Iron Maiden vs. Judas Priest – ROUND ONE: The First Singles

It’s been nearly two months between when I promised this first battle and when I’m “deliverin’ the goods.” But that’s only because of how BRUTAL our scoring system is! We’re scoring on a 666 point scale here:

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And because I’m an avowed Judas Priest preferrer, I’m starting off with a battle that’s going to undoubtedly be in Iron Maiden’s favor: comparing each band’s first singles.

Clearly Judas Priest’s release of “Rocka Rolla” back in 1974 is going to have one hand tied behind its back: Judas Priest was still trying to stoke the flames of metal brutality that Iron Maiden’s “Running Free” was able to warm its way into so easily six years later. But then again, this means Iron Maiden’s metal maniac Rob Halford will get to compete not against the operatically inclined Bruce Dickinson but against Maiden’s original singer, Paul Di’Anno, who to put it charitably “has some really great moments.” You know, like Wings.

But hey, out of the gate, you have to admit that this is a fucking KILLER song, pun intended:

This one may be more punky than metal on a lot of levels, but that only means it has weathered far better than songs by, say, Def Leppard from the same era. While we don’t have a lot of Satan in this song, you can hear a little bit of Sabbath if you slow it down, and there are a few economical noodle breaks in there. And that “yeooow!” at the end edges this one up on the “screaming for vengeance!” scale.

Surprisingly, for a song that feels like its 99% chorus, Maiden finds the time for a lyric that seems to be maybe about sex?

Puller here at the Bottle Top, whiskey, dancing, disco hop
Now all the boys are after me, and that’s the way it’s gonna be

It’s close enough that we’ll give them some points for being sexually inappropriate, which when added to the clearly delinquent lyrics about stealing cars at age 16 puts them at a mighty 412.2 points!

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Sadly, that adolescent innocence is nowhere to be found in Priest’s first single, which sounds oddly haggard for a band that was just getting going. Perhaps it’s because the folks at the record company were shoving caution and compromise down Priest’s throats when what they should have been shoving their way was cash and freedom?

Perhaps, but then again, there are no points in metal for kowtowing to the man. There are good points, to be sure, about this song. Just like there are in George Harrison’s Crackerbox Palace.

In fact, if you go line item by line item, you find a lot to love about “Rocka Rolla”: the eerie open notes that start things out, the mutant-prog arrangement, the sinister way that Rob Halford turns what should be smut into something more malevolent (I’m copiously bisexual, so I can’t say for sure, but is this what happens in the mind of a fully gay man when he’s forced to sing about sexy times with women? Gay + hetero = SATAN?).

It’s a song that’s better in the car, with a good stereo, where you can hear the cool double-tracking of Rob Halford’s vocals, and the harmonica snippet that somehow works here, much like it did on Sabbath’s first album.

But you can tell they’re pulling back on what they want to do, starting with the bottle-cap cover that they used on the album of the same name, which rumor has it was art rejected by the Rolling Stones. Not very metal, and it’s going to cost them some “no sell outs!” points. That plus the lack of “screaming for vengeance” throughout most of the song costs them in both points and panache.

We’ll give it to them for being eviler than Maiden on this round, and for forging new paths to hell simply because this is where Priest first started to exist in the wider public eye, and they were opening some major floodgates. But they still only get 354.82.

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Whatever the points, for Judas Priest, their first single hinted and glinted at things to come. But Iron Maiden’s jumped right out the fucking box and said, “Here we GO!”

Round one goes to Iron Maiden. Since this is our first round, that means our first tally leaves it at:

MAIDEN: 1

PRIEST: 0

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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