Five Things We Learned from K.K. Downing’s Autobiography

In late 2018, Judas Priest’s founding guitarist K.K. Downing, – who left the band in 2011 — released Heavy Duty: Days And Nights In Judas Priest (DaCapo Press). The fast-paced memoir winds from growing up in a council estate in the middle of the Black Country, through the formation and rise of Judas Priest and deep into the highs and lows that defined their legacy. As a memoir, we hear only K.K.’s side of stories that are most certainly viewed differently by other participants. However, from blagging his way onto Jimi Hendrix’s tour bus, to getting hit by a car in Spain, to the high-profile vocalist changes that rocked the band in the 90s, the colourful stories fly fast.

Behind-the-scenes insights into the band’s public struggles abound as well. He reveals that Rob Halford’s sexuality was neither a secret nor an issue for the band, explaining, “Rob’s open homosexuality was absolutely part and parcel of daily life in the early years of Judas Priest.” Of their infamous trial in Arizona on charges that they had inspired two young fans to kill themselves, K.K. shares that only after a producer took the band into a studio and isolated the one track did they hear a voice on one saying “Do it.”

It’s a fascinating account of the ascent of one of metal’s most important bands and indeed, of the very birth of heavy metal. Here are five things we learned from Heavy Duty: Days And Nights In Judas Priest:

The early relationship between Judas Priest and Iron Maiden was volatile, acrimonious and at one point, nearly violent.

In the spring of 1980, Judas Priest were putting the finishing touches on their sixth album, British Steel. Their management had tapped an up-and-coming British band called Iron Maiden as support for a string of European dates. K.K. recalls reading a magazine interview with Maiden at the time, in which they promised to “blow [the] bollocks” off of Judas Priest — macho posturing that didn’t sit well with the headliners. Predictably, it was all downhill from there. A flaming war of words ensued and one point, the rivalry came close to backstage fisticuffs after Bruce Dickinson slagged off Judas Priest during the opening set. K.K. viewed them as entitled, ungrateful and perhaps worst, unoriginal. “I remember seeing a picture of Dave Murray around that time,” K.K. writes, “with his long blond hair and leathers, and thinking, Is that him? Or is that me in disguise?”

 

Creatively, the relationship between the band’s longtime guitarists was efficient and prolific, but off-stage, an icy rivalry plagued their personal relationship

Bringing Glenn on board in 1974 as a second guitarist cemented the band’s legendary sound but K.K. explains that his relationship with Glenn was difficult and occasionally quite petty. “I could never, ever have even vaguely personal conversations with [Glenn],” he writes. “I never tried either.“ Opting to follow the path of least resistance, K.K. paints Glenn as talented and passionate, but often inflexible and selfish, assigning himself the majority of the solos on the records. The pettiness and competitiveness persisted through K.K.s final years in the band. “Whenever we ended a song, Glenn always, always had to make sure that the last sound that anyone heard came from his guitar. To the outsider this might sound petty, but to me, having been worn down over many years, it was big.” Years later, Glenn would work on a solo project, causing K.K. to comment, “I saw it as a lack of loyalty and, although I don’t know for sure, Rob might have felt the same.“

 

The band’s leather-and-studs image had nothing to do with Rob’s interest in bondage culture.

While many have attributed the band’s leather-and-studs image as a sly extension of Rob Halford’s interest in bondage and S&M, K.K. offers a very different origin story. In 1974, he recalls looking across the stage at Rob, who was wearing “a knitted, mustard-colored Harvard sweater with letters on the front!” Realising that drab sweaters didn’t quite suit the band’s aggressive new sound, K.K. recalls taking Rob to a leather shop in London, where the two were fitted and kitted with what has since become the band’s storied look. Rob was sold. “In my mind, I’d always known that if Rob specifically got on board with the tough, leather image I’d been working toward everyone else would likely follow.”

K.K. was ready to leave the band in 1991; but Rob beat him to it

K.K. resigned from Judas Priest in 2011, but in his book he reveals that he actually intended on resigning much earlier. In fact, after a disastrous gig in 1991, on the last night of the Operation Rock & Roll tour with Alice Cooper, K.K. wrote his resignation letter on a flight to Los Angeles. He didn’t submit it to the band straight away however, and in the interim, Rob left the band. While he felt that the moment presented a logical end for Judas Priest — Rob’s departure, Glenn focusing on a solo project and drummer Dave Holland’s 1989 exit – K.K. would remain in the band for another twenty years.

 

Judas Priest never realized the success or recognition that they were capable of achieving.

Make no bones about it — K.K. Downing emanates a fiery pride for all that Judas Priest has accomplished and for his significant role in that story. However, considering the cultural domination of the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and later, Metallica, he believes that Judas Priest ultimately fell short of their potential. “So, the conclusion I arrive at is that we massively underachieved, in a financial and creative sense,” he writes.” It’s a sobering assessment that he attributes largely to certain short-sighted business decisions and shifting trends through the band’s career.

K.K. brings his story to a close by acknowledging Glenn’s struggle with Parkinson’s and by wishing him well, along with the rest of the band. He reserves the final word for the fans, saying, “I’m here — the same fun-loving K.K. that I always was. Keep in touch.”