40 Years Ago: Judas Priest Release Dark Fourth LP, ‘Stained Class’
When Judas Priest released their fourth album, Stained Class, in February 1978, the British metal band could never have dreamed its musical merits would one day be co-opted and the album’s legacy almost destroyed by tragedy.
Back in early 1978, the members of Priest were simply concerned with establishing their career. After making a rather spotty first impression on the inconsistent Rocka Rolla LP, only to deliver a game-changing classic in 1976's Sad Wings of Destiny, Priest had justified their subsequent graduation to Columbia Records on the following year's impressive Sin After Sin. But it was Stained Class that really took things up a notch and, in many ways, showed the way forward for the group.
Along with introducing a striking new logo and futuristic cover art aesthetic that over the ensuing decade would define Judas Priest's image (soon completed by Rob Halford's leather and bondage gear kink), Stained Class presented a new, more streamlined songwriting approach that would help Priest make a clean stylistic break from the leaden influence of Birmingham big brothers and heavy metal forefathers Black Sabbath.
While this new-found economy admittedly resulted in a few numbers lacking in creative heft (specifically the rather simple but nonetheless influential "Invader" and "Savage"), Stained Class boasted many other, fist-pumping anthems -- including "White Heat, Red Hot," "Saints in Hell," "Heroes End" and the title track, which simply would not be denied entry into the universal metal conscience.
Of even greater historical significance, LP opener "Exciter" was one of the first speed metal songs ever committed to tape (thanks in no small part to the band’s new powerhouse drummer, Les Binks). Meanwhile, the spine-chilling "Beyond the Realms of Death" set a new standard for heavy metal power ballads on the darker flip side of Led Zeppelin's fanciful "Stairway to Heaven" or Aerosmith's cautiously optimistic "Dream On."
Too bad Judas Priest's compelling cover version of Spooky Tooth's "Better by You, Better Than Me" was to be singled out by fate a decade later and blamed, in part, for a grisly suicide pact that left one young man dead and another seriously injured. Distraught and obviously looking for answers, the young men’s families were misled by opportunistic lawyers who, toward the end of the '80s, were hell-bent on scapegoating heavy metal bands for all of society's ills.
Even though their baseless claims that Priest had contributed to the suicides via backward messages nestled deep within "Better by You"'s vinyl grooves were eventually thrown out of court, both the band and Stained Class were forever bound to this unfair association.
Be that as it may, the people who matter – rock 'n' roll fans – know its the timeless music of Stained Class that truly matters; music that saw Judas Priest coming decisively into their own as a roaring, gleaming heavy metal machine poised to conquer the world over the years that followed.