It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Judas Priest‘s Breaking The Law video remains a high point of Western Civilisation generally.
The song itself has seeped into popular culture to the point that over 76% of the population can no longer refer to the song without saying Breaking The Law twice in quick succession.
Alongside great cinematic moments such as the almost dialogue-free opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, the climactic chasing down of Orson Welles through Vienna’s sewers in The Third Man, and Hugh Grant’s complicated portrayal of a horny Prime Minister in Love Actually, stands this ground breaking video to Judas Priest’s Breaking The Law.
Filmed in 1980, this was an early example of a music video (MTV launched in 1981) and was directed by Julien Temple (Career highlights: The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners, Oil City Confidential, The Filth and The Fury, S Club 7’s “Have You Ever“).
The plot itself is complex. Although at first sight one might believe it centres around a bank heist, further inspection reveals underlying themes including a critique of the quality and health of British manufacturing and standards of security and health and safety at the turn of the eighties.
After an opening vignette featuring some priests in top hats feeding pigeons, a sleeping security guard with a copy of Penthouse magazine on his desk (surely inappropriate reading material for the workplace?) and a similarly chapeau’d man striding out of a “Love Shop”, we see a “completely wasting, out-of-work and down” Rob Halford. The viewer is intrigued. He looks pretty cross about his life and job prospects, yet he is being chauffeured in a convertible sports car at high speed. We might suspect he has been taking a rather liberal view of the country’s benefits system. How can he afford to run the car and driver? And why is he having a better time than the viewer, despite his unemployment and future prospects? Thus far these are all unanswered questions.
We follow the car to a branch of the local bank. It is an peculiar looking branch, with no external facia to identify it as, say, a branch of Midland or Nat West in a clear breach of those banks’ Corporate Branding policies. More questions tumble out as Rob, KK and Glenn tumble in to the branch.
Why do the bank staff (including cashiers named as Ian Fitzgerald and Sue Cuss) look threatened by the (unplugged) electric guitars being used to force an entrance? These are not in themselves offensive weapons. A blond chap, who looks like the lead singer from Dollar, also looks terrified. Perhaps he is frightened by the unexplained and mystical appearance of a bass player and a fully set up drum kit and drummer in the banking hall? Or maybe it’s just Glenn Tipton‘s red trousers that are upsetting everyone. They are certainly offensive.
Halford remonstrates with the public: “So much for the Golden Future” he sings as they lie on the floor, “I can’t even start”, conveniently ignoring the chauffeured limousine that brought him to the bank.
The old cashier’s glasses then crack despite the guitars being unplugged. Poor quality from Specsavers? (To be fair this optician is not expressly named as the guilty party). Sonic technology has to be immediately ruled out as the culprit given the lack of amplification. Let’s face it – it would be very unlikely in any event that the guitar player in question (KK Downing) would be able to instantly find the correct note and frequency on his fretboard to shatter the glass on a complete stranger’s eyewear especially whilst he patiently explains to the cashier that he wants the safe opened. Also worth pointing out that given KK’s predilection for using his whammy bar (to the extent that the Police Siren heard on the track was created by his strat) the idea that he might achieve the required continuous sustain of a single note is fanciful. Glenn Tipton’s steadier hand might have been able to accomplish this, maybe – but not KK. So are we witnessing unheard-of technology? Or is this an elaborate hoax with the bank staff “in” on the crime, and simply playing along: aiding and abetting the minstrel crime-lords in return for a share of the spoils, presumably hoping that the still nascent ’80s CCTV technology will be too pixellated and thus unable to discern the difference between a sawn off shotgun and a ’76 Gibson Flying V?
In Tarantino’s Magnum Opus Reservoir Dogs a sub-plot included how the relationships formed by men put together under forced circumstances were put under stress by the ever more desperate circumstances that befell them. In Priest’s Breaking The Law we see for ourselves just how the seams in a pair of leather trousers are put under stress when worn by a Birmingham heavy metal band throwing lunges six years and six albums since their debut release.
The bank staff are acting pretty realistically: preserving a look of horror upon seeing the band that perhaps might only have been witnessed had Jan Moir turned up naked to Stephen Gateley‘s funeral carrying party balloons and a bag of charlie.
The band then ghost through the cashier run – the bank has no glass to separate the cashier area and the banking hall – surely a schoolboy error by security and one likely to invalidate their insurance.
Further security weaknesses are exposed when the safe opens unaided when guitars (still unplugged) are pointed towards it. Given the thickness of the door and the two sets of keys plus combination lock that is otherwise required to open it, it does seem to be a huge oversight on the part of the manufacturer to allow such an easy over-ride of the locks. Someone’s going to lose their job over this.
Halford then overcomes the further security of an interior safe protected by iron bars by bending them to one side with childish ease. Again, you have to say that the wrong thickness of bars was used in the design and construction phase in what is becoming a critique of British industry (and perhaps British Steel) from a band originally from the industrial heartland of the country.
Indeed the only thing that works in this film is the (German?) made car that brings the unhappy Halford to and from the bank. Is this satire?
Halford liberates a Gold Disc of Priest’s album British Steel – it isn’t made clear why it was there under lock and key – perhaps a metaphor for the tyranny of the record industry? “You don’t know what it’s like!” screams Halford, holding his Gold Disc as he takes it to his Driver to look after in his waiting convertible. Rather rubbing it in, that, I think – a bit ungracious – especially after all that whining at the start of the record.
In the meantime, the security guard has woken, and has found an inverse Flying V he just happened to have lying around. Like one of the children of Hamlyn, he begins to be hypnotised by the music playing and plays the guitar rather flamboyantly: what a Square!
The band drive off and are soon on the North Circular. No room for Dave Holland’s drums, which have been left at the scene. He is left tapping awkwardly with his hands on the dashboard as the film ends, hoping none of the guys notice. “You left what at the scene?! And the drumsticks too?!”
You can picture Jack Regan of The Sweeney running in and examining the scene: “So what was stolen? A Gold Disc of British Steel? Any clues? A drum kit with Judas Priest written on the bass drum skin? Hmmmm. Can you describe the villains? Red trousers and Brummie accents? Could be Black Sabbath. Anything else? Two guitarists? Ahah! Right, get Judas Priest on the phone. Now put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea…”
Record #139: Judas Priest – Breaking The Law