Judas Priest looking forward to Wolverhampton Civic gig

A farewell tour that isn't, the shock departure of a founder member and the perils of dry ice. Ian Harvey talks to Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill ahead of the band's Wolverhampton Civic gig next month.

Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest
Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest

A farewell tour that isn't, the shock departure of a founder member and the perils of dry ice. Ian Harvey talks to Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill ahead of the band's Wolverhampton Civic gig next month.

The delicate tones of John Williams playing the classical guitar are coming down the phone line as I wait to be put through to Ian Hill in his hotel room in Italy.

Perhaps he should have a word with the hotel management and get some Priest installed instead, I say when I finally get connected. Perhaps Living After Midnight,  Breaking the Law or Turbo Lover?

“Yeah, I’ll have a word with them downstairs,” laughs Hill, the only remaining founder member of the self-styled Metal Gods who formed in the Black Country 41 years ago.

“It’s nice to hear a familiar accent,” he adds as we introduce ourselves - me in Wolverhampton, Hill in Milan, where the band is appearing that night at the Gods Of Metal festival as part of its Epitaph world tour.

That tour includes a headlining appearance at the High Voltage festival in London on Saturday July 23, 2011, and, closer to home, a rare appearance at Wolverhampton Civic Hall two days earlier as a warm-up.

But it’s a tour that has not been without controversy and confusion, first of all when it was announced as a “farewell” tour, when it isn’t, and secondly when founding member and guitarist Ken “KK” Downing then announced he was quitting the band, to retire and concentrate on his golf course business in Bridgnorth and citing diference with some members of the band and its management.

Staffordshire-based Hill, now 60, and Downing have known each other since they went to the same Black Country primary school, and the bassist admits the news came as a terrible shock.

“It came as bombshell to all of us,” he says.

“I think Ken had just had enough. He’d got a lot on his plate with his golf course and I think he couldn’t spend the time away. This tour’s going to be, by the time it’s wrapped up, the best part of two years.

“It’s a long, long time to be away from things and I just think Ken couldn’t handle the time away.

“I’ll always be a friend of Ken’s and I’m sure he’ll always be a friend of mine. Still waters run deep and we’ve been together as colleagues and friends since we were about five years old. We went through school and everything together.”

Judas Priest released their first single, Rocka Rolla, in 1974, with members drawn from Walsall, West Bromwich and Blackheath.

They went on to score a battery of worldwide hits and their 1980 album, British Steel, is considered one of the all-time great heavy metal recordings.

The line-up is Hill, singer Rob Halford, guitarist Glenn Tipton, drummer  Scott Travis and new kid on the block Richie Faulkner, drafted in to replace Downing.

Hill says: “All due respect to Ken, he gave us a long enough time to find someone to replace him. We found an excellent guitarist as you’ll see when we come to the Civic.

“We actually asked another guitarist if he wanted the job but his schedule wouldn’t allow it. He’d already committed himself to something else, and he said ‘You should try this lad’.

"He’s 31 . . . a nipper! We got to meet him, checked him out on the ‘tube’. Interview sounds a bit formal, we just went over and had a chat with him, played a few licks over at Glenn’s and we knew we’d got our man.

“He’s turned out really well. He’s a tremendous talent, a great guitarist and a really nice bloke as well. We dropped very, very lucky with him.”

We then get on to the matter of the confusion surrounding the Epitaph tour announcement back in December last year, when they appeared to be calling time on the band. In fact Judas Priest are to continue and a recording and performing band but say that this will be their last full scale, world-wide jaunt.

“Yeah, there was a bit of confusion with ourselves to be honest!” says Hill.

“It’s the intensive touring. This tour is going to be the best part of two years by the time it’s all wrapped up  . . . if it’s ever wrapped up - it’s open-ended at the moment.  As long as people want to hear us we’ll keep on going.

“But it was never going to be the end of the band. We always thought that we’d continue playing, at festivals somewhere or some special gigs somewhere. But touring for two years . . . you have to wonder how many more two-years-worth of touring we’ve got left in us.”

Is the band concerned about the physical demands of a two-year tour?

“Well, we thought that before we started this tour but to be honest we’re handling it quite well! We all thought that we’d be lagging a bit but we’re not. Maybe it’s having some young blood in the band as well. It’s a fresh incentive and it picks everybody up a bit.”

The band is particularly looking forward to reacquainting  itself with the Civic after a gap of quite some years and squeezing in the whole gargantuan Judas Priest stage show.

Hill says: “We’ve been doing the NEC recently, which is great, but the thing is with us doing High Voltage, I’d imagine a lot of the fans are going down there, so the local promoter has probably thought, well let’s stick them in the smaller venue. You know, fill the small one rather than having the larger one half-empty because everyone’s going to see them down in London.

“But the Civic is a great atmosphere. It’s very intimate with the fans. We’ve probably played there about a dozen times over the years. It’s home from home really.”

Does he have any particular memories of playing the Civic?

“Oh  yeah, falling over and ripping my trousers!” he laughs.

“We’d got this stage set with ramps up either side of the drum riser and all the way around the back and we thought it’d be a great idea to have dry ice. But nobody told us about the condensation with the dry ice, so we all started by the drum kit, walked down into the dry ice and I just went arse over face!”

And having sold millions of albums and played at the American leg of Live Aid are there any particular highlights which spring to mind?

“There are loads and loads of highlights but I tell you what," says Hill, casting his mind back to 1974,  "nothing beats seeing your first album on the shelf.

“We worked long and hard to get that first album there. It was produced terribly and it sounded awful but it’s all we had and it was on the shelf next to all your favourite bands.

“And just seeing it there, you knew you’d arrived, that you’d made your mark and you’d made something that was never going to go away. You’d got your legacy really from that point onwards.”

  • Judas Priest play Wolverhampton Civic Hall on Thursday, July 21, with support from Queensryche and Rival Sons. Tickets cost £36 plus booking fees from from Midland Box Office: 0870 320 7000 or online at www.wolvescivic.co.uk
  • All three bands are on the main stage at High Voltage in Victoria Park, London, on Saturday July 23. Visit www.highvoltagefestival.com
  • Judas Priest will be releasing a CD box set, Single Cuts – The Complete UK CBS/Columbia Singles on August 25. Housed in a deluxe, numbered box, Single Cuts brings together the singles from 1977 to 1992, including 7" and 12" cuts. All singles are issued on vinyl replica CDs with original labels and 7" vinyl artwork wallets. Single Cuts is only available to order from the official Judas Priest website www.judaspriest.com

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