K.K. Downing onstage with Judas Priest at Wembley Arena.
K.K. Downing onstage with Judas Priest at Wembley Arena.
Photo by Ross Haflin/Courtesy of Da Capo Press

Judas Priest Guitarist K.K. Downing Screams (Sort of) for Vengeance in New Memoir

Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest
By K. K. Downing with Mark Eglinton
288 pp.
$28
Da Capo Press

As one of the founding guitarists in Judas Priest, Ken “K.K.” Downing could be rightly credited as one of the head cooks in the sonic stew of the genre that became the NWOBHM (That’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal, ‘natch). And he’s heard on all of their landmark albums (including British Steel, Point of Entry, and Screaming for Vengeance) and fist-raising, fast-driving hits like “Breaking the Law,” “You've Got Another Thing Coming,” and “Living After Midnight.”

Judas Priest Guitarist K.K. Downing Screams (Sort of) for Vengeance in New Memoir
Book cover

But his abrupt departure from the band in 2011 with little explanation left fans wondering what in the fiery pits of hell happened. In this quick-read but chock-full-of-info memoir, Downing answers that and much more.

He begins with his bizarre upbringing in the Midlands region of England, under the hard thumb of a father addicted to gambling and definitely not a fan of working. More importantly, he was beset with bizarre practices and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, much of it rooted fear of his children being contaminated by any contact with other kids.

Downing’s life was rocked – literally – when he fell under the spell of Jimi Hendrix, who he got to see live on several occasions. As a young player, he tried out for the “original” lineup of Judas Priest with singer Al Atkins, and the name was later revived when the pair formed a new group, adding bassist Ian Hill.

Atkins was not long for the group, and Judas Priest really came into its own with the later addition of second guitar player Glenn Tipton and singer Rob Halford, whose piercing, scale-defining vocalizing gave the band a distinctive sound for their prime period in the early/mid ‘80s.

And while Halford didn’t come out as a gay man until 1998, the band had known his sexual preference for more than two decades. Downing says it didn’t matter at all to them, but it did lead to some comical moments he recounts in the book. Like how Halford would be outside anxiously waiting in the van to leave from a venue while the rest of the band were taking their time getting blowjobs from groupies backstage. Halford would return the “favor” by disappearing into men’s public toilets for his own assignations without saying a word to anyone while the others searched around for him.

Then there was distinctive leather-and-metal-studs stage clothes that Judas Priest adopted for their outfits. Downing says the genesis of the look was entirely his suggestion, and Halford took to the decidedly underground S&M homosexual apparel quickly. Not to mention the whips he flicked while making his stage entrance on a roaring Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Judas Priest in 1977: K.K. Downing, Rob Halford, Ian Hill, Les Binks, and Glenn Tipton.
Judas Priest in 1977: K.K. Downing, Rob Halford, Ian Hill, Les Binks, and Glenn Tipton.
Photo courtesy of Da Capo Press

Fans of hard rock and metal will also find plenty of anecdotes about Judas Priest touring and hanging with groups like AC/DC, Status Quo, Def Leppard, Dio, and Motörhead – all favorites.

Less than ideal were their road trips with Iron Maiden, who Downing calls a bunch of prima donna and unfriendly “arseholes” looking to sabotage the then-headlining Priest. Still, he notes that partially because Maiden had an amazing manager in Rod Smallwood and their own was not nearly as effective, their career did not reach the levels of success that Maiden’s has.

Throughout the career of Judas Priest, Downing says that he and Tipton were often at odds. Here, he claims that his fellow axeman would take the lion’s share of the solos on stage and on record for himself, later cozying up to the band’s management and master puppeteering decisions about the band’s writing, musical direction and touring.

Downing says he would begrudgingly accept the situation, and admits he was not one to challenge things. It eventually came to a boil when Downing was told to help write songs for an EP after a major tour he felt was unnecessary, and he bowed out.

When it was announced this year that Tipton – who in recent years has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease – would not tour for any foreseeable future, Priest fans were certainly hopeful that Downing would be brought back into the fold. However, this is not happened and as of now, and according to the group themselves, is not likely to. The band was on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, but were not among the eventual inductees.

These days, Downing spends more time shredding grass on the golf course than notes on the guitar. But fans of heavy metal – and those who’ve seen the unintentionally hilarious Priest-centered documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot – will cut through these pages with glee and a sense of Turbo Lovin’.

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