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Al looks back on the birth of a music legend

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: September 24, 2009

Al Atkins at home in West Bromwich.

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CHAINS AND anchors, shafts and tubes, bridges and girders. It’s surely no coincidence that the Black Country, which was ringing to the sounds of heavy metal centuries before the record player or the electric guitar had even been thought of, would become the birthplace of the pounding, hammering music that bears that name.

Massively popular the world over — especially in the USA — since the early seventies, Heavy Metal, a particularly intense form of rock music, has had many exponents and continues to pick up fans and draw new bands to its cause with every passing generation.

But all agree that its genesis occurred in the Black Country and Birmingham nearly forty years ago, when a generation of young men who had been born post-war to working class families found a way of expressing themselves in an unprecedented musical fashion.

Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest are probably the best-known and most successful of that original crop of bands, and their members are now rich and feted, most still in the business and scattered across the globe. Some of them stayed — Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant will never stray too far from his beloved Molineux — and singer and founder member of Judas Priest, Al Atkins, can still be found right in the centre of his native West Bromwich, if you know where to look. Fortunately we do, and Al was more than happy to invite us in for a chat about his days in the band that would, years after he’d left them to spend more time with his young family, go on to become one of the biggest names in rock.

Folklore Such is the devotion of Judas Priest’s worldwide fanbase, Al has become part of rock folklore, and is regularly called upon to share his thoughts on the band’s early days, particularly by publications and TV channels in Europe, the US and Japan. Recently, Al decided to sort through his memories and his memorabilia, and condensed his life so far into a book that takes the reader from a fifties childhood in West Bromwich, via the local music scene of the sixties and seventies, to Europe and America and back to the Black Country. Al told the Bugle how his fascinating tale unfolded in his own words, with his first proper band ...

“We actually started out as a three piece.

There was me on drums and singing, Bruno Stapenhill was on bass and Albert Hinton was on guitar.

When we started out we were called The Reaction, at the beginning of ‘65.” Then another guitarist by the name of Brian Fieldhouse came in, and made his influence felt immediately. He came up with the oddly-spelt name of The Bitta Sweet; but he had other plans too.

“He said to me ‘you’re a good singer but a rubbish drummer’.” laughs Al. “Can we get another drummer in? And I said ‘anything that’s going to help the band, I’ll do it’. It’s a bit strange at first, being out front and all eyes on you. I was only about 18.

“We went on with The Bitta Sweet till about 1967. We had a manager called Ken Ford who got all our gigs for us. The usual, youth clubs, pubs and so on, and then we got onto the Plaza circuit. There was the one in Old Hill, the Plaza in Handsworth, and I think the same bloke owned the Ritz in Birmingham.” It was hard work, often requiring a performance at each of the three venues in a single day, but there were benefits ...

“It was good work for local bands if you could get on there.” says Al.

“We opened up for David Bowie, and the next week we’d be finishing the night off for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch.

We had some great nights there. We played one night with the Long John Baldry Steam Packet. He was a great blues singer, and on backing vocals he had Rod Stewart. On keyboards was Elton John.

So we met these people before they became famous. It was a nice stepping stone for us.” Another venue Al loved to play was the Silver Blades Ice Rink in Birmingham, where the audience would continue skating as they played. The Gala Baths just up the road from where Al lives now was another regular venue; in fact ex-manager Ken gave him a handwritten set list from a Bitta Sweet show at the baths just a few weeks ago. Al notes that it featured Who and Move songs which had only just been released at the time.

“I think we would’ve done ok if we’d stayed together.” says Al now.

“But Albert upped and left to go to Perth in Australia with his girlfriend, and we never saw him again.” Until very recently, that is. But more of that later. That unexpected turn of events was to lead to the birth of one of the most famous names in the music industry.

“The band just split up after that. Me and Bruno went on to form other bands, until ‘69, when we formed what would become Judas Priest together. The lineup included John Partridge on drums, and a guitarist called John Perry, who, unfortunately, committed suicide.” Determined to carry on despite the shock of losing a friend so suddenly, the new held auditions for another guitarist. One of those who turned up was a young lad with long blond hair called Ken Downing, from the Yew Tree estate. He wasn’t quite up to the job, but another lad, Ernie Chataway, was.

He’d recently been playing with a Birmingham band called Earth, who had impressed him mightily, and had just changed their name to Black Sabbath.

Names “We said ‘hmmm ...

we like that name’.” Al admits. “We threw a few names around and Bruno, within a couple of days, because he’d been listening to an album by Bob Dylan called John Wesley Harding, came up with an idea. There was a track on there called The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, and he said ‘Judas Priest’, what about that for a name? I said ‘it sounds good to me, sounds like something you’re never going to forget’. We never knew it was a curse in America.

We say ‘Good God’, they say ‘Judas Priest!’” Things were looking good for the Bitta Sweet’s successors within a very short time: “We signed a four year contract with Immediate Records, and a guy called Andrew Loog Oldham, the guy who discovered the Rolling Stones.

He’d got a good record label at the time. But within a month the company folded, and the band split up. I wanted to set up another similar band.

Heavier, but still using the Judas Priest name.

Bruno joined a group called Roy G Explosion and they went to Denmark for a few months. That was the first time I hadn’t played with Bruno since we were kids.” “I saw a young band down at St James’s, the church in Wednesbury.

All the bands used to rehearse there; Slade, Robert Plant, Trapeze.

The vicar was called Father Husband and he used to come round shouting ‘fares please’, a big bloke with glasses on. And he used to go up the pub on the corner afterwards and spend the money! “I heard this band in there and I looked inside the room and saw Ken Downing and Ian Hill, with John Ellis on drums. They didn’t have a singer, they’d just started up, and were calling themselves Freight or something.

I went in and said ‘it’s an awful name. Do you fancy coming with me and calling the band Judas Priest?’ I wrote all the songs and got the band on the road. They’d never played a live gig.

I was about 21, they’d be 17, but they had this thing about them, they were very enthusiastic.” Young Ken — or KK as he would become known — had obviously been putting in some practise since he’d failed the audition for that first Judas Priest line-up, Al realised: “KK had come on a lot since that audition.

So that was it, we hit the road. We started in pubs and clubs, as you have to. By the time 1972 came, we did 150 gigs that year, which wasn’t bad for an unsigned band. Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath took us under his wing, and we played at the Masonic Hall in Walsall.

“In ‘73 we started doing bigger things. We opened for Thin Lizzy at Stafford Hall, Status Quo in Chester; so many. We opened for a band called Family at the Hippodrome in Birmingham, and played with Budgie at the Town Hall in Liverpool.

Pete Boot was drumming for them at that time. I’d had a dabble with him in a band back in the sixties.” It seemed that Al’s luck was going to hold out, and all his hard work finally pay off.

But this, it seemed, was as far as Judas Priest were going to go, and he had pressures that the rest of the band were free of at that time ...

“I left the band in May ‘73. We still hadn’t got the album deal we wanted. We kept sending demos off, and the band was getting bigger, but the bigger the band got, the more overheads we got; extra road crew, hiring PA systems and taking them on the road. I’d be away from home a lot and I had a daughter by then, Sharon.

The others were all still free and single and I was 22, 23 now, with a family to keep. I was finding it really difficult being away from home all the time. Even if we weren’t gigging we were rehearsing, and I’d had enough really. I didn’t think the band was going to make it, I’ll be honest, because we couldn’t get a deal.

W e w e r e g o i n g nowhere. We were getting big gigs, but without the record deal we were struggling.” Al explained to the rest of Judas Priest that he had decided to call it a day. They accepted his decision, but three or four weeks later, Ken Downing and Ian Hill went over to his house to see what his plans were.

“There was a knock on the door and they said ‘what are you gonna do?’— laughing at my short hair. I’d had it cut and was working over in Sutton Coldfield. I said I think I want to stay in music, but I don’t want to be professional like we have been, and struggling without that record deal; I’d rather keep my job and just work in a band on a weekend, so financially, my family’s more stable.

Singer “So they said ‘can we use the name?’ I said yes. They’d got a new singer and a new drummer, from a Walsall band called Hiroshima.

They were Rob Halford and John Hinch.

They replaced me and Chris Campbell, who’d left when I had. I gave them the name, and I gave them my songs, because I wrote nearly all the songs at the time. I went to see them play not long after. It was weird to hear Rob Halford singing my songs. There were three of my songs on the first album, one on a B-side, and two songs on the second album.

The new Judas Priest never looked back.

Theirs was not a sudden explosion of stardom, but a steady climb which, by the late seventies, had made them one of the world’s biggest rock bands. By 1980, they were one of the few heavy metal bands to be getting their singles played regularly on Radio One and appearing on the likes of Top of the Pops, beamed into every house in the country. They’re still playing the biggest arenas that the world can offer, and in the United States they’re regarded as legends, inspiring at least two generations of rock bands in their wake. So popular are they still, in fact, that the handful of songs from Al’s tenure are still bringing him regular royalty payments from the reissued compact disc versions of the early recordings.

“They’re just going on tour at the moment, to mark the anniversary of the British Steel album.” says Al.

“They’re playing the complete album plus classics, and one of the classics they’re doing is Victim of Changes, which is one of the songs I co-wrote. So that’ll bring me a few more pounds in I hope!” But while Ken and Ian were busy working the latest incarnation of Judas Priest into the worldbeaters they would eventually become, Al was busy at a different type of work. He got a job in a cost office, and then at Guest Motors in West Bromwich; anything to support the family.

But he couldn’t give up music altogether, and his next project was a band called Lion.

Back came old mate Bruno Stapenhill, along with local guitar wizard Harry Tonks, and Willenhall drummer Pete Boot, who had had enough of touring with Budgie despite success and critical acclaim, and was back in the Black Country.

“We’d been doing some jazz-fusion stuff, but in came Pete, who’d just left Budgie, and said ‘No, no, no Al, lets go back to what we used to do’. We had a knock, out went the congas and it was a great band. For me it was much better than Judas Priest, because we’d gained so much experience over the years.” Punks Things went so well in fact that there came a point where Al once again packed in his job to dedicate himself fully to rock’n’roll. Lion shared bills with two big name bands from London, the Sex Pistols and The Stranglers, but ironically it was the punk music these two were peddling that spelled the end for Lion. Suddenly the type of rock that had been all the rage throughout the seventies was deemed alarmingly old hat by a new generation of music fans. Lion folded, and aside from writing some songs in his spare time, Al pretty much turned his back on music for most of the next decade.

He divorced and lived in various parts of Europe. Then, in the late eighties, he was asked to record an album of ‘acoustic rock’ for a German record company, and sold a few thousand copies in that country, which has always retained its taste for the type of music which Al’s native land had gone distinctly cool on.

After all this time, things were beginning to look up again. Gull, Judas Priest’s original record label, asked Al to do an album of heavier stuff, more in the mode of that band, and r e c e n t l y h e h a s recorded a couple of the songs he wrote with them all those years ago. Al acknowledges he is trading on his past a bit, but he can shift a few thousand more copies if he does, and at his time of life he’s not as worried by that as he once would have been.

And there is clearly plenty of interest in ‘Al A t k i n s , e x - J u d a s Priest’. At a recent show with his new band The Holy Rage in Dudley, he was aware of a contingent of travelling fans.

Fans “A Polish chap rode up on his motorbike from London with his girlfriend.” says Al. “I told Sam, the club’s owner, about him and he said, ‘see the four guys with the beards and hair at the bar? They’ve come over from Germany to see you.’ It’s amazing.” American rock fans are just as keen. Al has toured the east coast of America in recent years, playing to thousands who are thrilled to see someone with connections to one of their favourite bands, and he has been interviewed on several music channels both in the States and Europe.

“I couldn’t believe it when I went to America last time.” he enthused. “People know me out there. I was signing autographs and people were taking pictures. I thought this is nothing like England, where they go, ‘Who?’ So does he ever feel any bitterness about what might have been? “It was 1980 that really made them household names, and I saw them at the Odeon in Birmingham. It was hard, I suppose, thinking there’s a band that I’d helped form doing really well and ‘why not me!’” Al laughs.

“But Rob Halford was an incredible vocalist, his range was phenomenal.

I think if he’d been a lesser vocalist, and I’d thought I could do better I’d have been really frustrated, but no. I’ve got a lot of respect for the band b e c a u s e t h e y ’ v e worked really hard over the last forty years.” He seems to have more pride for them than envy. And though he doesn’t see that much of them these days, Ian Hill, who along with Ken Downing is the only remaining link with the band’s original incarnation, did Al the favour of writing a lengthy introduction for his new book.

Then, out of the blue, came another voice from the dim and distant past. Albert Hinton, the guitarist who left the Bitta Sweet for a new life in Australia, called Al a few weeks ago and announced that he was on his way over, and would Al get the rest of the band together for a drink? After forty years, this was a tall order. Bruno Stapenhill lives in Devon, drummer Lawrence Farley (always Losser to his mates) sadly died three years ago, and Brian Fieldhouse has been unwell of late.

But Al got together with Albert, Ken Ford, and Lawrence’s wife and daughter, Noreen and Susan to chat about those far-off times. A lot has happened in the forty years since Al and Albert last sat together with a pint.

Bitta Sweet memories indeed.

Al’s book ‘Dawn of the Metal Gods’ is available now. For details of how to obtain a copy, visit Al’s website: www.alatkins.com, or call the Bugle for further details. Al and his band will be performing at The Public Arts Centre in West Bromwich on Nov 14th.

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