KK Downing: My Life In 10 Songs

KK Downing
(Image credit: EX1)

When Kenneth 'KK' Downing hooked up with schoolmate Ian Hill to play in the band Freight in the late 60s, neither could have predicted that they would form the backbone for one of heavy metal's most iconic - and influential - bands. It's difficult to overstate Judas Priest's impact on metal: from its fashion and sound all the way to the usage of twin lead guitars, heavy metal couldn't exist as we know and love it without Priest's guiding hand.  

Though Downing is no longer with his flagship group (having left in 2010), his love for heavy metal rages on in the fist-pumping, throat-shredding masterclass of classic metal that is KK's Priest. We cornered the legendary guitarist to choose 10 songs from over half-a-century's worth of material that best tell the story of his life - and the development of heavy metal as we know it. 

"Growing up in the mid-60s my sisters were listening to Cliff Richard and Elvis but for us guys who wanted something heavier and with more guitar there wasn’t anything," he says. "I think that’s why all those great guitarists like Eric Clapton and Peter Green got into blues so much. I almost skipped the blues to be honest. I was more into progressive blues; the second I heard Jimi Hendrix play Purple Haze I was hooked and needed more riffs!”

"It's crazy really, whenever you work on an album your entire world revolves around it and everything becomes part of that story. So if you record an album at 23, whenever you hear that in future it’s going to take you right back to being 23 and all the things that happened at that time. That makes it incredibly difficult to pick just 10 songs, I've got to say!"

Metal Hammer line break

1. Judas Priest – Never Satisfied (Rocka Rolla, 1974)

“Before we recorded the first album - before we recorded anything in fact - my life was purely about survival. It was about working part-time jobs to pay the bills, writing songs with your mates and playing the odd gig. I can’t confirm this 100%, but I think the first song I ever wrote was one with [original Judas Priest singer] Al Atkins called Never Satisfied. We played it in gigs really early on and ended up recording it for Rocka Rolla. I can still remember sitting in my bedsit writing it. In those days I didn’t have a practice amp – we’re talking ’68 - 1970 here – so I’d just sit there playing without an amp because there were like 5 other families that lived in that same building, with people above, below and to the sides of you at all times... with one bathroom!

At that point I was just hoping to become a professional guitarist and we were lucky enough to bag Al Atkins, a great local singer who looked good on-stage. The scene back then was fantastic though: every pub and club in the area – and this being the Black Country, there were a lot – was a gig, so you’d end up playing consecutive nights in Handsworth, Bearwood, at The Regis in Old Hill... literally anywhere that would take you. There were lots of bands then and it was all about the music. Of course, back when Judas Priest starting getting gigs, we were booked as a ‘progressive blues’ band because nobody knew what the fuck we were."

2. Judas Priest – Victim Of Changes (Sad Wings Of Destiny, 1976)

“I think Victim Of Changes stayed in Judas Priest’s sets longer than just about any other song. Its definitely one of those hallmark songs – it started out when we were with Al Atkins but really came together once Rob [Halford] joined the band and we became a four-piece. We split the solos up and that version ended up on the record Sad Wings Of Destiny

It stayed with us for so long because it was hard making a setlist that didn’t include it, to be honest. There were times where we did drop it of course, but it always made its way back on. When I think about an iconic Priest song with all those metal ingredients, Victim Of Changes is the one. Plus it describes us all – each and every one of us is a victim of change, at some point, for good or ill.”

3. Judas Priest – Take On The World (Killing Machine, 1978)

"Against all odds, Take On The World was the song that broke us to mainstream notoriety on a national scale. We ended up going on Top Of The Pops and it became a hit, even getting us into the Top 20. I can remember going into Top Of The Pops, sitting in the taxi with our manager and I said ‘look, how successful is this – how much have we sold?’ and when he told us it was over 365,000 I couldn’t believe it. Were we pop stars, rock stars, metal stars? Who knew, but we were thrilled!  We went on to play and The Osmonds were on and Marie started playing up. She gave the producers an ultimatum: if Rob used his bullwhip during the show, then she wouldn’t perform. We weren’t having any of it – we’re pop stars now, we’ve got a hit single!

But in the end we relented and did play without the bullwhip and the song continued to sell, so it turned out to be the right decision I guess. It was a good time in our lives and a great time for metal because the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was taking off too. You’d see them all on Top Of The Pops at that point; Saxon would be on one week, Iron Maiden another… it felt like everything we’d been doing for the past decade in popularising heavy metal was really paying off."

4. Judas Priest – Breaking The Law (British Steel, 1980)

“Things were going so well for Judas Priest – and heavy metal in general – that the label really started putting their weight behind us too. After the success of Take On The World we were given money to produce what I believe is the first-ever heavy metal concept video, for Breaking The Law. That video alone makes the song worth including and that really helped us get popularity outside of Britain too. The label saw a way to bring popularity to metal and the whole thing made us properly international.

We’d been to America previously but played very small clubs, or were otherwise a support band for other groups in theatres. We did get to do two shows in an open-air coliseum with Led Zeppelin, which was amazing.  With British Steel and the popularity of Breaking The Law, we were able to go back to America and play as headliner for the first time, taking other bands along with us. We ended up playing with Scorpions, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. That was the start of our popularity over there, which was phenomenal.”

5. Judas Priest – Turbo Lover (Turbo, 1986)

"When we got properly into the 80s everything really started happening; it was a golden age because there was a real feelgood factor where a new superstar band could come to fruition every week. Whether that was Dokken, Van Halen or Saxon, there was something new for you to sink your teeth into every week and we would all be playing together at festivals and on tours. It felt like all the bands were important whether they were old or new. Some were undoubtedly more commercial, like Cheap Trick or The Cars, some were prog, like Rush or Genesis - but  there was always something to listen to.

I have to say though, the mid-80s saw the rise of the big hair and everyone got swept up in it, from Dokken to Judas Priest. Weirdly, we started getting offers to do both Playgirl and Playboy. We did a photoshoot for Playboy, but [Ratt singer] Stephen Pearcy did Playgirl and that was all a bit much for us, even if we did consider it! The band were swerving stylistically though and while Turbo isn’t my favourite album, I still love Turbo Lover."

6. Judas Priest – Reckless (Turbo, 1986)

“We were really hitting our commercial peak by the, so much that we were approached about sticking a Judas Priest song onto the soundtrack of an upcoming movie. I think most people already know that we were offered money to use Reckless on the Top Gun soundtrack, but we refused because it would have meant keeping the song off Turbo and we weren’t willing to do that. 

The record company said ‘the producers of Top Gun have heard the song and they want its exclusive use’, but we’d finished recording and mastering by that point and knew what we wanted to do. We offered a bunch of other songs we’d written in the Turbo sessions but they just weren’t as interested and passed. These opportunities were frequent at that point though and continued well into Ram It Down, like our collaboration with Stock, Aitken and Waterman.”

7. Judas Priest – Painkiller (Painkiller, 1990)

“Even with all the success we were enjoying, by the time we’d finished touring Ram It Down we knew it was time to really get on and get back to the more metal, Defenders Of The Faith type material. Painkiller somehow managed to go even heavier than that, though. That album is one of my favourites and I love every single song on it, but that title song really nails what we wanted to do. We built the album day-by-day and could just tell it was going to sound amazing. We’d not completed all the material so we’d spend time writing and recording together in one room, which was pretty magical. 

I have fond memories of those days, and working with Chris Tsangarides – rest in peace. Then one day we got this call to say we’d need to appear in court, we were accused of being responsible for the death of these two lads. I remember thinking it was insane, literally everything got put on hold while we went to court over it all. It was a major setback and we just didn’t know what was going to happen, but in the end we were able to release the album and go out on the Painkiller tour. Painkiller really moved Priest towards those harder bands like Megadeth, Testament and Pantera."

8. Ross The Boss – Running Wild (Bloodstock Festival, 2019)

“Getting on-stage with Ross The Boss was the first time I’d played live in over a decade. It was absolutely wild and felt so good to just get up and really get into some improvisation. The song choice for closer felt poignant – I was running wild, you know? Running Wild was always one of my favourites, as it always gave me the chance to run like a madman across the stage whenever we played it with Judas Priest. I was only on for four songs – if I remember right – but it really got me going again so far as performing goes.

We’d all got together the night before at [KK’s venue in Wolverhampton] The Steel Mill, but the poor drummer had been re-routed a few times getting to us and was dead on his feet by the time he arrived haha. He keeled over on the couch the second we finished and it was squeaky bum time for a while there, but I’m so glad we did it. That prompted David Ellefson to get in touch and he drafted me in to play a few songs with him, so it all started to snowball.”

9. Kenneth Downing – Before The Dawn (Live, 2019)

“After speaking to Dave Ellefson, we decided to put a band together and play a full show at the Steel Mill. There was Dave and I, [ex-Priest drummer] Les Binks on drums, Ripper [Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, former Judas Priest singer] singing and AJ, our guitarist who is from just up the road in Wednesbury. That gig was very special, but again it was squeaky bum as the other guys flew in the night before so we’d had one rehearsal together and then we were on-stage. We played that gig and, Jesus, it was brilliant. I never got to play Before The Dawn (from 1978’s Killing Machine) while I was in Priest, so being up there with Les and Ripper, it was a really special time.

It was funny – Ripper said ‘no, nobody is going to care about Before The Dawn’ when we were picking out the set but I kept telling him, ‘Tim, trust me’. We started it and the audience started singing the song. There’s a moment that I didn’t catch at the time, but have seen since, that he looks over and smiles at me because he could see how right I was. I hope he listens to me every time about the setlist now!”

10. KK’s Priest – Hellfire Thunderbolt (Sermons Of The Sinner, 2021)

Hellfire Thunderbolt was the first song we released for KK’s Priest. The first time I saw that on YouTube, after having spent ages writing and recording the whole thing, it felt real. Like it was hopefully the start of a new era and the start of something very exciting for me, but also for fans who love what I do. 

It was really special for me – the album Sermons Of The Sinner was completed and we were ready to go so it felt really good to be standing on my own two feet again. Especially with everything that’s happened, with the [Judas Priest] guys not having me back in the band and changing the history of how it all happened. I’m very lucky to still be here and even luckier to have so many people who clearly want to hear what I can do. We’re at a point where we’re all losing friends now, so hearing news like [Budgie vocalist] Burke Shelley’s passing really is a dagger in my heart. You’ve got to cherish this stuff while it’s still about.”

KK's Priest's debut album Sermons Of The Sinner is out now via EX1

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.