Judas PriestJudas Priest's K.K. Downing talks sweet 'British Steel'
By Naughty Mickie  notymickie@earthlink.net 

They're baaack! And if you're anything like me, you can't wait to catch 'em live. Judas Priest, vocalist Rob Halford, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their classic album, "British Steel" (Sony, originally issued April 1980), by performing it in its entirety for the first time live on stage. The effort includes hits like "Metal Gods," "Breaking the Law," "United," Living After Midnight" and "Grinder." The album was recorded at the Tittenhurst Park in England, a mansion owned at the time by Ringo Starr and previously owned by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with Tom Allom serving as producer. In 2001 the album was remastered and reissued with bonus tracks.

So other than the coolness factor, why is Priest doing this tour? To find out, I gave Downing a call just before the band's concert in St. Louis.

"Originally last year we came over with the Masters of Metal tour with Heaven and Hell and we only played 18 or 19 shows because we had to get back in the studio to do a new album which is now complete," says Downing. "We thought that we would probably come back and cover the areas we didn't cover last year. That was the original plan, but it didn't quite happen and so somebody said well what about - I can't remember who actually suggested it - doing the 'British Steel' tour.

"The original idea was to put an all-British bunch of bands together again and happily Whitesnake were available, but it proved kind of tough to get some other bands. We still went along with it really and thought, well, playing the album in its entirety would be a good idea, as it was pointed out that it was the 30th year of the anniversary of the release of that record. So we thought we might take a trip down memory lane and of course that helps us to choose the set list a lot easier and we thought it might be cool to do a completely kind of retro thing." Downing goes on, "That's what we do, we brought the whole thing back, all the old lasers that nobody uses any more, we're sponsored by Harley again now and we're up and running really. We've down one show in Indianapolis, which was fantastic. In a theater, it wasn't a massive theater, but it was absolutely brilliant. We're really looking forward to our first show with Whitesnake on board tonight in St. Louis."

I'm not an obsessive gearhead, but I want to know if they are using the same instruments and amps as they did on the album.

"I have some and Glenn, we have some retro guitars out there. We can only play them a little bit because time has obviously moved on. They are here on tour with tour with us, we've got some old stuff knocking around," replies Downing. "I haven't got really, really old ones, like the old Gibson Vs, but I've got some very early Hamer Vs, which I've been using for, they go back to the '80s, so it's kind of cool. They look pretty retro."

Next, I ask Downing how Priest's writing has evolved over the years.

"I would like to say that we have evolved as songwriters," Downing responds. "I guess that's one of the many reasons for doing the 'Nostradamus' thing, was to prove our worth really as being more than just rockers and metalers, that we could do something. All the orchestration on there was done by myself and Glenn either with the new technologies about with synthesized guitars or on keyboards, where basically you play guitar now and it comes out as any instrument you want it to be. And that was good, it was good from me to do that I think. I got to add a little bit of classical stuff in there as well which suited the moments for the 'Nostradamus' thing, to utilize instruments that would have been around or most of them at that particular time."

What's the secret to Priest's success and, more importantly, their long career?

"I think, thankfully, back in the '70s we brought something a little bit new and fresh to the table and something that was unique, not just to Judas Priest, but to the world at the time." Downing explains, "As soon as we hit on the image that really suited the band, the leather and studs and that sort of thing, then we felt very much at home. We came over to America in the '70s and we were playing with bands. Lots of bands were still wearing denims and stuff, it was either denims like Foghat at one end or an Reo Speedwagon or it was KISS and Alice Cooper, which was off the other end of the scale. We found our niche and stuck to it and unfortunately identity is pretty crucial in this world in entertainment."

"But there had to be more than identity to keep your career going," I counter.

"Hopefully together with some good songs," Downing replies and laughs. "And hopefully some decent playing."

To learn a little more about Downing, I ask him how he came to the guitar.

Judas Priest"I was listening to people like John Mayall's Bluesbreak and some of that early stuff when I had just turned 16 and bands like Cream and then and great Jimi Hendrix arrived and I really wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to be a part of it really bad," Downing says. "I guess like some people grow up and they really want to be an actor or a soccer star and they want it so bad that it almost makes them ill. I don't know whether it was mental or physical or both, but I  guess it's like when you fall in love, you feel ill don't you? You feel sick with love. I was like sick with guitar playing, so many of these great players, and I had to make some headway otherwise I was going to go downhill and not get out of hospital, if you know what I mean."

Today he can do anything he wants, so what does this rockstar do with his free time?

"The music obviously so in my life takes up an awful lot of time, but I like to play golf and tennis and just do regular things," Downing shares. "I like to visit, in England we have lots of national heritage, not always stately homes, but really fabulous pieces of history and you can get to walk around and experience how affluent people lived centuries before. It's nice to do that. I'm a fan of internal design and external architecture, I just find it fascinating how brilliant a lot of that stuff was so long ago."

"After the 'British Steel' tour, what is next in store for Priest?" I query.

"A very good question that I'm not really able to answer," Downing replies. "Rob was just saying that we've just kicked off on this tour and we're going to be enjoying that for a few months and then we've got some festivals in Japan to play and then I guess we'll be putting our heads together and thinking 'OK, what is Judas Priest going to do for the world tomorrow?' But until we sit down and do that I don't know, I can't really say what we're going to be doing."

Before letting Downing go, I remind him about the time we conversed over glasses of red wine at the House of Blues in Anaheim after one of their shows. I wonder if Downing is a big wine drinker.

"I'm hopefully not a big wine drinker," Downing laughs. "But yes, I think that because I'm a fan of food you have to be a fan of wine. Basically a good day for me is to chill out and have some really nice ice cold beers and then a nice meal with a nice glass of wine and I think we all seem to do that these days. I think that men do it a lot more these days because everybody here is about how red wine is good for your heart and we hear about the Mediterranean diet, olive oil and plenty of greens and red wine will make you live forever," Downing chuckles. "And then you get the taste for it."

Downing has a few final thoughts for me.

"We've got  a new live album out called 'A Touch of Evil: Live' (Epic Records, released July 14, 2009) that was recorded all over the world in the last few years since Rob returned back to the Priest," says Downing. "It's our third live album only, so it was about time that we made one. Even though a couple of the tracks have been released in some format somewhere before, the majority has never been released live before so that's a kind of unique thing about it.

"Like I said before, we have not gone totally overboard with this retro thing, but hopefully people will look at the show and think, 'Yes, that brings back some serious memories of 1980.' So it's the 30-year anniversary-- we've got Harley Davidson, they've made a bike for us, a British Steel bike, which is killer, we've got a killer laser show and all the rest of the stuff that goes back in to a cool Priest set. The main thing is we're playing the 'British Steel' album from start to finish and I think maybe one or two of the songs we've maybe never even played live before so it's pretty cool.

"And of course we've got Whitesnake on and their latest album, 'Slip of the Tongue' (Geffen Records, June 39, 2009,  remaster of 1989 original with extra tracks), was a very excellent album." Downing goes on, "They're in top form and great guitar players as well, so some great songs will be heard on the night, so everybody must come down and check it out."

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