K.K. Downing is along with bassist Ian Hill a founding member of legendary British heavy metal institution Judas Priest. He played guitar with the band for 40 years finally stepping away from the band before their “Epitaph”- tour in 2011. During those 40 years Priest created several timeless metal anthems, from “Victim Of Changes” and “Hell Bent For Leather” to “Breaking The Law” and “Painkiller.” By 2011 Priest had sold over 45 million records worldwide. Downing with Priest’s other guitarist Glenn Tipton have set the standards for heavy metal guitar playing. Their distinctive guitar sound became a trademark in the field with K.K.’s more wild bluesy style perfectly complementing Tipton’s melodic output. Their classic twin leads and grinding riffs are one of the most played pieces in today’s young guitarists rehearsal rooms.
Kenneth Downing was born 27th of October 1951 in West Bromwich, England. During his youth the young guitarist was captivated by the guitar sounds of new legendary players such as Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall and Eric Clapton.
“Hendrix was my idol. He was absolutely incredible and I don’t think there’ll ever be anyone else quite like him.”
Ken got his first acoustic guitar for 10 pounds he had saved from previous earnings. “Once I got that I managed to get a chord book. At the time, I used to knock around with a few friends who were basically doing the same as me. We’d all sit around somebody’s house in the evenings and there would be a bit of rivalry as to who could remember the most chords. I think I was the one to bar a chord successfully. So that’s how I started off, and it was good in a way – those bar chords were murder, though! It wasn’t long before I wanted to get an electric guitar, because that’s what all these guys were playing on the records. So, because I couldn’t afford a proper one, I made my own out of few bits and pieces – Watkins Rapiers and things like that.”
After more saving, Ken bought a Marshall amp and was all set to go. He still wanted to get his hands on a proper electric guitar and couple of years later was able to buy Gibson SG. “I always wanted a Flying V, but I had to wait a while before I could get one,” he recalls.
His passion for music eventually led to him being kicked out of the house at young age of 15. He dropped out of school at the same time and focused all his energies into playing rock guitar. Soon enough he formed a band with high school friend Ian Hill and together they continued extensive rehearsing, song-writing and fine tuning their performance. First line-up included Al Atkins on vocals, Ken on guitar, Ian on bass and John Ellis on drums. The band was musically coming from electric blues and Ken’s Hendrix influences were clearly seen and heard in the group’s early material. The first gig they played was in St.John’s Hall in Essington 16.3.1971. From the start group wanted to get recognition on their own merits so alongside their own compositions they only did few obscure cover numbers.
K.K.: “We were adventurous and tried to steer away from basic twelve-bar stuff, because we were more into progressive rock. Most of the other bands around were sticking to the same basic stuff. If anything, we were more like Cream or Black Sabbath.”
Touring life was hard and income was anything but great, thus Al Atkins left the band in 1973 taking band’s second drummer, Chris “Congo” Campbell along with him. For a new vocalist Ian Hill’s girlfriend Sue Halford suggested her brother, Rob. Ken visited Rob one evening and heard him sing to a Doris Day record making instant impression on young guitarist. At the time with the possible exception of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan no one in heavy rock was making such high falsetto sounds. Rob was recruited on the spot and soon after he brought in drummer John Hinch from earlier band Hiroshima and new-faced Judas Priest set out to spend most of 1973 and 1974 out on the road. They were playing almost everywhere in the Midlands, gradually moving their way to southern part of the country, London and eventually other parts of Europe. Though crowds were receptive, getting a record deal proved to be a difficult task. Finally a small subsidiary label Gull Records offered Priest a deal right before a Scandinavian tour.
At the same time, Ken also began to use a shortened stage name K.K.
Initials were born during Priest’s European tour when a girl in Denmark couldn’t pronounce Downing’s name and simply called him K.K. The name stuck. Before recording sessions began, Gull insisted the band add a second guitar player to enhance the sound. Glenn Tipton joined from The Flying Hat Band and the nucleus of Judas Priest was now complete. In mid-70’s it was somewhat unusual to have two lead guitar players so even in the beginning Priest were exploring new areas.
Judas Priest’s debut album however showed little of Downing and Tipton’s future dual guitar attack. “Rocka Rolla” was a mixture of their seventies influences and did not yet display their desires to move forward onto a more melodic hard rock sound. It wasn’t big of a success in the charts either but the band nevertheless soldiered on touring constantly.
However, with their second and last album for Gull, “Sad Wings Of Destiny” Judas Priest proved they were a force to be reckoned with. Nowadays universally accepted as one of the pioneering albums of heavy metal, “Sad Wings” included a first slab of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal in the form of “The Ripper” and “Tyrant.” It also contained the band’s probably most-loved classic “Victim Of Changes” – a song originally known as “Whiskey Woman” and already heavily played by the band in early seventies. After joining, Rob and Glenn had added their own contributions. K.K. did one of his most famous lead breaks in the middle of the song, the whammy bar style was to become his trademark later on.
While artistically “Sad Wings Of Destiny” was a triumph, financially Priest were in a slump. The record company was unable to promote the band like they needed to be at this point. Also personnel changes were taking place as drummer Hinch had gone by that time. In the seventies band went through five different drummers before settling on former Trapeze-skinsman Dave Holland.
K.K. admitted: “I knew I wouldn’t be happy until Priest had made it. From the very beginning, my goal was to find success with the band no matter how hard it might be. I think we all felt the same way because it wasn’t something that we could suddenly give up.”
A new management and a new worldwide record deal with CBS Records eventually arrived and saved the day. “Sin After Sin” was recorded in early 1977 and furthermore spiced up the Priest cocktail with hard hitting opener “Sinner” containing yet another blistering K.K. Downing lead break, equally storming “Starbreaker” and one of the heaviest metal songs at the time “Dissident Aggressor” stuck to the end. The band also recorded one of their first cover numbers, Joan Baez’ “Diamonds And Rust.” Similar to the other cover songs Priest did in the following years, many nowadays view these as Judas Priest originals. The stamp they laid upon tracks like “Diamonds And Rust” was certainly strong, the Baez recording being very far removed from anything resembling heavy metal. Yet that’s exactly what Priest’s version was.
Through 1977 Priest conquered new areas with their debut US tour which culminated in two outdoor shows in Oakland opening for Led Zeppelin. On the album front, “Stained Class” was released in early 1978 and “Killing Machine” (titled “Hell Bent For Leather” in the US) later in the same year, which also saw the band visit Japan for the first time. Japanese fans received Priest with enthusiasm and inspired with this, a live album “Unleashed In The East” taped from the second Far East tour emerged next year. The live release has since attained classic status and remains one of heavy metal’s essential live documents. At concert stage K.K. and Glenn had honed their guitar style to perfection and Priest had by this point also settled into their classic leather and studs look. Visually this added a new dimension especially through Rob Halford who would later receive the title of “Metal God.”
As the new decade dawned, Priest were on the verge of a major breakthrough. America had given them warm welcome and supporting other hugely successful acts like Kiss brought them a fresh audience. In their home turf UK a new movement was however brewing. As a response to punk, New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” (shortened to NWOBHM) had it all, razor sharp guitars, melodies, the “kerrang” sound, tight vocals, pounding rhythms and so forth. “The punk thing just went crazy in here,” K.K. remembers. “At that point, UFO and Priest were the only metal bands that continued to tour; everyone else decided not to, or went somewhere else. We were just trying to keep our heads above water.”
To lead the charge of NWOBHM Judas Priest’s “British Steel” hit the streets in 1980 and shot up to number 4 in band’s home country. Many still view it as Priest’s finest hour and no doubt this was a valid claim. Magnificent anthems “Breaking The Law,” “Metal Gods,” “Grinder” and “United” still appear in band’s set-lists today. With “Living After Midnight” they also had their first potential hit single. The song hit number 12 in the UK charts. “Breaking The Law” and “United” also became successful single releases later.
In August 1980 Judas Priest performed in the first annual Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park and headed straight from there to Ibiza commencing work for a follow-up to “British Steel.”
“Point Of Entry” appeared in spring and though not as instantly powerful as “British Steel” still included several head banging cuts – such as rocking opener “Heading Out To The Highway” and excellent “Desert Plains.” On the US tour, the band played in biggest halls than ever before, signalling clearly that something was happening. This became a reality when group released their next album “Screaming For Vengeance.”
Led by the devastating two-by-two attack of “The Hellion/Electric Eye” and “Riding On The Wind” the LP was meant to be cranked up loud. From emotional “Fever” to the rip-roaring title track and catchy single “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” the album was a metal fans dream. Both heavy and melodic at the same time, guitars dominating the field with K.K. and Glenn firing on all cylinders.
“Screaming For Vengeance” broke the band in the US, sales reaching double platinum. The video for “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” was in constant rotation on the new music channel MTV. “World Vengeance” tour continued their upsurge and by next year they had conquered every corner of America.
“Every day we’d get sales reports from the record company and we were amazed at what was happening,” states K.K. “The album had gone gold towards the end of the first leg of the tour. I think the record took off because it seemed to have all the right ingredients and people were totally ready for it.”
Upon coming back home Priest settled straight into production for the next record, “Defenders Of The Faith” which was if possible, even more metallic than its predecessor. Following tour saw them return to Europe once again before taking their first longer break after 10 years of hard work. The rest was interrupted only to play a short set at Live Aid festival in the summer of 1985.
For 1986’s “Turbo” Priest presented a new modern sound enhanced by guitar synths and digital production. This was met with mixed reception yet many overlooked the fact it contained some of the group’s strongest ever material.
K.K. remembers the “Turbo”-era: “That was about the time that Glenn and I were experimenting with all sorts of different guitar synths. We were so impressed by them that we decided to use them and let them influence the whole sound and structure of the new album. We knew that it would cause controversy but you’ve got to broaden your horizons and move with the times. We wanted to give heavy metal a new dimension.”
Beginning summer 1986 “Fuel For Life” tour took them around the world and proved to be another success, few concerts were recorded live for a double album “Priest…Live” featuring exclusively post-“Unleashed” era tracks, concert video by the same name released simultaneously was superbly directed by Wayne Isham and remains one of the greatest metal videos ever released.
“Turbo” was originally envisioned as a double album and some of the tracks resurfaced on the 1988 release “Ram It Down.” This record was an attempt to reach back to group’s heavier roots while keeping Priest’s melodic edge intact in songs such as “Blood Red Skies” and impressive cover of Chuck Berry’s classic “Johnny B.Goode.”
For live shows both K.K.’s firm favourite “Sinner” and much requested “Beyond The Realms Of Death” returned to the set-list. The “Mercenaries Of Metal” tour was a success with group returning to their home shores to play a string of British dates, first in four years. Personnel change followed this trip however, as Dave Holland exited due to family reasons and Scott Travis from US rockers Racer X stepped in. Dark clouds also shadowed the band as they were forced to go to Reno court to defend themselves against accusations of hidden messages in an old recording. With court ruling in band’s favour, Priest prepared to enter 1990’s with a vengeance.
The court case and the arrival of drummer Scott Travis inspired Judas Priest to blast back with their heaviest and fastest album yet. “Painkiller” was filled with soaring lead breaks, Downing and Tipton blazing away with superb twin assault attacks. And on top of it Rob Halford screaming like he was about to rip your head clear off! “Painkiller” and “Metal Meltdown” had lead breaks that were fast and furious, while yet retaining the usual Priest melodies and harmonies.
“That album was different for us. It was fierce and very hard-hitting. But heavy metal was going through a bit of sticky patch at the time. And back then we were the absolute epitome of heavy metal.”
Following “Painkiller” Priest headed out to a successful world tour which saw them visit nearly every corner of the planet. In 1991 the album received a Grammy nomination and during summer of that same year the band travelled around the US as part of Operation Rock’n’Roll package, together with Motörhead and Alice Cooper among others. The last date took place in Toronto in August 1991 – this would be the last Judas Priest show for over six years and the last performance with vocalist Rob Halford for nearly 13 years!
After the tour was concluded the band decided to take a year off, having worked extensively for 20 years it was time for a break. Halford set out to work on a solo album which eventually led to his departure from the Priesthood in 1993. The same year saw the release of double compilation album “Metal Works ’73 – ’93” celebrating the achievements of a long career.
From 1994 until 1997 group spend working on new material and wading through piles of demos from around the world – plenty of hopeful vocalists trying to get a shot at the mike stand. Downing’s band mate Glenn Tipton recorded two solo albums during this time while K.K. concentrated on writing material for next Priest album which promised to be the heaviest and the most brutal chapter in band’s history. Priest also signed a new deal with SPV records (Atlantic distributing overseas) and were ready to roll.
A US singer Tim Owens soon joined the band, quickly renamed Ripper after his stellar audition of the same song and Priest prepared to step back into metal spotlight. Finally released in 1997, “Jugulator” went straight for the jugular. Some fans were shocked by the change of direction. Yet Priest were once again taking chances and charging off to new areas musically. K.K. and Glenn had detuned their guitars for the album and subsequent tour so even the old classics sounded heavier and more brutal than ever.
K.K.: “Metal had been evolving, and we wanted to evolve with it. It was seven years after “Painkiller” and we wanted to show where our heads were at. And we had actually detuned our guitars since the days of “Sin After Sin” anyway.”
With Ripper established as the new Priest frontman, time was right for another round in the Priest live album cannon. This turned into “Live Meltdown ‘98” recorded around the world, representing tracks from all eras of Priest and displaying Owens’ undeniable vocal talent, “Meltdown” was perhaps more “in your face” type of record due to smaller arenas and detuned guitars. Yet crunching power behind “Grinder,” “Painkiller” and the “Jugulator” tracks – just to name a few – was present and strong. After short US-tour in the fall, Priest took some time off to recharge their batteries before returning with an album for the new millennium.
2001 – present
Band’s second album with SPV and Owens on vocals, “Demolition” was issued in the summer of 2001. It furthermore took the band along with modern metal sounds experimented already on “Jugulator.” However, the album still boasted few tracks clearly having traces from the band’s past, two powerhouse songs “Bloodsuckers” and “One On One” being good examples of this.
Lengthy “Demolition World Tour” took the band across the globe until mid- 2002. A special concert in London’s Brixton Academy in December 2001 was recorded and taped for Priest’s first full DVD concert release “Live In London” released following year.
In 2003 while the band were taking a break from touring and recording some special events were lined up. Another DVD release “Electric Eye” saw the light of day, compiling all band’s official promo videos from the Halford-era together on one disc. A mammoth box set “Metalogy” was also planned for 2004. It was this occasion that brought Rob Halford again into the picture with Judas Priest. Although band members had mended fences with Halford earlier, this was the first time everyone was in the same room to have a proper discussion. Initially all of it was about “Metalogy” and other Priest reissues but eventually a decision to regroup was made. Priest’s reunion was officially announced in the summer of 2003.
From the start the band made it clear they were not simply reuniting for nostalgia tour and were fully committed in charging ahead with a new studio album. A new deal with Sony was finalised and to test waters Priest joined the annual Ozzfest package in summer 2004 for a bunch of US dates. Before this the band had played their first shows in almost 13 years with Rob Halford on lead vocals in the form of some European outdoor and indoor gigs.
Priest received extremely warm welcome from fans on both sides of the Atlantic and spring 2005 marked their triumphant come back with “Angel Of Retribution.” Both K.K. and Glenn showed their skills with tasteful double leads on such metal milestones as “Deal With The Devil, “Judas Rising” and “Hellrider.” The album also showed Priest’s diversity in tracks such as beautiful “Angel,” melodic “Worth Fighting For” and doom like sounds of epic album closer “Lochness.”
Another record-breaking world tour followed the release of “Angel Of Retribution” and one of the highlights were several sold-out performances in Tokyo’s legendary Budokan Hall. It was from these concerts a DVD “Rising In The East” was captured and issued in late 2005 following tour’s conclusion. In 2008 Priest unleashed a massive concept record “Nostradamus” dealing with the life and crimes of middle age prophet. The album contained astounding variety of tracks pulling influences from band’s whole career, especially 1970’s masterpieces such as “Sad Wings Of Destiny” and “Sin After Sin.”
After a successful tour to promote the album and another round to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “British Steel,” K.K. announced his retirement from the band. 40 years after Judas Priest’s first concert, K.K. reflected on his lengthy career: “I feel that Priest has played its part in music history and feel very proud to have achieved what we have. So there is a good positive feeling inside me and of course I feel very indebted to the fans all over the world. I have been lucky enough to have had a great life and to have fulfilled many goals, one of the most significant being the friendships that I have made with my fans.”
During his career as professional metal guitarist, K.K. has concentrated his energies solely on Judas Priest, thus no Downing solo records have surfaced yet. However, in 2006 K.K. co-produced and made a guest appearance on Violent Storm’s “Storm Warning” album playing solos on 2 of the albums 10 tracks. More recently he also produced midlands outfit Hostile’s debut album and also worked with them as a co-writer. in 2014 he launched his own Metal For Men fragnance line.
K.K.: “I always thought that ‘well, if I did a solo album wouldn’t it sound just like Judas Priest?’ And if it did wouldn’t that probably be wasting a lot of good material? However, I think I’d be happy to produce albums more because I think there are some good bands out there.”
K.K. in his own words:
On the secret of Priest’s song writing:
“I think we always prided ourselves, first and foremost, on the songs. We’ve always tried to put some music together that would stand the test of time. If you listen to Priest’s most successful records, whether it’s “Living After Midnight” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” the lead work is very simple. Even now, I don’t think Glenn and myself have anything to prove as guitar players. If we thought a song could stand on its own with no lead work at all, we wouldn’t bother putting anything on.”
On tributes and fans:
“All those years ago when i was starting up as a snot-nosed kid wanting to be a guitar player; the best i could hope for was maybe breaking out of my local town. I never imagined bands would say that our music inspired them. It’s a great achievement to actually influence other people. I consider myself fortunate.”
On heavy metal and Priest’s part in the genre:
“We’re proud to be part of the heavy metal genre that is known around the world. It’s a form of music that is here to stay, because whether it’s blues, jazz, funk, classical, pop, whatever it is – heavy metal is a part of that. None of those types of music will go away and become extinguished – and neither will heavy metal. I’m confident of that. It’s etched in stone.”
On the future and musical goals:
“Before i go six feet under I’d like to see the band where it deserves to be. I firmly believe that people take their music with them throughout life. I mean, if you were a Judas Priest fan in your teen years and you can remember your first sexual encounter, your first cigarette, your first pint of beer, your first car and your first everything; if Priest was part of that, then chances are when you’re 100 years old and in a rocking chair, you’ll still be listening to Judas Priest. I’ll definitely be listening to heavy metal when I’m an old codger. I’ll be rocking that chair a lot faster and harder than the other guys!”