It lasted for just over seven minutes, but what a glorious 420-plus seconds it was. Judas Priest’s pioneering guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing were back onstage together for the first time in more than 11 years playing some of their biggest hits to a worldwide audience.
The celebration took place November 5, 2022, in the Microsoft Theater (Los Angeles) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, where Judas Priest received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Following a brief introduction by Alice Cooper, the band barreled through You’ve Got Another Thing Coming, Living After Midnight and Breaking the Law as celebrities including Dave Grohl and Drew Barrymore raised their fists and sang along.
Downing was joined on stage by the band’s current guitarist, Richie Faulkner, and both seemed to have the same fashion designer and hairdresser. Wearing the band’s patented studded black leather, wielding Flying V guitars and bobbing their flowing blond tresses, their chemistry was as tight as their precision riffing and synchronized stage moves.
On the other side of the stage were bassist Ian Hill and Tipton, the latter wearing a Judas Priest baseball cap and eyeglasses and playing a black Hamer Phantom. Possibly due to his worsening Parkinson’s condition, Tipton remained fairly stationary and glanced downward – an elder statesman calmly taking in the voluble scene and reaping the rewards of 50-plus years of dedication to his craft.
Onstage, vocalist Rob Halford stood as one with Downing. Offstage and before the show, the environment wasn’t so friendly. Downing wasn’t allowed to walk the red carpet with his former bandmates, had a separate dressing room and received the cold shoulder from everyone in the band except Faulkner, who replaced Downing when he left the band. Even so, Downing wasn’t about to let ugly politics ruin a good party.
“I was flying high, and It was fantastic,” Downing says, recalling the performance. “I was there for the fans who wanted to see me with Priest again, and it was a great moment. People loved it and lots of them said hello, including Richie, who was really nice and really cool. I wish I could say the same for my former bandmates.”
Downing officially quit Judas Priest in 2011. Due to personal and musical tensions that had grown over the years between him and some of his bandmates, he opted not to play their planned last hurrah, the Epitaph Tour. Downing insists the band agreed to break up after the final date of the lengthy run.
“Everybody went, ‘He jumped ship. He left our beloved Priest,’” Downing says. “That wasn’t the case at all. If I’d have known that the last tour wasn’t going to be the last tour and they’d be carrying on for another 10 years, things would probably have been a lot different.”
When Downing bowed out, Judas Priest recruited Faulkner, who breathed new life into the band, and with whom Judas Priest has continued to tour and record. Faulkner played on 2014’s Redeemer of Souls and 2018’s Firepower and toured for both albums.
Downing never hoped to replace Faulkner; however, when Tipton announced he was too ill from Parkinson’s to tour, Downing contacted management and expressed interest in rejoining, but too much bad blood had passed under the bridge for the members to accept his offer. Instead, they hired their producer, Andy Sneap, to join them onstage.
“I graciously requested to return when there was an opportunity, but the guys in the band said, ‘No. We don’t want you.’ I said, ‘Are you sure? Before I start another project, are you sure you don’t want me back in the band?’ Rob, Glenn and Ian said, ‘No,’ and that was it.”
Downing says he was especially upset at being rejected since he had supported Halford’s decision to rejoin Judas Priest after a 14-year hiatus. And he sat back and patiently waited for six years while Tipton worked on the project Tipton, Entwistle & Powell, which released Edge of the World in 2006. When it became clear as unblemished crystal that no-one in Judas Priest’s camp wanted Downing back, he took his gear, instantly recognizable tone and familiar songwriting style and soaked it all in a vat of piss and vinegar.
Then he connected with former Judas Priest vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens, who sang for Judas Priest between 1996 and 2003 (while Halford was working on Fight, Halford and 2wo), and the two formed KK’s Priest, a searing, soaring metal band that takes no great pains to differentiate itself sonically from the music Downing co-wrote in Judas Priest.
“Here’s the thing,” Downing says. “Judas Priest was my baby. I created it. I stuck with it from the very beginning. I hired other people to be a part of the band and then it was my life. It was my career. It was my legacy. It was my legend. And the hardest thing in the world was letting it go.
“And now I’m acknowledging I am no longer a member of Judas Priest, but I am still a large part of Judas Priest, and anyone who knows the band can tell that by listening to what I’m doing now.”
KK’s Priest released their debut album, Sermons of the Sinner, October 1, 2021. In addition to drawing from Judas Priest’s trademark musical style, Downing referenced Priest songs including Sinner in the title cut, The Sentinel in Return of the Sentinel and his own history in Hail for the Priest.
Since the Covid pandemic prevented KK’s Priest from touring, Downing kept writing riffs, leads and lyrics, and less than six months after wrapping Sermons of the Sinner, he finished writing The Sinner Rides Again.
With a lineup that features Owens, guitarist A.J. Mills, bassist Tony Newton and drummer Sean Elg, the band spent the summer playing a handful of festivals and a couple of shows at K.K.’s club in Wolverhampton, KK’s Steel Mill.
“Wolverhampton is right outside of Birmingham, and we used to play there a lot in the early Priest days,” he says. During the band’s July 6 show at KK’s Steel Mill, the band played nine Judas Priest songs (including their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s The Green Manalishi) and six numbers by KK’s Priest.
“I like to do a good cross-section of songs from the first two albums along with some Priest songs the fans want to hear,” he says. “We have videos for six new songs, and as we keep releasing tracks from the new album, we’ll keep adding them to the set.”
At the moment, Downing is spending some down time at home before heading out for more shows in October. While he still has several sour grapes to flick at some of his former bandmates, he seems less bitter than he was when he released Sermons of the Sinner and more intent to focus on the promising future of KK’s Priest than dwell on any past misfortune.
Judas Priest fans seemed to be split on Sermons of the Sinner. Some heralded it as a thrilling return to form; others thought it was a reflection of an artist trying to recapture his former glory.
“It’s a strange world, isn’t it? The set of circumstances about my departure from the band were so heavily misconstrued that people formed an opinion right away about me. Management put out a press release: ‘K.K. has retired from Judas Priest.’ Everyone thought I was leaving to open a golf course. Priest fans didn’t understand the situation and couldn’t understand what I was upset about. But now we’re working with some new people and we’re on a new label and I’m looking forward to moving on with KK’s Priest.”
At what point did you accept that you couldn’t live in the past and you had to move on with a new band?
“It was very hard to have to give up the baton to new blood. Lots of tears were shed and there were lots of sleepless nights. People thought I was an asshole. But that wasn’t it. I was completely dedicated to metal and the legacy of it, as I am today. The truth is, I gave up touring with Priest because I was worn down and I felt battered. I felt beaten. I felt like I haven’t got a voice. I felt I was being trod upon – even right up to the point of the farewell tour. So I just keep it going in my own way.”
At this point, there’s no reason metal fans should have to choose between the Rob Halford-fronted Judas Priest and KK’s Priest. You aren’t sports teams.
“I was the K.K. in Judas Priest and now I’ve got KK’s Priest because I’m the same player. I’ve got the same articulation. I’m using the same amps and speakers, the same approach to what I think a good song should be. I’ve got the same ideas about what makes a good guitar sound and a good lead sound. I’m just doing what I started to do in the early days.”
Do you feel that KK’s Priest resembles early Judas Priest?
“Not really, because back then my musical vocabulary was quite limited. It was acceptable for the day. It’s more like I’m starting over now with this band that isn’t that well known yet. In the late ’60s and ’70s, I primarily played the major and minor pentatonic and the Aeolian scale, which is the natural minor scale, which is my personal favorite, and it’s the same as the relative major scale.
“Other than that, we would do a few chromatic things, or we’d take things from different styles without knowing what the scales were. Maybe we did do something that was diminished, but at the time we didn’t know it was from the diminished scale. We just liked how it sounded.
“But when you educate yourself, you start to integrate all these other scales – the harmonic minor, the Ionian and others so that you’ve got a bigger, louder voice. I enjoy integrating all of these styles so there are a lot more tools in that toolbox than I had in 1971, and that helps a lot with songwriting.”
In any way, do you want KK’s Priest to sound different from what you wrote in Judas Priest?
“For the first record, I was happy to have a bit of a retro sound, where some of those songs could have been created in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. I think this one is good for the present day with an eye toward the future. But a song like Brothers of the Road is about guys in metal bands meeting up backstage at festivals and gigs. We are all road warriors.
“Sometimes we’re out there for months on end with a suitcase full of dirty clothes, but we get on with it and we get the job done, and we enjoy it. That could have been on [Judas Priest’s 1981 album] Point of Entry. It’s the same idea as Heading Out to the Highway. But the tones are a little bit more edgy because it adds to the excitement of the songs. It’s a bit more risky, a bit more gung-ho. A bit more, Let’s fucking get out there and rock!”
Sermons of the Sinner made it perfectly clear that you own your sound. Why not modify it even more on The Sinner Rides Again by using different production techniques, songwriting styles or guitar tones, and making fewer direct references to Priest songs so no one can accuse you of being stuck in the past?
“Well, I’m not doing this to be a version of something from the past – a different version of Judas Priest. That’s not the case at all. All the fans and people that don’t get that have to understand that I was there at the very beginning. I always wanted to be in Judas Priest even before I auditioned for Judas Priest and failed.
“I knew I had to go back. I kept knocking on the door until I got through it [toward the end of 1969]. And I was able to invite people into that band. I brought Glenn into Priest in 1974. He was much more commercially minded than me, but I knew he was a good player. I wanted somebody that could play leads, write songs and play rhythm as well. And I thought having two guitarists would really impact the band and make it really strong.
“I couldn’t think of another band like us that had more than one guitar player. There were some, but most of them were in the States. There was Wishbone Ash, but they weren’t a heavy rock band. I wanted Glenn and everyone to be a part of this amazing journey to create music that didn’t exist.”
Like Judas Priest, KK’s Priest features two guitarists. How did you hook up with your new sidekick, A.J. Mills?
“I went to primary school with A.J.’s uncle, and we’ve stayed friends. And then A.J. started to play the guitar as a teenager. I’ve mentored him and his career since then and now he’s 34 and he’s ready for the big stage. In fact, he’s been on it! So that’s cool because we’re from the same town and there’s metal blood in our veins.”
A.J. is credited on the first KK’s Priest album, but you wrote all the songs.
“I was happy to do it myself. But I was equally happy to collaborate with him on two of the new songs because it’s good for A.J. to take on more of a role in the band. I’ll be 72 this year, and at some point, it would be great if somebody could take over for me, whenever that might be. Hopefully, it’s a long way down the line, but you never know. I lost my sister suddenly a few years ago and that scared me, to be honest. It was quite sudden, and she was just 70.”
Do you ever think about Glenn and how Parkinson’s Disease has impacted what he can do as a guitarist?
“It’s terribly sad to see what’s happened to Glenn. And I’m extremely proud of our relationship and what we did and achieved together. I respect him more than anybody in the band, to be fair, because Glenn was very hardworking, and he had talent. We wrote a lot of great songs together. And on a social level, we did well for a long time.”
You’ve been critical of him in the past, even accusing him of drinking too much onstage.
“I don’t want to speak too much about what was said and done. That’s all been beaten into the ground. But there was always a difference between myself and Glenn. He had a different relationship with management than I did, and that became problematic for me. I felt like I had no control over band decisions.
“But Glenn will always have a place in my heart, as much as we were at loggerheads on lots of things, we made great music together. And maybe even he wasn’t in control after a certain point. Who knows? But there’s always the other side of the coin and the fans need to realize that.”
Do you and A.J. have different playing styles?
“Not really. When he was younger, he liked nu metal, but over the years he has looked up to me and my sound. He has played with me for a while, so our styles are similar, and they work well together. He uses heavier strings, so his voicings have a little more low end to them. And we tune down one-half step, so when we fired up his rig and he played through Celestion G12 speakers and started chugging really good, he loved it.”
Do you use lighter strings?
“I use Dean Markley .08 through .38. I’ve always done that because I don’t have really big, strong hands. I don’t think I ever did, but now at my age it’s good to have lighter strings. They’re easy to bend and they just feel right.”
Do you prefer to play runs with legato or alternate picking?
“I’ll do entire runs through several octaves using all economy picking. I have fun doing that. It’s quite a challenge, but I can do it. I can play just as fast when I alternate pick as I can when I use legato.
“To be perfectly honest, I would use a lot more legato in my sound if I had pulled it off all my life. It’s just hard to trust it a little bit and to speak as well with it unless you’ve really got that overdriven and compressed sound.
“When you’re in the house and you’re playing, you get to pull it off. When you’ve got a big double-bass kit and everything else going off onstage at the same time, well, it’s a two-guitar band so it’s never a sure thing. If I’m playing a ballad and everybody holds back then, yeah, it’s a lot easier to use. And I do use it in a couple of songs now.”
You wrote and recorded Sermons of the Sinner on your own during Covid in a mere four months. How much of a break did you take before you started writing again for The Sinner Rides Again?
“When we finished the first record, the Covid thing was still there and the agents were saying, ‘There’s a backlog of bookings and engagements that need to be filled. Don’t count your blessings about getting on the road.’ So I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ll just do another record.’ I work spontaneously and fast and I switch onto auto pilot. If it comes out good, it’s good. If it doesn’t, I’ll try something else. But it is what it is because I am who I am.
“When I sit down to write a song like One More Shot at Glory, it’s a wonderful place for my brain to be in, so no wonder I rock and roll fast and furious and get the job done quickly. I’ve got so much content to work with. I can’t speak for Glenn, but maybe that’s why we were so prolific as writers in Judas Priest over the years. If anything, the only thing that really slowed us down was the odd task of having to agree with each other. Now I don’t have to do that.
“I fly on my own and I haven’t really done that since 1969, 1970 and 1971 when I was doing the writing back when we were just a four-piece band. It’s great to have A.J. involved, but I’m really reveling in the fact that I could sit down and do another album and it would probably only take me three or four weeks to get the content together. That’s what happened with the first two records, and that makes me really feel good.”
It doesn’t sound like the songs on The Sinner Rides Again were quickly slapped together. They’re filled with strong riffs, memorable choruses, blazing solos and twin-guitar harmonies. And there’s no shortage of atmospheric arpeggios, energized rhythm changes and gear-changing rhythm shifts.
“When I’m on a roll, all I have to do is settle on the content that inspires me and then the rest is easy. I’ve been doing this for so long, I feel like it just comes naturally, like I’m pulling it out of the sky. And now I have the confidence to know that there’s no lack of quality there.”
You were working with former Judas Priest drummer Les Binks before you hired Sean Elg, who also plays in Cage and Nihilist.
“Obviously, I really wanted Ripper and Les to bring in more of that spirit of Priest. But Les hurt his wrist pretty badly in an accident and couldn’t do it. With the mechanics of having to hit his drums and do that over and over, that’s demanding on your body, and with his injury, it just wasn’t possible, so we got Sean, and that worked out really well.”
One More Shot at Glory is pretty poignant. Do you feel this is your last chance to take your music to the masses and prove you’re still a powerful force in metal?
“That song can be interpreted on several levels. It’s about a hero that’s won a battle, and going to war, and wielding the sword, which is forged with molten steel, which is very metal. And then that bridge is about me and my conquest, and my fight to return and get back in the saddle.
“This is one more shot at glory for me. I know the things I’ve been denied. I shouldn’t be in a position where I have to create this on my own and build it up all over again. But I’m forced to do it, so I do it. And I will enjoy it and make it work because metal is always about the fight and the victory.”
- The Sinner Rides Again is out now via Napalm.