Released on February 10th, 1978, Judas Priest's Stained Class LP not only marked a major step forward for the British metal band, but it also heralded a significant sea change in heavy metal — one whose ripples are still felt to this day.
The Birmingham-based quintet already had three albums to their name — 1974's Rodger Bain-produced Rocka Rolla, 1976's prog-metal classic Sad Wings of Destiny and their 1977 major label debut, Sin After Sin — by the time lead singer Rob Halford, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill and new drummer Les Binks entered Oxfordshire's Chipping Norton Recording Studios in the fall of 1977 to begin recording what would become Stained Class. But Priest's fourth album would be a far leaner and meaner affair; instead of keeping one foot planted firmly in British rock's progressive past, as they'd done with their first three records, Stained Class was a bold, head-first leap into heavy metal's future.
"Stained Class completely re-invented metal," Celtic Frost/Triptykon leader Thomas Gabriel Fischer told this writer in the summer of 2017, while discussing his early musical influences. "It presented a surgical, precise kind of metal, a prototype of thrash metal that I had never heard. This was the first Judas Priest album I ever bought, and it is one of the most important albums in my life. But when I got this album in 1978, I actually had to get used to it, because it was so modern for my ears, you know?"
Indeed, Stained Class sounded far too modern and metallic for many hard-rock listeners of the era; the album only briefly charted in the U.S. upon its release in February 1978, and it missed the charts entirely in the band's homeland. But the British New Wave of Heavy Metal would soon coalesce around bands picking up the studded gauntlet that Priest had thrown down on Stained Class, while the album's fiery fusion of twin lead guitars with rampaging double-kick drums offered up a template for countless thrash-metal bands to come. And though Stained Class would come back to haunt the over a decade later, via 1990's infamous "backwards masking" lawsuit over the track "Better by You, Better Than Me," the streamlined sound and feral attitude of tracks like "Exciter," "White Heat, Red Hot" and "Beyond the Realms of Death" set a course that Priest would assiduously follow on their way to becoming one of the world's most revered metal bands.
In honor of the album's enduring greatness and influence, here are eight things you probably didn't know about Stained Class.
1. The album was Judas Priest's response to the U.K.'s burgeoning punk movement.
In October 1977, when the sessions for Stained Class began, the British music papers were devoting a sizable portion of their coverage to U.K. punk bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the Stranglers; heavy metal was considered unfashionable at best, and worthy of extinction at worst. "Punk caught the ears of the record labels and the music press," Halford recalled to TeamRock in 2011. "There was a very immediate alienation of things from the past: 'Forget about metal, forget about prog, that's all gone now.'"
But rather than take umbrage at that such a dismissive attitude, Priest simply took the aggression of punk and injected it into their own music. "We've always placed a lot of importance on what's going on, because it's what the kids want," Tipton explained in the same interview. "It's no use saying the next big thing's shit, because a big element of the public likes it. So we've always kept our ear to the ground. Tracks like 'Exciter' are indicative of us changing gear and going thrashy in a Priest way. It was indicative of what's going on."
2. The album's producer was best known for working with jazz fusion acts.
At first glance, Stained Class producer Dennis MacKay probably seemed like an odd choice to work with Judas Priest. Paired with the band at the suggestion of CBS Records, Priest's label, MacKay was best known at the time for working with jazz fusion bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Brand X. But that was just fine and dandy with drummer Les Binks, who had joined Priest for the Sin After Sin tour, and was about to record with them for the first time.
"Dennis MacKay was the legendary Ken Scott's understudy at Trident Studios, London, [where he'd recorded] my big influence Billy Cobham with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra," Binks recalled in an interview for K.K. Downing's website in 2017. "I loved the drum sound he got on those records." Indeed, MacKay not only wound up capturing the best Judas Priest drum sound to date on Stained Class, but he also helped the band achieve a tight sonic attack that was both impeccably clean and lethally powerful.
3. Stained Class is the only Judas Priest record to feature songwriting contributions by everyone in the band at the time.
While Rob Halford, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton have typically handled the bulk of the writing chores throughout Priest's history, Stained Class was unusual in that everyone in the band at the time received at least one writing credit. Ian Hill was co-credited for "Invader" along with Halford and Tipton, and the music for the epic power ballad "Beyond the Realms of Death" was written almost entirely by Les Binks.
"Our drummer at the time, Les Binks, was left-handed," Downing wrote in the liner notes for the 1993 Priest collection Metal Works 73-93. "One day he walked into the studio and picked up one of the guitars — it must've been mine because Glenn would guard his with his life! Anyway, Les picked it up, turned it up-side down and played that riff. We thought, 'That's nice! Let's put a song around that ...' I don't know where he got it from. I've never heard him play anything else on guitar, ever!"
4. K.K. Downing took an unusually spontaneous approach to soloing on the album.
While Glenn Tipton has long had a reputation for being the more technically precise guitarist of the pair, K.K. Downing's fiery playing was also a vitally important part of the Priest sound during his lengthy tenure with the band. But whereas most of Downing's later solos would be painstakingly mapped out before he entered the studio, he walked a musical high-wire during the Stained Class sessions, literally ad-libbing his guitar solos on tracks like "Exciter," "Savage" and "Beyond the Realms of Death" as the tape rolled. "I was particularly pleased with the guitar sound on ["Exciter"], especially in my solo," he told Guitar World in 2008. "'Exciter' really demonstrates what kind of a player I was back in the early days; very loose and ad-lib, not as rigid as I am today. Every solo on that album was spontaneous — I just went into the studio and played what came to me."
5. The album's most notorious track wasn't even a Judas Priest song.
In 1990, a civil action suit was brought against Judas Priest over the Stained Class track "Better by You, Better Than Me," alleging that the band had hidden the subliminal message "Do It" in the recording via "backwards masking" — and that the message had caused two Nevada teens to try and kill themselves in a suicide pact. Ironically, the song hadn't even been written by Judas Priest; it was actually a cover of a 1969 song by British progressive rockers Spooky Tooth, which had been added to the album at the last minute. (The addition of the track had been at the insistence of the suits at CBS, who thought Stained Class needed something more "commercial" sounding.)
The much-publicized lawsuit (which was also the subject of the 1991 documentary Dream Deceivers) was eventually dismissed by Washoe District Judge Jerry Whitehead, who ruled that there was no conclusive evidence of subliminal messages in the song, much less ones that would have been placed with the intent of encouraging listeners to commit suicide. "If we were going to do that [include subliminal messages]," said Priest's then-manager Bill Curbishley, "I'd be saying, 'Buy seven copies,' not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves."
6. The most "Satanic" track recorded during the Stained Class sessions never actually made it on to the album.
Conservative critics of heavy metal were on the high lookout during the Eighties and Nineties for any evidence of "Satanic" content, so it's probably for the best that Judas Priest's smoking cover of "Race With the Devil" — a 1968 UK hit for British hard rock power trio the Gun — wasn't included on the final track listing for Stained Class, lest it might have be misconstrued as some kind of additional evidence against them during their 1990 trial.
Recorded during the Stained Class sessions at Chipping Norton, "Race With the Devil" was one of several CBS-imposed Priest covers of previous hits, which began with Priest's muscular reworking of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust" on Sin After Sin, and continued through the band's darkly cooking rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)" on 1979's Hell Bent for Leather. "Record companies were forever trying to get bands to do cover versions," K.K. Downing complained to this writer in 2001. "The newer, younger audience doesn't remember the original versions, and they think whoever's doing the new version actually wrote the song. They can't imagine that their favorite band is doing a cover version of song by their father's favorite band!" "Race With the Devil" would eventually see official release in 2001, though oddly as a bonus track on an expanded CD reissue of Sin After Sin, as opposed to Stained Class.
7. The band's classic logo made its debut on the cover of Stained Class.
Judas Priest had already experimented with numrous band logos by the time CBS Records art director Roslaw Szaybo set about designing the cover of Stained Class. Surmising that the gothic-looking logo used by the band on the covers of Sad Wings of Destiny and Sin After Sin wouldn't mesh well with Stained Class's futuristic image of a sleek android head with a steel bolt shooting through its temple, Szaybo came up with a logo that visually echoed the band's jagged, intensely electric music. Szaybo, who also designed the iconic cover of the first Clash LP, would go on to do the covers of Killing Machine (known in the US as Hell Bent for Leather) and British Steel. And Szaybo's Priest logo, with only minor modifications, would remain in use by the band through Metal Works 73-93.
8. Stained Class was the first Judas Priest LP to appear on the Billboard album charts.
After their first three albums missed the Billboard 200 entirely, Stained Class finally made a little noise for the band in the spring of 1978, when it entered the esteemed trade publication's album chart at #190 for the week ending April 8. Sadly, it didn't rise much higher, peaking at #173 two weeks later before dropping off the chart entirely. Still, the record's chart placement — along with five weeks of U.S. dates variously supporting Angel, Foghat and Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush — put the band on firmer commercial ground in America, and helped to set the stage for the band's multi-platinum success in the 1980s. And though it sold only modestly upon its initial release, Stained Class would eventually be certified gold by the RIAA, with sales of over 500,000 copies in the U.S.
Below, see Rob Halford break down the lyrics to Judas Priest's 2018 single "Lightning Strike."