K.K. Downing (Judas Priest)
Legendary is a word that gets used indiscriminately by the press in describing certain people that may or may not deserve that accolade. I think it's fair to say that most would have no problem applying that label to former Judas Priest guitarist K.K. Downing.
K.K. is a co-founder of one of the most important bands in metal history. The memory of him with his long blonde hair and white Flying V tearing around a stage is still vivid for many fans. Downing left the band in 2011 and has been quiet professionally since then, opting to put his time into personal endeavors.
He recently authored his autobiography Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest which is a terrific read. Many surprising revelations are shared such as his horrible childhood which prompted him to leave home at the age of 15. Downing also goes into detail about his relationship with bandmate and fellow guitarist Glenn Tipton which started off strained and later became toxic. For a band that was renown for it's synchronized twin guitar attack, it's shocking how far things went off the rails with the pair. Downing doesn't hold back on his growing frustration with Tipton's perceived power play and clears the deck on pent-up feelings.
He also takes readers through the creation of each album and shares many entertaining stories about each period along the way, including the infamous rivalry with fellow countrymen Iron Maiden.
The book was a joy to read but I had to find out more so why not go to the source? It was a real pleasure to speak once again with K.K. who, like all of Priest, is quintessentially British, gracious and humble. You can find other interviews with K.K. all over the internet that just seem to talk about the feud with Tipton and Rob's sexuality but those topics have been beaten to death. I wanted to find out more about some of K.K.'s early days and the band's highlights, which he was only too happy to talk about. Read the interview and then go and buy the book. If you're a Priest fan, it's more than worth the purchase.
antiMusic: Congratulations on the autobiography. It is one of the best music biographies I've read. Some other ones get caught up in different periods and spend too much time in non-essential sections which ends up ultimately boring. Yours, I feel, covered your history just terrifically so congrats on that.
K.K.: Thank you very much. It's such a relief actually at how well it's been received cuz you do something that is so out of what I normally do. It's not music. It's something different, Morley so I'm really pleased with how it's gone.
antiMusic: When retracing your history with the band, did you stumble across any pleasant memories that perhaps you had tucked aside in the memory banks over the years and had not visited in some time?
K.K.: Yeah, it was a strange kind of experience going back, especially when you're telling a lot of intimate things really, that you've never spoken to anybody about before. I guess it's like a bit like a psychiatrist and a patient (laughs). It got quite emotional at times especially when you're prompted to dig into your memory banks about things like childhood events. So it was quite a different experience,
antiMusic: When you were done writing this book, was there a sense of relief of getting some of these stories out in open, or did you then begin the back and forth game of "Now should have I wrote that in there?"
K.K.: Yeah, there was a lot of that. What don't you say. What don't you tell, you know. You just have to be honest really. Because that's what something like this is all about. I always had a reluctance to do anything on my own outside of Judas Priest really because my life revolved around fortifying and building and doing everything I could, because that was my life and my work.
I'd always steered away from solo album projects and setting up my own website and selling my own merchandise. A couple of the other guys did that but I never did that. So to do this project was quite a different experience altogether. My initial interest, really, was to tell my own personal story and for people to get to know me a little bit better as an individual. And also the story of what seemed to be a hopeless predicament as a youngster turning into a situation where I was on the world biggest stages.
It was reality. It wasn't until I had hit the age of 16 that I really kind of started to have an interest in music and began to buy my own musical instruments. It was a late start but it was a great salvation and music became my religion. It became everything that was in my life, really, was music related. It was kind of a pretty cool story to tell, really.
antiMusic: Your father had an effect on you and not the kind that most kids experience thankfully. Tell us about your early childhood with him and how those experiences affected who you are today.
K.K.: I think I've tried to work it out myself over the years as you do, Morley. I think if there's anything that people can take away from the book really is that my position is, "Get the hell out of there because it's probably not going to get any better if you find yourself in a bad situation --- relationship, whatever it is." You need to cut yourself free and go sweep the streets if you have to. Be prepared to work but get normality around you and find the real you --- the real person inside that hasn't probably developed yet.
But the thing is leave because the longer you stay there, the more decay sets in and chances are you'll never shake it off through your life. Youngsters become very affected by their upbringing, don't they? I don't know if it was valiant of me to get the hell out at the age of 15 but I did it and it was my saving grace. Unfortunately my two sisters stayed there a lot longer than I did and they have suffered. I don't go into that in the book but they have suffered more. But my getting out was a real reason I wanted to tell the story, Morley. People can think about it --- what their next steps should be, maybe?
antiMusic: Your early guitar hero was Hendrix. Tell us about seeing him close up and eventually meeting him and what that meant to your own aspirations as a future guitar player.
K.K.: Yeah, when he came along, it was amazing. To find your absolute ideal musical hero was playing a style of music and ingredients that he had and that a lot of other people didn't have --- that became imbedded within me. Not all of what Hendrix did. But to me, that was one of the first real signs of heavy metal because of the song structures and the way they were composed --- real riff-oriented like "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady", that intro. It was powerful stuff. And so consciously or sub-consciously that lay within me and was something that hadn't evolved yet. So I'm happy to say I've been a part of the evolution of heavy rock and heavy metal as we know it today. It's very gratifying.
But some of those early artists...some of those early songs that I heard...I think I mention some of them in the book. But there was something....it wasn't blues. It wasn't jazz. It wasn't classical. It wasn't pop. It wasn't anything. There were very early signs in the '60s that there was another genre of music that hadn't been invented yet exactly.
That's what was always in my mind but I had to work with other people, other musicians who looked at things conceptually, perhaps in a variation of things that were in their mind. So it was an amalgamation of everyone but a lot of stuff I did...riffs or song ideas were a bit more edgy than what the other guys brought to the table.
antiMusic: I don't know if you can call it the initial foundations of Judas Priest but your first contact with Ian Hill was a rather memorable one. Can you tell us about it?
K.K.: I'm trying to think really because we went through infant school together and junior school together and secondary school together. I didn't really have any close contact with Ian, through the school days to be fair. We would have been aware of each other. But after I left home and later on when I got fired from the hotel which I talk about in the book, I did come back briefly to the neighborhood. Then I left again as quick as I could and got my own one room place and that was literally a couple of hundred yards from where Ian actually worked. He worked in a little small shop that sold parts for motor cars and we would get together at lunch time and just hang out and talk about music and stuff.
I really don't remember how we got together to start playing but Ian had a fancy for the bass because his father was a bass player. And we found a drummer and found little practice places where we could get together and play a little bit. Even if it was somebody's bed room. And so we just stuck together and carried on and I talk about the rest of it in the book.
antiMusic: I was actually thinking about how he ratted you out to the police long before you were in the band. (both laugh) Nice guy!
K.K.: (laughs) Yes, that did happen yeah. (laughs) That was very early days really. I wasn't hanging out with Ian. I knew Ian and knew that he was a gentle lad and I guess the police did what they did and just scared him to death. He just thought he had to put the onus on somebody else and that's what happened. (laughs) So we went to court and got reprimanded and had to pay a small fine. Our parents had to go. It was a horrible experience really. Yeah, I'll have to remind Ian about that. (laughs)
antiMusic: In the book, you mention practicing guitar steadily when you bought your first acoustic. Tell us how your playing evolved from the early days to the beginning of Priest and when you began to develop your ferocious soloing technique.
K.K.: I bought an acoustic first and it was a bit hard. But it was a big thing in those days to be able to play chords and hold down barre chords and stuff like that. I would go and visit my gran and hang around a couple of lads who lived around there. I liked to think that I could play a few more chords than they could but that rivalry kind of spurred me on. When I eventually got my first guitar, a really cheap one...didn't have an amplifier but that's when I started to learn to play solo stuff really.
And right from the very early days, it was all about improvising. I didn't learn any set solos by anybody probably because I was listening to Cream and Hendrix obviously. Cream were incredible at improvising their long solos and Hendrix was a master at improvising what he did. And so to me, that was what it was all about. And that's what I was doing. I was just playing up and down the guitar, not particularly learning anything. I didn't learn any blues. I didn't learn anybody else's songs.
And that's why when I first auditioned for Judas Priest, I didn't get the job really because I wasn't able to follow structures like 12 bars and stuff like that. Instead I was just playing as fast as I could...these runs and what would be scales today. And that's what led me to be the guitar player I am really. I would improvise on record when I was in the studio. I would just go in there and improvise solos like "Victim of Changes", "Sinner" "Run of the Mill", "The Rage"...tons of songs. I would just improvise on because I always thought that was what great musicians did. (laughs) And I think I'm right, you know...jazz musicians, fusion, obviously Hendrix, Cream...just all the greats that had the ability to improvise. And that's what brought about my style of playing.
antiMusic: Learning to play guitar and write songs is one thing. A major part of Priest's success was your riveting live presentation. Did it take a bit of time to learn to play the music and incorporate all the running around and synchronized stage moves that you were known for?
K.K.: Yeah...loads of fun (laughs). Just loads of fun, really. Because it was a no-brainer to me. I could go and see Cream, which I did for example, and it was great to watch and listen to them play. But when I would go and see Jimi Hendrix and saw what a great showman he was...he was such an incredible guitar player and musician. But why did he feel the need to do this? Because it's about great music but also great performance and that was always in my mind. It wasn't just enough to be great songwriters and musicians but you also had to bring entertainment via something that was visually spectacular. So that was always a no-brainer to me. That's what needed to be done and of course, that's what we did.
antiMusic: You've always had an interest in the visual presentation side of things. Besides a serious interest in the record covers, in the book you also describe the evolution of the now iconic Judas Priest look. Can you talk a bit how you guided the band into a style of dress that is now a sort of uniform for the metal community?
K.K.: Yeah, it was kind of weird because in the early days I steered away from the uniform kind of look because bands like The Beatles and all of these guys from Liverpool, the Merseybeat...Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers...all these guys, these pop bands had the same haircut and the same suits. So the natural thing to do was steer away from that. Then I listened to early bands like the Rolling Stones and they all had cool images, individuals...Hendrix was the same. All the bands I was listening to, whether it was Free or Taste or Ten Years After or Jethro Tull...all the individuals had their own image and that just seemed to be the thing to do. To try and build your own person and image for people. And that was cool.
So we had this great name for a band, Judas Priest. We had these great, kick-ass songs which were heavy and a different kind of style. But we all had these individual kind of looks, doing what we wanted to do, which was OK. But going through the early '70s and moving on, I felt unsettled. It was not right. I would look at my bandmates and go, "Oh God, what is Rob wearing tonight?" And I wasn't sure that Rob was sure about his own identity, you know. But I just felt that the music was kind of moody and dark. The name was moody and dark but the image was too colorful and fancy.
So I started to wear more black, particularly black leather. Then I'm thinking I want people to see me from so many rows back so I started to decorate the clothes with studs. And I felt good in it. I felt really, really good. And so it came to me that we would actually able to make more of a statement uniformed. Not actually the same as each other but the same material with the same kind of feel about the look.
That was something that I was kind of desperate to start to have. So slowly and tactfully, I was hoping that other guys would take to the look that I had took to. And tactfully, I was able to encourage Rob to go to a couple of gay guys in London for some leather stuff which Rob was totally up for. The kind of set the ball rolling.
And when we all took to the leather and studs, I was just thinking to myself, "Why didn't this come to me before?" Cuz all of these bands like Led Zeppelin or whoever it was, nobody had that kind of uniform look, maybe because like me initially they thought it was something that pop bands did.
And so when the penny dropped, it all came together on British Steel and we had a great cover with the razor blade. Great band name. Great collection of heavy songs and we had this kind of uniform look with the leather and studs. Great. Happy days. And the rest is pretty much history.
antiMusic: Your first electric guitar was a red Gibson SG Junior before getting a Standard shortly thereafter. Later you graduated to the V that you are often associated with. That one was a go-to for you for a long time. Was part of its appeal that the V helped cement that very heavy stage presence or were you drawn to it for other reasons?
K.K.: I think it was just the look. I managed to get my first one pickup SG Junior and then had the two pickup version and then I actually got an SG Standard and I was so happy with it. But once I had the Flying V which first came out in 1967 --- the first issues were in '58-'59 but I wasn't aware of them at the time. But later certain guys had them like Bryan from the Stones. Dave Davis from the Kinks had one. Marc Bolan had one and Jimi Hendrix had one cuz I saw him play it.
I always thought it was pretty quirky to hold and to play but I forwent everything just for the look of it. And it was so much money! I sold my early SG Standard --- about 1960 I think it was and I had to put the same amount of money again to get that Flying V. But I was very fortunate because I think they made about 111 of them altogether, those '67 Vs.
And then of course after that, I saw an advertisement in the paper for the 1970 Vs --- the Gold Medallion. I was lucky enough at the time to be able to afford to grab that. And so I was dead happy then. But it was just the unusualness of the Flying V and I thought the shape of the guitar was more fitting with the style of music and the look that I thought was necessary at the time. And I think that now the Flying V has become pretty standard
with metal now, more or less. It's part of the staple shape of the metal instrument.
antiMusic: Absolutely. When you think of all the iconic images that have come from Priest. The motorcycle, the leather and studs, and right up there is the image of you with the V pointing skyward.
K.K.: Yeah (laughs). I guess so.
antiMusic: You've written some of the most recognizable songs in metal history. Can you tell us something about them, either what you remember about writing or recording them or just how they came together. Starting with "Victim of Changes" which has a bit of history.
K.K.: Yeah, that was around '69 when we had the original singer Al Atkins. I can't remember too much about it really. Just coming up with that riff really.
antiMusic: It sounds like the kind of song that went through a few changes with that break in the middle and everything.
K.K.: Yes, that's right, particularly lyrical changes. Originally it was called "Whiskey Woman" or something like that. And it didn't make it on the first record for some unknown reason. Then we put it on the second record and it became popular...because the song structure has all the ingredients to what you would expect. It's got the harmonized intro and it just sounds heavy. In those days we tuned to concert pitch. We didn't have the distortion that we had in later years. But none of that it was what makes a riff sound heavy anyway. It's just musical ingredients and the way the notes are in formation.
antiMusic: What about "Living After Midnight".
K.K.: We were actually recording British Steel and we didn't have enough material really. We went in the studio and like a lot of bands, occasionally we would just piece some things together. I remember we went to the pub one night and came back and suddenly Glenn decides to wake everybody up by plugging his guitar in and banging out some stuff. I can't remember if it was the definitive version in the end but Glenn started to play these chords of what would become "Living After Midnight".
And so we all thought, well if we're not going to sleep, we might as well all go down and join him. And by the early hours of the morning, "Living After Midnight" was born. It was actually quite a few hours after midnight by then (laughs). And so that as something that was pretty rare but a good thing came out of it, in the middle of the night, that night.
antiMusic: Around that same time, "Breaking the Law".
K.K.: Yeah, another one....not really sure how that one came about. It was such a long time ago. But I think the magical thing about that was the title. You know, "Can we do this? Can we sing about breaking the law?" (laughs) I think we thought about it for about 30 seconds and thought, "Yeah, we can do it. We're Judas Priest. We can do anything we want."
But after, the question was probably asked because you know, it's one of those things. You're a metal band. Somebody could say, "Oh you're telling these youngsters to go out and break the law. You're responsible if something gets stolen or somebody gets beaten up. You're starting a riot," sort of thing.
But what the hell. We went nah, don't think so. It's a song called "Breaking the Law". It's not called "Go Out and Break the Law". We thought we're Judas Priest. There's a freedom --- whether you write books or songs, you have the right to document things that are relevant in people's lives. So we just went with it.
antiMusic: One thing that has been very apparent is the band's sense of dynamics. "Victim of Changes", "Before the Dawn", "Angel", and a lot more show the two sides of Priest, the heavy and occasionally the more melodic, lighter side. Were there ever conversations about ensuring that there was that element present on most records or would the songs just pop up organically?
K.K.: I think the latter really, Morley. I think the one thing we had to do, especially from my part was that when you tried to compose --- put things together, for God's sake, try to let everything come from inside. Don't try to mimic anything. Just let it come as naturally as it possibly can. Because then you stand a chance of having something that is original and unique. So that was really how we went about it and it was pretty fun to do that.
And it was more rewarding just to pick up the guitar --- 9 times out of 10, if I just walk around the house and pick up the guitar and play something, it will be just totally new. I think I spoke about myself as a sort of improviser, really. Then to just pick it up and noodle about and play whatever comes to your hands. And usually things will turn out pretty good. Because if you're tired or fed up and you pick up the guitar, you'd end up playing something a bit more melodic that would be a ballad and then if you feel kind of energized, then it will end up being pretty fast. So it's just about trying to let everything be, as you say, as organically and as naturally as possible and that gives the best ideas usually.
antiMusic: You've played many, many memorable shows over the years. Perhaps one of the biggest was the US Festival in 1982. You talk about it in the book but what can you tell us about Heavy Metal Day and your show?
K.K.: Yeah, it was great. I don't know where we came in from but we came in by helicopter. We didn't know why. Somebody had said something about it being really difficult to get into. But it was a real thrill really. I remember we were flying toward the site and the pilot said "There's the show there." And I looked out the window and I thought, "I can't see anything." It was just a big massive brown in the distance and I'm thinking it just looked like a dark patch on the landscape or a forest or something. But it was actually the audience. It was just such a great experience.
We got helicoptered in and out of there and it was the first time we got to experience something like real superstars do, you know? (laughs) It was quite magical. We got dropped off there and got ushered to our dressing room there. We just put our stage clothes on, tuned up and just walked out onto the stage which was about 110 degrees in the stage. It was SO hot! It was just incredible. No sound check. Just get on and do it. Those were incredible days. We just literally dropped out of the sky and onto the stage, played the show and off we went again.
antiMusic: OK, Guys like you just don't stop playing guitar. What's next for K.K. Downing?
K.K.: Well, I guess with all the massive heat wave that most of the world has experienced, has finally passed us by. Our clocks go back at the end of the month so we're expecting the nights to grow cold. I've just relocated to a new place so I'm actually just putting my music room together which I'm really enjoying doing. So I can get rid of all the old scrap that I've been collecting over the years and can start afresh. So I'm going to disappear into that room throughout the winter. And between then and spring, I'm going to fly to Helsinki to do some things with the book. Jam a bit with some friends over there.
But then back to disappearing into the winter and see what comes out in spring, I think Morley. And then I'll decide what I'm going to do, whatever that might be, whether it's some recording, some playing, a bit of both. I'm just going to wing it, really. I get LOTS of opportunities from people asking me to do lots of things but who knows. Maybe I'm waiting for THAT call that may or may never come.
Morley and antiMusic thank K.K. very taking the time to do this interview.
Purchase the book K.K. Downing: Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest here
Visit the official website here