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Revisiting Judas Priest's "Rocka Rolla"

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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.

Original "Rocka Rolla" album cover

Original "Rocka Rolla" album cover

Judas Priest - Rocka Rolla

Original Release: Gull Records, 1974

Tracks: 10 / Run Time: 38:58

Rocka Rolla, released in 1974, is Judas Priest's first—and perhaps most under-appreciated—studio album. Rocka Rolla tends to be dismissed by fans because it sounds nothing like the screaming, high-powered heavy metal that the Priest are famous for. However, that is the exact reason that I've always found Rocka Rolla to be such an interesting listen. It's weird, derivative, and occasionally awkward, but if you listen closely you can hear rumblings of the sound that would turn Judas Priest into heavy metal vanguards -- and eventually, legends.

In spite of its flaws, Rocka Rolla is a fascinating glimpse into the development not only of Judas Priest, but of heavy metal itself. This is a young band still wearing their hearts and influences on their collective sleeves. Judas Priest hadn't quite found "their" sound yet on Rocka Rolla, but all the pieces are here—they're just bubbling beneath the surface.

"Rocka Rolla" (live on the BBC)

Making Rocka Rolla

Judas Priest had been kicking around the English pub scene for about five years by the time they signed a recording contract with the tiny Gull Records label. Priest was a quartet at the time, consisting of guitarist Ken "K.K." Downing, vocalist Rob Halford, bassist Ian Hill, and drummer John Hinch. Guitarist Glenn Tipton (formerly of the Flying Hat Band) joined the lineup just prior to recording. His addition had been a suggestion of Gull Records, who thought that a second guitarist would beef up the Priest's sound ala the then-popular twin-guitar act Status Quo.

Priest recorded Rocka Rolla in June and July of 1974 with producer Rodger Bain, who'd previously worked with heavy hitters like Black Sabbath and Budgie. The album was released in September of '74, and by all accounts, it went almost totally unnoticed by the record-buying public at the time.

In the recent memoirs by two Priest members—KK Downing's Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest and Rob Halford's Confess—both said that while they enjoyed working on the album with Bain (whom Rob described as "a laid-back bloke"), the band was disappointed with the finished product. They felt that the band's harder edges had been dulled by Bain's lifeless production job. In Confess, Halford says of Rocka Rolla:

We didn't like the title... we definitely didn't like the cover, a spoof of the Coca-Cola logo on a bottle top. It looked shit, and not metal at all.

But the biggest disappointment was how the album sounded... it felt weak and diluted.

"Cheater"

The Songs

Several of the tracks on Rocka Rolla were co-written by Alan Atkins, Priest's original vocalist who left the band in 1973. The change from the gritty voiced Atkins to the stratospheric vocals of Rob Halford was a major element in the band's transition from bluesy hard rock to heavier-edged, more epic material.

On most of Rocka Rolla, however, the youthful Priest were merely channeling their biggest influences: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The fuzzed-out "One For The Road" kicks things off and then takes the listener through a journey that owes more to early 70s "acid rock" than the Heavy Metal sound that was still in its infancy at this time. The title track is a simple, bluesy rocker with a catchy chorus, leading into the four-part epic made up of "Winter," "Deep Freeze," "Winter Retreat" and ending with the crunchy "Cheater," in which Rob Halford spins a tale of lethal revenge against an unfaithful woman. The eight-and-a-half minute "Run of the Mill" is essentially a showcase for Halford's awe-inspiring vocal range, especially towards the end of the song, where he nails some high notes that I'm sure he would not be able to achieve today.

"Never Satisfied," the lumbering, bass-heavy "Dying to Meet You," and the trippy instrumental outro "Caviar and Meths" hint at the more progressive, adventurous sounds that the band would explore further on subsequent albums like Sad Wings of Destiny (1976) and Sin After Sin (1977).

Reissue album cover

Reissue album cover

The Legacy

I highly recommend that curious collectors pick up an original vinyl copy of this album with the "bottle cap" cover art, if only to get a good laugh at the band's image at the time—lots of flowing scarves and pimp hats!—plus Rob Halford is credited as "Bob" (on "vocals and harmonica!") for the only time in the band's history.

Later pressings of the album featured a new cover by fantasy illustrator Melvyn Grant of a winged, armored warrior beast that may have misled unsuspecting record buyers into thinking the album was more "metal" than it actually is.

The band may not speak very highly of this album, but I've always felt that the rookie Priest got off to a decent start on Rocka Rolla . . . of course, the best was yet to come.

"Never Satisfied"

© 2020 Keith Abt

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