behind the Scenes

While Turbo had been a successful experiment for Priest (especially in the U.S., where it rode the then-current pop-metal wave to platinum success), its polished, synthesized vibe alienated much of the band's headbanger audience.

What many fans didn't know was that Turbo was originally planned to be a double album, called Twin Turbos. The experimental, synth-metal Turbo material would've been the first half of the album, with a set of traditional Priest-style heavy metal songs on the second. When Priest's record label scrapped the double-album idea, some of the songs intended for that "second" disc became the basis of Ram It Down.

Drummer Dave Holland was absent from most of the Ram It Down recording sessions due to various health and personal issues, so much of the drumming heard on the album is actually an electronic drum machine. (The Ram It Down tour would also be Holland's last with the band.)

"Johnny B. Goode"

The Songs

Ram It Down opens with the frenzied title track, kicking off with an epic Rob Halford scream that melts into a duel of squealing, high speed riffs between K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton. The song's speed-metal feel immediately lets listeners know that the Priest is in a leaner, meaner mindset. The sturdy anthem "Heavy Metal" is let down somewhat by its klutzy, Turbo-esque synthesized drums, but things turn around quickly with the catchy "Love Zone" and "Come And Get It."

The bad-ass "Hard As Iron" closes out the album's first half and the epic "Blood Red Skies" hearkens back to classic Priest tracks like "The Sentinel" with its post-apocalyptic lyrical themes. "I'm A Rocker" is a punchy crowd sing-along song whose lyrics are pure cheddar ("I'm a rocker, ohhh, do as I feel as I say; I'm a rocker, ohhhh,and no one can take that away!") but the Priest give it enough class to make it work.

The album's major mis-step was the cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," which sticks out of the running order like a sore thumb. In K.K. Downing's book Heavy Duty, he explained that "Johnny" was an attempt to make up for a huge mistake Priest had made in 1986. The producers of Top Gun had made Priest an offer to put the Turbo track "Reckless" on the film's soundtrack, but the band turned it down, thinking the movie would flop. Needless to say, that proved to be a very costly decision! When Hollywood called again, offering the chance to cover "Johnny B. Goode" for a comedy starring Anthony Michael Hall, they jumped at the chance, but the "Johnny Be Good" film and its accompanying soundtrack album bombed.

In spite of that, "Johnny B. Goode" was given another chance as the lead single from Ram It Down, complete with an awkward music video of the band playing live to an audience full of stage-diving thrashers. It seemed like they were trying too hard to be "hip." ("Hey look at us, kids! We can play fast too, just like all those newfangled 'thrash' bands you like!")

Fortunately Ram It Down recovers on its last two tracks, the kinky-sex themed "Love You To Death" (even though the bullwhip sound effects are kind of cringy) and the moody epic "Monsters of Rock."

"I'm a Rocker"

Summing It Up

I've owned Ram It Down since it was a new release in 1988, and I remember being quite relieved when I first heard it, since it signaled a return to form after the radical departure of Turbo.

Ram It Down may never be considered a "go-to" Priest album, but even after all these years I still find it to be a mostly enjoyable listen and rank it in the middle of the Priest catalog.

© 2020 Keith Abt

Comments

Ara Vahanian from LOS ANGELES on September 15, 2020:

Thanks for writing about this album. I would say that Ram It Down represents a strong finish for Judas Priest to end the decade of the 1980s. This album may be the last one with the classic Judas Priest sound if you know what I mean. My favorite song on Ram It Down is the one called Monsters of Rock... classic song. Ram It Down is actually one of the band's strongest albums and especially 1978's Stained Class. While albums such as Painkiller may have been heavier, that's not the real Judas Priest but I guess they wanted to change their style and adopt something even heavier.