Saturday, November 14, 2020

Love it or hate it (I have done both)—a re-examination of Judas Priest’s Turbo

Better run for cover...
Back in the mid-1980s a civil war was brewing in heavy metal. On one side were the standard bearers of “true metal,” fans of Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, and Anthrax and Metallica. These bands rocked hard and built loyal fanbases with almost no commercial airplay or MTV time (the exception was Headbangers Ball, which safely confined them to the midnight hour when all respectable watchers were tucked safely in bed). Their fans were tough, wore denim and leather, and were proud of their bands. On the other side were the manufactured pop metal acts, bands like Poison and Warrant and Winger, who may have believed in what they did and often were quite capable musicians, but nevertheless had a pretty boy, teased hair look and shallow bubble-gum lyrics designed to appeal to a broad audience. These acts were known as “hair metal,” or in some corners (including my own), "false metal."

This division was best articulated in the lyrics of the loinclothed and sword-wielding American heavy metal band Manowar, which sang loud and proud that the War was On, man, and it was time to choose a side:

Every one of us has heard the call
Brothers of True Metal proud and standing tall
We know the power within us has brought us to this hall
there's magic in the metal there's magic is us all

Heavy metal or no metal at all whimps and posers leave the hall
Heavy metal or no metal at all whimps and posers go on get out
Leave the hall

Now the world must listen to our decree
We don't turn down for anyone we do just what we please
got to make it louder, all men play on ten
If you're not into metal, you are not my friend

(Manowar, “Metal Warriors”)

As an impressionable teenager and fan whose identity was tied to heavy metal music, I can tell you that I was in fact swept up in this faux conflict, and was a real man who played his boom box on ten. I knew with certainty which side I was on, and so I joined the ranks of those who mocked Judas Priest’s Turbo (1986). OK, so I did not actually outwardly mock the album, but I viewed it with a definite feeling of disappointment. It was hard to swallow that the same metal gods who gave us songs like “Beyond the Realms of Death” and “Victim of Changes” were in fact all too human, and could succumb to the forces of commercialism with an album that so obviously sought to capitalize on the popularity of the likes of Motley Crue and Def Leppard.

In short, Turbo felt a little like Priest had left the ranks of true metal and joined the false. There is nothing worse than a Benedict Arnold. I felt betrayed.

With the passing of years I look back on that old conflict with a feeling of bemusement and nostalgia, not bitterness. I will always prefer Iron Maiden and Judas Priest over the likes of Slaughter and Bullet Boys, and I also believe that the former have lasted and the latter have not, for reasons of integrity and quality. But I hold no hatred of “Fly to the Angels” and in fact I find it superior to just about anything heard on today’s Top 40.

Then again, I’m an old fart with a questionable taste in music.

But back to Turbo.

Just like my allegiances toward true vs. false metal have fallen away, so too have my opinions on this album softened and changed. I don’t believe it is anywhere close to Priest’s best, but I’ve come to appreciate Turbo as both a historical artifact and a unique album in their diverse catalog. Yes, teenage rebellion anthems like “Rock You All Around the World,” “Private Property” and “Parental Guidance” are still cheesy, but I like them nonetheless. The guitar synthesizers which Priest employed for the first time in their career give these songs a delicious nostalgic 80s sound. “Hot for Love” is probably the hardest track to defend and the one I’m most likely to skip. But I enjoy the heck out of “Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days” and “Locked In.”

There is at least one stone cold classic track on the album, and it’s not what you think. Not “Turbo Lover” (which I hugely enjoy, and is guaranteed to make me exceed the speed limit when it comes on while I’m driving, without fail). It’s not even “Out in the Cold,” which is an excellent slow ballad, haunting and soulful and well-sung.

No. That song is “Reckless.” The guitar tone is so bloody savage, and Halford kills it. The solo at 2:35 brilliantly continues the soaring lyric, “heading like a rocket to the stratosphere” with exactly that sound of rocket-driven power mimicked by electric guitar. There’s even a stuttering sound of an igniting engine generated by the action of the guitar strings. This song is like watching the Rocky IV training montage, instilling that feeling of power and agency that only metal can truly do. Apparently “Reckless” was to appear on the soundtrack to the hit film Top Gun, but Priest declined as it would have resulted in the song not appearing on the album.

While it would have been cool and very apropos to see an F-14 Tomcat launched off the deck of an aircraft carrier with “Reckless” blazing along with the afterburners, I’m glad it is where it is. On an album I play today with great affection. With regrets to Manowar.


Andy said...

My wife gave me a Turbo CD as a gift not long ago. It's the first time in a while that I had really listened to the album and...I like it. It's definitely not first tier Judas Priest, but it has some really good songs and generally rocks along just fine. I used to be into the "death to false metal!" thing, too (remember James Hetfield writing "KILL BON JOVI!" on his guitar?), but it's funny how chilled out music has become in general and I just have a good time even when I'm listening to some of the bands I used to detest. A few years back, I took my wife to see Poison and Def Leppard (I justified it to myself by saying I was just going to see Cheap Trick opening), and say what you want, they put on a good show.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Andy! A wife who gives you Turbo is a wife you must hold on to.

Yeah, of all the many and varied sources of conflict that we get wrapped up in today, hair metal vs. heavy metal is not one I'm keen to continue :). I have seen Poison, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Ratt, Firehouse, and other like acts, and never failed to have a good time.

D.M. Ritzlin said...

I for one am not a fan of hair/glam bullshit and I don't know why so many metalheads these days like it now. I can't deny "Reckless" is a good song though.

Andy said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say I like glam metal. More like "amiably tolerate" :) If my wife wants to go see a show, I don't mind going with her and I can respect good showmanship even if I'm not going to go and buy the albums. Reciprocally, I've gotten her into Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Dio, Saxon, and Accept. She's a choral singer, so she's impressed by bands fronted by people with clear, powerful voices.