By Dean Pedley
Nestling amongst more than 350 acres of glorious Shropshire countryside, Astbury Hall has been home for K.K. Downing since the mid 80’s. Aside from the grand stately home that dates back to 1891, Astbury offers an immaculately presented championship golf course designed by K.K. himself and plays host to the PGA EuroPro Tour’s Astbury Hall Classic. K.K.’s love for golf is renowned and indeed his Wikipedia entry states that “after one Judas Priest tour Downing rented a house in Hawaii and played golf for seven months straight”. Fact, fiction or urban myth, who better to ask than the man himself…
“It’s pretty much true” he confirms. “We finished the world tour in Hawaii and we were supposed to be songwriting. Once you got on the merry-go-round you could never get off, we were always in that cycle of touring, songwriting and recording. The pressure was immense really and I’m not sure how much Glenn or Rob felt it but we were there in Hawaii and I was faced with the option of going out to play golf or staying in the apartment after having just coming off a long tour when we had been shut away in hotel rooms. Here at Astbury it is hard work but more like a 9 to 5 job really. I know that by six or seven o clock on most nights I can have a couple of beers and just switch off for the evening and start again the next day but in a band you can never really do that. Of course that’s all part of being in a band whereas I operate as an individual here.”
Long before his interest in golf, K.K.’s first passion was playing the guitar; something which gathered momentum in the late 60’s when he took inspiration from artists that would come to define the era. “It was a fantastic period because that was when it was all evolving at a rate of knots; you had Jimi Hendrix and Cream with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. I can remember seeing Free with Paul Kossoff at DudleyCollege and again at a place in Walsall and just thinking that that they were such a good band.”
After making the transition through several fledgling bands, K.K. and bassist Ian Hill became members of Judas Priest in 1971. Rob Halford took over from Al Atkins as the band’s frontman in 1973 with Glenn Tipton coming on board the following year, just in time for debut album Rocka Rolla. As has been well documented, Judas Priest, the Black Country and Birmingham became synonymous with the birth of Heavy Metal.
“For a long time I’ve been traversing the globe and it’s amazing the reputation that Birmingham has, I say Birmingham as I think a lot of people even in England are a bit unsure of what the Black Country is and what it’s all about. Overseas it has a mystique around it and when people ask about the Black Country I tell them it is a very industrial part of the country. I think it has the reputation internationally as being the Home of Metal and I suppose Priest is noted as being the archetypal metal band and bringing about the whole leather and studs image.” Creating their own individual image is something that K.K. feels was very important during the early years. “Back in the 60’s the Beatles all had the same hair and the same style; I think as a reaction to the pop image everybody wanted to be individual. And that was great, I was a big of fan of bands where each member had their own identity and why not; even bands like KISS had it, they didn’t all look the same.
“When we first started going to America the look was still very much denim and silk satins and then you had the make-up bands – KISS and Alice Cooper who we would tour with. We had awareness that we were not just the new kids on the block but we were pretty rough and tough looking really. I think we turned it around a little bit and thought we might not be identical there is a variation on a theme with leather, studs and a bit of denim thrown in. I wish I’d written that song ‘Denim and Leather’ – so well done to Saxon for coming up with that one, congratulations Biff that’s killer.”
As the 70’s progressed Priest released a succession of landmark albums including Sin After Sin, Stained Class and 79’s live Unleashed In The East which hit #10 on the UK album chart. Together with extensive touring this cemented their reputation as an incendiary live act. “In the very early days even though we didn’t have much we used what we could, it was fire extinguishers, bull whips and motorbikes and we would be physically and actively doing something other than just playing the guitar throughout the show to keep things interesting and energised.”
By the dawn of the 80’s commercial success beckoned, British Steel offered up hit singles with a pair of soon-to-be metal anthems ‘Breaking the Law’ and ‘Living After Midnight’. “It’s always the hardest thing in the world to follow success, if I had a pound for every time someone has said to me why don’t you write another album like British Steel but the thing is you can’t – those songs have already been written. If the people that wrote it tried to sit down and write another one you would end up with a watered down version; you wouldn’t better it because it’s already out there, it would just sound like a poor copy.”
1982’s Screaming For Vengeance cracked open the North American market in a big way, the tours becoming longer and the production increasingly on a larger scale. “The big show era was great not just for the bands but for the viewing public really because everybody put on a show that was unique and you would look forward to going along to see what was going to happen next. It was magical to be able to go out and do that, it was all about the big shows…and things did go wrong but that was all part of the event really. The bands that were less energetic on stage…like Pink Floyd, Genesis and Rush…people would come from their shows and think it was the best light display in the world and even though the guys never really moved around on stage they put on a great performance. So I guess out of necessity that brought a lot of it on and with Priest we had the combination of great lights, great show and we were very active and energetic, an integral moving part of it all…although it did sometimes get a bit dangerous here and there.
“I suppose it’s fair to say even though we never thought it possible even we have been surpassed in respect of the enormity and extravagance of the shows that are put on nowadays…bands like Rammstein for example. I didn’t see them on the last tour but I saw the one before and I was thinking Jesus Christ this takes some beating, talk about theatrics, props and stunts it’s pretty scary really – great show and a great band, I really like them.”
By the end of the decade the rock and metal landscape was evolving again, Priest releasing arguably their most ferocious album in Painkiller. “Well we went through it before in the 70’s with the new wave and the punk era and we had to ride that storm out and so it was just another thing really with bands like Pearl Jam and some good bands did come along. We would take bands out with us like Pantera, Megadeth and Annihilator and the new metal bands that were following on from what were doing with the Painkiller album. And even now bands are still trying to wring the same sponge dry. When we met bands like Slipknot they would say they grew up on Priest and I’m sure they did because we were probably the heaviest thing around when they were youngsters and we were loud and obnoxious.”
A major change took place within Judas Priest when Rob Halford departed and the band continued with an American vocalist, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens. “When Rob left we had a new younger singer and it was the way metal was moving anyway hence Jugulator and Demolition; it just gave us licence to do something different from what we had done before. Through the mid to latter part of the 80’s you can get kind of stuck in a rut in musical terms if you are going to rely on the pentatonic scales, blues scales and natural minor scales…so you have to move things on a bit. I began to look at incorporating other scales that in all fairness other people had started to do, half tone, diminished and harmonic minor and started to use those in solos. And then started to construct songs around those scales which was fairly prevalent in Jugulator onwards and you have a realisation that those scales have been used for centuries in classical music and then the next step was stepping out for me. I know that other guitar players have been through the same thing as me and ended up looking at jazz even if they only play it in their studio or bedroom. If you have been a musician long enough then you inevitably become a jazz musician – I think that’s the case and most musicians will go through blues, folk or whatever it is that you do and end up looking to classical and eventually jazz and becoming a free form artist. It’s more musically advanced, and that is not to say that it is better or that it is everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’ve a mind to improve as a musician then you need to look at places that you haven’t been before.”
Not long after the turn of the century Priest and their erstwhile vocalist were back together for a reunion tour and the Angel Of Retribution and Nostradamus albums, releases that continued to push the metal boundaries. “If you want to keep your audience happy and just get bigger and bigger every year then you do what AC/DC do and keep doing it over and over again. With Priest we were always a bit experimental with sounds and songwriting and I suppose we were always in search of the Holy Grail. We continued to experiment and not many bands do that they just get into a style and stick with it so I think in that respect Priest is one of the unique bands. There is no doubt in my mind if we had released an album that had gone 10 times platinum we would still have changed something for the next record. We wouldn’t have just said well that’s where the money is we’ll do another one like that. We always said that we were aiming to make this thing called Heavy Metal into a much more acceptable and reputable kind of music for all age groups and nationalities – we were emissaries of metal and proud to be so.” Indeed few would argue that in the world of Heavy Metal, Judas Priest were the ultimate Defenders of the Faith.
In 2011 Judas Priest announced a farewell tour, subsequently sending shockwaves across all corners of the metal community when it was announced in April that K.K. would not take part and had “retired” from the band after 40 years. “I’ll never get away from this retirement thing, but what happened was that I quit, retired implies that I am not physically able to do it. I am able to do it but I didn’t want to do it; I just wasn’t enjoying it any more, a lot of things had changed. I think I counted about thirty reasons why I didn’t want to do it at the time and that is an awful lot of reasons. In all honesty I think that in so many respects it had run its course. If you’re part of a songwriting team you get the recognition and reward for creating something but for me Priest became about going out and playing live and replicating exactly what people had enjoyed ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The fans would be just as happy if they could see us bin all of the modern guitars we now play and take them on a walk down memory lane because I think that’s what people enjoy most. And I understand that because if I could go out now and see Eric Clapton with Cream then I would be the happiest person in the world.
“One of the beautiful things about being in the industry was the ability to continue to invent and create, constructing songs and making good records. You do feel the need to be creative and that was taken away with the downloading thing and as you get older the balance of the scales starts to tip. So if you can’t be creative why would you want to continue to dedicate the time into something. I suppose if the industry was still healthy and people still had to spend their hard earned money buying a record it would be different but if you give something away then it has no value. We used to buy an album and think well it’s not that good but I’ll play it a million times I’m sure I’ll get into it and now it doesn’t really get a second chance. In the past there was always the opportunity to create a record like Dark Side of the Moon or British Steel or Back In Black that would be one of those albums that would be indelible and people will always come back to. And I think that opportunity has gone now and I think it would take a miracle for one of those to happen again. If you consider an album like Nostradamus then if that had been released in 1978 then it would have been another Dark Side of the Moon but it is all about the timing. When you think about it in the early days we had the opportunity to write great songs, play great solos and have great vocal performances but people get used to it and it is hard now to get the reaction of “Wow, have you heard the new Priest album”. The industry has changed so much… I see companies that are repackaging and rehashing and that started happening to us and that was not a pretty thing to be a part of. It’s kind of duping the fans a bit because there are fans around the world that have got to have everything to complete their collection so even if there are only a few thousand of them if you put out a box collection it might be $100, which is a lot of dollars, and so for me that is something that I didn’t get into music for.”
His departure from Priest has not marked the end of K.K.’s musical journey. Over the past year he has made guest appearances on Geoff Tate’s latest Queensryche album and a tribute record to The Who. More recently K.K. was credited with promoting ‘The Future of Metal’ gigs in both Wolverhampton and Birmingham, the line-up including up and coming metallers Hostile, K.K. having produced their debut album. “There’s no real metal band from the area that has made an impact internationally for a very, very long time. The reputation has carried on with Priest and Sabbath but I was thinking what has gone wrong because often when you get someone that creates or manufactures or builds something it is usually copied. I suppose even when I was growing up and aspiring to be a noted rock musician there were lots of good musicians around that never made it and I’m sure that they are still out there so I try to help out when I’m asked…the Hostile lads are from Wednesbury and I went to school with one of the lads’ uncles and he brought them over and that’s how it started really. You just do what you can and work with what you’ve got.
“That pressure I spoke about is not on me anymore and it’s about playing when I feel like playing and not when I have to play. Artistically you can’t play a musical instrument if you don’t feel inclined to do so and having to force yourself to do it is not very productive at all. When I think about the music industry and what will happen in the future all I do know is that everybody who played a part in the evolution from the 60’s, 70’s and so on will at some point be gone. There was a time in the 80’s when bands such as Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer were coming through and their names will be etched in stone and they all have quite a few years left but after that I really don’t know…”
And after such a long and distinguished career will he ever be tempted to sit down and write his autobiography? The question provokes a wry smile. “Quite a few people have asked me about doing that but it is tough for me… because I can’t put the things in there that people are most interested in!”
Official Site – http://kkdowning.net/
Astbury Hall – http://www.astburyhall.co.uk/
Hostile – https://www.facebook.com/hostileuk