An Interview with K.K. Downing of K.K.’s Priest

Image credit: JudasPriest.com

Once representing half of the blistering twin-guitar attack that fueled Judas Priest, K.K. Downing is already entrenched in the annals of heavy metal history and heralded among the most iconic axe-slingers of the genre.

These days, however, Downing has forged an entirely different path. The 70-year-old guitarist resurfaced in dramatic fashion last year with the album Sermons Of The Sinner, a powerful debut released under the name of his new vehicle, K.K.’s Priest.

The assembled lineup, which features, Downing, Tim “Ripper” Owens (vocals), A.J. Mills (guitars), Tony Newton (bass), and Sean Elg (drums), raised the bar, delivering a hard-hitting effort that often draws similarities to vintage Judas Priest.

Downing, the inspiration for the dual-guitar blueprint and leather-clad look of Judas Priest, had been an instrumental component from the band’s earliest days, penning lyrics, and crafting solos with original vocalist, and founding member, Al Atkins.

Atkins and drummer Chris Campbell weren’t long for the band, however, and were promptly replaced with vocalist Rob Halford and drummer John Hinch. The four-piece band ultimately morphed into a five-piece at the suggestion of Downing, and guitarist Glenn Tipton was added to complete the classic lineup.

The rest, as they say, is history.

My recent conversation with Downing focused on K.K.’s Priest, as well as key moments in Judas Priest lore.

Andrew:
I greatly appreciate you taking the time, K.K. Before we touch on a few K.K.’s Priest points, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask to hear your side of the “retirement” report that swirled around. The idle time over the years ultimately spawned the monstrous K.K.’s Priest, a vehicle poised for long-term success.

K.K.:
It’s a long story, but I can condense it very quickly. In 2010, we were all retiring; we were all planning to end the band. So, we were procuring a farewell tour, and thinking of names to call the farewell tour — as it was the farewell to Judas Priest — so the suggestion came up with the Epitaph Tour, which was very befitting. So, that’s what we were gonna do. But for some, certain reasons — I won’t go into the details of that — I decided to throw my toys out of the pram because I really felt I wasn’t going to enjoy doing that farewell tour because certain things weren’t in place that I thought should be in place. And after forty years, I thought that I deserved to have a voice louder than I did, so I just opted out. And that was it, really. I had no idea the guys were gonna carry on for another ten years — and are still going strong.

So, that is totally different from what the guys told the world, that I retired to look after my golf course. Not true. But that’s the easier option.

Andrew:
By your estimation, what was the blueprint model for Sermons Of The Sinner, because it does a wonderful job capturing that classic Judas Priest sound.

K.K.
I sat down to do it — I just went onto autopilot — everything that I do naturally; sound; the way I hear things; production; guitar playing; everything. It came together pretty quickly, pretty easily. The only other criteria were, I was always imagining the band playing the songs live, so I wanted the songs to capture a good amount of energy, and lots of good participation parts for the crowd, so the fans can just join in with us, and we can be together as one.

Andrew:
Are there any imminent plans to tour the album?

K.K.:
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen some tour dates, some options, but it’s kind of knitting everything together; we had some dates lined up last year and the year before, but they all got canceled. So, obviously, yeah, we’re desperate to get out there, and tour now. We just wanna make it right, really, so that when we start, we can carry on going and keep up the momentum. So, we’re looking at that literally every day.

Andrew:
Not to put the cart before the horse, as you’ve yet to tour Sermons, but based on the overwhelming response, has there been any discussion of a follow-up album?

K.K.:
Absolutely, yeah. That certainly goes without saying that, if possible, I would like to release a second album — in the same year would be good. That’s a target. So, I need to be inside October the 1st this year. It depends on what promotors throw us in the way of dates, and stuff like that, that would get in the way. But I would be happy to focus on the second album, and then make our songs available, so we can totally focus on live entertainment, and just have a continuation of that, really.

Andrew:
To the best of your recollection, what was your earliest introduction to music, and when was it that you discovered your passion for the guitar?

K.K.:
I think, really, I left school at the age of fifteen, and I had a nuance of music, but it wasn’t really anything that was really befitting for somebody with my years, whatever that means. There was lots of Pop music; Jazz; Folk; Classical. The Blues was great, and I liked the Blues, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear. And then, I heard a few bands that played some heavy riffs, especially [Jimi] Hendrix, The Kinks, and The Troggs, a little bit here, and there. So, until then, I had to make do with — I say make do, that’s the wrong terminology, really — because there were so many Progressive Blues bands around like Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, Blues Band, Taste, Free, Jethro Tull; tons and tons of great bands. They kind of developed their own style of Blues music, which was fantastic.

So, we had that, but I pushed on; I pushed on when I started to play when I was probably seventeen. Onwards, I was doing something that was kind of a bit nondescript, so promoters would book us as Progressive Blues bands because they didn’t really know what style of music we played because it hadn’t been labeled by then. So, obviously, I was on the treadmill of the evolutionary scale of what we know today being Heavy Metal, and traversing back to Heavy Rock, Hard Rock, Progressive Rock, Rock. And that all kicked in about 1970, when I think, for me, bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple were labeled as “Rock Bands,” and that’s when it really started to kick off.

Andrew:
Before joining Judas Priest, you were in the band Stagecoach, and then, the band Freight, so how did you, Ian [Hill], and John Ellis end up joining forces with Al Atkins to form the initial version of Judas Priest?

K.K.:
The Stagecoach thing was a Pop band thing, and I was doing that for some money because I still didn’t have the amplifier I wanted or the guitar I wanted. So, I would play in a Pop band. But I was in — well, we weren’t really a band because we never had a singer in Freight — but we had this old, beat-up van and spray-painted “Freight.” It was just pretty cool to be seen getting in and out of it, you know? We were dreamers, really.

Myself, Ian [Hill] and a drummer called John Ellis, we got together, and we would try to improvise some solos, 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 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. So, a year later, I was just doing nothing but non-stop playing, and that helped me. And then myself and Al started to write songs like “Never Satisfied,” “Caviar And Meths,” “Winter,” “Whiskey Women,” which would become “Victim Of Changes.” We went out and we did a lot of shows together as that four-piece. Then Al Atkins left with our drummer, Chris Campbell; they both left on the same day. Then, we recruited Rob Halford, and his drummer from his band, John Hinch, and we became Judas Priest version two.

Andrew:
I wanted to back up to something you said a moment ago, where you said you auditioned for Judas Priest once before and were passed over. This is a rather mind-blowing nugget of history. If you could, walk me through the audition.

K.K.
Al Atkins was in a very good Blues band, and Al had a good name as a singer in the area. His bass player, Bruno Stapleton, was a great bass player. They were real musicians; a little bit older than myself and Ian. I saw the group’s van driving across the housing estate, and it had “Judas Priest” spray painted, and I’m going, “I wanna be in that band! Whoever it is, I don’t care!” It’s such a cool name. So, maybe I was stalking them; I don’t know.

But then, I got wind of an audition, because unfortunately, the guitar player in the band [John Perry], I believe it was suicide; he was just eighteen, which was very, very tragic. I didn’t know all of that at the time, I just found out that the guys were looking for a guitar player. But they were kind of asking me to do some twelve-bar stuff. You know, Blues stuff, because the name of the band at the time was The Jug Blues Band. So, I was looking to skip the Blues thing, which I did, because I’ve got other things in my mind musically. So, that’s what happened. So, I didn’t make it in the Blues band, but they went on to form the first version of Judas Priest. They did find a guitar player, and they called themselves Judas Priest; they went out for about a year, and then they kind of disbanded. That’s when Atkins heard us rehearsing — myself, Ian, and our drummer, John Ellis — and asked if we wanted a singer. That’s the way it happened.

Andrew:
Now, this is going back to 1971, but are you able to recall the first gig with the initial incarnation of Judas Priest?

K.K.:
I do. I remember it very well because it was a big moment in my life. The fee was six pounds — English pounds — which then might have been about nine dollars, I guess. [Laughs]. I remember it was a working man’s club, and obviously, we were quite heavy, but the girls did their best to dance. And there were lots of them, so it was very enjoyable to do.

Andrew:
Earlier you mentioned that you guys had recruited Rob Halford, and John Hinch after losing Al and Chris. Did Rob ever have a formal audition, or was it more of a seamless transition?

K.K.:
Well, I went ‘round to his mom and dad’s house, where he lived, and met up with him. He did a little bit of singing then; he might deny that but he did; singing along to the radio, and stuff like that. I’m thinking, “Hmm. This guy’s hair is far too short for my liking,” because Rob cropped his hair very short. But the main thing was the voice, and I’d heard such great reports about how he could get up there more so than Robert Plant and Ian Gillan. I’m thinking, “Hmm. Takes a bit of believin’.” So, I think we did get together, and play some songs together. Lo and behold, I’m thinking, “This is incredible. This guy actually lives very, very close to where I live. Within a few miles.” So, that was mad, you know? Rob used to walk to where I was living, because he didn’t drive the car for quite a lot of years, and it would probably be a couple of miles, I suppose. So, that was crazy, wasn’t it? Just think that we came together — here I am, and this world-class vocalist lives just a couple of miles away from where I live. We could actually get together, and write songs, and we didn’t even have to drive the car or get in the bus; we could just walk to each other’s house.

Andrew:
Do you remember the first gig as Judas Priest with Rob on vocals?

K.k.
I can’t remember the first gig I did with Rob very well. I might if I looked it up because I have got some old scrapbooks; my girlfriend at the time kept a log of every gig that we did. We would have been quite well-rehearsed, I would think; we had lots of songs, already. And obviously, when Rob was in the band, he and I would put songs together, stuff like “Run Of The Mill, “Dream Deceiver,” and stuff like that.

We actually got a record contract, but [Gull] didn’t really like the four-piece lineup because they said there are too many bands that had just been signed — Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Free — so they were trying to encourage us to have a saxophone player or a keyboard player. And I went, “No way.” They said they would sign us as a four-piece, but I’m thinking, “If they want a lineup change, maybe a second guitar really would be a very good option.” Because I had this idea to have someone that was very competent, that could also write songs, look good, play good, perform good, and somebody that could also play lead guitar, as well. I’m thinking that that would give us a lot of strength, you know? And it did. So, that was a good idea. There were concessions to be made; you have to in a partnership. But what we did, and what we achieved was more than we would ever have imagined, I think.

Andrew:
So, how did you go about recruiting a second guitarist? Had you already known Glenn [Tipton] before he joined the band?

K.K.:
I knew of Glenn; I knew how he looked, and I’d seen him play, and all of that was good. I liked the fact that he had long, black hair, and I had the long, blond hair. He was kind of a bit different — a bit more Bluesy — and I was a bit more kind of wild and Progressive. So, I thought that the mix would work well, even though Glenn was probably a little bit more commercially minded than me. Then, I think that was pretty good because it gave us a broad spectrum of what we could introduce into our songwriting. And at the time, I thought maybe somebody needed to harness me, because if you’re gonna be successful — what was in my mind was only really for a limited audience, you know? So, it did work pretty well.

Andrew:
How did you and Glenn ultimately decide to divide the solos?

K.K.:
Well, to start with, obviously, I had been doing all of the solos. I always liked to improvise solos, so I used to always stretch them out, because it was a sign of the times, really. I wasn’t a Progressive Blues solo artist; I was more of a Progressive Metal artist — whatever that means. So, Glenn came in and started getting his foot in the door, which is good; it was a very healthy competition. But then, later on, Glenn started to get the mainstay of the solos, and I didn’t think that that was good for the band, because there was an imbalance, you know? So, maybe I should have put my foot down quite a bit more because obviously, I can play solos forever; until the cows come home. That’s what I do.

Andrew:
The band evolved immensely album-to-album in the early days, most notably from Rocka Rolla (1974) to Killing Machine (1978). From your vantage point, K.K., what was the driving force behind the ever-changing sound?

K.K.:
You know, it was all very Progressive, wasn’t it? We were feeling our way, because one minute, we were a Progressive Blues band, then a Rock band, then a Progressive Rock band, then a Hard Rock band, then a Heavy Rock band, and then, we eventually got to where we needed to be. By the time British Steel came around, where we were, at last, in all leather and studs. We had everything covered, really, and we were good to go. We became the archetypal Heavy Metal band, with the two-guitar, twin-guitar attack, and everything else that goes along with It. The so-called full monty.

Andrew:
Unleashed In The East remains among the most revered live albums in Metal history. Where were the recordings drawn from?

K.k.
We recorded two shows in Japan, which was great. It was a great place to record because those guys over there are so together, and so technical,l and know what they’re doing. It was great; you record in Japan because, obviously, lots of my great heroes prior to that — like Deep Purple and Scorpions — had done live albums there. So, it was a wonderful thing for me, I felt, to be able to have an album that was recorded there, and join the ranks of the greats.

Andrew:
Obviously, one of the more prominent distinctions surrounding Judas Priest was the image, specifically in the early 1980s. What was the inspiration behind the leather, and studs look?

K.K.:
Well, the way I tell it is the fact that at some point we were getting to the point where I definitely felt very comfortable with the music, and the direction. I liked the emotions and intensity, it was going very, very well, but at some point, it didn’t look like our stage presentation fit the music. We’d come to that point. So, I decided to do a u-turn and go all-black with some studs; and a leather choker with some studs in it. There’s some footage on the Japanese shows, actually; 1977 or something like that. And it prompted me to ask Rob if he would consider coming to London with me because I was going there to have some more leather clothes made by a company I found. He came down with me and had some leather stuff made, and we were wearing that live on stage. Then, obviously, it spilled over into the other guys, slowly but surely. It was so befitting because we had a uniform that was all kind of different; we would all design our own clothes, but it had the same kind of ingredient. So, that was very, very cool.

Andrew:
Compared to the band’s lyrical themes throughout the 1970s, British Steel (1980) adopted a lighter undertone. Why do you think the pivot was so drastic in that regard?

K.K.:
I don’t know. Having traversed many decades, you do change as a person; your mindset; a lot depends on what you’re going through; are you happy in the band at the moment while you’re doing this album, or are you pissed off? Is it the money? Are you happy with the management? Are you happy with your family? Are you happy with your wife or girlfriend? And then again, things can change. In the 80s, it was wonderful, because there were so many bands, music, the economy seemed to be great, everything seemed to be colorful. Whereas in other decades, everything was more gray and black and white; through the 90s, especially later on into the 90s. You have kind of darker decades, and other decades have lots of light and color.

Andrew:
Producer, Tom Allom, was at the controls for a vast majority of the band’s most crucial albums. What was Tom like to work with?

K.K.:
Tom’s great. He’s a gentleman; brings a lot to the table; he’s very well-schooled musically. You wouldn’t think of it to look at him at the time, but Tom is just as much Rock ‘N’ Roll — if not more so — than some members of the band. So, Tom fit in very well and helped us a lot to get sounds together, and lots of good musical input, also. He was kind of our version of what The Beatles had in George Martin, I guess.

Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Andrew:
One of my favorite songs on the blistering Defenders Of The Faith album is, “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll.” How were you guys able to adapt that song and make it your own?

K.K.:
“Heads Are Gonna Roll” was actually written by Bob Halligan, Jr. Someone suggested we take up that song and we did. It was a pleasure to do that album because obviously, the song title is right up the street of Judas Priest titles, you know? We covered it pretty much exact, really, because it was very, very well put together as a song, and didn’t really need much of a tweak at all.

Andrew:
Judas Priest was one of several bands selected to play the iconic Live Aid event in 1985, in my hometown of Philadelphia. The actual event, if you remember, was organized to raise relief funds in the aftermath of the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia. What are your memories of Live Aid?

K.K.:
Well, that was wonderful. We were in the Bahamas in Nassau, finishing off the Tubro album, I think. It wasn’t too bad for us, really, because we just jumped on a flight into Philly. So, that was very cool. It was a nice, little break for us from the recording. Of course, we were able to just rehearse the songs in the studio and fly in. It was a bit of a holiday for us, really. I think we were the fifth band to accept to do that, and it was nice to see it snowball and snowball. We got to the hotel, and the Sabbath guys — everybody was staying at this big hotel. It was impossible to get from the lobby to your room because every minute could feel like somebody else was walking through the door. It was incredible; I can remember waking up in the hotel, putting the television on and there was the gig. I’m thinking, “Holy shit, I’m playing this gig today!” I had just woken up, and I think it was Status Quo or somebody like that I was watching. So, that was very, very cool. I think we were in-between Crosby, Stills, and Nash — which was great because we got to hang out a bit with those guys — and it might have been Bryan Adams, but I didn’t get to meet him. We got to go out for the finale, as well. If there’s any footage out there, you’ll see us buried there with Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Hall And Oates, and everybody.

Andrew:
The band drastically altered its image in the mid-80s, specifically around the Turbo era. The band had always been trailblazers, so the speak, from a sound and image perspective, so what influenced the change?

K.K.
Again, a sign of the times. It happened to us as well; the big hair; the spritz and everything that happened in the mid-80s. It was just a big carnival; the world was a big carnival. There was a new superstar band coming through every week at least; whether it was Dokken, Poison, there was a new band coming through. There was an endless stream of great bands coming to the forefront. I guess you get caught up in everything; the mid-80s was the pinnacle, really, of everybody having a good time in the world. Sadly, not right now, with so many conflicts going on; little mini-wars on every street, and every county, and every state, and every country. Back then, there was a lot more unification, especially in the music business. It was wonderful to be a part of all that.

Andrew:
Our time together has completely flown by, but before I let you go, I have to ask about one of my all-time favorite solos in the Judas Priest catalog, on the song “Painkiller.” Do you recall laying that one down?

K.K.:
Well, as I said, myself and Glenn would do all of the music. Then, at the end of an album, we would share the solos. So, maybe I might have ten; he might have ten. What used to happen, I think Glenn had done a little pre-listening, and it started to happen where his solos became the mainstay of the lengthy guitar solos. So, it was lean pickings for me. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was just a very classic, easy-going guy. But now, with K.K.’s Priest, I get to not only do an abundance of solos, but I also get to make sure that my fellow guitar player, A.J. [Mills], gets to do the same amount as me because that’s what we’re all about. And that’s the way I always saw Judas Priest, is that balance of that twin-guitar attack. Not being lopsided.

Now, I’ve got the chance to play a lot of songs that I never got the chance to play live. Songs like “Before The Dawn.” Obviously, that’s my solo, which was originally a lot longer than that, but Glenn stepped in and said, “I think we should cut the solo down because I think it could be a hit single.” I’m going, “Really? I’ve just created this wonderful solo.” A bit similar to “Beyond The Realms Of Death,” Glenn, if you know what I’m talkin’ about. But anyway, I won’t waffle on too much. All that is rectified now in K.K.’s Priest.

Thanks a lot for checking out the album. There’s a lot more to come, and I look forward to playing it live.

Interested in learning more about K.K.’s Priest? Check out this link below:

Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Shredful Compositions, by Andrew DiCecco, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/shredful-compositions-archives/

About Post Author

Andrew DiCecco

Predominantly known for his NFL coverage, Andrew DiCecco is a Pennsylvania-based journalist with a profound passion for Rock music and its illustrious history. What initially began as a childhood hobby collecting CDs eventually evolved into a full-blown absorption into the world of Rock and Roll. An aspiring rock historian, Andrew seeks out every autobiography and documentary on Rock artists imaginable to further his knowledge to go along with a growing collection of vintage albums and magazines. Andrew’s musical preferences include, but are not limited to, Def Leppard, Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Foreigner, and Journey. An innate appreciation for guitar heroes, Andrew cites Vito Bratta, Eddie Van Halen, John Sykes, George Lynch, Dave Meniketti, and Neal Schon as some of his personal favorite players. Andrew is also a regular listener to SiriusXM’s <i>Trunk Nation</i> with Eddie Trunk, his primary source of inspiration.
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