Judas Priest - Rocka Rolla review
|Release date:||September 1974|
01. One For The Road
02. Rocka Rolla
04. Deep Freeze
05. Winter Retreat
07. Never Satisfied
08. Run Of The Mill
09. Dying To Meet You
10. Caviar And Meths
11. Diamonds And Rust [Joan Baez cover] [2003 re-release bonus]
After forming in 1969, undergoing several line-up changes and experiencing significant financial woes, Judas Priest finally got the chance to record their debut album, Rocka Rolla, with Gull Records in 1974. Production was fraught, and the band's decision to break contract and leave the label for their third album meant relinquishing rights to both Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings Of Destiny, its follow-up. But, considering the band members have all but disowned their debut since 1976 (only "Never Satisfied" has found its way onto a major tour setlist since then), they haven't seemed all too bothered by the rough start to their recording careers.
One of the unfortunate by-products of that casual dismissal, however, has been that Rocka Rolla has become difficult for fans of Judas Priest to listen to, whether that is because of the sporadic releasing and repackaging by Gull or a general consensus of it being almost entirely skippable. And while I'm not here to claim that Rocka Rolla is actually some overlooked gem of an album that is unfairly maligned, I am interested in looking back on it for its general importance as the band's first album and for pre-dating releases by pretty much all the major heavy metal acts not named Black Sabbath or Deep Purple (and Led Zeppelin, if you're happy to claim them as part of the metal family).
The first thing to note about the album when sitting down with it has how much the tracklist was tinkered with (and how the band couldn't step in to veto the changes that were made). "Winter", "Deep Freeze" and "Winter Retreat" should really be thought of as a sort of "Winter Suite" ("Winter" is the sole song of the suite that is listed in old setlists, so it's likely the version that was played was actually all three parts). Conversely, "Dying To Meet You" is really two tracks: "Dying To Meet You" and "Hero, Hero" (which the label has since honored, even releasing a compilation under the name Hero, Hero). Finally, the version of "Caviar And Meths" that appears on the album is just the introduction of the version the band would have been playing at shows, which clocked in at over 10 minutes. There are a lot of rock and roll and heavy metal horror stories about these kinds of changes being made outside of a band's control - labels, for instance, would often force bands to include cover songs of popular contemporary acts to try to ride the waves of the public's tastes. And while the changes to Rocka Rolla's tracklist aren't shockingly destructive, I really would have liked to hear what the original "Caviar And Meths" sounded like, because the truncated version that closes the album is an excellent instrumental.
Rocka Rolla still manages to be - just - a solid debut for one of heavy metal's most important bands ever. Side A, apart from the "Winter" suite, is full of up-beat rockers, but they're a bit on the generic side, even for the time. The title track, the album's single, doesn't have the same personality that some of Judas Priest's later rockers would have, many of which contain great breakdowns or movements and catchier riffs and choruses. Some of this going-through-the-motions could certainly be a result of Rob Halford not having a chance to lay down the vocal melodies entirely by himself; all of the songs on the album except for "Run Of The Mill" were written for the band's original frontman, Al Atkins. But if you enjoy early heavy metal for how it still sounded like hard rock a lot of the time, you can find a 1975 live recording of "Rocka Rolla" that the band did for the BBC (and an even better recording of "Dreamer Deceiver" and "Deceiver" from Sad Wings Of Destiny from the same TV spot). Also, you can catch where The Knack might have derived some of "My Sharona" from "Cheater" (or you can purposely avoid it for precisely that reason, depending on your tastes).
Side B is where Rocka Rolla shines the most. "Never Satisfied" was a concert closer and encore, even during the Sad Wings Of Destiny tour, and it works fine as the opener for the second half. It's "Run Of The Mill", though, that totally steals the show, and it is because of this song alone that Rocka Rolla is worth a spin. Fans of the band's more epic power ballads like "Beyond The Realms Of Death", "Desert Plains" or "Blood Red Skies" will find a lot to love in it, and the song has very appropriately enjoyed a cult following as a highlight on an otherwise dull album. If you've passed on Rocka Rolla, it's worth seeking out "Run Of The Mill" on its own, because it still works perfectly fine in isolation.
It's hard to give Rocka Rolla much of a recommendation overall, though. This is still a band restricted not just by professional influences but by personal ones, not having had time to gel as a unit and literally struggling to put food on the table until moving away from Gull. If you pick up the remastered version, there's an earlier recording of the "Diamonds & Rust" cover that would appear on Sin After Sin, but even that doesn't lift the album above average. The reasons to seek out Rocka Rolla really come down to familiarizing yourself with the history of the band and genre.
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