An architect at the genesis of an entire genre, KK Downing helped shape the world of heavy metal with its sound, style, and look in Judas Priest along with band mates Rob Halford, Glenn Tipton and Ian Hill. A guitar player who has influenced generations, he’s also the co-author of some of the greatest metal anthems in history. Splitting from the band he helped form in 1969 in 2011, he finally told his incredible story in 2018 autobiography ‘Heavy Duty – Days and Nights in Judas Priest’. We sat down with Ken for an EXCLUSIVE chat about his career, and why he might not have put the guitar down for good. Defender of the faith; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Ken, 2018 was a big year for you wasn’t?
Yeah, it was quite a rollercoaster, really. I’m looking forward to a quiet year this year. We’ll see how it goes.
How was it to finally release your autobiography; ‘Heavy Duty - Days and Nights in Judas Priest’?
Yeah, it was good. It needed doing before the memory goes – you never know what’s going to happen! I wasn’t sure, really. I probably thought I was going to do a bit better than I did [at recalling the story]. But then I had Mark Eglinton [co-writer] – who is very, very good – literally, egging me on to dig deeper and try to remember. I mean, it was going back to the fifties, and it was a long time ago. So it was quite a journey to traverse through your life and pick bits out here and there that you think people might be interested in.
Did you realise the anticipation that there would be for the release of the book?
No, it’s done far better than I actually thought it would. I mean, there’s no doubt about; the publishers are really happy. Rolling Stone have just included it in their best books of the year 2018, which is great. The publishers were really happy with that. And it’s still being released; it’s not released in Germany until February, so yeah, I’m going to be doing interviews for Germany, so I’m kind of keeping going, really.
Why did you decide now was the time to tell your story?
I thought it was good to get the fans to know me a little bit better. They knew of me, but they didn’t know me, as me. Secondly, I thought I wanted just to tell the story about me transforming my own self from a hopeless situation into getting onto the world’s biggest stages, and hopefully that will encourage other people to stick at what they do if they have self-belief. And thirdly, to try and enlighten fans a little bit as to exactly why I found it difficult to sustain my position in the band.
Had you any trepidation in telling your story, given that it’s painfully honest in places?
No, I just thought; “If it comes into my mind and it’s true, and it think it’s worth including I’m just going to include it”, and that’s what I did, really. But I am very, very grateful to have been born when I was, not only to have witnessed the birth and the evolution of music as we know it today, and that’s not just rock and metal either; for all those years I was going through pop, the Beatles, Elvis, the Sex Pistols – it goes on, all the genres of music. And so, how happy am I to have been, not just a witness to that, but actually of being involved with that?
I wanted to go back to the very start of your career; what are your memories of recording your much maligned first album ‘Rocka Rolla’?
I think our disgruntlement was that all the time we were putting these tracks down, we were going into the control room and it was all sounding great, and our disappointment was because we heard it sounding more akin to what we sounded like live, really. Obviously it was my first record, and I can remember thinking; “I’m not too happy about this”. Basically, it was a live performance, because in those days you used to put baffles up between all the instruments to stop the sound bleeding through. So that was a bit like you were in a cage, and you couldn’t always get a visual on the other guys, and it seemed to be so chemical, really, as opposed to being on a stage playing the songs. And it was pretty scary because you had to make sure that you didn’t move too much to create some erroneous noises in quiet parts. It just seemed to be very, very strange, like playing in a telephone kiosk or something.
Have you listened to it recently?
I haven’t. I know that Chris Tsangarides [producer] remastered it and it sounded a lot better. But the problem was, we did all the recordings, it sounded great, but after a 36 hour session, everybody was so tired. Every album that you might make, whether the money runs out or the studio time, or you’ve got to deliver the record; we always say in the industry that an album’s never finished, it just gets to the point where you’ve just got to hand it over. And I think that’s so true, because you can always improve it. But basically, Roger [Bain] – bless him - our producer, he woke up off the couch, he went upstairs, it was probably seven o’clock the next morning, and actually cut the record and sent it straight to press, because we were over-tired, and out of money.
So you were disappointed when you got to hear it for the first time?
When we got the copies back at our homes and we put it on there, it just seemed as though… When you cut a record, you have all the equipment to EQ it, to compress it, limiters and everything, and you can strip the life out of a record, and we felt that had been done, to a bit of an extent. And it can be done. We’ve cut records several times, and when we’ve not been happy in one cutting room or with one cutting engineer, we’ve gone somewhere else. But on this occasion we didn’t have the opportunity.
In the book you reveal that one of the other disappointments you had in those early days was with the title of the ‘Stained Class’ LP.
Yeah, exactly, because that was a conversation we had, and it was kind of [titled] ‘Stained Glass’, and Glenn suggested he wanted to call it ‘Stained CLASS’, and I’m saying’ “Glenn, we’re called Judas Priest; if people see ‘Stained CLASS’, they’re read it as ‘Stained GLASS”. And time and time again, that has proved to be true, because lots of fans have said; “You know, I love ‘Stained Glass” – they call it ‘Stained GLASS’! So that did happen! But anyway, I lost that one.
Moving into the band’s most successful period in the 1980s, and what were those days like for you?
Well, what can I say? I actually refer to that decade as the ‘golden decade’ for everyone, really. The eighties were so good, and a lot of that was because of bands like Judas Priest. We were one of those bands. We released ‘British Steel’ , which was pretty much the consolidation of heavy metal as we know it today. We were Judas Priest, we were flying the flag for heavy rock, and that became heavy metal, and that album was when everything was complete; we had a good selection of songs, we had a great album cover, and it was the first album where we went out on tour and we were all clad in leather and studs.
From there the momentum just gathered.
That enabled us to get a decent position, and some decent tours in the States. We followed that up fairly quickly with two or three albums, and by the time we got to ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ , it seemed like the world was on fire, in respect of music, particularly in rock and metal. There was a massive cross over between the UK and America, and it was all amalgamated; it was all as one. We were on stage with so many American bands, and American bands would come over here, and we would just amalgamate and tour together, and it was just a big melting pot of rock and metal bands from both sides of the Atlantic.
Judas Priest’s most ‘American’ period was possibly the ‘Turbo’ album, in 1986.
We were on a high, and the band was flying. There was so much going on. It was crazy. I can remember being left in Florida to finish up the mixing of the ‘Priest Live’ album, and Glenn got on a plane and he and Rob were jetting off to do other things that needed to be done. It was the point where we couldn’t even think as a band anymore; we’d have to like, split up [into factions]; we were so busy doing so many things. But yeah, wonderful days. There were so many shows coming through everyone’s town. In those days we would do two to three months touring major cities, then we would go back out again for a couple of months, playing in Little Rock, Arkansas; Biloxi, Mississippi, in the secondary markets, but that all seems to have gone now.
A surprising thing followed that period, in that it 1988 you went into the studio to record three tracks with pop production team Stock Aitken Waterman.
First of all, I’ve got to say, I don’t have the songs. I did have them, but where they are, I don’t know. But I can remember that, and it was just by association, really. Bill Curbishley, our manager knew Pete Waterman very well, and he invited him over to, I think we were in the studio in Denmark [recording ‘Ram It Down’]. Pete flew out, we met him, and the suggestion was that we’d do a few tracks with Stock Aitken Waterman, because exciting things can happen in music, and everything’s worth a shot, and we gave that a shot! So, we had a break from the studio in Denmark, and before we went back there we flew to Paris and the studio was booked, and we went in there with the guys who were seriously professional. Those guys were absolutely at the top of their game, there’s no doubt about it, and their pre-preparation for us to walk in there and record what we did, was exemplary, really. Everything was prepared, it really was, so that helped us to do the recordings very quickly and efficiently. We did play a lot of table tennis in between. Those guys are pretty good table tennis players – not Pete, but Stock and Aitken were! So it was a good memory, really.
Do you remember what tracks you recorded, other than the Stylistics cover?
‘You Are Everything’, that was one, and there was another song that was called ‘Runaround’, and there was another one that was a bit more rocky, but I can’t remember the name of that. We just decided collectively that it wasn’t for Judas Priest to release those songs. I suppose you get thrown a curve ball a little, with Eddie Van Halen playing on ‘Thriller’ and stuff like that, so you tend to think that these associations can work, and they do sometimes, don’t they? I mean, that’s unforgettable, that Eddie Van Halen solo, isn’t it?
One of the more stunning revelations in the book is that you were readying your resignation letter at the completion of the ‘Painkiller’ tour in 1991, and then Rob beat you to it.
It was not a good time for me. I wasn’t content with internal things in the band. It’s one of those things; you get into a relationship, and the little things are just ginormous, and they just grow and grow as time goes on. And I guess that little idiosyncrasies and things that you’re unhappy with; you can see that people know that you’re unhappy, but they keep doing it. It winds you up, and you just start to feel like somebody’s taking the piss, and it gets hard to keep swallowing it, you know? If things happen during a live performance, some people smash the singer or the guitar player over the head with their guitar or something – things happen, people walk off, but that was never going to happen for me; I was never going to destroy a show, but like I say, you can’t do anything about it, and you feel so helpless. Backstage in the dressing room, you can do something about it if somebody pisses you off, but during the live performance you can’t, but it got to be really unmanageable, really.
Why did you decide to stick around?
I did compose my leaving letter, but I sat on it, and I actually sat on it at the end of that tour for a couple of months, I’m guessing, something like that. I thought; “I’ll just sit on it, and see how I feel when the dust settles”, and not make any rash moves. And then Rob handed his notice in, and I thought; “Well, that’s probably it then”, really. Glenn had already got in the pipeline he wanted to do a solo album, and I think Rob probably found out about that and thought; “I’m going to do it first”. So that’s what Rob did, and then Glenn took forever doing his stuff, and it was difficult to find somebody to replace Rob, and we never achieved it in the end anyway, as brilliant as Ripper [new singer, Tim Owens] was. You can’t replace the voice in the band. Even now, there’s even girls that could play mine and Glenn’s parts, and do a damn good job. It’s easy to use the wheel, but it’s not so easy to invent it, and at least they can use our sound; but the texture, and the delivery of a voice, you can’t do it. One band; one voice; it’s Freddy [for] Queen; Mick Jagger, the Stones; Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden; and the list goes on, really.
Did you find that tough to deal with; that you were fighting a losing battle during the ‘Jugulator’ / ‘Demolition’ [1996 – 2001] era?
Yeah. You know, being in a band, and being a band member, you really just can’t see the wood for the trees sometimes; you think you can, but you can’t. Sometimes you put a song on an album, and every fan in the world would say; “Don’t put that song on the album!”, but we go ahead and do it because we’re alone and in a studio in the middle of Ibiza somewhere, and the fans are not there. So instead of playing the damn record to all the fans and saying; “What do you think?”, we just go ahead and give it to the record company. And that’s kind of what happens, really. It’s not the right thing to do, and when I opened my own website [K.K. Downing’s Steel Mill], it’s fans that run it, and it’s a great benchmark for me.
Looking back, what, for you are the best tracks and albums that Judas Priest recorded?
There’s some sleepers on there, here and there throughout the albums. There’s a fair bit on ‘Turbo’, stuff like ‘Locked In’, and I think that album is a bit of a different entity. I love the album, it’s a great album, and it should have been ginormous. It was pretty big anyway, but it tells a story that we lost a lot of guys [in the fan base], but we gained a lot of girls, which probably in the long term it wasn’t completely ideal. But I’m still proud of what we did, and when we did it.
But in my heart of hearts, I’m kind of the heavier guy in the band, so I like stuff that is darker, whether it’s ‘Blood Red Skies’, or whether it’s ‘Beyond The Realms of Death’, it can be ‘Sinner’, ‘Victim of Changes’, ‘Exciter’, it can be ‘Genocide’, you know, just the darker side, the more metal side, really, and, and that’s kind of my preference. So, I would have to say for that reason that the ‘Painkiller’ album is pretty faultless, and I’d probably say ‘British Steel’ was as well, to be fair. I think ‘Painkiller’ is exactly ‘British Steel’ ten years later on. That’s what I think, so therefore we have a natural evolution of Judas Priest.
In terms of song writing, the credits split the song writing three ways between you, Rob and Glenn, but can you point to any riffs that were yours?
Well, I’d have to go album by album I think, and try to remember. But I consider that myself and Tony Iommi are the two metal riff mongers that have ever been produced. I mean, not to take anything away from Glenn, but Glenn was always a bit more commercial than me. So, you should be able to listen to my riffs, really if you think about it; if you listen to ‘Judas Rising’, for example of or if you listen to ‘Victim of Changes’. It’s difficult for me to try and encapsulate. A lot of the stuff on ‘Nostradamus’ was me, but not just the heavy stuff; a lot of the melodic stuff as well.
If we go back to ‘Rocka Rolla’, ‘Run of the Mill’, that was there before Glenn was there, but that’s what really heavy guys used to come up with; these big emotional ballads. That would take you to another place and then when you come back with the heavy stuff again, it’s rekindled. An album had to have all of the ingredients, just like a good movie needs drama but excitement as well, all of it. That’s the way bands did it; Deep Purple did something like ‘Child in Time’, and then they’d bust into something like ‘Speed King’, and it was wonderful. It’s great to have that contrast.
Do you still play guitar these days?
I do, but it’s amazing, I don’t know, the older you get, there just seems to be no time. It’s just the way of the world. I don’t know where I found all the time from before. I suppose it’s because it was the only thing that I did! But I’m hoping to get most of this year out of the way and hopefully try to find more time. I spend just as much time having conversations and sending emails backwards and forwards with musicians, really, who are trying to get me to do something.
Is there anyone you can name who has tried to collaborate with or recruit you?
It probably wouldn’t be fair to give the names, but it’s probably no secret that Paul Crook, who’s Meat Loaf’s guitar player and producer, Paul’s a great guy and a very good guitar player, and he wanted me to do something with [former Priest drummer] Les Binks, and with Ripper, and Joey Vera, who’s a great bass player. But I’m not ready yet. There’s been quite a lot of others, and I’m still talking to some people. A lot of people out there are thinking; “Oh yeah, this would be great; I’m from this band, my good mate is from that really well known band, if we get KK”… We’re talking about the formation of a super group, which doesn’t really work these days. You get four or five guys from different bands; what songs are you going to play? What is the image of the band? There’s no real credentials; you’ve got a bit from this band, that band and the other band, but collectively, it doesn’t really have substance.
Is that super group scenario being discussed, or is it something that you’ve dismissed?
No, I’ve kind of dismissed it, and that’s kind of where people are going with it. It’s so difficult. I’ve been doing this a long time with one band, and I’m far too seasoned now – that means I’m old! - to; 1) want to start over again, and; 2) to be in a hybrid band. It doesn’t really work for me, so I’m having to tread very carefully. Some of these guys think we could make a great sound together - and I’m sure that we would - but you have to think; you’ve got mouths to feed, so you’d want management, record label, accountants, crew. And a lot of the people, they’re in different countries. When me, Ian and Rob got together, everybody was from the local area. Even Glenn was from Halesowen, which is about seven miles from where I was born, and Glenn was the furthest one away! That’s the way it was in those days. Now one’s in Nashville, one’s in Germany, so how this all works is quite difficult, really!
Looking forward, and the publishers are bound to be asking about a follow-up book.
Yeah, that has been mentioned. This book has been so successful, but it’s still kind of relevant, really, and until it doesn’t become as relevant, I can’t really think of doing anything else, really. I’m still touring with the book. So I’ve got to try and find a bit of time from somewhere.
Have you any plans to return to music in 2019?
I have recently set up my music room and everything is poised, ready to go. But I’m a bit fussy. If I played with another guitar player, I’d like to play with someone who’s really quite well-schooled, musically, as in, the guys in Racer X, for example, so you can actually talk what you want to do - you don’t have to show people. It’s a language, isn’t it, and I’ve never played with anybody that I couldn’t talk the language too. It’s a lot easier to experiment with parts if you can actually talk the language. It’s a lot quicker to do that when you’re experimenting.
It sounds as though the guitar hasn’t been put down for good.
No, obviously. But I think to be honest, my one frustration is that I was always improving as a player, really. I always thought that I was better than most players because I can improvise, and I always thought that that’s what the best musicians could do. When I saw the great Jimi Hendrix or a great jazz player, they improvised. Anybody can play the same solo night after night, year after year, decade after decade and wow people, but you can play it in your sleep. But when you stand up there and throw the gauntlet down, when you start to improvise, you can break out into a sweat, but it’s good, it’s exciting; it’s a moment.
Regarding the recent auction of your guitars, it looks like you’ve hung on to your iconic red Hamer mini-v.
I’ve got a few guitars that I don’t really need but I kept them for various reasons. I’ve kept everything that is usable. The older stuff, my profile was probably at its height when that auction went, and Bonham’s [auctioneers] called me up and said; “This is a world record, the sale of this flying V, in this genre of music”.
That was your ’67 Gibson Flying V, wasn’t it?
Yeah. It was always my flagship instrument. I thought it would sell for about £70-£80,000, but obviously it went past that. But Bonham’s are inundated with people still wanting my guitars. Somebody’s opening up a museum on the south coast of France, and they’re pestering me still. I wish I had a lot more, really! But the thing is, I’m 67 years old now, and it was probably the right time to do it.
You’ve come a long way in those years since the start of your career.
I was there trying to create a style of; call it ‘white man’s blues’, whatever you want to call it, for the underprivileged, the minority, but it was only because I was unable to hear music on the radio or television that meant something to me. That’s what I was trying to do, and I knew that there were lots and lots of people like me. That was my role. It got a bit more commercial than I anticipated, but I had to accept that I couldn’t do this alone; I had to consider my band mates and what they wanted to do musically. But I’m eternally grateful to all of my band mates for being a part of everything with me, and what we achieved. Nothing can ever take that away, irrespective of any fall outs or how it ended; it was tremendously successful, and I’m tremendously proud of what we did.
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KK Downing's 'Heavy Duty - Days And Nights In Judas Priest' is out now.