After his departure from Judas Priest in 2011 fans rarely heard from the legendary guitarist K.K. Downing. Until autumn last year that is, when his memoir was out. Finally, we could learn more about Ken the person, and the excellent response to the book may have been one of the reasons why he decided to jump back on stage. A few weeks ago Mr Downing teamed up with his ex-Priest colleagues Tim "Ripper" Owens and Les Binks and Megadeth's Dave Ellefson to play some of the British metal gods' classics and with so many things happening in his life, I thought, what better time for an interview?
Let's kick off with a question about the Steel Mill show. Whose idea was it and how did you put it all together?
It's hard for me to remember exactly now, but I seem to remember that David Ellefson was coming to England to play a show in London and they asked me if I would maybe join them and play a couple of songs. So I said, "Are you just playing one show in the UK?" And they said, "Yes" and I said, "Well, there's a venue in Wolverhampton, how about doing a gig there?" And David Ellefson was very interested to do that and then they said, "Well, perhaps we could bring Ripper over to join us?" And then I said, "Well, that would be great, if Ripper comes over maybe I can call Les Binks and if all this happens I'd be happy to do more of a performance really." And it just escalated from there. So everything was set up and we decided to make a pretty cool event of it and that's what happened.
And how did you manage to keep the ticket price so low? I mean, it was cheaper than a movie ticket!
Because the London show was on Monday, for David Ellefson band, we needed to have the show next to that date ideally. And what happened was, at the Steel Mill there was only one date available and that was on Sunday. Which was great, because their show in London was on Monday, so economically that was great. But Sunday is not the best day of the week to do a show, because people have to go to work and school and college the next day. So I said to the guys at the Steel Mill, "Because it's the first year anniversary of the Steel Mill," since we opened a year ago with Skid Row, "let's do an affordable ticket as a thank you to all the fans who have been to the Steel Mill and supported the Steel Mill." And while all this was happening we had no idea how many people would come to the gig. We had no idea because it was Sunday night, which is not the best day of the week for doing gigs, Sundays and Mondays are notoriously difficult, and also it was right in between Halloween and Bonfire Night. So I thought as a thank you, let's do affordable tickets for the fans, and we just wanted as many people to come to the gig as possible really. So basically it was a payback and a thank you to the supporters of the Steel Mill, which I think was pretty cool.
The event made quite a buzz in the media. Are you planning to do more shows in the same or a similar line-up?
It's possible. In fact, I'm speaking to David Ellefson later on today. I think that what we did at the Steel Mill, with very, very limited rehearsals was pretty exceptional really and I think we were all very pleased how well we played together. And there's no doubt, if we could achieve that under those circumstances, that we could go onto to be a very, very exceptional band together, you know, if that comes about. But people have schedules. I think Ripper is booked up 'till April, Dave is looking to go out in January in Europe with Megadeth supporting Five Finger Death Punch... So, people have commitments but at some point those commitments will be fulfilled. Obviously, taking something like this forward is not an overnight thing to do, there's a lot of infrastructure and planning to get in place, you know? So, in answer to your question, it's possible, but I haven't seen David since the night of the gig, he went to London and then on to Italy and Switzerland and now he's back in America. So, it's still early days for the conversation really.
You also performed live with Ross the Boss at Bloodstock earlier this year. How did it come about?
Well, initially I was supposed to receive an award. I was supposed to go to Bloodstock and receive a Lifetime Achievement Award on stage. And I said OK and then they said, "If you're going to get on the stage, would you be happy to play a couple of songs?" and I said, "Who with?", you know? And someone suggested Ross the Boss, because they're a four-piece so I would be the second guitar. And I thought, "Yeah, OK, that sounds like fun, I'll do it." And that's what we did, again, you know, with very, very little rehearsal. I didn't meet the guys until literally the day before, you know? And so that's how that happened.
Your book did very well, actually, it's still doing well. What prompted you to write such a memoir?
Well, I think at the time it was about 8 years since I was in Priest and it looked like and still looks like, that I'll never be invited back. So I thought, "Well, I'm at a certain age now", you know, almost 70 years old and I thought, "Before I die maybe I'll just write a book and hopefully the fans can get to know me a little bit better through the book." There's lots of fans that know of me, they know what I can do on stage but Ken Downing the person, you know is something that they don't know about. So I decided to document a lot of things about my life in the book so that people could get to know me and understand me better.
Was it hard for you to remember some of the facts from the past, like stuff from the '70s and such?
Yeah, it certainly was. But eventually, it's strange, when you sit down and think hard it all comes back.
Are there any facts or events you actually remember well, but you thought you shouldn't put in the book, like "what happens on tour stays on tour" and stuff like that?
Yeah, ha-ha! Probably lots of things. Maybe that will be my next book, whenever that comes out.
Your cult red Gibson Flying V sold on auction for almost $190,000. Did you expect it?
No, not at all. But I was very pleased. They said it made a world record in our genre of music.
I think you were once asked to join the Scorpions. When was it and what were the circumstances?
Well, when Uli Roth left the Scorpions, I think the Scorpions asked Michael Schenker to help them find a good replacement. I'm sure they probably asked Michael if he would go back, but I'm just guessing. So Michael I think asked not just me, I think probably a few other guys as well, you know, if they would join the Scorpions. But it was a great honour and a privilege for me to be asked, because Scorpions are probably my favourite band, outside Judas Priest. And I declined simply because I thought that Judas Priest was becoming really quite famous anyway, you know?
I've got a couple of questions about Priest, obviously. Do you remember anything about your first recording session with Priest? I know you guys were not entirely happy about how "Rocka Rolla" turned out sound-wise?
Yeah, it was all done with very little money and it was pretty tough. We were sleeping in the van outside the recording studio and stuff like that, you know, so it's not surprising that it didn't turn out exactly how we wanted. You know, we were doing all night sessions and everybody was very tired. The recording sounded great, but I think that when the record was cut, when they mastered the record, I think that's when it lost a lot of the energy, you know?
How did it come to collaboration with the Polish artist Roslaw Szaybo who created your logo and the iconic "British Steel" cover art, among others?
Simply, he was the art director for Sony. He was their resident art director at Sony Records. It started off as Columbia I guess, and then it was something else, but the same thing really, CBS and then it was CBS Sony. So, Roslaw worked for Sony and we were a Sony band so he was commissioned to do our artwork. He was very good at what he did, he really did come up with some good ideas, you know, and he was a very successful art director for the company, you know, for many years. I know that he recently passed away, it was very unfortunate. He was quite a character, a good guy. He was probably one of the best, if not the best people to do Judas Priest album covers I think.
Speaking of "British Steel", I think it was the first tour where you guys had the leather image on stage. Whose idea was it?
Yeah, well, if you look back through history, you will see that I was the first one to wear leather and stud in the band. And I think it just came to me that all of the band should have a more uniform look, because we were all very eclectic the way we looked on stage, you know? So I asked Rob to come to London with me to have some leather clothing made to wear on stage, and so that's what happened. We went to London together and had some clothes made and Rob loved it. And then we would just hope that the rest of the band would also like the image and want to be a part of the image and that's what happened. I was extremely happy because it worked and it needed to be done, because I always had a dissatisfaction about the way we looked.
"Turbo" should have sold much better than it did, because the sound of the album was perfect for the times. But it turned out that you actually lost some of your fans during that period. Any idea what happened?
Well, I guess it failed for Judas Priest to sell millions of records with the "Turbo" album because it was already etched in stone that we were a heavy metal band. And so for us to be up there with the bands like Van Halen and Def Leppard, that were selling millions, it was not possible because everyone knew that we were really a heavy metal band I guess. We gained some fans but we probably lost more than we gained, that's true. But who knows. The album should have sold many millions really. But it's a good question, I guess we'll never ever really, really know.
When Rob left after the "Painkiller" tour you found Ripper as his replacement. Were you there for the auditions of Ripper and the other guys and were there actually any other singers you seriously considered for this position?
Yeah, Ralf Scheepers from Primal Fear, he was one consideration, 'cause he's great. But I think everybody thought that having somebody new was a better option and obviously Tim was a great singer, still is. I mean at the Steel Mill the other night, Ripper had a problem with his voice on the plane over, he wasn't a hundred percent, but he still was amazing, you know? But it was very difficult to find somebody to replace Rob as you can imagine.
Do you ever regret quitting the band or do you still think it was a 100% right decision?
Yeah, it was the right decision for me at the time for sure. It was seriously really hard to do, it's not something I wanted to do, but I felt it was something I was forced to do. Because it was my creation, it was my life, it was everything to me. But you know, when a relationship goes bad it goes bad, whether it's a husband and wife or whatever it is, it's a relationship. When you're at a breaking point, somebody has to give. I was true, loyal and dedicated to Judas Priest and I gave my whole life for the band, but can I say the same about all the members? Probably not. There was a lot of reasons, but time passes, things change and I don't understand why the doors haven't been kept open for me. I really don't understand that. I still recorded as many albums as Rob. He's done two without me, but I did two without him. So we'll have to see what the future holds.
I think you already considered quitting after the "Painkiller" tour, along with Rob. What changed your mind back then?
Well, time I think. The answer is time changed my mind. Just like if you have an argument with your wife or your girlfriend, you want to kill each other right there and then, ha-ha! But then after a day, a week, a few weeks pass, things change and you forget. Time is a great healer.
When you quit the band, why did you actually stop playing the guitar and not put together a new band? It should have been really easy for you with all the connections you have within the scene?
Quite simply, because Judas Priest was my life. It was my life. If you've been traveling the world and traveling first class, hotels, airplanes, limousines, you know, if you did that for 40 years, when that stops you don't go and buy an economy class ticket on an airplane and go and stay in a cheap hotel. It doesn't seem very exciting to do that. So when you've been on the world's biggest stages in one of the world's biggest band, you can form a band and go and play some clubs, but it doesn't really excite me. It didn't excite me to do that. Why would it?
With all the things happening now in your life music-wise, the gigs with Dave and with Ross and the book and stuff, what are your plans for the nearest future?
I don't know mate, I'm speaking to Dave Ellefson today, maybe we'll talk about plans, maybe we won't. It's all working progress. I wish I could give you the answer, you know? Will the guys from Judas Priest call me today and say, "Do you want to do this, do you want to do that?" I don't know. So the answer is I don't know, but I'm open to options. But I think it's fair to say that I'm going to be on some stages somewhere in the world next year. I think that's going to happen. It just remains to be seen who with.