Al Atkins interview, June 2012
THE BIG BANG
Industrialized nineteenth century England must have been a dark and grim place.. At least this seems to have been the case with an area east of Wales comprising cities such as Birmingham, West Bromwich and Dudley. This region came to be known as ‘the Black Country’ – a nickname derived from the ironwork and coal factories and the thick black smoke that effused from them and permeated the streets and the lungs of the poor souls within that cluster of cities and towns. But every cloud has a silver lining.....so to speak.
Perhaps as a consequence of its industrial past, towards the end of the 1960s ‘The Black Country’ spewed forth bands such as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest as well as individual musicians who were instrumental in laying the foundations of Heavy Metal. Today some of these musicians are recognized as icons of the genre. Yet, the efforts and verve of many others remain somewhat under acknowledged. Al Atkins, founder and ex-vocalist of Judas Priest (amongst many other bands) arguably falls in the latter category.
Which is odd really, because despite the lapse of several decades since his first musical forays, Al is as active as ever. His latest musical effort is “Serpent’s Kiss” – released a few months ago under the moniker: Atkins/May Project. And it is the subject of this band that kicks of the interview that follows......
I most certainly have…Marc Boals is one of my favourite singers in fact.
Al: And there’s also a drummer who plays in a Death Metal band called Nile – I’ve heard some very good things about him.
I agree - Nile’s members are all first-rate musicians. Now let’s go back in time…what do you remember of the very first Judas Priest gig?
Al: Now hold on, are you talking about the very first Judas Priest I formed in 1969 or about the Judas Priest mk 2 that I formed with Ian Hill and K. K. Downing?
I refer to the first incarnation of Judas Priest, but maybe it would also help to explain to our readers how Judas Priest had two starts…..
Al: Judas Priest was formed in 1969 by myself, bass guitarist Bruno Stapenhill and drummer John Partridge. After we lost our first guitarist, one of those to audition as our new guitar player was a certain K. K. Downing. However we felt K. K. wasn’t up to standard and we opted for Earnest Chatway.
The first set of gigs we had done were in Scotland. I remember our drummer was taken ill on that tour and I had to play the drums myself, besides singing. [laughs]
Drums and lead vocals, that must have been quite an experience…..
Al: Yes, in fact when I grew up I played a number of instruments such as blues harmonica , drums and guitar.
Anyway, eventually we got the opportunity to do a showcase gig for a record label. This turned out to be quite successful and a record deal was signed. I remember that amongst the audience that night was Robert Plant. Shortly after the record deal was signed, the label went bust and in frustration we decided to call it a day.
You mention Earnest Chataway…..I believe that before he joined Judas Priest, Earnest had played in a band called Earth. Earth eventually changed their name to Black Sabbath. What do you remember of the band Earth?
Al: I don’t think Earnest was part of Earth. It’s more that he was jamming with them. Earnest was a fantastic musician despite still being so young back then. As soon as he auditioned for us, we immediately knew that this was the guy for us.
Earnest told us that Earth had changed their name to Black Sabbath. And we thought that that was an awesome name and we must think of a name that has some dark connotations. Bruno Stapenhill came up with the name Judas Priest, from a song by Bob Dylan, and we all agreed to that moniker.
Some time after the band split up, I stumbled across a 3-piece band rehearsing – they turned out to be drummer John Ellis, bass player Ian Hill and on guitar was K. K. Downing who by then had improved his playing significantly. On the spot I asked them if they needed a singer, they said ‘yes’ and there and then I became part of the band. I didn’t like the name they were using at the time so I suggested using the name of my old band, Judas Priest. They agreed.
Owing to an prolonged frustration of not getting that elusive record deal as well as new-found family commitments I left Judas Priest in 1973 but gave the band permission to use the name and the songs I had written with them and wished them good luck.
When the NWOBHM was at its peak in the early 1980s, I believe you were relatively quiet, musically speaking. What do you remember of that period and what were your feelings on seeing those British Metal bands getting all that exposure?
Al: Late 70's early 80's was a great time for heavy metal to raise it's ugly head yet again with bands like Saxon, Venom and Diamond Head to name a few paving the way to the NWOBHM movement....
By the way, in the late 1970s I was musically active playing with a band called Lion. That was the period when Punk exploded so we played live with lots of Punks bands, such as the Sex Pistols and The Stranglers. We had some interest from labels such as Virgin Records but eventually it all fizzled out and we all went our separate ways.
What did you do after that?
Al: A few years later I started writing songs with some friends of mine such as Paul May and Bruno Stapenhill. I released my first solo album – “Judgement Day” – in 1990 and have since released several other solo full-lengths.
One of my most personal solo albums was “Victim Of Changes” which I did with Dave Holland, Pete Emms and Paul May. In that album I recorded songs I had written while with Judas Priest but which never got recorded as well as other songs I wrote such as ‘Victim Of Changes’ and ‘Caviar And Meths’ which appeared in the first 2 Judas Priest albums. We also recorded a cover of Quartermass’ ‘Black Sheep Of The Family’ which Judas Priest used to play live in the very early days.
I reckon “Victim Of Changes” was a great album.
Al: We had some great reviews for this album and it was the first time I had recorded a lot of my songs myself. Judas Priest had recorded some and other bands too like Gamma Ray and Armoured Saint, Dave Holland played drums and Paul May guitar. It sold really well world wide and eventually got on to Universal Records’ books.
There was some controversy surrounding that album. When the artist showed me the initial draft of its artwork I immediately noticed the resemblance with the artwork of Judas Priest’s “Sin After Sin”  album. I told him “We can’t possibly do that!” But the artist insisted that the resemblance was minimal and I eventually accepted his arguments.
Al: Initially I had asked Bernie to play guitar in just 2 songs. When I gave him more stuff to play he said these would really fit Dennis’ Stratton’s style. So Dennis ended up coming aboard. We had gone on tour in the States and I really had the time of my life.
All the time Dennis was waiting for a reply from Praying Mantis who were interested in him joining them. Praying Mantis were big in Japan and were also preparing a tour of the Far East.
When they invited Dennis to join, the members of The Denial all ended up going their separate ways so the band came to a natural end. After all, the moniker was an amalgam of Dennis and Al. I had enjoyed working with Dennis.
How would you compare your current singing with that of the 1970s?
Al: It’s totally different! My voice is much harsher now than it was back then. The fact that I stopped smoking twenty years ago probably contributed to the power of my singing.
Yeah, I have no doubt that your singing would have enjoyed the benefits of eradicating smoking from your life.
Al: It got stronger, higher and more powerful.
And how would you compare your singing with that of Rob Halford?
Al: Rob has a unique vocal style ,his range is unbelievable , a lot of people compare me with him and say Al's good but he's no Rob Halford and I accept that, but who is??? I can count them on one hand. My style of vocals his more AC/DC than Priest. [laughs]
What are your earliest memories of Rob?
Al: I think the first time I heard Rob Halford sing was when he was with a band called Hiroshima, who were supporting Judas Priest in the early 1970s. What happened was at that time Ian Hill was dating a girl called Sue and when I left Judas Priest, she mentioned that her brother was a singer. This ‘brother’ turned out to be Rob Halford.
I’d like to ask a few more questions on musicians you’ve crossed paths with in the past…..such as Gary Moore, who I believe you personally got to know in the 1970s. What are your memories of Gary Moore?
Al: Judas Priest played on the same bill has Gary in 1972...he was a lovely character and let me play on this green Gibson Les Paul guitar backstage....he later told me it belonged to Peter Green who gave it to him when he decided he wanted to retire all those years ago and Garry was his favourite player..... mine too, sadly missed.
Was Gary still playing with Thin Lizzy when you got to know him?
Al: No, I got to know Gary Moore around ‘72 and he had already left Thin Lizzy by then. However, when I was with Judas Priest, we had done a number of gigs with Thin Lizzy. I remember, on one such occasion, smoking a spliff with Phil Lynott in the venue’s changing rooms.
Al, do you think that Birmingham (including neighbouring West Bromwich) deserves the epithet ‘the birthplace of Heavy Metal’?
Al: Absolutely, yes! Without the musicians who came from the Black Country there would not be Heavy Metal and their influence keeps inspiring legions of bands, young and old. You just have to mention names such as Robert Plant, Glenn Hughes, Black Sabbath, even Napalm Death….
…..and of course Judas Priest
Al: And or course Judas Priest.
By the way, were you surprised when you got to know that K. K. Downing had left Judas Priest?
Al: Yes, I was quite surprised. Recently I was at a party where I met Ian Hill and we talked about K. K.’s departure from Priest. What was mentioned in that conversation will remain between us but it seems that K. K. wasn’t happy with certain managerial decisions. Maybe he was also burnt out after a lifetime of touring the world.
Someone proposed the idea that when Judas Priest finish their current ‘farewell’ tour, I might go on stage with the band to sing a couple of songs, ideally ones I had written for the band.
That would be an awesome way to end the band’s live career.
Al: To be honest I haven’t been directly contacted by the band or band rep on this idea but I’d be willing to do it if asked.
Another thing: have you been in contact with Tony Iommi since he was diagnosed with lymphoma?
Al: No but I was sorry to hear the news. Having said that, it seems Tony’s condition can be overcome with appropriate treatment. So I sincerely wish him a speedy recovery.
Your relationship with Tony Iommi goes a long way back in time, right?
Al: Tony actually managed Judas Priest in the early 70's and he put us on some great gigs like 'The Hippodrome Theatre' ,B'ham with prog band Family, 'Liverpool Town Hall' with Budgie and also a gig with Black Sabbath themselves. He was a really cool guy....
Is there anything you’d like to add to conclude the interview?
Al: Thanks for the interview and hopefully I will get my band over there to play to you one day so keep the flags flying and the fires burning for metal music.....
Al, it’s been a real pleasure speaking to you. I really hope to see you singing live in the very near future.
Al: Thanks, Chris.
© 2012 Chris Galea
www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP2px44Q-Wg (‘Fight’ by Atkins/May Project)
Interviewed by Chris Galea