K.K. Downing Talks Leaving Judas Priest, Selling His Royalties & Why He Never Married

KK Downing of Judas Priest perform onstage at the Tweeter Center in Chicago on Aug. 21, 2004.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

KK Downing of Judas Priest perform onstage at the Tweeter Center in Chicago on Aug. 21, 2004.

Seven years after exiting the metal band he founded, Downing reflects on his life in a new book.

Founding Judas Priest member K.K. Downing departed the iconic metal band seven years ago, but he's looking back on his time with the British metal titans in his new autobiography Heavy Duty: Days and Nights In Judas Priest.

His book covers many different aspects of his life: His difficult childhood. His early struggles to make it as a musician. The ascension of Priest as a working class band into a world class musical juggernaut. And all of the behind-the-scenes turbulence that one might expect from a good rock book, including his strained relationship with guitarist Glenn Tipton and his gripes with certain managerial decisions.

There has been never been an official Priest autobiography. The only official Priest biography was, funnily enough, Steve Gett’s Heavy Duty back in 1984. When asked why he released his book now, Downing tells Billboard, “It's really now or never. I'm going to be 67 in a couple of months. Do it today because you never know what tomorrow brings.” He also believes many fans will relate to his personal struggles and see him as a real, ordinary person -- albeit one who managed to make it as a rock star.

Heavy Duty displays a far more personal side of Downing than has been revealed in past interviews where the focus was mainly on music. “Some of it was pretty emotional when I started to go back,” the guitarist concedes of the writing process with collaborator Mark Eglinton. “I've never talked about that dark side with anyone. A lot of it was through the journey. I'm reliving a lot of rubbish that I had to endure. It's not just all rubbish. There's lots of circumstances and things that happen, and it gets pretty tough going.”

He also had to be cognizant that Priest fans would also crave insider details on band collaborations and machinations. To that end, the book balances the personal, professional and musical.

His autobiography is full of many colorful anecdotes -- his brief encounter with Jimi Hendrix, his irritation with what he characterizes as the cocky, arrogant Iron Maiden of the early '80s, how cocaine use (not his) led to sped-up songs onstage, and his various escapades with groupies -- along with more hair-raising moments like enduring the band's subliminal messages trial, nearly having his eye poked out onstage by an untrimmed guitar string, and being struck by a cab in Ibiza.

Friendly and chipper throughout the interview, it's clear Downing feels fortunate to have lived during the heyday of rock decadence between the '60s and the '80s. “I'm lucky to have been born when I was because it didn't happen before and it never happened again,” he acknowledges.

Unlike some of his aging rock peers, Downing has never taken the marital plunge. He prefers having some independence and distance. “I think [in] relationships that's better really,” he says. “There's truth in 'absence makes the heart grow fonder.' It's better like that. When you live together, you're literally under each other's skin. Everybody needs space. I'm not a religious guy, and I've never really come to terms with marriage. I never really particularly wanted kids. I was just scared I wouldn't be able to dedicate myself and do the justifiable thing. And the same with the wife. I was just traveling. I was always getting on trains, boats, and planes all the time, never in one place for a lot of time. And that's why I never had pets. I had a couple when I was younger, but [with] animals the sensitivity is there, especially with dogs. It's not fair even to animals.”

His skittishness about commitment might stem back to his dysfunctional, impoverished childhood. His neurotic father was a hypochondriac with OCD, always worrying about his three kids bringing germs home. He also gambled his money away at the dog tracks and perpetually argued his mother, which eventually lead to a physical altercation against her when Downing was ready to leave home. (He has a much younger brother who was born close to that time.)

“When you see your mother and father fighting, you just don't want to be in that situation,” assesses Downing. “Both my sisters and I are in our sixties now and none of us ever married, so there must be something in it.”

His 40 years in Priest was like a different marriage. He felt more kinship with fellow six-stringer Glenn Tipton in casual social situations than in the studio, where he says they did not always see eye to eye and where his bandmate dominated creative decisions (and also reportedly steered managerial ones).

“For the most part, you'd have to let him have his own way, which wasn't always right,” says Downing. “A lot of times people, if they don't get what they want, throw the toys out of the pram and nothing gets done. So you used to have to put up with that sometimes.”

Even though he expresses criticisms of Tipton and Priest management in the book, he also respects their contributions to the band itself. He is quite proud of everything he and the band achieved over their four decades together, and his passion for Priest shines through in his storytelling. That said, K.K. and Glenn were always different.

“Glenn thought it was rock and roll to have plenty of beers before and on stage, and I'm just a perfectionist musically,” observes Downing. “Some guys go on there with a bottle of Jack in one and and a cigarette in the other and play a few gigs. That's one way of doing it, but that wasn't the way I wanted. People travel a long while and spend a lot money for tickets, and we certainly traveled a long way to get to a gig. When you go out there, it's not right when you feel like your bandmate's going to the pub instead of going to work. You get pissed off.”

By the end, Downing says he had grown weary of things. During the British Steel tour in 2010, the band had considered doing an EP, which they had never done before. Downing balked at the idea and was irked that during the last 12 months he was in the band, frontman Rob Halford had released two solo albums and opened for Ozzy Osbourne on tour. “We can't be playing second fiddle to somebody else's solo career,” notes Downing. “I wasn't doing it.”

He also disliked the quality of Priest shows by then. “The live performance got pretty rubbish really on the last tour [I did],” says Downing. “I would be zipping around the stage at the start of the tour, then I would start to feel awkward about doing it because everything slowed to a steady walk. Rob was reliant on the autocue, and Glenn was having a beer between every song and before we went on.”

Since his departure, Downing has stayed pretty quiet musically. He played a solo on Geoff Tate's 2013 album under the Queensrÿche name, and he produced two albums by young British metallers Hostile that featured bassist Alex Hill, the son of Priest bassist Ian Hill. He says Hostile got close to a deal with Sony, but then “suddenly it got switched off like a light.” He has indicated in recent months that he would be open to a reunion with Priest, particularly now that Tipton can no longer play nightly, but he also says, “That was really a year ago now. Time is moving on.” 

The guitarist never wanted to do a solo album. He always felt inspired to be part of a team and something bigger; in his case, Judas Priest. “I wasn't working to make myself bigger,” he asserts. “I was working to make the band big and that's what I thought we were all doing. And I think we did that. Then obviously then you get like every band -- Rob peels off, Glenn peels off, sells their own records, sells their own t-shirts on their own websites. And I'm thinking, For fuck's sake, the main event is gonna suffer some neglect.”

One of Judas Priests' strengths has always been their ability to bring in different influences and try different things, and their playing kept getting better over the years.

“I think for most of my life I was a rock guitar player,” muses Downing. “Then probably sometime during Ram It Down [in 1988] I became a musician,” he adds, laughing. “That's my assessment. I'd done so many things so long in a musical way that fitted the bill, but then I broadened my musical horizons. During Ram It Down and especially Painkiller, I had a hunger to do things more musically. Different scales and solos. Things have to move on, don't they?”

While Priest finally won a Grammy in 2010, they only last year made it on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame consideration, a long overdue accolade. “Time's not really on our side, you know,” notes Downing of any future induction possibility. “Since we were nominated, [drummer] Dave Holland passed away. We're still here, and I still feel awkward about not knowing how Glenn really is. I know he's out there. If he's traveling around, I hope he's okay. It's one of those things where I hope everybody just keeps me informed.”

As far as his own life, Downing recently put his Astbury Hall estate and 18 hole, 71-par luxury course up for sale. While his course had done well in the past -- he and Tipton played back in the '80s and were even mentioned in Sports Illustrated then –  his hopes for it to attract pro attention, plus his significant investment, took a turn for the worse in recent times.

“I'm in the process now of recovering everything else through the legal channels,” continues Downing. “I made a few rubbish business moves, but I can't complain really because I did okay. Lots of musicians end up with nothing really, but I had an evaluation on the estate worth in excess of £13 million. Quite a few million pounds worth of music royalties and other assets as well. I'm suing a couple of lawyers for negligence. But to be honest, the whole thing was a bit of a noose around my neck.”

When he announced earlier this year that he was going to sell his songwriting royalties in the Priest catalog, which amass up to $400,000 annually, many people were surprised. But he points out that Dee Snider recently sold a significant chunk of his Twisted Sister catalog. Both in their sixties, they prefer to have a larger sum up front than wait for smaller annual payments over time. Enjoy it now rather than later.

Such changes will lead to streamlining his lifestyle, which he has been contemplating for years. “Nothing happens in your life until you something forces you to change, you know?” he remarks. “I've been doing [other] things recently because I'm not running the estate now. I employed 31 people. Can you imagine what a nightmare that was? Now I'm planning to do things that I used to do. Because it's all about time as you get older.”

The guitarist wants to start fishing again and has been riding his bike again, including a recent 16-mile trip along one of the local waterways. “It was really nice,” he recalls. “The weather was great. It's a 30 year-old French bicycle, and I have been restoring it. It's a thing of beauty. I've done the cars, motorbikes, whatever. I like the fresh air now. It's quite exhilarating and it's been a beautiful summer, you know? I've just done things you never had the time to do before, and to spend more time with my family.”

While he does not speak with his father, Downing regularly sees his mother, who is in her mid eighties. “I spend more time with her now and my sister,” he says. “I'm just doing normal, everyday things really. Now I feel like I'm in a position where I can do to do what I want. I didn't have the time before to spend playing guitar and recording bits and pieces, but now I will if I want to do that. I'm fine with all of that.”