The roots of Heavy Metal go deep somewhere around 1970. Maybe earlier, maybe later but if we must name just one band as the starting point, it has to be Black Sabbath. As it was written somewhere once and many people keep repeating it, "Black Sabbath created heavy and Judas Priest added metal", so next to Black Sabbath, there is Judas Priest. And if there are a few people that will have a debate between those two bands, in the end, it all comes back to Birmingham in England; the birthplace of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, the birthplace of Heavy Metal.
Located in the West Midlands, Birmingham, the City of a Thousand Trades, was a part of the industrial revolution and suffered a heavy bombing during World War II. During the mid to late '60s, Birmingham had a very important music scene with bands like The Moody Blues, Traffic and The Spencer Davis Group and when the '70s entered, there were already Electric Light Orchestra and Black Sabbath. Among those bands and people, there was a singer named Al Atkins who formed a band called Judas Priest. The story of Judas Priest is widely known but their roots are not so much...
Al Atkins never reached the top and Billboard charts, didn't headline major open air festivals and didn't sell millions of records. As he wrote in his book "Dawn of the Metal Gods", "at this point of my life, I never will, but I gave it a bloody good go". His story with Judas Priest started with the long road in pubs and clubs but ended the hard way. Maybe it was just meant to be, but Al Atkins was kind enough to offer an interview about those early years since we're celebrating 50 years of Judas Priest but you won't read many often about those early years.
written by Andreas Andreou
In my opinion, there are actually two different Judas Priest bands. Let me be clear: the first one was your band (1969-1970) and the second was the band formed by Kenneth Downing (guitar) and Ian Hill (bass) with John Ellis on drums, joined by you who also brought the name. What's your personal view in the formation of Judas Priest?
Al: Well I was in the 1969-70 and 1970-73 line-ups... and we got through four drummers in four years, so I think the link is there with me and they were both my bands. I was the main spokesman, singer and songwriter after all. The name Judas Priest is the main thing no matter who comes and goes along the way but in my opinion I think now, after 50 years together, it has nearly run it's course and if Rob (Halford) left again that would be the end of the story. The band first started in 1969 but with lots of bad luck like losing our record contract with Immediate Records and firing the drummer, our bass player Bruno Stapenhill decided to leave us for another band and to tour around Denmark... so that was that.
What's the origin of the "Judas Priest" name?
Al: Bruno, the bass player, came up with it. He took it from a song called "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" from the album John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan.
Who registered the name?
Al: Our friend and manager David Corke at the time had it registered.
Kenny Downing also auditioned for "your" first Judas Priest, what was your first thought for each member of Judas Priest the first time you met them?
Al: Yes, Kenny (K.K.) came to the guitar auditions in 1969 after our first guitarist John Perry commited suicide at the age of 18. Kenny was very inexperienced at the time but had the looks with his long blonde hair. But at that point we decided to give the job to Ernie Chataway from Birmingham.
Sometime after the 1969-70 line-up split, I went looking for another band and listened in on a group who were rehearsing and it was K.K. who had formed a three piece with Ian Hill (bass) and John Ellis (drums). I don't remember what song they were playing, I think they were just jamming together but it sounded really good and I asked them if they wanted a vocalist and they said yes. I didn't like what they were called, which was Freight and suggested they use my old band's name "Judas Priest" and they all agreed so JP MK2 was born. They were a great bunch of guys and listened to what they told them, I was four years older than them and had a lot of experience playing through the '60s with various bands, They were very enthusiastic and couldn't wait to hit the road.
Later John Ellis left the band and was replaced by Alan Moore who in turn was replaced by Chris "Congo" Campbell. During that period did you write any original material and what kind of songs did you play in live shows?
Al: John Ellis had a breakdown so we hired Alan Moore who later left and joined a country type rock band for a much easier life because we were now playing any place anywhere doing over 150 gigs in 1972 alone. We played alongside some great bands at that time including Slade, Spirit, Status Quo and Thin Lizzy just to name a few. Drummer Chris "Congo" Campbell took Alan's place and I was writing all the songs which K.K. contributed too, songs like "Winter", "Never Satisfied", "Caviar and Meths", "Morpheus" and "Whiskey Woman" which eventually was called "Victim of Changes"... K.K. came up with his first song called "Run of the Mill" and many of these songs ended up on their first two albums. Alan Moore rejoined later to play on Sad Wings of Destiny.
Did Judas Priest ever cross ways with Black Sabbath during your years?
Al: I had met and spoke to Ozzy in a music store in town but no we never really crossed paths with Sabbath.
Do you really believe that Judas Priest was a "heavy metal" band in your years or just hard rock?
Al: We were all hard rock or progressive rock, the name "heavy metal" hadn't been invented back then not until a few years later.
At some time you also performed with Trapeze in 1972. What do you remember of your meeting with Glen Hughes and Dave Holland who later joined Judas Priest?
Al: I remember it well ,it was at Henry's Blues House in town. It was a very famous little venue with a reputation like Liverpool's Cavern. You could go and see Robert Plant jamming with some band or other and Black Sabbath played there frequently too in their early days. Trapeze were a great little three piece rock/funk band who were a great bunch of guys.
Do you want to share your personal opinion on Dave Holland since you were friends, the accusations and his death?
Al: Well I couldn't believe or didn't want to believe in what happened to Dave... such a nice guy and great drummer. He played on my Victim of Changes solo album which took off with big sales and we decided to stay together and record another one. We had meetings in London with various record companies and things were looking up for us and then the bombshell... He spoke to me on the telephone saying he was being stitched up and not to talk to the press... I never saw him again. He got 10 years prison and court costs of around £10,000... Shame because after serving his time, he moved to northern Spain and died with cancer.
When did you leave the band and how did they continue using the Judas Priest name? Have you ever met Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton during that period?
Al: I left the band in May 1973. I was the only one married and now with a small child to feed, I decided to get a 9 to 5 job and support my family because we just couldn't get that big record deal we so wanted to give us some financial backing and although we were getting bigger, we had more overheads to go with it. Norman Hood at the agency helped me out sometimes with some cash but it wasn't enough.
A few months after leaving the band, K.K. and Ian came knocking on my door and asked me if they could use the name Judas Priest and if they could have the songs too and I said yes and best of luck... They said they had found a new vocalist to take my place, named Robert Halford, who I had never heard of but his band Hiroshima had been on our agency books too. They hit the road pretty soon and toured the UK and Europe and the following year they added Birmingham guitarist Glenn Tipton from The Flying Hat Band who were also in the same agency and we both played on the same bill together once at the Plaza Ballroom, B'ham. So now Judas Priest were a five piece for the first time.
In your years, Judas Priest were somehow managed by Norman Hood and Dave Corke, both of them related to Black Sabbath. However, we're already in 1973, Black Sabbath have released 5 studio albums and probably you don't have material ready even for an album. Do you believe there was any "missed chance", you just didn't have the proper material or contract, or it just happened this way?
Al: Tony Iommi had formed an agency in Birmingham for up and coming bands and we signed a contract with them in early 1973 and that was the first time we had met Tony who was a really nice guy. Norman and Dave both worked for him in the agency and they started booking us into bigger venues and trying to secure us with a record deal. We had deals offered us but they were only small independent labels and I turned them down. We were good enough, no doubt, and we had enough material which I said earlier that some of my songs ended up on Priest's first two albums but it just never happened... Don't forget The Beatles were turned down by every record label in Britain and look what happened to them... Sometimes it's just about the right time at the right place.
So, since you and K.K. Downing were obviously the writing team those early years, how did you feel when a few of your ideas ended in the first two Judas Priest albums that were already something different as a band by then?
Al: The only difference in both bands was the added guitar of Glenn Tipton which was a great idea by the independent label they eventually signed with (Gull Records). Dave Corke had left the agency in Birmingham and went to work for Gull in London and pushed the label to sign them but David Howells who owned the label, said only if they will add another guitarist like one of their other bands, Wishbone Ash and it worked brilliantly. Dave Corke worked tirelessly for the band, even getting them a spot on the popular music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test and the band started to get bigger, especially after their second album Sad Wings of Destiny and top labels had eventually started to take an interest too.
And what was your last thought for each member the moment you were off the band?
Al: Everyone was great to work with over the years and I have remained friends with them all.
I am sure you've seen a couple of times Judas Priest live over the years. How was the feeling the first time and how was the last time?
Al: It was strange seeing Rob singing my songs after I had left them and I didn't like his high range vocal style at first but he got older and his voice matured. He was incredible especially during the eighties... really wicked. I last saw them a few years back at Wolverhampton Civic Hall and they played a great set but I missed K.K. on guitar although Ritchie is a good guitarist.
I went to see K.K., Tim Owens and Les Binks last year at his new venue The Steel Mill and the band was just amazing. It was great to meet them all back stage later.
But life in heavy metal continued. And Al Atkins is still active.
Al: I have recorded six solo albums, one album with Holy Rage album and have played live all over including Florida, New York to California... Check out my new venture with guitarist Paul May, the Atkins / May Project, we have recorded four albums now and the latest is The Final Cut but will it be the final cut? Who knows which way the wind blows. I will keep rocking as long as I can but I have had a great time and life no matter what.
Photos provided by Al Atkins.