Besides being the first book about Judas Priest written from the inside, KK Downing’s Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest (released this week by Da Capo Press) serves as a classic study in the long-range effects that a traumatizing upbringing can conjure up well into adulthood. Mike Derrico talked with Downing about his experiences.
Born in 1951 under the dreary sky of the Black Country in England’s industrial heartland, Kenneth “KK” Downing lived a heartbreaking Dickensian childhood of humiliating poverty. The early pages of his memoir recall the embarrassment of torn clothes, ragged shoes, and staying after school every day for the free dinners. He makes it quite clear that his father was plain and simply useless, never having worked a job for most of his adult life. Instead, he existed in a delusional world of the worst possible combination of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and hypochondria—a germophobe who compromised the lives of his family in profound and paralyzing ways.
Still, Downing’s father carried the mental baggage of his own scarring fuck ups, ensuring an existence of guilt as he stumbled through life. Unlike most abusive fathers who are alcoholics, Downing’s father did not drink, opting to completely stay away from alcohol. Through his mental hang-ups, though, his father believed he was protecting his kids. Downing’s story, however, passes us through the revelation that the suffocating overprotection he recounts, however well-intended, can also amount to abuse. Like many alienated teens, Downing’s escape was rock ‘n’ roll music and his guitar. In 1968, he helped form Judas Priest.
With Downing as our guide, we travel with Priest through their formation and early years. In the beginning, Downing, Ian Hill, Rob Halford, Glenn Tipton, and a revolving door of drummers come to America after a brief two-album stint on Gull Records, a UK label that didn’t have the capacity and reach to cultivate and support success for the band. Columbia set them on that course in 1977, and over the next two years, Priest quickly laid the foundation for what became the biggest metal band over the next decade. During this period, they went through what Downing refers to as an “identity crisis,” where he and his bandmates wore a mishmash of clothes and styles onstage from numerous preceding eras of rock, none of which fit the band’s increasingly heavy music.
Gradually over three albums, the look morphed into the leather and studded “uniform” we know from the band’s peak creative years and beyond. The sound and image comprised the complete package in 1980’s British Steel, the album that broke the band commercially. For the next decade, Priest was at the center of the metal canon, rivaled in popularity only by Iron Maiden and, years later, Metallica.
Heavy Duty offers us a peek behind the band’s creative process, their tours, groupies, excessive golf habits, friendships, harbored bad blood, and the stunner of all revelations—Downing’s silent resentment of his twin axe partner Glenn Tipton and their flimsy-at-best competitive relationship. Downing admits to drafting a letter of resignation as early as 1991, and writes of being unhappy in the band throughout most of his time with them as a recording unit. He left the band in 2011.
Nonetheless, Downing owns his insecurities and issues, attributing much of it to childhood. In the context of the big picture, he is proud of everything he was able to contribute to Judas Priest and accomplish with them by way of their indelible mark on heavy metal music.
Downing spoke with us by phone about his new book and his time with Judas Priest.
PKM: I actually go back to…I’m going to date myself…I’m 48, so I go back with you guys to the Vengeance tour. Any time you were at the Meadowlands, you and I were in the same room.
KK Downing: Yeah!
PKM: And the infamous Garden show…the seat cushion show
PKM: How long has this book been in you? Was this an idea that you carried around since wanting to leave the band, or was it something you decided on doing in recent years?
KK Downing: No, I never had any aspirations to do anything on my own really. When I was in the band, they were the primary focus all of the time for me. Lots of people have asked me especially since I quit the band…but I never had any inclination to do anything. And then last year I was asked, and I thought ‘well, maybe now is the time to say my piece and to try and bring an insight into my life’ really. Lots of people can relate to the journey. I’m not the only one, I know that. Lots and lots of people have had a rough upbringing, and a lot of people did well, other people not so well. I’m just telling my story how music came into my life… and it was a saving grace, really. It put me on a path and I never steered from the path.
PKM: You hear about people who tend to block things out…entire chunks of the past. And then it all comes to the surface years later and people struggle to navigate through it. The things you recount…your reasons for doing what you do…handling situations the way you do…the passive non-confrontational personality…all attributed to the first decade and a half of your life.
KK Downing: Mm-hm.
PKM: Were these things realizations you always had about yourself? Or was it more like shit you kept buried that all came up as little revelations as you were writing the book?
KK Downing: Yeah, I think my upbringing was…I’m far from being a psychoanalyst, it’s hard for me to figure it out…but as a child, I didn’t have a voice. You weren’t allowed to have a voice. And I think as you quite rightly said the first 15 years or so of your life, it kind of molds your personality and your character, and I learned to be tolerant…in doing things…in my own mind. And ya know, other than good values, it gave me endurance…I was tolerant of…The point I’m trying to make is it took me a lot to be pushed over the edge. And I think when you play in a band…to make it work you have to have levels of tolerance to let people do a lot of things you don’t necessarily agree with. Not to say that it’s wrong because you can’t restrict people…even though I’d been subjected to a lot of that growing up. I learned that everybody just sees differently, and I gave people a lot more slack than they ever gave me, really. And as the decades went past, I’m thinking people should know the difference between right and wrong and the difference between being fair and unfair. And it starts to bring things to a boiling point a lot quicker than in previous years.
PKM: On the subject of your dad, I can relate on a much smaller scale to the OCD.
KK Downing: Yeah. When I agreed to write the book, I wanted to document my unorthodox childhood and bring an insight out to… especially to people in the country…what it would be like in that climate, ya know, in the ‘50s in England, not just after the war finished, but growing up as a little kid and what you had to go through. And I thought it would be a good insight into the local territory, which is now considered the home of metal…the Birmingham area, obviously the industrial area. So I thought that might be interesting, but also in the way I coped and dealt with everything, and tried to look to getting out of the gutter…getting out of the industry…getting out of the dirt and the grime, and getting out of that impoverishment.
PKM: The Black Country
KK Downing: Yeah. I said to myself I’m gonna do something. I don’t know what it is, but I’m gonna get out of all this. I kind of got there in the end, I guess.
PKM: On that subject as we get into Judas Priest, some parts of the book are surprising and some not so surprising. What’s not surprising is the fact that Judas Priest never saw any money from those first two records (Rocka Rolla, Sad Wings of Destiny) on the Gull label. It’s not surprising because we hear all the time about the realities of publishing. Was that a result of you guys walking away from your contract in order to sign with CBS in the States?
KK Downing: Yeah, we did a couple of records and felt we were doing alright, but we didn’t have any money to live on. That was the problem. The company was tied down pretty much with our income and royalties, and the budgets to do an album were very very low. We were able to get gigs and write songs, but after our second album, we felt we were being restricted because we had to try and survive and make money for ourselves. We weren’t able to just jump into a van and go to a gig and we weren’t able to song-write and do things in the daytime. So we went to the record company and asked for 25 pounds each per week, and that was turned down. So we did a showcase for CBS and they signed the band. We walked away from our original contract which could have gone into litigation, but we let them keep all the money. I mean there were regrets because those first two albums got revamped and sold here and there.
PKM: That explains a few of those compilations and why nothing from those albums was put on the Metal Works comp other than a live version of “Victim of Changes.” You guys pretty much would have had to pay to license your own material.
KK Downing: Yeah…yeah. You put that one together. I suppose that makes commercial sense. It’s just one of those things. That record company…we felt we had a value. They made the mistake in not seeing that value to take care of us. So we had to go to a better home.
PKM: You see that happening from time to time where a small label strikes gold but can’t support it. Vee-Jay ended up in litigation with The Beatles because of similar issues, although that involved corruption at the highest levels.
KK Downing: Yeah.
PKM: So, you turn out to be the culprit who instigates the leather and studs thing which inevitably becomes the defining image of heavy metal.
KK Downing: Mm-hm.
PKM: The mid to late ‘70s was a very nondescript period in rock fashion…what you call Judas Priest’s identity crisis. Everyone in rock seemed to have permed hair and beards and most bands just looked like Boston. You and Rob were especially big on the fashion though. The flowing flamboyant thing. Some of that footage of Rob in 1978…he looks more like David Bowie.
KK Downing: (laughing) Yeah, yeah, yeah! It was better to begin with, really. Then it got a little bit out of hand, and I just thought that it was never what I had in mind because I was always a metal merchant. It was always in there somewhere, even as a youngster…something in music…seeing and acknowledging what people were doing. What drew me to it, obviously, was when I first saw Hendrix in ’67. But even before that, when I heard The Kinks in ’65 playing “You Really Got Me.” That was good for me, ya know. And the Barry McGuire song…the protest song [“Eve of Destruction,” written by P.F. Sloan]…there was something dark about that. And then very very early Rolling Stones, I liked the way they looked. Ya know, eclectic and not prim and proper. Almost a bit scruffy and a bit more street. It was always inside me. But we did our own thing and it was fine. Then as our music started to progress, ya know, with Sad Wings, Sin After Sin, and all of that stuff, there was a mismatch with the band’s image. And then it clicked with me that it would have to be different, and I did a U-turn…went total black, had some leather stuff made…choker, ya know…the belt appeared, and I just thought…this is strong. The band took to it. By the time British Steel came about, everything fell into place. We had the music, we had the look, we had the album cover, we had the name British Steel, and we had the name Judas Priest, and the rest is history.
PKM: You knew you had to stand out image-wise. It was that perfect marriage of sound and vision. It was almost the same way Johnny Ramone knew that the Ramones needed that sound and vision thing happening, ya know, where they had that uniform.
KK Downing: Yes.
PKM: With all due respect to Ian Hill on bass, probably the one constant in the band since 1969…and all 136 drummers over the years, the two defining elements of the Judas Priest sound were the soaring vocals of Rob Halford and the dual guitars of you and Glenn Tipton. Did you guys pretty much set the template for what metal guitar became, or what?
KK Downing: Yeah. I think so, because right from the outset that was the plan. Most bands in the ‘60s had a lead guitar player and a rhythm guitar player. Well, I just saw the sense in having two lead guitar players because lead guitar players can play rhythm as well, so it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. And we could create harmonies and dual guitar parts in a heavier way. Because people think of harmonies…and predominantly, harmonies can sound really quite sweet, but they don’t have to be. And myself and Glenn designed some stuff that fit the songs that was not so sweet-sounding. But we worked hard on that and in designing a good solid distorted rhythm sound and not a clean rhythm sound… because that’s what was happening. We needed something stronger filling the gap between the bass and the guitar solo. Harmonically in the texture, there was room for a good distorted guitar sound and that seemed to be fairly obvious to me.
What drew me to it, obviously, was when I first saw Hendrix in ’67. But even before that, when I heard The Kinks in ’65 playing “You Really Got Me.” That was good for me, ya know.
PKM: In the book you talk about chasing a very particular kind of distorted guitar sound for years. Did you ever achieve that sound? And if not, what was the closest you got to it? In other words, if you have to pick just one Priest record, which record is closest to that sound you were chasing?
KK Downing: I think it was a record that was much later on. And lots of people won’t completely understand this, but I think the sound we were chasing was more prevalent to later albums such as Painkiller.
PKM: I think the biggest shocker of your book turns out to be your relationship to Glenn, which is seemingly by your account reflective of one person gaining more and more power and influence over the band. Can you speak to that a bit?
KK Downing: Yeah. For the mainstay over so many years, our relationship was very good, very productive, and we did have a lot of things in common as people, and musically. We did the job and we did it well. But relationships can be problematic, there’s no two ways about it. It seems to me that somebody has to have more tolerance. It seems to make a relationship work these days. Usually a relationship lasts longer if the one person just accepts that the other person is gonna wear the trousers…as opposed to both people wanting to wear the trousers. Then you’ve got a problem. And so with myself and Glenn, it wasn’t all bad because we were successful but I think I let it slip with the solos.
PKM: You cite the 2009 tour as the last straw before you’d had enough. I remember commenting at the time how you stole the show in Holmdel, NJ, and thinking something was off within the dynamic of the band…especially between you and Glenn. You seemed to be making an extra effort while the other guys seemed to be phoning it in, so to speak. Was there a quiet competition thing going on?
KK Downing: Yeah, ya know, Glenn was definitely more rock ‘n’ roll than me before we played and while we were playing…drinking beers and stuff like that. And I was totally focused. I’ve never ever had a drink before a show, and Glenn was having a beer between songs…he’d slow things down. Rob was reading his Autocue…it was slowing things down, restricting his performance. And I remember thinking if I can up the ante here and keep the energy up, then ultimately the guys would tag onto that, but it never happened. Then I started feeling kind of odd during my performance, so it kind of made me back off a bit in the end.
PKM: Ian was recently quoted on the matter of you not being asked to fill in for Glenn after he bowed out of the tour for some unfortunate health circumstances. He said it wasn’t your spot that was up for grabs, it was Glenn’s. Would it have been awkward and weird for you to play Glenn’s parts or would you have just reclaimed your parts and insist Richie Faulkner (KK’s replacement guitarist since 2011) play Glenn’s?
KK Downing: I’m a guitar player. Richie’s a guitar player. We know exactly what’s gonna happen. I resume my normal position and Richie takes over on Glenn’s side of the stage, and we just become Judas Priest again…and Richie doesn’t have to play “Sinner” because I can do it better than him…because I’m the originator. Richie does a great job, but I can play it and perform it better than him. It would be better for the people because they remember me doing it all of their lives for God’s sakes, which is decades. It would just be better for them to see me do it than Richie doing it.
PKM: If it’s coming directly from the source of where the art came from, that’s about all the validation you need on that thought.
KK Downing: You can see me and Richie up there working and playing and performing pretty damn good together because I would make sure that we were ripping across that stage like there was no tomorrow. It is what it is, though. The guys are on tour now with Deep Purple and they’re gonna be out there with Ozzy in the UK next year. So it is what it is. But that was the severest thing I’ve heard Ian say. Would I be interested in going back there and having Richie play my parts while I play Glenn’s? I’m sorry but the answer is no. Andy (Andy Sneap who is replacing Glenn Tipton on the current tour) is great. I consider him a mate, and I’ve been up to his studio, and he’s great. But..even if that happened…do the people want to see Andy playing Glenn’s parts or do they want to see me?
PKM: Yeah. You want to put people in the seats too. Because let’s face it…I know it, you know it, everybody knows it… more people are going to show up if KK is on the stage.
KK Downing: (laughing) Yeah. People want to relive. I’m exactly the same. When I go see a band now, whether it’s UFO or Scorpions…I want to see the original band members. I want to see them out there for as long as I possibly can if there’s an option. Because we all go back remembering the days when we first saw the band, and that’s what we paid the ticket for. But one of the reasons I wrote the book is I’m just sick of those guys trying to kind of bury me through the Internet. I really don’t know what the deal is. It’s stemming from somewhere. It’s heartbreaking to see that going on, ya know. It’s unfair, really. It’s unfair.
By the time British Steel came about, everything fell into place. We had the music, we had the look, we had the album cover, we had the name British Steel, and we had the name Judas Priest, and the rest is history.
PKM: Well, we’re glad you’re getting your voice out there and I realize we’re pushing time. But regarding your recent comments about questioning how much those guys appreciated your role in the band or even knew your contribution…we know it. The fans know it. It’s in those grooves on the records…in the DNA of those of us who locked ourselves in our rooms trying to learn your solos and just what the hell you were playing. It’s the mystery, man…the mystery and the magic, and like Bruce Springsteen says, the ministry of rock and roll…and your contribution to metal is indelible, man.
KK Downing: It’s really heartwarming to hear you say that, Mike, it really is. You’re a good mate for saying that. It’s very reassuring.
PKM: And if I knew Jann Wenner personally, I would have had a sit-down with him 15 years ago and ripped him a new asshole over why you guys aren’t in the Hall yet, but that’s another discussion for another time. Thanks so much, KK.