Book review: K.K. Downing – Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest

8 years after his departure from heavy metal pioneers Judas Priest, guitarist K.K. Downing reveals the real reasons for his leaving, and sheds light on the inner workings of the band, warts and all. It’s an honest look at his formative years, the creation of the band, their rise to fame and his departure .

From his very humble beginning, with a family living off welfare handouts (what was left after his father’s gambling habit), Downing found salvation in music. Dropping out of school as soon as legally feasible, he bounced around without purpose before turning to music seriously, inspired by Jimi Hendrix.

Hooking up with former school colleague Ian Hill on bass, the band started taking shape once they added singer Al Atkins to the mix, and decided to grab the now unused moniker from Atkins former band, Judas Priest. Atkins and Downing pooled their material and wrote almost all their debut record “Rocka Rolla”. Atkins eventually left, to be replaced by a local singer named Rob Halford. They were soon signed to Gull Records, who strongly urged the band to add to their lineup. Suggestions of a keyboard player or a saxophonist were soundly turned down, but the addition of a second guitarist seemed to make sense. Glenn Tipton’s arrival would shape the band’s sound and influence the course of heavy metal, with their dual guitar attack.

It is clear, if somewhat surprising, that from the start, Downing and Tipton never really got along. Soon Tipton would start pushing for his ideas to take center stage, and by the “Stained Class” album, he was grabbing most of the solos too. Downing is candid about the fact that he let it happen, preferring to avoid conflicts, but his insistense that his ideas were better makes you wonder why he didn’t speak up more.

Downing also takes credit for the band’s leather biker look, saying he pushed it in a way that the guys would think it was their own idea. But then he later bemoans the fact that Tipton went full leather like him. Of course, Halford had no issue with the look and naturally felt comfortable with an aesthetic often associated with gay men.

Signed edition bookplate from Premiere Collectibles

The guitarist doesn’t hold back on most topics, especially his relationship with Tipton and his disdain for the guys in Iron Maiden. But his simple assessment that drummer Dave Holland always was nice and that he never knew of his other “activities” (In 2004 Holland was found guilty of attempted rape and indecent assaults against a disabled 17 year old male) is a little off putting.

His description of the later years also grows lighter as the book moves along, as if he’d put all his effort in the early years, or an editor scrubbed repetitive stories from his manuscript. From “Painkiller” and on, there’s not a lot of details about the band, and the Ripper era is almost casually dismissed with the minimum of details, same with their reunion with Halford. But he is candid in his view that Judas Priest under achieved, despite a legendary reputation, and that their commercial success should have been bigger. He lays some of that blame on manager Jayne Andrews and her personal relationship with Glenn Tipton, and he feels the pair conspired to keep the band off the road during many summers to accomodate Tipton’s personal schedule, at the expense of festival exposure. 

When he left Judas Priest in 2010, the band said he wanted to focus on his estate and golf course, something the guitarist flat out denies.
K.K. Downing walked away from the band because he felt their live performance wasn’t up to their standards anymore. One can guess he was also tired of putting up with Tipton. 

Overall, “Heavy Duty” is a very entertaining book that sheds light on the career of a band whose personal life has rarely been in the limelight. I’d recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Judas Priest. It’s a quick read that’s worth the time.

Jean-Frederic Vachon
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