Judas Priest Lineup Changes: A Complete Guide
Judas Priest are one of heavy metal’s all-time greatest bands, with a stellar career now spanning four decades and counting. Since first coming together in the industrial English city of Birmingham, Priest have issued 17 studio albums, played hundreds (maybe thousands) of concerts, and alternated maybe a dozen musicians within their ranks. How many, you ask? Well, feel free to count for yourselves, as we unleash the Hellion, unchain the Metallion, and hunt down the men responsible for packing this complete guide to Judas Priest’s lineup changes.
The first lineup of Judas Priest was, in fact, not Judas Priest at all! They were another group entirely, fronted by singer Al Atkins, that played small-time gigs in and around the Birmingham area for less than a year before disbanding in the summer of 1970. But if the failed outfit had one thing going for it, it was that compelling moniker, which was quickly adopted by the next band Atkins joined, Freight, thus launching Judas Priest’s career in earnest.
Along with Atkins, that first true Judas Priest lineup consisted of guitarist Kenneth ‘K.K.’ Downing, bassist Ian Hill and drummer John Ellis. The quartet began making steady career headway in local clubs once they replaced their early blues style with the emerging heavy metal and progressive rock trends. But Ellis eventually chose the security of his day job over Priest and was replaced, first by Alan Moore, then by Chris ‘Congo’ Campbell — thus inaugurating Judas Priest’s long and Spinal Tap-like tradition of short-term drummers (though none actually exploded on stage).
By 1973, Judas Priest had cut a few demos, toured the U.K. in support of bands like Budgie, Thin Lizzy and secured management by Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s IMA agency. But a recording contract continued to elude them, so a cash-strapped Atkins decided to quit, followed in short order by Campbell, which opened the door for a new frontman named Rob Halford (whose sister was dating bassist Ian Hill) and his Hiroshima bandmate, drummer John Hinch. It was this quartet that spent the next year honing Judas Priest’s repertoire until it was ready to attract that long awaited label contract from independent Gull Records.
But there was one last piece of the Judas Priest puzzle missing as the excited young group prepared to record its 1974 debut album, ‘Rocka Rolla,’ and that was a second guitarist to beef up their sound. Enter Glenn Tipton, late of The Flying Hat Band, on the recommendation of ‘Rocka Rolla’ producer Rodger Bain (who had made his name on Black Sabbath’s first three albums). One could very well argue that Judas Priest wasn’t whole until Tipton’s axe was added to Downing’s to launch one of heavy metal’s greatest six-string tandems.
But Judas Priest’s recording career still got off to a rocky start, based on ‘Rocka Rolla’s’ weak sales and Gull’s limited promotional muscle, and the band was forced to tour non-stop to avoid starvation. Things only started looking up once Tipton’s songwriting contributions had some time to fuse with Downing’s and Halford’s to form the backbone of 1976’s seminal ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ album. This marked the end of Priest’s association with Gull Records in order to sign with major label Columbia, as well as their altogether brief second stint with drummer Alan Moore, who chose to pursue other musical projects.
As 1976 became ’77, Judas Priest found themselves in desperate need of a drummer with which to record their third LP, ‘Sin After Sin,’ which was set to be produced by former Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover. In a pinch, they called on session drummer Simon Phillips (Jeff Beck, the Who, Gary Moore) who performed his duties admirably, but declined to join the group more permanently. Luckily, Roger Glover introduced them to the highly accomplished Les Binks, who would stick around until 1979 and contribute both his inventive percussive and songwriting talents (see ‘Beyond the Realms of Death’) to classic LPs like ‘Stained Class’ and ‘Hell Bent for Leather.'
But by 1979, Priest were looking to further simplify their sound and see what could it could accomplish for them in America, so they parted amicably with Binks and hired longtime Trapeze drummer Dave Holland prior to recording 1980’s commercial watershed ‘British Steel.’ This quintet of Halford, Tipton, Downing, Hill and Holland would go on to rule the decade. with hit albums like ‘Screaming for Vengeance,’ ‘Defenders of the Faith’ and ‘Turbo.’ To many fans, this is still the definitive Judas Priest lineup.
That change was unveiled by the powerful double kick-drum tattoo announcing the ‘Painkiller’ album’s devastating title track, and they exploded from the fleet feet of new drummer Scott Travis. Judas Priest’s first American-born band member, Travis was recruited from technical metal virtuosos Racer X and retains the band’s drum stool unto this day (clearly, Priest have gotten better at this drummer thing), but that tenure didn’t come without a long and unforeseen interruption — forced by Halford’s shocking decision to quit Priest at the peak of their powers to explore various side projects.
For five long years, Judas Priest waited on Rob Halford to return, but in 1996, they finally moved on after discovering Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens in an Ohio-based Priest tribute band named British Steel. For a little while, Owens seemed almost too good to be true, bringing his unquestioned vocal prowess to 1997’s powerful comeback, ‘Jugulator,’ and to a lesser degree, 2001’s rather lackluster ‘Demolition.’ But for all his talent and bonhomie, Owens simply wasn’t Rob Halford. And though his amazing story even inspired a movie called ‘Rock Star,’ his time eventually came with the metal god’s return in 2003.
With Halford back, Judas Priest embarked on yet another golden era, ushered in by triumphant performances during the 2004 Ozzfest tour, where they performed second only to headliners Black Sabbath (their old Birmingham big brothers), and succeeded in the almost-impossible task of following thrash metal kings Slayer. 2005’s ‘Angel of Retribution’ (their 15th studio LP) enjoyed widespread acclaim and 2008’s ‘Nostradamus,’ though selectively criticized for the folly of its ambitious two-CD concept, did nothing to taint the band’s popularity. Instead, the members of Judas Priest themselves took care of the latter when they announced that 2011’s 'Epitaph' tour would be their last — until they experienced a sudden change of heart. All but one of them, anyway...
Indeed, when Priest publicly revealed their intentions to wind down their touring and maybe even recording endeavors, only founding guitarist K.K. Downing saw it through and announced his retirement. His bandmates swiftly drafted a young-and-bright-eyed six-string replacement in London-born Richie Faulkner, and carried on with metal business as usual. As of press time, Priest is actively touring in support of their first album with Faulkner (and 17th overall), ‘Redeemer of Souls,’ and showing no sign of rust in their mighty metal gears.