For your correspondent, Judas Priest‘s 1984 album Defenders of the Faith is one of the very few albums that could be described as truly life-changing; It’s blend of heads down metal mania, epic storytelling and fabulous songwriting moulded my view on what ‘proper’ heavy metal should sound like – and does so even to this day – and there’s a fair chance this website would have a completely different name had the band not come up with ‘Side One, Track Four’… And so of course it was a complete no brainer when the chance came up to chat with one of the album’s chief architects, the incomparable K.K. Downing…
If you could just set the scene a little for our readers, how was the mood in the Priest Camp as you went in to the recording of Defenders? You’d just had your biggest album and tour success in the US with Screaming For Vengeance… “It was good. As you say, Screaming For Vengeance was a big album for us. Obviously we’d set the bar with that. But the eighties were a glorious time for all metal bands, not just us. You couldn’t walk down the street in America without hearing cars zipping by blasting out our songs! So the pressure was on… the work rate was mad! It was obviously extremely enjoyable but there’s always a bit of apprehension and nervousness. As a song writer there is a lot of pressure on you. As far as Glenn (Tipton) and myself were concerned… we made U-Turns with our music from album to album – we took a big one after Defenders with Turbo! Whereas other bands, great bands, like AC/DC and Iron Maiden tended to keep things on the straight and narrow, within their avenue of security, giving the fans what they know and love, we tended to diversify a little bit. We always had this slogan, ‘always push the boundaries of metal as far and wide as possible’, because that’s what was needed in the seventies, to get as many new people to come on board with this wonderful genre of music… we wanted to illustrate to everybody that metal isn’t just one thing. It isn’t a one trick pony. For better or worse, or indifferent – and we won some and lost some! – I’d say we had been the most diverse band within the genre as songwriters”.
Let’s get into the album now – track one is Freewheel Burning… you’d done fast songs in the past – Exciter (from Stained Class) springs to mind, obviously, but also tracks like (British Steel‘s) Rapid Fire– bearing in mind the time you were recording DotF, and the amount of time you’d spent in America, were you aware of the rise of bands like Metallica and Anthrax, and thrash/speed metal in general? Is Freewheel Burning an answer to that? “I would say not. If there’s one thing I could say about myself and Glenn as players it’s that we never really copied anyone else. Coming from the age we did, we would sometimes have to play music or styles we didn’t really want to play – especially covers, or the blues, both the bands that Glenn was in before Priest and mine. When we got together as a team we just got our heads down and tried to work out our own thing. So there were quite a few bands, big bands, that sort of came and went and we didn’t notice because we were working so hard on our own thing. Unless we got to play with bands we often didn’t find out about them. I always try to dig deep within myself… you don’t want to be seen as nicking other people’s ideas. I wanted to create something unique for us as a band”.
You’ve always been seen as leaders rather than followers. “That’s how we always wanted it to be. We worked hard though to get to that point where other people looked to us for ideas and inspiration. Our work rate and work ethic was quite remarkable. I look back and think how did we do it! With me and Glenn both being lead players as well as rhythm players, there was always the fear that if you got a bit lazy the other would take the helm! so there was a lot of healthy competition driving us on”.
Were the songs more or less complete when you started the recording process? Did you know where Freewheel Burning was going more or less straightway? “Yes, I think we did. Most of the albums we did I would say we were pretty well prepared. Not all of them… but for the majority of them. Myself and Glenn’s quality control was pretty strict, so we never went into the studio with an abundance of ideas because quite simply when we felt we had enough in the way of quality ideas we wanted to get in and get the ball rolling. Get in the studio and get the album done!”
The second track on the album was Jawbreaker – what do you remember about the writing and recording of that track? “Again, strangely, as much as we’d had commercial success with Screaming For Vengeance… I suppose both myself and Glenn got together and wanted to put a bit more grit in there… I don’t know how it happened. And I think with the titles and the song concepts we wanted to hit people between the eyes. In the shoulders, behind the knees, in the groin – we wanted to hit people in every crevice we could! The first four tracks on this album kick you in all the parts it hurts! As an opening sequence of an album I’m very pleased we were able to do it”.
Track three is Rock Hard Ride Free. A classic Priest anthem. “I think so. The images that the song conjures up – the rebelliousness… the teenage years of oppression, at school, in the workplace. Not for everyone I realise but that’s how it was for me! It was rough and tumble! You feel like you’re imprisoned. This is all about leaving everything behind in your life that stinks – leave the shit behind and join us! That’s the message”.
It’s great to be able to offer that sort of hope to people through your music isn’t it? “It is, yes. I don’t want to be too derogatory about the church or religion but when you had the kind of upbringing that I had you could never put your faith in something you hadn’t seen, experienced or touched… That’s how I’ve lived my life and music has been a vehicle to portray things that have happened to you in your own life, maybe you’ve turned things around and they’ve come good, not through anything else but the music. And it’s great to be able to pass that on, through I style of music that is befitting of other people like me. Heavy metal is very much for people who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, blue collar workers or workers who no longer have work. I think people like that can relate to what we are saying.When I was growing up music was what held me together. It was all I had and all I needed. And it helped me to drag myself out of a bad place to play on some of the biggest stages in the world! How about that?”
Track four is the reason why we’re all here – The Sentinel. Please tell me a bit about the writing of The Sentinel. “Myself and Glenn locked ourselves away individually to come up with as many original ideas as we could. Then we’d get together and try to piece things together, and that’s pretty much how it worked. But a very important ingredient would be Rob Halford’s input, with his lyrics and song titles. We tried on this to create a musical landscape for Rob to integrate his concepts. I think it works. If you have a really heavy riff or a chord sequence that’s more like a ballad it would affect Rob in the way that he approached his ideas lyrically. So on The Sentinel we give Rob a basic outline, then he came back to us with his ideas inspired by that and it would all come together from there. It was very exciting when Rob would join us and sing his first ideas – very exciting times. That’s when we would all join together and build everything we had for the song. The Sentinel is one of those songs in the vein of Blood Red Skies (from Ram It Down) and other songs like that… these kind of futuristic, landscaped ideas where there are Superbeings – whether it be The Painkiller, or Electric Eye for example – that you can’t see but which you can imagine exist. It’s a type of song that we really became known for, those songs where you can let your imagination run wild”.
You could throw in The Sinner, Starbreaker and The Tyrant and you could have a really good animated movie. “You could! You could go on and on! It really does open the doors for you musically and lyrically when you enter that world. It’s very exciting”.
Track Five is Love Bites. “Really a quite unusual song but it managed to work. I remember so many nights playing that song on big stages… We put the song together in Ibiza in the Mediterranean. It was a very eclectic song for Priest but we wanted to explore that area. It’s not a traditional format for a Priest song”.
It’s very groovy. “Yes. It’s songs like that that made Priest memorable. It reminds me for example of the song The Rage (from British Steel)”.
I’m laughing because I was just going to say that. When you mention the ‘unusual’ Priest songs they seem to be the ones that (bassist) Ian Hill plays a prominent part in. “Well, that’s true. Maybe why that’s I’m drawing the comparison. As a song writer you can run out of ideas, so when you can fall back on to ideas like this, one – it’s quite exciting, and two – it’s a challenge. And if you persevere, you come out with something like this song which nobody else on the planet was doing. It will be unique. And for some reason Priest always had that element, the ability to throw a song in with slightly different content. Our job was to make it fit within the album. Is this rock? Is this heavy metal? It doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard but if Judas Priest say it’s heavy metal then it damn well is!”
So we’ve established that the songwriting unit is very much Downing, Tipton and Halford. Where did producer Tom Allom fit in? Was he there simply to produce a bit of polish, or dis he bounce musical ideas around with you as well? What does he bring to a song like Love Bites for instance? “Great producers – their first job is to let the band be what they want to be. The band is there to put their music down on record, and nothing must interfere with that. But a producer has the job of bringing a good ear, and using that to bring the best out of the band individually and collectively. That might mean juggling the respective personalities of various band members – a producer needs to be diplomatic. And Tom is a very good piano player, although he doesn’t play guitar. So that brings something else. He was also good at production ideas, musical embellishment, that side of stuff. He never ran dry of good ideas, ways to experiment with sounds that other band’s wouldn’t try. A lot of dangerous experimentation took place let me tell you! ‘will this explode if we put it in a microwave… and if so what kind of explosion will it make?’ After a couple of beers a lot of things happened… submerging gongs in bathtubs… we were trying to get out chops down and he was coming up with thee ideas!
Track six was, and is, Eat Me Alive. “”Another one of those songs that- certainly at the time – nobody else would have been able to conjure up. First of all musically most bands were playing with Pentatonic scales or natural minors, and we went to a Phrygian mode in E. Nowadays probably nine out of ten metal songs are written using that particular mode. Way back then it sounded different. It’s pretty aggressive. In respect of the lyrics – I’ll definitely have to put that one Rob’s way! I don’t know what kind of mood he was in but he obviously had something on his mind that he wanted to express! It certainly made the PMRC‘s toes curl when they got into it in the mid eighties!”
Best we leave that one there then… Track seven was one of the songs written by Bob Halligan that the band covered – Some Heads Are Gonna Roll. “I’m not exactly sure how those covers came about. I think we were in New York at the time and somebody said there was this very talented guy with some songs for you. People did that from time to time and we were always open minded because there was always a bit of pressure from record companies saying ‘you’re too heavy’ or whatever. Personally I didn’t really ever want to do covers, but that pressure is always there – ‘we can do this and elevate the band’. So some of the stuff that was put forward, we’d take it under our wing. And again that’s a different musical challenge. Take other people’s songs and make them unique to us. People thought it would be impossible to add a Joan Baez song to our repertoire but we did it, and in a couple of ways with the ballad and the rock versions. So we took Bob’s song. We put a lot of importance on titles, and obviously Some Heads Are Gonna Roll is a pretty metal title! That’s probably what sold it to us. Looking back now when I play the album, if you asked someone who’d never heard Judas Priest to pick out the song we didn’t write, they’d pick it right away. I know we liked to try different things, but there’s something about the structure of the song that’s different. But maybe that’s because I know what I know!”
How different is your version to the demos he presented they band? “If my memory serves me correctly it’s pretty similar apart from the guitar solos”.
Track eight – Night Comes Down. “Throughout the band’s career there had to be a ballad-type song on the albums. Listen to Deep Purple‘s In Rock. It’s a very complete sounding record because it has Speed King on it, but it also has an epic ballad in Child In Time. We couldn’t just put an album out with ten versions of Painkiller on it. Similarly you couldn’t have ten versions of Beyond The Realms of Death. You have to mix it up. You’re trying to take people on a journey when you create an album, and you can really do that by including thee tremendously heavy, emotional ballads”.
Light and shade is very important isn’t it. “It’s exactly that! Mate, that was what we used to call it as well! ‘we have to have light and shade on this album’… And there were certain tactics we’d use to convey that. Light and shade is always a good way to go to keep people’s interest by varying the emotions. Key changes are important to. We would vary our key changes as much as we could. These days we all probably play in E or A Minor, but back in the day we would push the boat out and write in D Minor, G Major, F Sharp. I listen to albums today and too many times I hear one song end in the key of E only to be followed by the next one also starting in the same key, almost like a progression of the same song!”
I’m going to treat the last two tracks as a single song as they meld into one another on the album. Did you write Heavy Duty and Defenders of The Faith very much as a way of bringing the album to a strong, anthemic close? “Exactly. Anthems are great on an album. They convey a message to people much better than any other kind of song. It’s almost a military thing, or a big crowd thing. We always did them in a multi-layered kind of way, but with the idea that we are united, we are as one. We would always try to have one on an album if we possibly could. And they’re great to play live as well. For me it’s a great way to end an album. It has a long lasting emotional effect on the listener”.