Justify Your Shitty Taste: Judas Priest’s “Turbo”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today’s submission: Adrien Begrand gives it up for Judas Priest’s Turbo.
“Heavy metal rules! All that punk shit sucks! It doesn’t belong in this world, it belongs on fuckin’ Mars, man, what the hell is punk shit? And Madonna can go to hell as far as I’m concerned, she’s a dick. Seriously, heavy metal definitely rules, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Dokken, Ozzy, Scorpions, they all rule! This punk shit… they can all go to hell… I don’t care, you know, I don’t really give a shit about that kind of punk fuck!”

Zebraman, Landover, MD, May 31, 1986

1986 is often looked back upon with great fondness by nostalgic metal fans, primarily because it spawned two of the genre’s most important albums: Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood. What’s often ignored, though, is just how many albums came out by popular bands that seemed to be going through an identity crisis. Ozzy Osbourne’s first album in three years was a high-gloss pop-metal mess, and save for one song, loaded with filler. Queensrÿche threw everyone for a loop by ditching the NWOBHM-isms in favor of something a lot more avant-garde. Iron Maiden were tinkering with their sound. The weird age of Van Hagar was in full swing. Hell, even Motörhead had Bill Laswell produce their album. However, nothing comes close to the deadening silence from Judas Priest fans upon hearing the hugely anticipated Turbo that spring.

When you’re a teenager, two years is an eternity, and going into 1986 we all knew it was going to be a huge year, as so many bands would be ending long, long waits for new material. Things had started off extraordinarily well in February thanks to Master of Puppets; the bar had been set by the young, hungry upstarts, and it was time for the veterans to hold up their end of the bargain. But what we got from Priest on April 14th was a baffling, synth-drenched pop album that pandered to the poodlehead crowd with its upbeat songs about partying, scoring chicks (oh, how naïve we were), and rocking not just locally, but all around the world. The refrain echoed from many of us upon hearing the hugely anticipated record: we waited two long years for this?
turbo cover
For the younger readers out there, you have to put this in perspective. It’s not that Judas Priest were strangers to excursions into the pop-oriented side of their sound; after all, the brilliantly calculated British Steel was created with the specific purpose of achieving mainstream success in America, while 1981’s Ibiza-influenced Point of Entry was shamelessly upbeat. But by the mid-’80s, the band had rediscovered their darker side thanks to 1982’s swaggering Screaming for Vengeance and the timeless follow-up Defenders of the Faith, the sleek, leather-and-chrome production of the latter making it the murkiest, moodiest Priest record since Stained Class. There was an air of menace to the Judas Priest we knew at the time, with all the leather and spikes, not to mention Rob Halford’s close-cropped look, echoing the chilly feel of Defenders. When you go from looking totally badass to dressing up in comically garish, even sparkly, outfits and sporting (gasp!) coiffed hair like every other Sunset Strip band at the time (Dave Holland looks like a miserable wet dog on the album photo), it’s crushing for a fan. These leaders, these heavy metal innovators who had such a profound influence on the genre and culture of heavy metal, were now nothing but a bunch of followers, devoid of any good ideas. That spring, we let our younger siblings and the dumb, bullying jocks in school attach themselves to Turbo. Master of Puppets was our focal point the rest of the way.

It’s funny how things change over the course of 24 years. After disavowing pop metal during the early ’90s (your typical Gen-Xer revisionism), I found myself returning to the more gaudy sounds of the 1980s, and when I gave the reissue of Turbo another spin in 2002, I was surprised to notice that, when listened to without the prejudice of a narrow-minded headbanger, underneath all the polish this stuff actually had merit.

The key, and most divisive, ingredient on Turbo is the Roland G-707 Guitar Synthesizer, a then-high tech instrument that guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing were enamored with at the time. While the sound of a metal band using synths so much on record was complete and utter blasphemy to us kids back then, revisiting Turbo today, it’s actually very impressive just how tastefully it’s all done. With its surprisingly minimalist arrangement, “Turbo Lover” is actually one of the classiest songs in the Judas Priest discography, not to mention one of their most daring moments on record: a flanged synth continually underscoring a heavily gated motorik drum beat, vocoder backing up Halford’s restrained singing, those Rolands offsetting the more typical metal riffing, an even 50-50 split. You know what I’m going to say, so brace yourselves: it’s Kraftwerk meets heavy metal.

Even more audacious is “Out in the Cold,” a song that was a very guilty pleasure in 1986, but now one that I have no reservations about listing as one of the 10 greatest Priest tracks of all time. There’s no attempt at innovation here—it’s simply a brooding power ballad—but the synths add an icy, impersonal atmosphere that befits the title perfectly. It’s a flat-out gorgeous song, from Tipton’s desolate intro to Halford’s richest, most emotive vocal performance on record, to the tasteful, melodic solos by Downing and Tipton. Sure, the synthesizers make it a touch unconventional as far as Priest goes, but it never compromises their style; it’s still a surprisingly heavy song. The fact that they started their 1986 live set with “Out in the Cold” was a ballsy move on the band’s part as well.

Admittedly, the rest of Turbo is a step below the two standout tracks, “Locked In” being the most awkward fit (then again, every Priest album between 1980 and 1988 had at least one terrible song), but trite as they all are, at least they’re fun. Although the anti-PMRC song “Parental Guidance” isn’t anywhere near as venomous as Megadeth’s “Hook in Mouth” would be two years later, it’s still a lively little rave-up that gets its rather simple message across thanks to an undeniable hook that borders on bubblegum. The mechanical rock groove of the synth-laden “Private Property” actually echoes mid-’80s ZZ Top, while “Rock You All Around the World” is not so much a shameless exercise in ’80s metal cliché but a celebration of it. The album shifts into full-on party mode with bizarrely Def Leppard-like “Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days” and the Point of Entry salaciousness of “Hot for Love”, while the underrated “Reckless” turns out to be the real keeper of the Turbo deep cuts, achieving the best balance of arena rock hooks and classic Priest muscle.

Turbo isn’t a perfect album, but it’s by no means indefensible; that dubious honor goes to its follow-up, 1988’s woeful Ram It Down. Back then we thought Priest had lost their collective marbles putting out such a blatantly commercial-sounding record, but a quarter-century later it’s easy to see how it accurately reflected popular culture at the time. If you were a metal/hard rock band that wanted a hit in 1986, you made an album like this one: gigantic drums, even bigger hooks, sleek, cutting-edge production and instrumentation, loads of anthems, shout-alongs and simple good times. As goofy as they looked back then, those hard-partying kids in Landover had every right to be so deliriously ebullient: they had a perfect soundtrack to their summer. And though I wasn’t as into Turbo as much as they were at the time, I didn’t give a shit about that kind of punk fuck either. None of us did. —Adrien Begrand

1. “Turbo Lover”
2. “Locked In”
3. “Private Property”
4. “Parental Guidance”
5. “Rock You All Around the World”
6. “Out in the Cold”
7. “Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days”
8. “Hot for Love”
9. “Reckless”