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In 1979 The Buttons Opened for Judas Priest; It Didn't Go Well - by Ricki C.

(editor's note: Ricki C. wanted to follow up Scott's Judas Priest story with his own first-hand Priest story.)

Click here to read Scott's story

Sometime in early 1979 Willie Phoenix’s then-current band The Buttons opened for Judas Priest at the Agora Club here in Columbus, Ohio.  (I tried to find the exact date utilizing the InterWideWeb, but couldn’t locate it in Judas Priest tour logs.)  I was working as a roadie for The Buttons when that show took place.  It was a bloodbath.  For the uninitiated, it was roughly like The Raspberries (Eric Carmen’s pride of Cleveland, Ohio power-pop assemblage) opening for Black Sabbath in 1972 or so.  (I guess in more contemporary terms it would be like Columbus’ The Whiles opening for Metallica.)

My job at that point on the road crew of The Buttons – at least when they played The Agora, which had a first-class lighting rig – was to run lights.  Willie’s reasoning was that I knew all the songs, knew when the choruses, bridges & solos were going to come up and could do the most to highlight those changes.  I was no Marc Brickman with Bruce Springsteen, but I have to admit (and simultaneously pat myself on the back), I became a pretty good lighting guy.  

When the opening slot for Judas Priest came up, pretty much NOBODY on the band or crew were crazy about the idea. True, The Buttons (and Romantic Noise, the previous incarnation of The Buttons before a name change at the end of 1978) had become the go-to local Columbus band to open Agora shows.  Previously Willie & the guys (Greg Glasgow on bass, John Ballor, lead guitar & drummer Dee Hunt) had opened shows for The Ramones, The David Johansen Group, Squeeze and a coupla others that slip my mind.  (Later, after Dee & I left the organization they did a TRULY STUNNING opening set for Talking Heads at Mershon Auditorium.  I witnessed that performance from the audience and DESPERATELY wished I could have been a part of it.)

But I digress……Did I say NOBODY in the band thought a Judas Priest opener was a good idea? No, WILLIE thought it was a good idea.  Willie was a force of nature at that time (as he still shows flashes of to this day).  He had a truly charismatic stage presence and a KILLER band to back him up.  He knew no fear, no goal he set was unattainable, he admitted no limits.  BUT – and this is a big but – opening for Judas Priest was another beast entirely. Playing in front of The Ramones’ or David Johansen’s crowds was a natural fit for the punk-edged power-pop of Romantic Noise and The Buttons; the Judas Priest mob of metalheads, quaalude-kings and West Side reprobates I had grown up with and amongst were another animal entirely.  (My use of the word “animal” in this context borders more on the literal than the figurative.)

From my catbird seat at the lighting board up in the Agora balcony I could tell there were gonna be problems from the very beginning.  When I brought the stagelights up after the Buttons had positioned themselves onstage there was this kind of low murmur of disapproval at the sight of five-foot two, black, dreadlock-sporting, left-handed Willie Phoenix center stage in some kind of Sgt. Pepper jacket.  

Boos were starting before they played a note, but Willie cut ‘em off by counting in the first song of the set.  After the first tune, not one person clapped. There were probably 750 people in the 1300 capacity Agora that night (this was well before Rob Halford’s arena days) and not one person clapped.  In fact, nobody made a sound.  It was the quietest I had ever heard that club.  (One night in spring or summer 1978 Romantic Noise had played a no-publicity, virtually-unannounced Wednesday night show at the Agora and only SEVEN people showed up.  And THAT audience was noisier than the Judas Priest crowd.)        

Things never got better.  By the end of the second song loud, sustained booing started ringing out.  During the third tune the crowd started throwing stuff at the stage: cups, beer bottles, coins, sandwich wrappers, pieces of pizza (the Agora served food back in the day) began raining down on the band.  Mid-set a CRUTCH flew out of the crowd and crashed into Dee’s drum-kit.  (Three or four years after that night I was telling this story in a West Side bar and the guy who THREW that crutch was sitting at the table. “Hey, that was ME!” he slurred, “I had banged up my knee on my Harley and Security wouldn’t give me my crutch back.  My buddies had to carry me out that night.”)    

Partway through the set, Steve Sines – the lead singer of local band The Muff Brothers (later simply The Muffs) – sat down next to me at the lighting board.  He’d been hired by the Agora to run lights that night for Judas Priest, who didn’t even carry their own lighting guy at that point.  “Your boys are havin’ a rough time up there,” he said, lighting up a joint and offering it to me.  “Yeah, I noticed,” I replied, declining the joint, feeling like I shouldn’t be enjoying myself up in the balcony as debris and boos washed over my employers down on the stage.  I was nothing if not fiercely loyal to Willie & the guys. 

The Buttons had stopped even pausing between songs in the set, powering right through from one song to the next, to not give the crowd time to catcall and throw beer.  (I figure the whole thing was pretty much like when Watershed opened for The Insane Clown Posse, but with a lot less Faygo; and this was just one show, not an entire TOUR.)  I give ‘em credit, they finished the 40-minute set.  They never backed down for a minute.  They battled that Judas Priest crowd to at least a stalemate.

During the last song, Willie took off his prized Les Paul Junior and bashed it to kindling on the Agora stage, Pete Townshend-style, giving his all to do ANYTHING to get a rise out of that audience, to salvage that set.  “Can he AFFORD that?” Steve Sines asked, wide-eyed, the joint paused in mid-air as he took in Willie’s six-string destructo finish.  “No, he cannot,” I said back to Steve, “no, he CAN NOT at all.”  I would’ve walked off that stage after five songs.  I wouldn’t have given that mob the time of day; Willie gave them his Les Paul.  That is why Willie Phoenix is a rock star and I am a Pencilstorm writer.  Willie, I salute you. – Ricki C. / February 26th, 2017

The Buttons / 1979

The Buttons / 1979 / "Hot Beat"

Judas Priest / 1979 / students, compare & contrast