Where there's a Mill there's a way, say metal legend KK Downing
Ken 'KK' Downing is buzzing. The former Judas Priest guitarist has just played his first West Midlands gig in a decade, and is proudly playing footage of his improvised riffs on his mobile phone.
"That young lad is called Andy Mills, he's from Wednesbury," he says, pointing to one of his fellow musicians on stage. "I have known him since he was 16, I've been helping him along the way."
Almost half a century since KK and his bandmates were trying to make a name for themselves around the pubs and clubs of the West Midlands, KK is now running a music venue of his own. And while it may seem a far cry from the huge crowds of Madison Square Gardens or the Royal Albert Hall that he played in front of in Priest's heyday, he has lost non of the infectious zest for the music which motivated him as a young man.
His new venue, KK's Steel Mill at the former Star car factory in Wolverhampton, is celebrating its first 12 months, and he says providing somewhere for young up-and-coming musicians to play is one of his great motivations.
"That was a big part of why I got involved, there's not enough places for musicians to perform these days," says the West Bromwich born Heavy Metal star.
"It's tough for new bands these days, to be able to progress these days you need to have a record deal, to get a record deal you need to have an agent, and if you haven't got a recording deal the agents are reluctant to take you on."
The first anniversary gig, which attracted a 1,500 capacity crowd, saw KK joined on stage by his ex-Priest bandmates Tim 'Ripper' Owens on lead vocals, and Les Binks on the drums. David Ellefson of American metal band Megadeth, were also on stage, along with Blaze Bayley of Iron Maiden, as well as 31-year-old Andy who uses the stage name 'A J'.
"There were people in the audience who had come from Poland, Japan and Croatia," he says.
He adds that it is hugely rewarding to be able to provide a platform for up-and-coming musicians such as Andy.
"I love helping Andy along the way," says KK, who lives in Bridgnorth.
"I have watched him grow from someone who was like a young me, and now he's on the stage with me.
"It's very rewarding, and he will go and do great things, whether it's with me or someone else."
For KK, it is like returning to his own roots, although he is keen to stress that even at the height of Judas Priest's fame, the band always chose to play the small intimate venues where you can see the whites of the audience's eyes while performing.
Harking back to the early days, he has fond memories of the venues where they would perform.
"Our first gig was at Essington Working Men's Club," he recalls.
"I think we played Walsall Masonic Hall, we played JB's in Dudley when it was at the football ground. There was a place called Henry's Blues House in Birmingham, which was considered a good venue, but it was just a pub, and there used to be drag artists' in the next room. It was always good fun.
"You would consider yourself lucky if you got to Walsall Town Hall."
But he says whatever the venue, the basic principles of performing remain the same. And even after half a century on the road, he still gets nervous when he walks out onto the stage.
"You have to be very careful, you can fall over, you can break guitar strings, your trousers can split, you can set your hair on fire like Michael Jackson did, there's so many things that can go wrong," he says.
KK had a deep and varied interest in music from an early age, including classical and flamenco, but it was a concert by Jimi Hendrix at Coventry in 1967 which truly captured his imagination.
"It kind of changed my life, I saw a guy up there who was just able to improvise, I was so impressed."
His love of Hendrix cost him his first job as a kitchen assistant when he went Awol to see his hero at the Woburn Music Festival.
"It was a pity I got fired because I loved the job," he says. "I did catering college and worked at the Lyttelton Arms in Hagley."
The launch of the Steel Mill comes at the end of a rough couple of years for KK, which saw him lose his country estate and golf course at Astbury Hall in Chelmarsh, near Bridgnorth, after four of his companies went into administration, and was also forced to offer the royalties for 136 of his songs for sale. He can't go into details, but says the experience has left a bitter taste in the mouth. He is now taking legal action which he believes will recoup the majority of his losses.
But while he is angry about things that happened, it has done nothing to dent his love of the music business which he says at the age of 68 is still keeping him young.
"In some ways it is easier, because I've got nothing to prove and I think I'm a pretty experienced musician," he says.
He is certainly glad to be a postwar baby-boomer rather than a modern-day Millennial, saying music seems to be a much smaller part of life today compared to when he was growing up.
"I'm so glad I was born in 1951," he says.
"We didn't have the computers, the only thing we had was our music.
"We used to listen to music in a way young people don't listen to it now.
"I can remember people would just close the curtains, and you would lie on the floor and listen to the album from beginning to end without even speaking.
"You would listen to the music in a very deep way, of listening to everything that is going on in the record.
"You would than listen to it again and notice something different, people just don't seem to do that now."
As music has become more fragmented, it has become less of a shared experience. While there are still talented musicians out there, he says the days when the nation would be gripped by the latest new music are probably gone forever.
"We had all this great music in the 60s, 70s and 80s, we will never see those decades again," he says.
"In those days you were divided into two camps, you were either the Beatles or the Stones, I always preferred the Stones because they were a bit grittier.
"But we will never see the great pop tracks either, the likes of T-Rex or Abba, we will never see that again.
"If you're 14 or 15 now, what is there for you? If I was 15 now, I don't know where I would go."
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