Former Judas Priest guitarist K.K. Downing recalls having a revelation at some point in the mid-Seventies. “I looked across at my bandmates and thought, ‘What the hell are they wearing?'” he tells Rolling Stone with a hearty laugh. At the time, the group was decking themselves out in frilly, silken pastel outfits, even though frontman Rob Halford was singing about classic heavy-metal tropes like death, destruction and rising above adversity. The look didn’t jibe with the message.
“I went to a shoemaker in London and had white, over-the-knee leather boots made, and that was radical, he says. “From there, I had a shirt made that was black and then some pants with studs down the side and then a leather choker with studs. I was thinking, ‘We gotta go this route. We are The Mighty Judas Priest. Listen to the songs.'” Downing laughs some more. He got his bandmates on board and from that point on, the band was hell-bent for leather.
In the time since he quit the group in 2011, due to intra-band tensions and power struggles, he’s taken time to reflect on accomplishments like helping to define the look and attitude of a whole music genre. In his recently released autobiography, Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest, he tells how he escaped an abusive childhood home, inspired by seeing Jimi Hendrix onstage, and co-founded a band that would become metal trailblazers. Alongside his fellow guitarist, Glenn Tipton, he introduced dual-guitar harmonies to metal, along with lightning-fast riffs and solos that inspired artists in the thrash generation to pick up the pace. And he co-wrote the all-time metal classics “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight” and “Heading Out to the Highway,” among many others.
As he tells his story, he offers brutally honest insights from his 42 years in the group. He thought the fact that Halford was gay was the “worst kept secret”; he felt Tipton was controlling and self-serving; he regrets a lot of missed opportunities, such as when the band turned down a slot on the Top Gun soundtrack. He’s grateful for the empire the band built, but he’s also candid about why he left and why he doesn’t want to return.
When Downing, now age 66, speaks with Rolling Stone on a call from his home in England, he sounds both wistful about the past and resolved to the present. Earlier this year, he drew the ire of his former bandmates when he released a statement that seemed to suggest that Tipton — who had to back out of touring in support of this year’s Firepower due to Parkinson’s disease — might not have played his parts on the album. He insists now that the statement was misinterpreted and apologized for it. It was another reminder for him of why he’s happy to leave Judas Priest in the past.
You had a hard upbringing in an abusive household. How did that shape the rest of your life?
I was really lucky. I was able to escape at the age of 15. I was always aware as a kid, thinking, “I’ve got to be careful here because if I’m not careful, this is going to affect me.” Certain things were starting to set in a little bit. I knew I had to bail out. My message to anybody reading the book was, “If you’re in a similar situation, don’t try and think it’s going to change. Get normality in your life.” My two sisters, unfortunately, didn’t get out. They became a lot more affected by it than myself, because I escaped.
At what point did you feel stability?
The very next day when I got on that bus and I left. It was like a prison sentence and they just opened the doors and I flew and I was gone and that was it. I was a free spirit. It felt that good.
You detail the influence Jimi Hendrix had on you in the book, but you don’t mention Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin too much. For you, what influences played into Judas Priest’s brand of heavy metal?
When I saw [Hendrix] in ’66, ’67 and ’68, he was his own free spirit. He was out there to do his things. I saw shows later on, and they weren’t the same as he was becoming more troubled, more affected with the business and whatever else was in his life. But in the early days, and Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend will tell you the same thing, when he first came to England he destroyed the place. I was at gigs where fans would jump from balconies and storm the stage; I was one of them. He had so much of an aura and charisma. It was dynamite.
As for the others, I wasn’t really a Zeppelin or a Black Sabbath fan. I was a fan of all music, but nobody had what Hendrix had. He was the first person where I really heard what I would call real heavy metal. Sabbath had some good things going on, but it was bloody different. When Hendrix opened up with “Foxey Lady” and then goes into “Purple Haze,” the riffs and the style of writing and guitar playing is something that’s completely unique and that stayed with me. Obviously I went on to be a musician and the last thing I wanted to do was to copy him because nobody could, but it left inside me that style that needed to be elaborated on and that happened quite a lot in Priest.
Judas Priest always embraced the term “heavy metal,” where Sabbath and Zeppelin would scoff at the term. Why is that?
Somebody tagged us heavy metal and I liked that. Even if we weren’t playing heavy metal — and I think we were — it all fit together as a nice wraparound package that was complete for me. By the time British Steel came, everybody’s wearing leather, studs; we had the razor blades, we had the British Steel album. We had all of that as a unique package and the rest is history.
In the book you claim to have come up with Priest’s black-leather look. What inspired it in the first place?
I don’t know. I had some pretty cool looks in the early days. I started off with a black, swashbuckling look. There was a place called the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre and underneath it were massive alcoves of all these theatrical clothes. We found out we could rent those clothes, and that became me and Rob’s spot. We looked through all these things, and that’s why we wore some of these coats and boots; they were all rented from this theater. I think we eventually got told off because we didn’t return the clothes in time [laughs]. We just held on to them. Eventually, we got a little bit of money and started having clothes of our own made and the look just came piece by piece [laughs].
Was it easy to get the rest of the band on board?
Some members in the band like to think everything’s their idea. I thought, “I’ll get Rob on board to start with.” There were a couple of gay guys at the leather shop in London and Rob was in his element [laughs] with these guys fitting him out in all this leather gear. Gays were already wearing leather in London so it was an easy sell for Rob. He was on board with that but also because we weren’t trying to do that; we were doing the leather-and-studs thing in a metal way. Then he started to design all of his clothes. “I’m having the bullwhip. I’m having this cap made.” Rob was happy for them to know that he was a gay man but at a certain point it started to look like a gladiator, which was completely done in metal. It opened up a massive amount of doors for him to elaborate on throughout our career.
You called the fact that he was gay the worst kept secret in metal. Why do you think people were so surprised when he came out in 1998?
I don’t know. Everybody coming into contact with the band would know. Rob never hid anything. When Rob made his announcement, I thought that all of the fans and the public would go, “Come on, Rob. Tell us something we don’t know.” [Laughs] So it wasn’t any big deal by then really.
Did you encourage him to come out or embrace it in the early days?
No. I never thought about that really. It was pretty liberated in England amongst youngsters at the time. We never thought about it because England wasn’t so bad. When we came to America, it was different in a lot of places. We would drive down South and our bus driver would lock us on the bus at a truck stop saying, “Sorry, guys. You can’t come out.” I think the bus driver was doing the right thing. The way we looked, it wasn’t a good idea for us to get off the bus in lots of those places [laughs].
You wrote that you were very protective of the idea of heavy metal in the band. It was curious to me that when you were working on Turbo, you never questioned whether synth guitars fit that definition.
It was unique at the time, and they were brand new. Nobody could say that it was or wasn’t heavy metal, because if we say it is, and it’s unique to us, then it is. But you have to be open-minded. Judas Priest were different in the fact that we would take risks. We were unpredictable, and that’s not a great attribute to have with rock and metal fans because they like consistency. But again, look at the great Jimi Hendrix. How versatile was he?
You had a tenuous relationship with your fellow guitarist, Glenn Tipton, during your time in Priest. Did you ever talk it out with him?
[Pauses] I did when it came to his drinking before and during the gig. That didn’t get me anywhere. It just made me nervous, because I’m a beer drinker and I know I couldn’t do that. It seemed to be slowing the show down as well.
You wrote that the roadies started watering down his beer.
Yeah [laughs]. I just hated going on every night and wondering, “Are we together here?” It made me so fucking nervous. It wasn’t funny. Ripper [Owens, vocalist at the time] used to come over and tug at my stage clothes and say, “Do something.” I’d go, “I’m playing the guitar, mate. I can’t do anything.” Not that anybody probably noticed. I stopped enjoying playing. It got to me.
You also wrote that you thought he was controlling band decisions, such as when you toured. Did you ever discuss that with him?
[Pauses] The thing was, so much of it went on [behind the scenes], and we knew, but there was never any kind of proof. You can’t make an issue out of something you can’t back up. For the most part, it was done in a certain way. You knew it was done, but you couldn’t make an issue out of it. Sadly.
When Glenn announced he had Parkinson’s, you released a statement that you had to walk back. You said you felt his live-guitar replacement, producer Andy Sneap, had made a contribution “much more than just as a producer” to the band’s latest album, which Halford took to mean you thought he played on the album. What were you trying to say at the time?
[Laughs] I thought it would really work in the band’s favor. When I heard that Andy Sneap and [co-producer] Tom Allom were working with them in the studio, I went, “This is gonna be good, guys. The big guns are in there now.” The reason these guys are good is because they made serious contributions to a record. Tom Allom is a very good pianist; he’s got a great ear for music. And Andy’s an accomplished guitar player already in a very good band [Hell]. I thought what I said in my statement was condoning Andy Sneap. The deal was done. I wasn’t going to put him down because it’s not within me. I haven’t got a clue who played what on the album, and I don’t care. I told the band that. But I can clearly hear Glenn in the solos on that record. I can categorically state that.
What did you mean when you said he had a greater contribution to the album then?
What I was saying was that Andy was a great attribute in the studio. I thought I was doing them a good service. If Rob had never said anything about my comment saying what they thought it meant, being over-defensive, it would have just gone past everybody. I don’t think anybody would have thought anything about it.
I will say, if there ever is a time when Glenn can’t perform on a record, I’m pretty sure you won’t get a record. I know Glenn. I know him better than anybody; I spent more time with him than he spent with his wife or kid. I guarantee it. Glenn would not agree to release an album if he wasn’t actually on it. That’s my prophecy. I could be wrong, but if he’s not in Judas Priest, I don’t know what might happen.
The other thing that struck me about your statement was that you thought it was odd they didn’t ask you to rejoin the group.
Yeah, because they all knew my problem was with Glenn with the beer drinking and the decision-making with him and [management]. I was just tired of it. I felt like I was working a nine-to-five job and the other guys felt the same. There’s no doubt in my mind their preference would have been to have me in the band, because why wouldn’t you?
Would you have wanted to rejoin?
It would have depended on everything: How I was asked, what the situation was going to be. All the things I had issues with needed to go away. I just wanted to be on a stage again with guys that were on fire, guys that were there and have lots of energy and play really tight. If you don’t enjoy the gigs, there’s not a whole lot out there. All those long lines of groupies have gone, and the parties and mayhem and all that craziness is gone. It could be pretty laborious but if you really look forward to getting on that stage and playing that gig, it’s good. But if you don’t, there’s nothing left for you out there.
Are you making much music these days?
Well, I do a lot of things other than play the guitar. I recently relocated and everything is in my new music room, but nothing’s wired up yet. I’m playing guitar a little bit and I’m gonna disappear in there when this is all over with the book and see what comes out in spring.
Are you thinking of a solo project or another band?
I don’t know. I find it hard to want to put time into writing music to start all over again. But I’ve just started playing again and I can alternate-pick as fast as anyone on the planet. Can I say that? It sounds a bit conceited, doesn’t it?
One of your gripes in the book was you felt Judas Priest missed a lot of opportunities that could have helped you become bigger in the way that Metallica did. What do you wish went differently?
Since I left the band, I see the band making mistakes but that’s probably not for me to say. When I was in the band, I think mistakes were made, but it is what it is and I’m happy to leave it all there. My only concern now, being the age that I am, is the fact that if something happens to me I’d like to think the guys would come to my funeral or vice-versa or we could get together at some point. I’d like us to just move on with our lives, be able to shake hands, hug. It is what it is. We shared a life together. It was successful.
Rob has talked about the band doing a 50th-anniversary celebration next year. Would you want to be a part of that?
I don’t know where he gets that from. I was in the band in 1969 but he wasn’t. Ian [Hill] can have a few beers [laughs]. Rob has talked about the 50th anniversary, but I suppose that can be done without me. I don’t know what he’s rattling on about really.
Do you see yourself wanting to do a one-off with them?
If something happens, whether it’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or we do something in the future, it doesn’t have to be awkward. For everybody’s sake, I think it would be better for us to be seen together and want to be seen together at some point in the future. But do I know what’s happening with the band? I don’t. Glenn is still a member of the band, he says. Glenn makes appearances with the band. Does that mean that Andy is a member of the band or isn’t a member of the band? It’s all a bit confusing. I don’t know what the deal is.
Rob and Scott knew why I quit. They knew exactly why I quit. Once that wasn’t going to be an issue anymore, I thought they might say, “Well, this happened. You fancy another crack at it?” I don’t think they’ve got a voice, if I was honest.
Since you’ve been out of the band a bit and have some hindsight, what were your favorite and least favorite eras of your time in the band?
Aspiring to be successful is a lot of fun. It was good to be down and out but united and all equal. It was total democracy: no money to share out. And when we had the success, it was so cool. Our glory years up until when Rob left were all good. After he left, it became hard work. Ripper is a fantastic guy, but something was not there. Then when Rob came back, I enjoyed Angel of Retribution and Nostradamus. For the most part, when we were together being prolific, it was pretty good. Ninety percent of the time was good. I’m eternally grateful for that.