Interview by Heather Williams, Jari Asell and Ville Krannila
Steel Mill had the opportunity to interview drummer Les Binks, best known for his time with Judas Priest. Thank you Les and thank you for your wonderful contribution to the world of music.
How long have you been playing drums?
I was born in Portadown, Co. Armagh, N. Ireland in July 1951. The same year as K.K., Rob Halford and Ian Hill. I developed an interest in drumming at the age of five when my parents bought me a small kit. At twelve I joined the drum corp in a brass band where I learned to read snare drum parts and rudiments. Throughout school years I was in local bands and auditioned for my first professional Irish show band at the age of 19. The band toured Ireland until the so called “Troubles” began and the bombs put an end to the entertainment scene.
In ’72 I moved to London and within a few months found myself recommended for a session with Pete Townshend at Olympic studios in Barnes. Through meeting other musicians involved in the London session scene I decided that was what I wanted to do. I’m quite a versatile musician, who enjoyed the challenge of playing anything I was asked to play.
I became a musician because I loved music, but I came to hate the music business. It was full of sharks simply out to rip off naive musicians so I felt more comfortable in the studios.
During the early 70s you played drums for Eric Burdon. Which band of his were you in? Did you appear on any albums during your time with Burdon?
I hooked up with the Eric Burdon Band for a British tour. Eric was the lead singer in The Animals who had hits with “House of the Rising Sun”, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” etc.
I was introduced to Eric by his old sidekick and bassist in the Animals, Chas Chandler who also discovered and managed Jimi Hendrix.
You also played drums on the 1974 Roger Glover album “The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshoppers Feast”, which also featured the voices of Ronnie James Dio and David Coverdale. What particular songs on that album do you play drums on?
I hooked up with guitarist Ray Fenwick (Spencer Davis Group/Ian Gillan Band) and bassist Mo Foster (Jeff Beck) and we worked on many studio sessions together. We became a bit of a team and eventually formed a band called Fancy with singer Annie Kavanagh, who was in Jesus Christ Superstar (musical). This band had some success and toured in the USA. We also did a British tour with 10cc during their “I’m Not In Love” period. Fancy split up after two albums, the first on Atlantic records and the second on Arista, although we carried on working together on sessions.
Deep Purple’s Roger Glover had seen the band and asked us to play on his first solo album “The Butterfly Ball” and a follow on concert at the Royal Albert Hall with many guest singers including Ian Gillan, David Coverdale, Ronnie James Dio and Twiggy. The legendary actor Vincent Price narrated links between songs from the Royal Box. I played on all the tracks apart from “Love Is All” which had Mike Giles (Ten Years After).
How did you get involved with Priest in 1977?
Through Roger Glover I was asked by David Hemmings to do a British, US and Japan tour with Judas Priest. He was their manager as part of a partnership with Mike Dolan, Jim Dawson and Loyd Beeny. Their company was called Arnakata Ltd. They sent me an acetate of the Sin After Sin album which Roger Glover had produced with another session drummer Simon Phillips. I was chatting with Simon in London last May and we talked about our drumming influences. They were remarkably similar. Billy Cobham, Lenny White and many others.
I listened to the album and loved what Simon had played, so it was a joy to learn his drum parts and add a bit of myself to them in a live concert situation. I was introduced to Rob, Glenn, K.K. and Ian, and we all got on really well.
Please tell us about the essential Priest classic “Beyond The Realms of Death”. How did you master that one?
The band were still based in Birmingham, so I had to travel there for the rehearsals for the next album. We used a demo studio to record the material first before going into a major studio with a producer. So far all the songs presented were all up tempo and I felt we needed to introduce some light and shade with a big rock ballad that started softly with acoustic guitar and built up to an explosive metal riff.
At home I’d made a demo of a song which fitted the bill. I played the guitar parts on that but I asked a friend guitarist Steve Mann (Michael Schenker Group) to play the solo on it. I played the demo to the band and showed them the chords upside down (as I play right handed guitar left handed even though I’m right handed). They liked it, and Rob went away and wrote some lyrics for it, and came up with the title Beyond the Realms of Death.
I guess the songs on the Unleashed in the East period epitomises Priest at their best. Has to include Beyond the Realms, Exciter and the classic, Victim of Changes, of course.
Your time with Judas Priest was that “once in a lifetime”, rare, unique time in music history, when the sound was just right for the period, a sound that never will be and never can be replicated! Stained Class and Killing Machine are just awesome albums. Your drumming on them is just amazing. Can you give us some background on these albums as well as Unleashed in the East?
Stained Class (1978)
We went to Chipping Norton, which was a live in studio in the lovely Cotswolds with producer Dennis McKay. That was the Stained Class album which many years later saw the guys in a well, silly American court case. Apparently we had deliberately put subliminal messages on the record to encourage all our fans to kill themselves so no one would be left to buy our records. How dumb was that! I remember following the trial on TV and thinking, “what a load of crap. I was there throughout all of the recordings. None of those crazy allegations were true”.
After the album was finished I was approached by Mike Dolan with a music publishing contract in his hand. “Just sign here my dear boy and all will be well”. NOT!!! He later tricked me out of my share of the publishing and collected the money for himself. I got nothing. What a nice guy?
Stained Class was my first studio venture with Judas Priest. Most of the songs were routined arranged and recorded in a small demo studio in Birmingham first. The band discussed who they would like to produce the record and many names were put forward. My personal favourite was Dennis MacKay as he was the legendary Ken Scott’s understudy at Trident Studios, London, recording my big influence Billy Cobham with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. I loved the drum sound he got on those records.
Most of that album was recorded at Chipping Norton Studios in Oxfordshire. It was a live in studio with accommodation. I was first to arrive and spent the first day working with Dennis to get the drum sound the way we wanted it. Dennis was keen on getting good separation between the two bass drums and the rest of the kit, and at one point the bass drums were recorded front head off and a blanket placed over them so they didn’t spill onto the other drum mikes. That’s not how I like to record today as I like to have the drums set up in a live sounding room with very little damping to achieve a live more open sound. Chipping Norton was a fairly acoustically dead sounding room. However, Dennis waved his magic and I liked the sounds he came up with. “Better by You Better Than Me” was recorded later at Utopia Studios, London with James Guthrie producing. The drum sound is noticeably different on that track.
This album has my composition co-written with Rob Halford, “Beyond The Realms Of Death”. I wrote the music, Rob wrote the lyrics. It’s now become a Judas Priest classic and still performed to this day.
“Exciter” the opening track came about from a double bass drum pattern I played at a sound check. Glenn liked what he heard me play and asked me to play that again. He then joined in with a guitar riff and that became the intro to “Exciter”. That’s how some songs are born.
I really enjoyed making Stained Class and performing the songs live. When the adrenalin starts flowing on stage the songs get played slightly faster than the studio version and “Exciter” was one of those.
Stained Class set the format and direction that Priest was moving towards. A Heavy Metal classic album. Highly recommended by yours truly!!!
Killing Machine / Hell Bent for Leather (1978/79)
We went again with another tour to promote Stained Class followed by another break before going back to the studio to make the next record. This would be called “Killing Machine” in the UK but CBS America thought this was too offensive so we changed it to “Hell Bent For Leather”. Two singles “Take on the World” and “Evening Star” made the British charts and two appearances on Top of the Pops. The band was on the way up.
We flew to Munich, Germany for a TV show called RockPop, which was their Top of the Pops. Rock Forever was the single there and I remember bumping into Kate Bush in the corridor and thinking how tiny she was.
After a hectic touring schedule to promote the “Stained Class” album it was time to write and rehearse the material for a new record. Usually I would travel up to the guys’ home city of Birmingham to rehearse and sometimes make a rough demo of the songs in a small local recording studio. This time James Guthrie was chosen as producer, and all of the Killing Machine album was recorded in London’s Utopia, Basing Street and CBS studios.
Glenn was impressed with the percussive simplicity of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” which doesn’t actually have any drums on it. The rhythm is just multi tracked foot stomps and hands slapped on thighs for the back beat, but it worked so brilliantly. Glenn wanted to write an anthem using a similar approach but this time with multi tracked drums. I came up with a simple rhythm part which is basically sixteenth notes on double bass drums, eighth notes on the floor toms and the snare on two and four for the first bar then two, three and four for the second bar repeated. I think we double tracked that four times so it’s the equivalent of four drum kits. That of course became the foundation of “Take On The World”. There’s no bass on that track, just guitars and drums. It was the band’s first hit single in the UK and debut appearance on “Top of the Pops”, the UK’s all important weekly chart show.
A second track from that album “Evening Star” was the follow up hit single and also led to an appearance on TOTP. Strange though, as both songs are not typical of the hard metal direction that Priest was heading in.
It does of course contain the classic Priest track “Hell Bent For Leather” which became the album title for America as CBS felt that “Killing Machine” was too controversial and might offend those of a sensitive nature. (F–k’em is what I say).
CBS suggested we record a version of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi” and as we all love Greenie we gave it the Judas Priest treatment and that was recorded at CBS studios. It’s quite frightening the number of major London studios that no longer exist anymore as a direct result of the changes to the record industry. The times they are a changing. I guess it’s time for my boot heels to be wandering!!!
Unleashed in the East (1979)
The Killing Machine / Hell Bent For Leather tour kicked off in Japan and Mike Dolan came with us. I had to arrive at the Tokyo venue early afternoon as Pearl had delivered a new maple shell kit as promised. I had to set it up for the first time with my drum tech and tune it. I have a sound and pitch in my head for each drum and I tune them pretty tight until I get the sound I want. Both heads tuned to the same pitch but maybe bottom heads slightly tighter on the bigger toms.
While at the venue I noticed that a 24-track mobile recording studio was parked at the rear of the building and engineers running cables in to record the gig. This took me by surprise as I had no prior arrangement with Dolan to record. When the band went into the studio to record I would negotiate a fee with the manager beforehand. I received a one off session fee for each album as I wasn’t contracted to the record company and therefore would not receive royalties from record sales. I asked Dolan why he hadn’t informed me in advance so we could agree on my fee for a live album. He brushed it off by saying, “don’t worry, it’s just for CBS/Sony’s benefit. We’ll sort things out later.” Little did I know, I was making the next album. These recordings became “Unleashed in the East”.
This one is a touchy subject for me as the live in Tokyo album “Unleashed in the East” caused a rift between me and the band’s manager and ultimately led to my decision to leave the band. I just didn’t see the point in continuing to work with a band whose manager didn’t want me to receive any payment for that live album. A completely ludicrous scenario. It’s a classic heavy metal live album which I believe eventually went platinum and he didn’t want me to receive a penny for it. Crazy f–ker!!! But that’s what happens if a band allows someone like that to manage them, they lose members. So exit drummer number four.
As I wasn’t even invited to the studio to hear the recordings, I can’t really comment on what took place in the studio with new producer Tom Allom. The first time I heard the recordings was when the record was released on vinyl. Something worth noting is that the photo on the cover is not a live shot, it’s staged. Rob is conveniently positioned in front of my drum kit to disguise the fact that there is no drummer behind the kit. I had already left.
However, it has to be said “Unleashed in the East” is a great heavy metal album that personifies Judas Priest at their very best.
So this is the reason you left Judas Priest?
Contrary to what you may have read, we had no musical or personal differences at all. We shared the same musical direction and goals for the future of Judas Priest, and the reason I left was nothing to do with the band, but a lot to do with the despicable con man and rip off merchant Mike Dolan, who later became J.P.’s personal manager after David Hemmings left and moved to New York to manage the Pat Travers band.
After Japan we flew straight to America for a three month tour. We did a lot of gigs with UFO, who really knew how to party and live the rock & roll lifestyle. On return to the UK it was straight into a sell out two-week tour ending with two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Apollo).
Time for another break for the band and an opportunity for me to do some sessions again. After a while Mike Dolan called me and asked me to come into the office to discuss the band’s next move. Ever since I first met Dolan I always felt he was a bit of a shifty and untrustworthy character. He was about to prove me right. I was surprised when he told me the guy’s are at Ringo Starr’s Startling Studios in Ascot with a new producer, Tom Allom, listening to the recordings from Japan. Thought it odd that I hadn’t been invited to join them and have a listen myself. He told me they sound great and we think this will be the next album. Then he dropped the bombshell, “I think you should waive your fees on this occasion Les”. In other words he didn’t want to pay me anything for this album. Of course I took the opposite point of view. This album would out sell all the previous studio ones. I felt I was being treated badly and with little respect for my three-year contribution to the band.
There was a long stand off while my drums where being held to ransom as they were still in storage at Meteorlites premises, the lighting company that did the British tour. Dolan had issued strict instructions not to let me collect them from the premises. This meant things were getting quite nasty and was souring my relationship with management. I had a long struggle to get paid anything at all but eventually settled for about half the fee of the previous album.
As you can imagine, I was feeling disappointed and undervalued so I left and went back to the sessionwork. What disappointed me most was that no one in the band bothered to call me to say we hear you’re leaving. What’s the problem? Is there something we can sort out cause we don’t want to lose you? That didn’t happen.
After I’d left, I read all kinds of made up reasons given to the media as to why I left. I guess “he left because we didn’t want to pay him for the live album” didn’t look too good in print. So there you have it. The real reason Les Binks left Judas Priest.
Mike Dolan is currently serving an eight-year ban by Companies House from being a director of a company or having anything to do with running a company. He has since rekindled the old Arnakata name and put his daughter at the helm. Sly old dog.
What did you do after Priest?
Shortly after Priest I got a call from Donal Gallagher to ask me to record with his brother Rory Gallagher. I had toured with Rory in the Joe O’Donnell Band which was managed by Donal. Rory had just sacked his drummer Rod De’Ath and his keyboard player Lou Martin, just retaining bassist Gerry McAvoy. We rehearsed the material and then went into George Martin’s Air London Studios in Oxford St. with no producer and recorded a few tracks. Don’t know what happened to those recordings. I don’t think they ever got released.
Also at Air Studios I did an album “Moonlight Walking” for singer/songwriter Gary Benson with Steve Lukathar (Toto) on guitar and Lee Sklar (James Taylor) on bass. Then an album for Roger Chapman (Family) called “Mail Order Magic” with Micky Moody (Whitesnake) and Geoff Whitehorn (Crawler) on guitars. Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell also played on one of the tracks. Lots of sessions for film and TV music followed.
Mo Foster (Fancy) and I were asked to play some UK dates with guitarist Hank Marvin (The Shadows) and John Farrar who produced Olivia Newton John. That was a lot of fun because I got to play all the Shadows hits that I’d learned as a kid in Ireland and Hank is a real gentleman to work with.
Then it was back to the studios for sessions with Mary Hopkins (discovered by Paul McCartney) and Mike D’Abo (Manfred Mann).
I was asked to do an album for songwriter/blues guitarist Kevin Brown at Ridge Farm Studios, Dorking, Surrey. On this project I met keyboard wiz and fellow countryman Alan Lisk from Belfast. We became great friends and continued to work together over the years on TV and film scores. Alan is a wonderful composer and wrote many well known theme tunes including the very successful British sitcom “Men Behaving Badly”. I played on that and in the words of Michael Caine “not many people know that”.
I’ve gotten to know many great musicians over the years and often get calls asking me to dep/sit in with a band on a gig usually in London or surrounding areas. It’s always a pleasure to play in an informal setting with talented musicians so I enjoy doing that. This is how I met guitarist Richie Faulkner, K.K. ‘s replacement in Judas Priest. We often gigged together in Camden and other venues around London.
I really enjoyed working with Richie. He’s a world class rock guitarist and it’s no surprise that Priest snapped him up. Different from K.K. as he doesn’t use a whammy bar like K.K. does. Mostly sticks to his Gibson Les Paul. He’s a lovely guy and deserves to be up there with the best of them.
The Sin After Sin album was Priest’s first record for CBS world wide having left the smaller Gull record label. I couldn’t help noticing that the three albums they had made so far had three different drummers, and this made me wary of just how secure my position was, but then I was hired as a freelance session drummer initially to promote the new album.
After a very successful British tour we headed off on the first USA tour. I remember staying at the Mayflower Hotel in Manhattan. Someone from CBS told us they were holding a reception for the band in some sort of converted warehouse building to welcome the band to the USA. It was the middle of summer and quite hot. We were told “don’t have anything to eat, as there will be lots of food and drinks there” OK. A limo arrived and off we went. On arrival we had to get in an elevator to get to the reception on an upper floor. Half way up the elevator jammed and we were stuck there for over an hour in the heat. When we eventually escaped and entered the reception all the food had been scoffed up by the other guests but everyone seemed oblivious to our ordeal. Great start to the tour!
I can’t remember if it was on this first tour or the second one that we opened up for Led Zeppelin at Oakland’s Coliseum. This was when they had the famous Stonehenge stage set. I stood at the side of the stage to watch one my favourite rock drummers, the mighty John Bonham. Robert Plant had to return to the UK shortly after that gig as his little boy tragically died. He wasn’t the only one. From my hotel room a news flash on the TV announced the death of Elvis Presley.
Japan was next and as in those days I was playing Pearl drums I contacted the company and invited them to our concert in Tokyo and we set up an endorsement deal. They told me to provide them with a list of my requirements and they would supply me with a new kit on our next trip to Japan. There is some video footage of that first tour on YouTube but the visual quality isn’t great. This shows the band before they adorned the leather gear.
When we returned to the UK we took some time off for a well earned rest.
A new album was on the horizon and the guys asked me to play on it. During these periods when there was a break I would let my contacts on the session scene know I was back in London and available again. So I was the only member of J.P. that was musically active outside of the band. Back doing sessions again.
In 1981, you were in a band called Lionheart with guitarist Dennis Stratton (ex Iron Maiden) and vocalist Jess Cox (ex Tygers of PanTang). Why did the band yield no albums? What caused the band split up after such a brief time together?
Lionheart was a band put together with Dennis Stratton (Iron Maiden), Steve Mann (MSG) on guitars, Rocky Newton on bass and myself on drums. We toured with Def Leppard and Saxon. The management was slow to secure a record deal and everyone strayed off to do other projects… but I got to work with Steve Mann again on an album for Tytan at The Who’s Ramport Studios in Battersea.
I teamed up with former Ian Gillan Band’s Ray Fenwick (guitar) and John Gustafson (bass) and flew to Milan, Italy to record in a medieval castle in Caramatta. This was for an Italian songwriter Eugenio Fannardi, then to Paris, France to record at The Chateau for a French singer Dick Rivers. Then a tour with Denny Laine (Paul McCartney’s Wings, Moody Blues).
What have you been doing music wise these days? What does 2017 hold for Les Binks?
I’ve recently played on my second album for former Coliseum guitarist James Litherland “Black ‘n Blue”. He’s the father of Grammy award winning James Blake who is enjoying much success right now. Played on Kindred Spirit’s new album “Phoenix Rising”.
This year 2017 I’ve been asked to make an album for John Madera’s Devil Star company in Las Vegas. This would be with Meatloaf’s producer and former Anthrax guitarist Paul Crook, and, yes, there is more than a strong possibility that I will form my own band too. It would also be great to do something with Mr. Downing again, if he hasn’t hung up his guitar for good in favor of spending more time on the golf course. What would the fans think?
Who do you count as your influences?
My main influences were drummers like Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix, Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Ian Paice with Deep Purple. I do a salute to my friends in Deep Purple and the immortal Hendrix with Purple Haze UK band.
Then later Billy Cobham with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Lenny White with Chic Corea’s Return to Forever and many others.
Tell us about your favorite drum equipment?
In the mid eighties I started using Tama drums. Great build quality and they seemed to be the most innovative drum company inventing Octobans and the gong drum. I first heard those on Billy Cobham’s Magic album and decided to get some. I bought some Tama Artstar 2 maple drums with the quirky 11″ Tom which they introduced in the Artstar range. They stopped making the eleven when they brought out the Starclassic drums. They are easy to tune and record great.
How is your drum kit typically set up?
I use Remo clear Ambassador heads top and bottom on all the drums, coated ambassador on snare with very little muffling. I like an open live sound from the drums. All my cymbals are Zildjian A Customs. 14″ Mastersound Hi Hats 20″ and 22″ ride cymbals, 16″, 17″, 18″, 19″ crashs, 10″ splash and a 22″ China.
The Tama Artstar 2 consists of:
Two 22″x16″ Bass drums
8″x8″, 10″x10″,11″x10″, 12″x9″, 13″x12″, 14″x13″, 15″x14″, 16″x16″ and 18″x16″ toms all on Tama rack system.
Snare drums are mostly 14″x6 1/2″ or 14″x7″ single ply solid maple shells.
Tama 8″ and 10″ Mini Timps.
Bass drums with the front head off?
The Beatles were one of the first bands to remove the front head from the bass drum, put some padding against the batter head and stick a mic inside for recording. That became the trend for recording in the ‘70s
And yes, of course, I too used that method back then, but it can make the bass drum sound a bit clicky. Nowadays myself, and most drummers, prefer to create a more rounded, fuller and more natural sound by fixing a mic permanently inside the bass drum with the batter head muffled leaving the front resonant head on with a small offset 4″ hole cut in it to let air escape and if preferred mic externally.