Interview: K.K. Downing & Ian Hill, Judas Priest

"Fall to your knees and repent if you please." Having been 'hell bent for leather' for 20 years, 'gentleman of the press' Joe Mackett uncovers how those metal gods, Judas Priest, continuously kept 'delivering the goods...'

Furious guitar riffs, howling solos coupled with tortured, screaming vocals have been their hallmark for 20 years. As a result, the CD and video history of Judas Priest, Metal Works 73-93, is a celebration of supreme British style Heavy Metal. The compilation also closes the first chapter as vocalist Rob Halford has left the band to pursue a solo career.

Founder members, guitarist K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill delved into their memory banks to their first meeting way back in England's Midlands: "We were just kids in infant school."

When I ask if they remember the first time they played together Ian quips, "In the playground at lunchtime." I guess I asked for that one!"

K.K. had been teaching himself guitar for just a month when he auditioned for a local band named Judas Priest but he, "Didn't get the gig 'cos they asked me to play 12 bar and I wasn't practising them. I was doing 'burning' lead solos."

K.K., Ian, and a local drummer named John Ellis set up their own band only for Ian Atkins, the vocalist of the then Priest to overhear them and ask to join. As K.K. says, "We toured all over the country but had no money 'cos everything went back in for equipment."

Atkins left as did then drummer Chris Campbell.

"It was obviously a gig for the mad people of the world, and it still is," smiles Hill.

With new vocalist Rob Halford, Priest were always hopeful of a record deal and continued to tour havily.

"We did extensive tours and Gull took the bait. Unfortunately," remembers the pained Hill, "they promised us the world and delivered us Smethwick!"

What Gull did deliver was the first two Priest albums, 1974's Rocka Rolla and 1976's Sad Wings of Destiny. By the latter the double-pronged guitar attack of K.K. and Glenn Tipton was already forging fans by way of molten slabs of demonic Metal, but with the Gull deal was becoming a bind, an inevitable parting of the ways was imminent.

Recalls K.K.. "We asked for £25 a week each to live on. They said 'No' so we said 'Goodbye.'

Sad Wings had broken the ice in the USA.

"I remember us first going," says K.K. "The response was fanatical but we were fanatic ourselves. We'd be playing places so small that we'd be putting our guitars through the ceiling!"

The high point of that tour was as support to Led Zeppelin on the Day On The Green festival bill in San Francisco in front of 130,000 people. A deal with CBS was soon signed.

"We went from getting a £2,000 advance from Gull to £60,000 from CBS so we had to move in order to operate."

At the end of their Gull deal it was make or break, but when asked if calling it a day was ever an option K.K. retorts emphatically, "Never, sir! Never say did."

The first CBS album Sin After Sin was produced by ex-Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover. Stained Class in 1978 cemented their reputation but it wasn't until Killing Machine in 1979 that the band began to break to a wider audience via the single success of Take On The World. The album also saw the band adopt the leather image which was more in tune with the music.

Although not a conscious decision, K.K. elaborates, "We relaxed with leathers. It felt tough. Even now when we walk to the stage, it feels like we're united, powerful, and almost military in a way."

1980 was to be Priest's year. The British Steel album catapulted the band into focus. Three singles, Living After Midnight, Breaking The Law, and United, all proved their worth in the charts. K.K. concentrates on the videos for those releases.

"We did Breaking The Law for £15,000. They are quite historical and hysterical, but I'm glad we did them as they're now part of the legacy."

However the next album Point Of Entry found the band facing criticism from the press for attempting to make an album for American consumption.

"I didn't understand why we got stick for it. Some of our most enduring tracks come from it," reasons Hill.

For their next album Judas Priest bared their teeth. The white-knuckled, controlled aggression of Screaming For Vengeance struck the right chord and the dominance which had eluded them for ten years was within their grasp.

"Yeah, those were the good times," remembered K.K. "At last we had a record on the radio and the next thing we knew we were household names."

This demand led to lengthier tours.

"We did 120 shows in the States alone. Some big bands had to pack their bags and come back to England. They just couldn't live with us I'm afraid," winks Downing.

These tours did provide some hilarious moments, such as the scenes at a show when, inexplicably, the audience each threw one shoe up onstage.

"It was hysterical afterwards cos' it was pissing down with rain and there was all these people hopping towards their cars," laughs Hill.

Although Turbo met with a mixed response in Europe, America loved it.

"When new things come along we're not afraid to try them," K.K. says of the guitar synths. "Turbo was one of the most consistent LPs we've done. I think that even though the sounds were different, it still has the Priest hallmark."

The final two studio albums recorded with Halford were to be progressively harder and heavier. Some of the material on Ram It Down was actually recorded for Turbo, as Turbo was originally intended to be a double album," says Ian. The Painkiller record of 1990 was deemed by many to be the band's return to form. Sandwiched in between these studio releases came two live albums, 1979's Unleashed In The East and 1987's double live album Priest Live. K.K. professes the former to be a "mega live album" whereas he was "equally pleased with the second, apart from the cover."

"We're really happy with the way it's come together. What we've finished up with is really representative of the era," reckons Ian on Metal Works.

There are inevitably some bones of contention on inclusions and omissions.

"We can't really answer why some things are on and others not," reasons K.K. "No one but the most ardent Priest fan has all the tracks. If you ask anyone I guarantee that they'll only have about 2/3rds of them. I know that for a fact because most of the albums have been deleted for years."

Plans for the immediate future according to K.K. are to busy themselves writing "more riffs to the wonderful stuff we've already got."

"Then find someone to sing it," interjects Ian laughing.

If you thought that Metal Works 73-93 is the end of Priest, You've Got Another Thing Comin'.

Joe Mackett
Riff Raff
July 1993
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