Rob Halford has always had a soft spot in his heart for Phoenix. In the early 80s, (as detailed in chapter ten of his memoir Confess), Halford spoke about his time in Phoenix, which he started visiting on the regular around 1981. For the last three decades, Halford has called Paradise Valley, Arizona (about twenty minutes from Phoenix), home, usually spending the summers at his residence in Walsall, England. In the very early 80s, Halford was still enjoying the hedonistic metalhead lifestyle partying all night and hitting up local metal clubs in Phoenix like Mr. Lucky's – one of the city's most legendary clubs, featuring a giant sign lit with a rather terrifying-looking court jester welcoming you in. Not unlike the equally intimidating clown that still hangs here in Seattle at the beloved punk venue, The Funhouse.
Now, onto the story of how the Metal God quite literally made the local Phoenix band Surgical Steel a heavy metal sensation overnight. Because if we've learned anything about Rob Halford over the decades, it is that he can pretty much do anything. If someone told me that Rob could fly, I'd happily believe them without evidence. During his early days in Phoenix, Halford became good pals with Surgical Steel guitarist Jim Keeler. According to an interview with Badlands bassist Greg Chaisson, who was living and working in Phoenix at the time, he got a call from Keeler asking him if he was watching the Larry Holmes/Jerry Cooney fight on Pay Per View, broadcast in the summer of 1982.
After Chaisson confirmed he was in fact watching the bout, Keeler asked him if he could drop by either Mr. Lucky's (where Chaisson worked) or Chassion's home to watch it, and could bring a "friend.” When Keeler then told him his friend was none other than Rob Halford, Chaisson was quick to doubt his pal. This all changed of course when Keeler showed up with Rob in tow. While hanging out they ended up listening to some jams by Surgical Steel, which Rob dug. This makes sense as Surgical Steel was known for including a number of Judas Priest covers in their live shows, and the vocals of Jeff Martin (who later played drums for Badlands), bore a distinct resemblance to Halford's. Martin also became known for dressing up as "Officer Steel" during live shows–and if you know anything about JP, you know Rob’s “look” has also been compared to a kind of headbanging cop, up to no good. At some point, Rob asked about upcoming Surgical Steel gigs and made arrangements to come to one when he was back in town. If this all sounds like a heavy metal fever dream for an under-the-radar band, just wait. It gets more like a "Dear Penthouse, I can't believe this happened to me" kind of situation.
Rob made good on his promise to see the band live when he returned to Phoenix. Not only did Rob show up to the gig, but he also arranged it himself, booking a large warehouse space for it and charging five bucks at the door, with plenty of beer flowing inside. The show was in no way legal, but it went off without a hitch. Halford also joined Surgical Steel on stage and performed six Priest songs with the band. Much to the delight of, well, everybody with eyes and ears. Word spread fast about what most might have thought was a one-off event and suddenly, or as already stated, pretty much overnight, Surgical Steel became the biggest heavy metal band in Phoenix. And, as it turns out, it wasn't the last gig Surgical Steel would perform with Halford at the helm.
According to Chaisson, Halford would join Surgical Steel for at least six – if not ten – more gigs whenever he was in town, and wherever they could find a place to play. Roller Skating rinks? Check! Bingo Halls? Check! Road Warrior-style shows in the middle of the desert in front of a few thousand of Phoenix's luckiest headbangers? Yep. Halford even recorded a song with Surgical Steel, which they self-released on cassette in 1982 with Halford singing backing vocals on the song "Smooth and Fast."
Though Halford tried in earnest to help the band find a label that would sign them, it never worked out. He and Keeler would keep working together, this time launching the Phoenix-centric entertainment magazine Where It's Hot. And though it doesn't seem like something that should exist, there is footage of Rob and Keeler talking about Where It's Hot (and all kinds of other things), on the very cable-access-y looking show Backstage Pass. What a world.
A photo from a YouTube video of Rob Halford performing with Surgical Steel back in the day in Phoenix.
One last bit about Surgical Steel worth sharing is their appearance in the 1985 film Thunder Alley, shot in Phoenix, starring former teenage-heartthrob Leif Garrett (then 24). In the film, Surgical Steel play themselves and contributed two songs to the soundtrack: "Surrender," and "Give Me Back My Heart,” which they perform “live” in the movie. Lastly, as I understand it, all of the guitar tracks were performed by Scott Shelly. Shelly was not only a guitarist, but an instructor who first introduced the electric six-string guitar to a young Randy Rhoads. According to Randy's brother Kelle, Shelly taught Rhoads for approximately nine months before telling his mother Delores that her son's mastery of the instrument had far eclipsed his own. Now, let's listen to Rob and Surgical Steel while wishing we could have been there ourselves–or maybe you were? Let us know!