Published on May 31st, 2013 | by Steven Rainey0
Getting Re-acquainted: ‘Breaking The Law’
Part of metal’s appeal is its terminal uncoolness. It can’t be co-opted, it isn’t ‘hip’, and it doesn’t easily translate to a mass audience. Sure, sometimes it has a dalliance with the mainstream, but there are always the hardcore contingent who take it to extremes, and they’re the ones who are still there when it slinks back to the darkness. Metal is, and always will be, outsider music. And if being uncool is what makes metal cool, then Judas Priest must be the coolest band on the planet.
Their 1980 single ‘Breaking the Law’ remains their signature tune, and also manages to be one of metal’s most misunderstood masterpieces. Over a galloping double guitar riff carried along on pummelling bass and drums, vocalist Rob Halford seemingly tells the story of a life lived in crime, eulogising the thrills of going up against the cops. Fitting in perfectly with the sound of Iron Maiden, it put the band right at the forefront of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM for short), transforming them from struggling also-rans into massive superstars.
But far from glamourizing a life of criminal misdemeanour, ‘Breaking the Law’ is a snapshot of life in the early days of Thatcher’s Britain, after the economic turmoil of the late 70s. Rather than celebrating his position, Halford is lamenting a life that has been lived in the gutter, unloved and uncared for, abandoned by the state and left to rot.
“There I was completely wasting, out of work and down,” he begins, the song’s razor sharp riff slicing through the misery of life in Britain. He paints a picture of a shadow, aimlessly drifting from town to town, whilst no-one cares if he lives or dies. Sensing that the end might be near, after every golden promise has been made and broken, he sees the only option left to him is to turn to crime, with nothing left to lose.
Looking back at the song, the plaintive nature of Halford’s lyrics leap off the page in stark contrast to the braggadocio of the music, naked honesty duelling with swaggering attitude. The song has long been thought of as epitomising the thuggish stupidity that categorises a lot of heavy metal, the song’s title being repeated a staggering 32 times, whilst the video features the band robbing a bank using their guitars as guns. But, in their own way, Judas Priest articulated the feelings of desperation and hopelessness that had come to hang over Britain, offering up a social statement as relevant as anything to be found in the more socially conscious punk movement.
On top of this, it’s possible – perhaps unintentionally – to read the song as a statement on singer Rob Halford’s homosexuality. In 1980, it was still illegal in parts of the UK to be gay, and the song’s lyric takes on a very different meaning when viewed in this light. Capturing the desperation of being trapped, living a lie, the song also hints at the forbidden thrill of doing something prohibited, with Halford breaking the law to put “Some action in my life”.
Either way, ‘Breaking the Law’ stands as the ideal entry point into Judas Priest’s back catalogue, and one of the more interesting songs of the entire NWOBHM era, a time when being an outsider really meant existing on the fringes of society. Steven Rainey