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Emissary in Leather
of Judas Priest singer Rob Halford
Historical Fantasy by Paul Bacon
In the summer of 1977, heavy metal singer Rob Halford had an unusual encounter while hiking through the woods near Birmingham, England.
"I came across a smoking field with a pulsating afterglow," says Halford, "I saw a searing flash of light erupt, and I staggered back in dazed surprise." When the smoke cleared, he spotted what appeared to be an alien spacecraft beaming up a family of picnickers. He ducked behind a tree and watched, recognizing the victims as philanthropist Sir Malcolm Lords, his wife, and their two children.
As the family disappeared into the belly of the hovering ship, Halford became enraged and jumped out into the clearing. "I stood there shouting and shaking my fist, but I was terrified," he says. "I knew the aliens could crush me in an instant." They inexplicably left him on terra firma and disappeared into the sky.
The performer was laughed out of a local constable's station for attempting to explain the abduction, but he quickly counted this in his favor. "Sir Lords was apparently a very corrupt businessman," says Halford, "and his disappearance merely hastened a pending investigation into his career. The authorities focused on organized crime figures, and since I was already thought to be a part of the underworld, I decided to lay low."
The kidnapping would haunt his dreams for months, until one night when he finally put the experience to music. The resulting song, "Invader," became his gutsy manifesto for defending the planet he loves:
We warn you now you things out there
"I think that pegged me as a bit of a rabble-rouser," says the Englishman, admitting his defiant stance against the aliens "might have been a little over the top."
Halford was 23 years old, and his band, Judas Priest, were still struggling for airplay. While their unique brand of sadomasochistic goth would eventually spawn a legion of imitators, they were short on fans and taking regular abuse in the music press.
"Nobody was listening except the aliens back then," says Halford. "And they must have heard everything we ever recorded, because when they came back for me the next year, Judas Priest lyrics were written on the walls of the spaceship."
The aliens returned for Halford after the release of Hell Bent for Leather, the band's sleeper double-platinum hit. Again, the spacecraft appeared on a pleasant summer afternoon, this time beaming Halford out of his new convertible Jaguar as he sped across the countryside.
Inside the ship, Halford found himself surrounded by clones of himself. "They were all wearing my stage drag," he says, "the studded leather, the mirrored sunglasses, everything. Something about the album had them really fired them up. They had completely assimilated it, woven its ideas into their society. That's when I knew my work would always be a little controversial."
Ten years later, Halford and his band would be sued by a Nevada family who claimed their teenage son committed suicide after listening to the 1978 album, Stained Class. Halford says, "The lawsuit was a grueling experience and cost us many potential fans, but it was nothing compared to the alien war-mongers."
Halford, who initially feared for his life, soon trembled for the survival of the entire human race. "They had taken all my words literally," he says. "They were ready to conquer Earth with me as their leader."
A number of tracks from Hell Bent for Leather reveal the aliens' possible inspiration.
In "Take on the World," Halford suggests a taste for rigid authority:
Move a little nearer
He offers more penetrating rhetoric in "Delivering the Goods":
Chargin', vein-faced, as active as one-hundred solid proofIn "Killing Machine," he plays a professional assassin:
I got no face, no name, I'm just a killing machine
But most importantly, says Halford, this song also flagged him as gay, which he wasn't officially until his coming out in 1998. In one passage of "Killing Machine," he sings:
I never give no answers, I never tell no lies
"That line," says Halford, "is why I think they picked me over, say, Pol Pot or Walter Chronkite."
Halford says the aliens belong to a race that has mastered cloning and child-delivery technology. A fiercely Darwinistic culture, they have eradicated all but a small clutch of females, whom they breed exclusively for their living museums.
"I was never able to pronounce the name of their planet, so I just called them 'Queerzons,'" says Halford. "When I told them what it meant, half of them loved it, the other half hated it, but all agreed it was easier to say than their actual name, which translates roughly as, 'Endeavoring High Masters of the Penis Machine-state.'"
The classically trained singer says he felt honored that an entire culture would dedicate themselves to his words, but they had missed his point entirely.
"My music is about world domination and eternal suffering, but only as metaphors for everyday life," says Halford. "Most of it is rock opera, the battle between good and evil. The rest is just what I think I can say about my sex life while still appealing to a mostly straight fan base."
While technologically adept, the Endeavoring High Masters of the Penis Machine-state lacked the wherewithal to interpret such irony. So, in a noisy, steamy auditorium filled with Halford look-alikes, the aliens declared him commander-in-chief for a punishing assault on his own planet. When Halford refused the charge, they threatened to kill him, but he knew better.
"I'd had a few audiences turn on me in the middle of a show," says Halford. "I knew how to take care of myself."
The aliens brought their reluctant leader back to Earth in one piece, but swore to return in the future, with greater numbers and better-organized plans. Halford resumed his career as a rock singer, for the most part keeping the extraterrestrial encounter to himself.
"After the Sir Lords abduction, I learned that no one wants to hear about space aliens actually existing," says Halford. "Well, no one of consequence anyway."
But that didn't stop him from subtly warning his fellow Earthlings of the dangers to come. Judas Priest's next album, British Steel, would be full of apocalyptic foreshadowing.
Halford describes the initial alien takeover in the song, "Metal Gods":
Ever hopeful, he wages insurrection with "Rapid Fire":
Pounding the world like a battering ram
Still, the post-apocalyptic world won't be for the faint of heart, as he alludes in "Steeler":
Check for decoys, stay sharp-edged
Halford says it's not easy knowing what's just around the corner for humanity. "I have to live with the reality that someone, somewhere is being recruited to lead a blitzkrieg assault on our planet."
Does it interfere his work? "Not at all," says Halford, still recording after more than a quarter-century in music business. "I've always sung about living in the moment. If anything, I'm that much more grateful for every breath, knowing some day I
may be forced into slavery by Michael Jackson."
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