My good friends know I am a huge Judas Priest fan. They have been my favorite band since 1982 (interestingly enough, the year I also met my best friend), and I have a long history with them as a music journalist, having penned the liner notes to their Metalogy box set. So I was undoubtedly surprised and a little shocked when it was announced today that guitarist K.K. Downing was retiring from the iconic heavy metal band prior to their farewell “Epitaph” tour that begins this summer.
The timing of Downing’s departure is unusual for sure (and people will undoubtedly generate all sorts of rumors as to why). The blond-haired rocker has been with the group practically since the beginning. The original 1969 incarnation of Judas Priest featured original singer Al Atkins and three other members (none of who remain), but a year later Downing and bassist Ian Hill joined their ranks. With economic constraints hampering the young group, Atkins departed in 1973 to be replaced by famed frontman Rob Halford, and in 1974 guitarist Glenn Tipton arrived just prior to the recording of their debut Rocka Rolla. Downing’s wild, expressive playing made a great contrast to Tipton’s more structured, classically-influenced style, but the duo often meshed together, influencing one another and always letting rip with fantastic solos and majestic harmonies. The thought of them not generating six-string pyrotechnics onstage anymore is indeed a sad thought for fans.
The official announcement from the Priest camp says this:“It is with regret that Judas Priest announce that K.K. Downing has formerly retired from the band and will therefore not be joining them on their forthcoming Epitaph tour.
The band respect his decision and naturally all wish him well.
Having though long and hard about how to proceed, Rob, Glenn, Ian and Scott unanimously agreed that they should go ahead with the tour and not let the fans down all around the world.
Fate also stepped in and delivered the perfect replacement — 31 year-old British guitar player Richie Faulkner. He has blended into the band perfectly and is a great talent who is going to help set the stage on fire!
The Epitaph tour will include songs from every Priest studio album and also tracks that have never before performed on stage plus all the old favourites!
With a new album due to be released next year the Metal Gods are preparing to tour the planet once more — heavy metal at its best complete with lasers, lights, bikes and hellfire! It’s a show not to be missed!!”
There is no word yet on whether Downing will appear on the forthcoming album. If not, it would be the first Priest platter not to feature his playing. It is truly disappointing that he will miss out on the tour where many vintage songs unheard for decades will emerge, and his leads will be played by someone else. I am sure that will not deter loyal fans from going to the shows (read some fan reactions here), but it will still be surreal nonetheless. (For those who don’t know him, new axeman Faulkner has played with singer Lauren Harris, the daughter of Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris.)
Obviously his departure from Judas Priest was a highly personal decision for Downing (see the update below), and I wish him well for the future. Presumably he will continue in the music business in terms of producing, songwriting and/or other endeavors. His site The Steel Mill will be a good place to keep up with him.
I have always found the legendary guitarist to be a warm, witty individual who has clearly loved playing music with Priest over the last four decades. When I first met him in 1998 for a series of interviews for a Goldmine cover story, he had this big grin plastered across his face after I asked a plethora of questions that only a die-hard fan would offer to the band. And like me, he is not big on marriage, so we have had a couple of funny conversations in recent years about his views on avoiding getting hitched.
Thanks for the music, memories and fun interviews, K.K.! Here’s hoping we’ll hear from you soon.
STORY UPDATE: April 22, 2011
K.K. Downing has issued the following statement through his site The Steel Mill:
It is with much regret that I will not be with you this summer. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your concerns about my health. Please rest assured that I am O.K.
There has been an ongoing breakdown in working relationship between myself, elements of the band, and the band’s management for some time.
Therefore I have decided to step down rather than to tour with negative sentiments as I feel that this would be a deception to you, our cherished fans.
However I would urge you to please support the Priest as I have no doubt that it will be a show not to be missed.
All my love and respect,