An Interview with Allan Atkins of Judas Priest

All images courtesy of Allan Atkins/Wiki Commons


By Andrew DiCecco
adicecco@vinylwriter.com

Before soaring to the apex of heavy metal and gracing the world’s grandest stages, Judas Priest’s humble beginnings can be traced back to 1969, when West Bromwich native Allan Atkins co-founded the first iteration of the band in Birmingham, England.

As a means of maintaining continuity, the visionary vocalist surrounded himself with a trio of like-minded musicians with whom he was familiar, including bassist and co-founder Brian ‘Bruno’ Stapenhill, guitarist John Perry, and drummer John Partridge.

As I recollect, Al and myself were in a band called Jug Blues Band with Barry Civil and Jim and John Perry,” Stapenhill said. “It was a good band, but unfortunately, we split when Barry and Jim left. Jim was replaced by another drummer that Al and myself had worked with before, John Partridge.

Pulling inspiration from Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” Stapenhill coined the name Judas Priest.

We were trying to think of a name similar to Black Sabbath,” Stapenhill recalled. “I was listening to Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding one night, [and] the last track was The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I put my suggestion to the band, and it was accepted. The rest is history…

Following Perry’s tragic passing at age 18, the initial configuration of Judas Priest navigated a series of lineup changes before ultimately dissolving. When Atkins subsequently discovered a band called Freight rehearsing without a singer, he effectively completed a newly minted quartet that included guitarist K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill, and drummer John Ellis and reinvented Judas Priest as a new band.

Myself, Ian, and a drummer called John Ellis, we got together, and we would try to improvise some solos,” Downing recounted in an interview with VWMusic. “Which I enjoyed doing, then eventually, Al Atkins, the singer, knocked on the rehearsal door and said‘Are you guys looking for a singer?’ And we went, ‘Yes!’ Then we went up to the pub to rejoice and called the band Judas Priest, which I was very, very happy about because I had auditioned for Judas Priest a year earlier but didn’t make the grade.

With a family to care for, Atkins proved to be too burdened by Judas Priest’s financial hardships and left the band in May 1973 to pursue a steady nine-to-five job, but not before leaving his genetic fingerprints behind. His notable contributions include co-writing “Whiskey Woman” with Downing, which later became part of renowned setlist mainstay, “Victim of Changes.”

In our recent sit-down, Atkins shared his latest endeavors and recounted the storied origins of one of heavy metal’s founding fathers, Judas Priest.

Andrew: 
Thanks for taking the time, Allan. To start, I’d like to rewind to the beginning. What was your earliest introduction to music, and what ultimately gravitated you towards singing?

Al: 
It started with me in the early swinging beat explosion of the 60s, listening to The Beatles and The [Rolling] Stones, and it was a very exciting time for music. My dad bought me a set of drums to practice on, and I was away. Nearly every kid on the block wanted to play in a band, but very few could play any good. But I found a gem of a guitarist named Brian ‘Bruno’ Stapenhill, who was about a year younger than me and was still at school. He was self-taught but had a gift and could play all the Hank Marvin and the Shadows instrumentals, which was a great asset to have. We got ourselves a bass player and rhythm guitarist but couldn’t find a vocalist who was any good, so I took over that role, as well as playing drums. We called ourselves The Medallions (cringe) and started playing the local pubs, clubs, weddings, and anywhere else we could.

Andrew:
Who were some of your primary vocal influences in your formative years?

Al: 
After going through lots of band changes, I eventually gave up drumming to concentrate on my vocals. My main influences in the ’60s were Roger Daltry (The Who) and Paul Rogers (Free).

Andrew:
When you were growing up, was there a concert or moment that influenced you to pursue a career in music?

Al: 
Not really; music was something I always wanted to do from an early age. But one band changed Bruno and me after listening to them playing at a Marshall Amplification exhibition in Birmingham in the late ’60s, and the band was Deep Purple. God, they were good – and loud – and now, I had a new influence in Ian Gillan. We found the road in music that we wanted to follow.

Andrew:
Tell us about coming up in the England music scene from your perspective.

Al: 
It was a fantastic, magical time. My one young band, The Bitta Sweet, opened up for many top artists who were rising up through the waves of music, people like David Bowie, Long John Baldry, Elton John, Robert Plant, and Rod Stewart, to name just a few.

All images courtesy of Allan Atkins/Wiki Commons

Andrew:
Judas Priest formed in Birmingham, England, in 1969 with Brian, John Perry, and John Partridge. What are you able to recall about how that group came together?

Al:
I decided to form a heavier formation band with players I had been involved with over the years and with the same mindset. My first was obviously Bruno on bass, John Perry on guitar, and John Partridge on drums.

Andrew:
Where was the name Judas Priest derived from?

Al: 
The name came from a Bob Dylan album called John Wesley Harding and the song title “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” We were looking for a double barrel name like Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, and Bruno came up with that one.

Andrew:
When John Perry tragically ended his life at the age of eighteen, did the band ever consider calling it quits?

Al:  
Yes, at first, obviously, but a few weeks after his funeral, I said, “Let’s continue and do this, just for John.” And we all agreed.

Andrew:
A guitarist named K.K. Downing auditioned for the vacancy but lost out to Ernest Chataway. How do you remember K.K.’s audition, and why did you feel he wasn’t the right fit at that time?

Al:  
K.K. was one of the first guitarists we auditioned to replace John, and although he was a good-looking young kid, he just didn’t come up to the standard we were after. We asked him to jam out a 12-bar blues but couldn’t really tell what he was playing, with him going wild on his wah-wah pedal. Ernie from Birmingham was around the same age as K.K. but had been taught to play guitar at a very young age, and he could also play a mean harmonica and piano. At the audition, he played “Woodchoppers Ball” on his Gibson 335 to perfection.

Brian ‘Bruno’ Stapenhill:  
I remember that audition well; it was at my mom and dad’s house in the front room. We all plugged into a small Dallas practice amp and said we would play a 12-bar — blues, rock and roll, shuffle or whatever. Ken said he didn’t know what a 12-bar was. Boy did he learn well…

Andrew:
When I spoke to K.K., he mentioned that before he was in the band, he vividly remembered seeing a van driving across the housing estate with ‘Judas Priest’ spray painted on it. Any memory of that van?

Al:  
Yes, it was an old Commer van driven by one of our old roadies, John’ Magnet’ Ward, who later joined Deep Purple as Ian Paice’s drum tech. A funny story is when we toured Scotland, and we visited an old monastery in the mountains. I still remember the monks’ faces when we pulled up and got out of the van with our long hair and ‘Judas Priest’ painted on it. It was as if aliens had just landed.

All images courtesy of Allan Atkins/Wiki Commons

Andrew:
What were the two demo tracks that landed the band a three-album deal with Immediate Records, and why did that deal ultimately fall through?

Al: 
The songs were called “Good Time Woman” and “We’ll Stay Together,” which I wrote with the instructions of our management to try and make them sound commercial. We had Decca Records interested, but we were a different sounding live band from the demos, so they passed. But Immediate Records loved us, and we signed a deal with them. Unfortunately, they went bust before we recorded anything for them. After returning from a tour of Scotland and firing our unreliable drummer, Bruno said he had been offered a job playing in Denmark, and the band had just split up.

Andrew:
In the wake of the first iteration of Judas Priest disbanding, you stumbled across a band called Freight rehearsing. From your perspective, Allan, how did the second version of Judas Priest come together?

Al:  
I took a break away from music for a while but soon started to miss it again, and decided to form another band and went along to some rehearsal rooms called Holy Joe’s, which was an old church schoolhouse run by a Vicar (Father Husband). Lots of bands from around the Black Country used these rooms to rehearse, like Slade, Trapeze, and Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. I listened outside one of the rooms and liked the sound of one of the bands that I was hearing. So, I popped my head around the door to see who it was, and there were three long-haired, head-banging young guys jamming away; one was K.K., and the other two were Ian Hill on bass and John Ellis on drums. K.K. recognized me, we shook hands, and I said I was looking for a new band, and said, “I see you haven’t got a vocalist, so is there a chance we could get together?” And they said, “Yes, sure.” I didn’t like the name of their band, Freight, and I suggested they use my old band’s name, Judas Priest. And again, they all agreed. So, that was the start of Judas Priest, around Oct 1970.

Andrew:
Do you remember any of the covers on the setlist from that first gig on March 6, 1971?

Al:
I haven’t got a clue. I remember some covers that we played in the early years, like “Spanish Castle Magic” (Hendrix) and some songs by Savoy Brown, but we changed a lot of songs around a lot, and I started adding some of mine too.

Andrew:
If you could, Allan, take me through the creative process behind the song “Whiskey Woman,” which later became “Victim of Changes.”

Al:  
The idea I had for the “Whiskey Woman” song was when I was listening to “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin with the vocals on their own, in between a heavy guitar riff. I later heard that Zeppelin had the idea for “Black Dog” from listening to “Oh Well” by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. [Laughs]. “Whiskey Woman” got kicked around a lot before Judas Priest eventually recorded it by adding the twin harmony guitar intro and the slow ending – which was one of Rob’s songs called “Red Light Lady,” I believe – and retitling it to “Victim of Changes.” And what a brilliant job they did.

All images courtesy of Allan Atkins/Wiki Commons

Andrew:
You and K.K. wrote “Never Satisfied,” “Caviar and Meths,” and “Winter,” as well. Describe the songwriting dynamic between yourself and K.K.

Al:
Well, I was more experienced and a little older than K.K. and took the reins in the writing side of things, so most of the songs were my idea, with K.K adding to them. One of his first songs that he wrote was “Run of The Mill,” which was just the music and no lyrics, so it was great to hear the finished article on Rocka Rolla. And what a great track it was.

Andrew:
What was your opinion of the four-piece configuration? Did you ever feel like it was missing an extra guitar?

Al:  
No, most bands were four-piece back then, like Led Zeppelin and [Black] Sabbath. It was David Howells at Gull Records that gave them the idea to be a bit different, like one of his other bands, Wishbone Ash. And what a great idea it was.

Andrew:
Were there any other early Judas Priest songs you helped contribute to that were eventually released on a record?

Al:  
The “Dreamer Deceiver” track, which I think they used a riff of mine.

Andrew:
Any recollection of your last performance in the winter of 1972 and your reasons for leaving the band?

Al: 
Actually, I left in May 1973. I remember playing some of my last gigs at The Hippodrome in Birmingham with Family and Liverpool Town Hall with Budgie. I had to leave them in the end because the bigger we got, the more overhead we got, too. So, we were still not earning a lot of cash, which I needed to survive, being the only one married with a small daughter to feed. It was hard, but I left and got a 9-to-5 “proper job,” as my late dad used to say.

All images courtesy of Allan Atkins/Wiki Commons

Andrew:
What were your thoughts on the band Hiroshima, who you shared the circuit with, and how did you view Rob Halford as your replacement at the time?

Al:  
I had heard of Hiroshima but never saw them live. As you said, they were in the same agency as us, and the Flying Hat Band, too, which featured Glenn Tipton, who we played with on the same bill together once at the Plaza Ballroom in Birmingham. When Rob came in to take my place, I was intrigued to see what they sounded like and was quite impressed with his theatrical performance and vocals.

Andrew:
Since you left Priest, what have you been up to?

Al: 
I’ve done so much since my days in Judas Priest, and obviously, I had to leave that 9-to-5 job and got divorced, too. My next band was called LION (’73-’78), which featured my old mate Bruno, Harry Tonks (guitar), and Pete Boot (drums) from Budgie. We rode on through the punk explosion in the mid-to-late ’70s but finally gave up after recording just the one single called “On The Wheel.” What a great band, and if we had carried on a few more years, we would have entered the NWOBHM [New wave of British heavy metal] era, and who knows? Our sound engineer, ‘Big’ Mick Hughes, later joined up with Metallica and is still with them after all these years (RIP Harry and Pete).        

Towards the end of the ’80s, I decided to take up a solo career and recorded my first two albums for a German label. Then I recorded one for Judas Priest’s first label, Gull Records, one for Neat Metal Records, and another for Sweden. I toured the USA with Dennis Stratton (Iron Maiden) and later formed my new band Holy Rage, which recorded just one album. Next came AMP (Atkins/May/Project) with guitarist Paul May, and so far, we have recorded four albums and are recording the next as we speak.

Andrew:
Thanks for your time, Allan. Last one. Judas Priest recently received its long-awaited induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and I wanted to hear your thoughts on the induction. As a founding member, are you surprised or disappointed you won’t be joining them?

Al:
I’m well pleased for them and not disappointed at all. I’ve left them a long time now, and they have done all the hard work to achieve this honor. So, best of luck to them. I’ll be watching it on TV with my feet up and a glass of red.

All images courtesy of Allan Atkins/Wiki Commons

Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is the Senior Editor for vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at adicecco@vinylwriter.com

One thought on “An Interview with Allan Atkins of Judas Priest

  1. Great story of the early British rock scene, I really enjoyed it, as for Lion I was Pete Boot’s (Rip)drum roadie for a while and we had some real fun on the road, Lion was a phenomenal rock band, every bit on par with all the others, Lion.had to have a name change to Warior as jenny haan from Babe Ruth had formed a new band called Jenny Haan’s Lion and got in first threatening to sue and physically harm someone, I recall Lion playing the marquee in London supporting Cheap Trick and blowing them off the stage, we got 4 yes 4 encores and Cheap trick didn’t go down so well afterwards, it’s nice to have recently caught up with Al and Bruno after 31 years, I still regard them as dear friends and I wish them luck in the future, Bruno Stapenhill inspired me to take up bass guitar again making me a competent bassist playing with a plethora of all genres of bands in the west Midlands, I’m now 60 yo and still playing, thanks Al and Bruno.
    Phil Hammond

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