Ben Bentley meets a golfing guitarist whose hobby strikes a chord
With his pin-skinny frame and long-flowing locks, KK Downing, the guitarist with heavy metal legends Judas Priest, looks every inch the rock star.
So it is slightly disconcerting when at Astbury Hall – his sprawling mansion near Bridgnorth – KK, who is known offstage more simply as Ken, reveals the extremes of his excesses these days – a leisurely game of golf.
In fact, he loves the sport so much so that he is building a world-class golf course within the grounds of his estate.
It seems hardly a conventional thing to do, but then KK is a rock star for whom the unconventional and the conventional have become happy bedfellows.
Appropriately, my first encounter with the six-string legend is heroically un-rock’n’roll. Earlier as I try to find his home for our appointment, I come across a bloke in a wide-brimmed hat driving a golf buggy.
“Are you looking for me?” he says. “KK Downing?” I ask.
I follow him into the hallway of a huge Victorian farmhouse where he kicks off his boots and pops on a pair of slippers. Again, it’s hardly rock ’n roll; I ask if I should take my shoes off.
“No, just give them a good wipe,” he says brightly and leads me through to his sitting room which overlooks the undulating landscape of Astbury Hall’s picture-perfect golf course.
It’s a home fit for a rock star who has sold more than 35 million albums worldwide – and is still selling them by the barrowload. Judas Priest are still going strong and touring the world with Whitesnake as part of the ‘British Steel’ tour.
But it’s to Astbury Hall that KK returns to recharge his batteries. Here he can blast his Marshall amps as loudly as he wants. The neighbours won’t be complaining – he has no neighbours.
Despite having lived in Los Angeles, Hawaii and Florida, and having travelled the world more times than he’s probably been to a supermarket, Ken remains doggedly down to earth. Even the Midlands accent that can be traced back to his childhood upbringing in Walsall is still detectable as he explains how his love of golf was inspired, appropriately, by a night of rock excess.
“I remember in about ’81 or ’82 being on tour in America with a young, up-and-coming band by the name of Def Leppard. We were tanking it up in a bar with them on a day off and the challenge went out for a golf match between Def Leppard and Priest,” says Ken.
“We kind of fancied ourselves more as tennis players, but we got on a tee the next day, hangovers and all, and they well and truly kicked our butts.”
Despite this he adds: “From that point on it seemed to be a good thing to do on a day off. It helped me relax. Golf has helped me keep my sanity.”
Despite the nomadic lifestyle peculiar to rock stars, Ken went on the hunt for a base not too far from his Midlands roots.
“It became common sense to buy a property of your own and a few of us acquired homes in the south of Spain. I came here in 1985 – a long time. It was the house really that I liked. Before I came here I had a tiny semi in Bloxwich as my first house, but the deal was that there was bus stop outside it, and when we started doing Top of the Pops in the late ’70s people used to get off the bus and walk up the garden path for an autograph.
“I would be in the window eating a bacon sandwich and there’d be fans looking in through the window. I was into classic cars. I actually had a Rolls-Royce when I was living at Bloxwich so it really was time to go.”
He needed somewhere big enough to put all his worldly wares in one place because he’d been renting garages for “old cars and stuff”. And so he fell for Astbury Hall, a 19th-century farmhouse that had been run by the Jenks family of Bridgnorth.
Originally it was run as an agricultural going concern, “which I attempted to do and it was good. It was all new to me but I was quick to learn. I had over 300 head of Friesians, and I was milking 111 with 11 dry. I went onto sheep farming and I was into pig farming at one point where I was crossing landrace with wild boar and doing quite well.”
But with ongoing farming issues, Ken decided the estate needed a new life and by the mid-’90s he began looking into the possibility of getting planning permission to develop a golf course for members.
“Having played so many golf courses around the world I was always thinking about it, how it would be very easy to put an exceptional golf course down here,” he explains.
“The location is aesthetically extremely beautiful – it’s not chimney pots, is it? It has to be good enough for people to want to join and accept the travel time to want to come here.
“And it’s hard to find golf courses of a standard I’ve been accustomed to playing anywhere in the world.
“We all see these wonderful golf tournaments on television being played at Pebble Beach, Sawgrass and Augusta National, and to bring a little bit of that to Shropshire would be very nice.”
Nine holes are finished. The next nine will be completed at the end of the summer ready to be played next season when Ken will be offering full membership and opportunity for members to acquire holiday homes on the estate in the form of barn conversions and top-of-the-market lodge facilities.
He concedes: “It seems a bit crazy but I’m not into windsurfing or snorkelling. There’s only so many things you can get enjoyment out of but if anyone hasn’t tried golf I think they should because when you are out there all your troubles go – it cleanses your mind because all you are focusing on is hitting that bloody little ball and getting it to go in a straight line.”
The hard-rocking, hard-golfing lifestyle is a far cry from the impoverished one he endured as a boy. But Ken is a self-made man who has remained so level-headed precisely because as a kid growing up after the war he had nothing.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “I left school when I was 15 and because I’d suffered and never had anything that other kids had I was determined that I was going to have that, and I had already made my mind up that the way to get it was to work hard.”
He worked as a trainee chef and even says he enjoyed working in a gents’ outfitters, but then in the late 1960s he saw Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival and everything changed. He picked up the guitar and began a journey that would take him beyond his wildest dreams.
Ken formed Judas Priest in 1969 and vans, gigs and sleepless nights followed. Ken admits to a touch of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but his work ethic prevailed.
“I knew that if you started throwing televisions out of hotel windows you were going to go backwards in life. We were pretty good. It was a long, slow climb for the band but before we knew it we were playing with Led Zeppelin at the Oakland Coliseum, California, and doing all these tours around the world – and still are today.
“There’s nothing quite like it, but I never wanted to be famous – I’m not too fussed.
“I’ve kept my feet on the ground, while I have seen people fall by the wayside in this business. Lots of good people should have done better, for lots of reasons: bad management, relationships, drugs, lots of reasons.”
But Ken has golf and being able to retreat to Astbury. With Judas Priest, Ken has just come off tour with thrash metal bands Megadeth and Testament and admits it can be odd coming back to sleepy Shropshire.
“It is weird,” he says. “I’ve been going and coming from this place all my life and every time it’s like it’s reinventing itself. I have to reintroduce myself to everything. I go to the cupboard and say ‘I’m sure I bought some sugar – where is it?’”
Then Ken gets out a set of clubs, steps out on the green and normal life is resumed.
• For more information about Astbury Hall golf course visit www.astburyhall.co.uk