30 Years Ago: Judas Priest Flash Metal Form on Experimental ‘Ram It Down’
Fans of Judas Priest who were stunned over the direction the band went with their synthesizer-heavy 1986 album Turbo felt much relief two years later when the back-to-basics record Ram It Down was released on May 17, 1988.
Some of the music was leftover from sessions for Turbo, which originally was a planned double-LP project called Twin Turbos, envisioned to be an even mix of pop and metal.
“We were at a place where a lot of bands get when there’s suddenly an incredible outpouring of creativity and material,” frontman Rob Halford recalled years later. “We had a tremendous amount of songs that we wanted to try and put out together. It was intended at the time to be a Twin Turbo release. Porsche [had their] Twin Turbo, and we were kind of playing around with that idea. We started initially writing the material out in Marbella in Spain. We were there in the winter and we were talking at the time with the label about the idea of all of these extra songs kind of coalescing into a double CD.”
Columbia Records nixed the idea, insisting the material be relegated to a single album, resulting in the polarizing Turbo. When it came time to finish work on Ram It Down, the decision was made for a concentrated straight-ahead metal effort.
“We decided to take the guidelines our fans give us, not the guidelines that we sometimes musically, desire, want to do – you know – let’s try this, let’s try that,” guitarist K.K. Downing said. “This is basically what all the people, all the fans that come and see us say, ‘Yeah, why don’t you do a song like 'Exciter' or like this that or the other thing?”
“We all agreed that we just wanted to make a down and out heavy metal, hardcore record,” Halford added. “With that attitude in mind, that’s what we went about to proceed to do and I think, to a degree, yes, it’s certainly the heaviest thing we’ve done in recent years and we’re very, very happy with it.”
The first taste of the music on Ram It Down came in the unlikely form of a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” released in early 1988 as the lead-off song for the soundtrack to the Anthony Michael Hall vehicle Johnny Be Good. Though the film tanked at the box office, the song was deemed acceptable for single release and made it into the Top 100 on the U.K. singles charts.
“We just felt we could give it the Priest treatment,” Halford said. “We’d worked it out in the studio we felt it was good enough to end up on the album, so we’re well pleased with it.”
“Johnny B. Goode” ended up buried deep on the second side of Ram It Down, which opened up with Halford’s piercing scream on the title-track, followed by a thunderous blast of familiar Judas Priest heft. Halford said they wanted to make a “no holds barred” and “out and out Priest heavy metal album,” and it didn’t disappoint.
“We had a blast doing it and it was a real joy to do and I think the proof is finally there when you get to hear it,” he said, later adding, “We’re giving you what you want and we’re enjoying it of course.”
Along with “Ram It Down,” the tracks “Hard as Iron,” “Monsters of Rock” and “Love You to Death” had been set for the scuttled Twin Turbos venture. It’s easy to see how they would be out of place on Turbo with their decidedly guitar focused lilt. And while the band conceded they were making a record to acquiesce to the fan’s demands, it didn’t feel forced, but there was a distinct sense of them being on unsure footing. The epic second side opener, “Blood Red Skies,” is one example, with some searing guitar work struggling to break free from its synth foundation.
“I think it’s more representative of Judas Priest than, say, Turbo,” guitarist Glenn Tipton said. “Turbo was probably the most talked about album we’ve ever done, but Ram It Down is definitely more in where people expect us to come from. Subconsciously we went in [to the studio] to prove a point.”
It’s clear that on Ram It Down Judas Priest were at a career crossroads eschewing artistic vision for what drew people in in the first place. Had they not veered back onto the metal highway, no matter how begrudgingly, we may have never gotten the masterwork two years later in Painkiller. It’s viewed by many as a bit of a misstep, but it’s actually a stepping stone.
“I think one of the most underrated albums is Ram It Down,” Tipton reflected years later. “It sold really well eventually, but it never gets cited as a great album. It’s got some great songs on it.”
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