Interview with drummer Les Binks
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: December 20, 2022
Let's get the facts straight. Former Judas Priest drummer, Les Binks, was an important part of the band from 1977 to 1979, playing on classic studio albums Killing Machine and Stained Class as well as the Unleashed in the East live album, which drove Les to the point of no return and he resigned from the Priest camp (apart from a momentary return on November 5, 2022). After his departure, he toured with Lionheart and Tytan from 1981-83, and did many other things.
Around 2017-18 Les got the idea to return to some of the Priest material he was involved with, so he formed a new outfit called Les Binks' Priesthood, which is quite a logical name, following the same play as KK's Priest. Since then he has mainly done gigs in England with Priesthood, but also played a one-off gig in France in June 2019.
Les was about to come to Finland back in 2019 for the very first time, but COVID delayed his plans while the whole world was at a standstill due to all the restrictions that the pandemic caused in societies around the globe. He finally made it to Finland on November 19, 2022, playing a gig at an event called Classic Rock and Metal Meeting at On the Rocks, Helsinki. The lineup of Les Binks' live band was pretty interesting, to say the least, and you can read all about it via the following interview.
First off, a warm welcome to Finland, Les.
Les: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
What's your relationship with Finland, either current or past?
Les: Well, this is the first time I've been to Finland.
Les: Yes. Been pretty much all over Europe but managed to miss this one. It's the first time for everything. I'm very happy to be here. I wish I had a little more time, but I fly back tomorrow. I only got here yesterday and my whole day has been full of interviews, rehearsing, and all that kind of thing, so I haven't had a minute to myself the whole time I've been here.
Lucky you, you witnessed the first glimpse of snow this morning here in Helsinki....
Les: Yes, the first thing I noticed was how cold it was. Because back in London where I live, it's still fairly mild. I think we haven't had freezing temperatures yet. That will probably happen next month or January. Just coming here and the sudden drop in temperature is a bit of a shock to the system.
It may be that some in the new generation of metalheads might not know who Les Binks is, so can you tell us how you end up joining Judas Priest in March 1977?
Les: Sure. Okay. I think a lot of it had to do with Roger Glover, the bass player from Deep Purple. I had played on a solo album that he made called The Butterfly Ball. That album featured pretty much everybody that was involved at the time in Deep Purple. We had guest appearances from Ian Gillan and Jon Lord played on some of the stuff. We did a live concert to promote the album at the Royal Albert Hall. Ronnie Dio sang on the album and he was supposed to perform live, then he got the job with Rainbow.
He was whisked away to do that and replaced with Ian Gillan and David Coverdale was also involved. Who's the other bass player from Deep Purple? Can't think of his name right now... sorry. Anyway, Roger was hired to produce Judas Priest's first album for CBS, which was Sin After Sin. There were problems when they started to record it. They had a bust-up with the drummer, who walked out. Suddenly, they're in Ramport Studios in London, I think, and have no drummer to record the album.
They made a mistake because they'd hired Roger and then they decided somewhere along the line that they would rather produce it themselves. They tried to record their album, unproduced it themselves, and had a fallout with the drummer who walked out. Suddenly, everything ground to a halt. The studio was all booked and everything. There was a panic call to Roger. "Can you come back and help us out? We haven't even got a drummer." Simon Phillips was hired. We were both doing the session scene at the time in London.
I remember going into a studio in London and doing a session for someone, I can't remember who it was, but the engineer was setting up mics around my kit. He said to me, ''We had this drummer in last week and he had so many drums. We didn't have enough mics for his kit, so we had to send out and buy some more.'' I said, ''Oh, yes. Who was that?" His name was Simon Phillips. Simon was about 19 at the time. Simon was brought in to record the album and he was going on tour with the Jack Bruce Band that he was committed to.
He wasn't interested in joining the band permanently. He just did the album, took his session fees for it, and got on with other things. They had a British tour lined up, and then a trip to America for the first time, and still no drummer. They got back to Roger again, and Roger recommended me. I went along, they sent me a prerelease copy of the album to learn the material. I had to learn all Simon's parts. We went off on tour together. That was the first time.
That was the Sin After Sin tour, the first trip to America, where we opened for Led Zeppelin at Oakland Coliseum. The very last show that they did on that tour because Robert Plant's little boy died. They had to cancel the rest of the tour. Robert flew back to the UK to deal with that situation.
1978 - KILLING MACHINE
My first introduction to Priest was when I heard the band's Killing Machine album back in 1978 when I was just a 10-year-old brat. I remember that album was my first love when talking about heavy metal music in general, and it changed everything about what I felt about was good music. Can you recall what kind of a process it was to get that album done, from the first rehearsals up to the point when you were actually recording the album?
Les: Well, a lot of things have changed since then, technologically. We have had the digital revolution. Everything's computerized. We have ProTools now. Nothing's going on to tape anymore, everything's going on hard drives. You walk into a studio and all you see are computer screens. It was all very different when I was with the band, and I preferred it that way because we would go into a rehearsal studio first, and all the guys would have ideas for songs or even complete songs.
We'd work together on them, work out the arrangements, everyone would put in their suggestions. Everybody played a part. I was left completely free to decide on what drum parts to play for each song. There was a lot of input, musically creative input from each member of the band. Then quite often, we would demo the songs before going into a studio with a producer. That helped a lot because once you demoed the songs, you could then play them to the producer before you went into a proper studio. These are the songs we want. This is what the album's going to sound like. Only we want it to sound better than this when we do it in a proper studio because we just use a little demo studio. That's the big difference. Now, people go into the studio and quite often, the tracks are put down using a click track or using programmed drums to begin with. Then the drummer will go in afterwards and add his drums to the tracks, which are already laid down.
It limits you as a drummer. It limits the input you have into the material. You're adding it on at the end, rather than being involved from the beginning. I prefer the old-school approach.
OF BEING YOUNG AND CREATIVE - STAINED CLASS
Priest also put out Stained Class in 1978, which once again, underlined the fact that the band was truly on fire as far as the quality of the songs on the album is concerned. You wrote the epic and very powerful "Beyond the Realms of Death" for that album, together Steve Mann from Michael Schenker Group helping you on guitar. Was that song easy to write from start to finish?
Les: Steve lives in Germany these days. I think he lives in Munich. I think that's where he is. That was before the Michael Schenker period, obviously.
He was living in West London near where I live. We knew Matt and we knew each other, and I loved his guitar playing. I had met a home demo of "Beyond the Realms of Death". It wasn't titled yet because I didn't want to write the lyrics because Rob had a certain role in writing lyrics and a style of writing only he could do. I thought, "Well, I'll present the song and leave it to Rob to come up with the lyrics and therefore the title of the song."
I wanted to put a guitar solo on the demo and I rang up Steve and asked, ''Can you come around to my place and put a guitar solo on this demo for me that I've made?'' That's what he did. He wasn't involved in writing the song. He just came around to help me put a little solo on it. Then, of course, when I handed it over to the band, Glenn came up with that solo in the middle which was completely different from what Steve played on the demo. I really love the solo that Glenn came up with. It is very unique, has his stamp on it, and still sounds great today.
"Beyond..." is a pretty epic and powerful ballad type song. I was wondering if it took a lot of time and effort to write it?
Les: No, not really. I had been up in Birmingham rehearsing with the band for the album. I came back to London. There was a little breathing space, and I thought to myself, "There's something missing from this album," because all the songs were pretty up tempo. We had "Exciter" in there as well, so I thought it would be nice to have a big rock ballad to provide a bit of light and shade, a bit of contrast between the other songs, especially when performing live. It's good to drop the tempo down a bit and then bring it back up again for the end of the show.
I decided to try and come up with a song, so I just picked up the acoustic guitar. I started messing around with that and came up with the opening chords of the song then I thought, "Well, we need a big, heavy, riffy sound in the middle to put the heavy metal stamp on it." I came up with the midsection and where the solo was going to go. Everything was pretty much written musically. I played the demo of the song to the band. They loved it. Rob went away and came back with the lyrics and the title for the song. It's a Judas Priest classic now and they still play it today.
Stained Class, which came out earlier that year, also contains many Priest classics that the band regularly plays live. Would you say each of you in the band was somehow super-creative back then as far as the songwriting process for these two albums were concerned? Was there a sort of near-perfect chemistry in the band back then?
Les: Well, we were all a lot younger and hungrier for success. Enthusiasm and commitment to the creative process in writing new material was at a peak. I've noticed that because of the changes in technology and recording techniques over the years, the way people write and perform songs has been affected. As I said before, I prefer the old-school approach where everyone goes into the studio together and plays live. If you get it wrong, you do it again.
If you can patch something up, then that's fine, but I think you can go too far down the road of relying on technology. We now have auto-tune so you can sing out of tune and then put it in the tune digitally. You have quantizing to correct things, timing-wise, all kinds of tricks that weren't available back in the '70s. Everyone was recording on tape then analog. Now, of course, bands are prepared to go out on tour and lose money because they are going to bring it back in all themselves.
Back then, the tour was a means of promoting the sales of an album that you had out. Now, it's the other way around because there used to be loads and loads of record stores, record shops in London, and it fascinated people to go in and flick through all the albums and find something that they were interested in and they would take it to the counter and they would say, "Can I listen to this please?" They'd put it on headphones. You could decide whether you wanted to buy it or not. All that went. I can't find a record shop anywhere near where I live.
Everything's downloads from the Internet and all that kind of stuff, streaming and all that kind of thing. It's radically changed the way that the recording industry works. There's not so much money now to be made from selling albums. It's turned the other way around. Most bands now make their living from touring, and that's the reason why ticket prices have gotten so high. The shows that Judas Priest are doing nowadays involve massive video screens on the back and all kinds of props on stage and a whole lighting system which is just over the top.
Of course, the amount of money that costs, and the crew to set that all up and dismantle it at the end of the show, move it onto the next town, is a lot. We know it wasn't like that when I was working with them. We had lights, of course. We had dry ice, we had smoke on stage, maybe a few strobe lights. That was it. Now, it's gone the other way and it's just a bit over the top, I think. When you think about bands like Led Zeppelin, who were massive in the USA, they just went on stage and performed. They didn't have all that.
People wanted to see the band perform. That was it. That was enough. If the music was good which it was, that was what people were there for. Now, you've got to be there for the whole razzmatazz, the whole light show, and the whole thing. You get bands like Pink Floyd who were one of the first bands to really start doing shows with big light shows, lasers and all that kind of thing. When you think of how they look when they perform, they're quite boring on stage. A lot of their songs are very slow and midtempo songs, they're not very up tempo.
There's not a lot to get excited about when you're visually watching the band, a band like Pink Floyd, so they had to distract the audience with all these laser lights and all kinds of stuff to make it more visually interesting. Personally, when I go, I'd rather just go along and see a band and rely on the musicianship. I'm there for the music rather than all the lights and stuff like that.
It's been 44 years since Stained Class came out, so if you look back and think of the musical impact that album has had on many heavy metal bands, I bet you feel f proud that you were a part of that album, which nowadays is considered one of the best albums Priest has ever recorded.
Les: I get asked about this a lot. Of course, at the time you're making these records, that's the last thing in your mind. You don't know how it's going to be received when it's released, never mind several years along the line. All your focus is on recording the stuff and making the sound the best you can at the time and hope that your fans and the audience is going to enjoy it, and hopefully, buy it. Suddenly, when you look back after so many years, you can see how it influenced other bands and so on.
For instance, the track "Exciter," seems to be acknowledged today as one of the first speed metal songs. I didn't think of that at the time. It's just something that evolved over a period of time.
THE UNLEASHED IN THE EAST EPISODE
Unleashed in the East was recorded at two different concerts in Japan in February 1979, but you also did two other shows over there during the same tour. Did you also record those other concerts?
Les: Well, there was just the one. That led to a bit of trouble for me because my situation was different from the other guys in the band. I wasn't directly contracted to CBS. When we went into the studio to make an album, I would sit down with the management. We would work out how I was going to receive payment for each piece of work I did. It's different for a live situation. Normally, when we were going in to record an album or going into the studio, we would work all that out ahead of time.
I would agree on that with our management in advance before we set foot in a studio. We went on tour in Japan, and I had an endorsement deal with Pearl Drums which were made in Japan. They delivered a new kit to the venue that we were playing. I went down in the afternoon with my drum tech to get the kit set up and tuned. Sounded right. I noticed that apart from the PA guys setting up mics and stuff on stage, there was another lot at the back of the venue with a 24-track mobile studio that were running cables and setting up mics to record the gig.
When I got back to the hotel, their manager, who was staying with us at the hotel in Tokyo, was a guy called Mike Dolan. I said, "Mike, what's happening about--? I believe they're going to record the show tonight." I said, "We haven't discussed recording. This is separate from the tour." He just missed it. He said, "Don't worry about it, Les. It's just for CBS, Sony's sake. If they want to do anything, we'll sort it out later on." We were in the middle of a tour. We were flying from Japan straight to the US for a three-month tour in America.
After we'd finished touring, we always took a break and then we would discuss writing new material and going back in the studio to make the next album. That's what I wanted to do because I wanted to get more involved in the writing. If we had made the next album, a studio album with new material, I would've probably had at least one song on that. That would've been the way I would've wanted to go.
The management called me into the office, said, "Les, we'll discuss the band's next move, what we're going to do next." I went in and I sat down with Mike Dolan and he said, "Les, the guys are all down at Startling Studios in Ascot, listening to the live recordings from Japan with Tom Allom." This was the first time they'd worked with Tom Allom. He said, "It's all sounding really good and we think that it could be the next album." I said, "Well, how come I wasn't invited down to the studio to listen to the performance? My drumming's on it."
I never had any say in whether this should be the next album or not. "Are you happy with your performance on this for us to put it out?" I wasn't consulted, so I felt I was being treated differently from everyone else. I felt like a glorified roadie rather than a member of the band. Then he comes out with the bone crusher; the thing that made me see red. He said, "Les, after the British tour, the bands ended up in the red financially, so we think it would be a nice gesture on your behalf if you were to waive your fees on this occasion."
In other words, not take any payment for the live album, which was the ultimate insult to me.
I can well imagine how you must have felt at that time...
Les: I always kept the business side separate from the creative side with a plan. I never discussed money with the band. I always left that to the management. I just kept the creative side with the band. I didn't want to get involved in anything else with the band other than the creative side. When he suggested this, I just saw red and I thought, "All right, that's it." To start off, I didn't want to go back out on tour playing the same material that was on the live album because it was all the same stuff from the last tour. There's nothing fresh.
When you've been playing that for months and months on end, you need to think, "Well, okay, it's time for something new now," but they went back on tour with Dave Holland playing the stuff off on the Unleashed... album. That was basically it. I decided I can't do business anymore with this guy. He's a crook. He's trying to rip me off. I just walked away. I was very angry. No words were spoken between me and the band. I was a little disappointed as well. In those days, no one had cell phones like they have today, smartphones, iPhones. You couldn't just pick up the phone and immediately send them. They were all at this studio, probably staying in a hotel locally. I didn't have a direct contact number for them, but they knew my home number and no one phoned me and said, "Les, Mike, our manager has told us that you've left the band. What's the reason? Is there something or somebody that upset you or what's happened?" They never contacted me and I thought, "Well, I'm not going to bother contacting and them either."
I just felt so angry. I thought, "I've had enough of this, it's time to do something else."
Fast forward to 2017 when you started to play some classic Priest songs live again under the name, Les Binks' Priesthood. Where did you get the idea of sinking your teeth deeper into some of the classic Priest songs and start playing them as "covers," 38 years later after your departure from the band?
Les: I don't call it a cover band or a tribute band because most tribute bands play material from the whole band's career. I didn't want to do that. Most tribute bands don't have any original members who played on the records, who co-wrote the songs. My project came about as a one-off. It wasn't supposed to be a regular working band. I got to a point in my life where I just wanted to do selective gigs and stuff that I thought would be fun to do. Quite often in this industry, you're signed up to do this and that and the other and it's not necessarily what you really want to do. I wanted to cut out all the crap and just do something I wanted to do. I thought this could be enjoyable, this could be fun to do. I narrowed it down to that. The initial thing was we were asked to do a show called "Legends of Rock," which has lots of other bands and they asked me if I would do something from my era with Judas Priest. I thought, "Well, who do I get to perform this stuff with?" I'd known a couple of guitar players that I had been working with in other situations who I thought would be suitable for it. I had a bass player and I had a singer.
I had problems getting a singer who could sing that range because Rob had quite a high range, as you know. I didn't want someone who sounded just like Rob. I just wanted someone who had the vocal range that Rob had, so they could sing those songs comfortably. He could be a really good singer and have a really nice voice, but if you don't have that range, then your voice sounds strained when you try to reach those notes. The first guy I had didn't quite work out, and I got another guy in called Matt Young, who's brilliant.
He has the vocal range. He doesn't sound like Rob, but I didn't want that. I wanted somebody who had the vocal range to sing the songs and had their own personality and their own way of doing things. That's the difference with my band. I don't go beyond my era. I just play the songs that people know me for.
ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME THING
On November 5, 2011, you rejoined Priest to perform three songs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Los Angeles, CA. Was it a magical moment for you, bringing the Priest family back together again, if you will, after 43 years?
Les: It was a bit surreal because this all came out of the blue. Priest had been put forward for this award. Nominated, I think is the word, three times in total. The first two times, they didn't get through. Third time lucky. It's up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to decide who they're going to induct. They looked back on the band's career. It has to go back as far as 25 years. They say who's been influential on the creative side of things and the band's legacy has to form, what's the word, the band's identity and led to the success that they achieved.
They included me on that. They recognized me on that level, which is good. Of course, KK, who was one of the finer members of the band, left in 2011. We were both included. I think there was some nervousness on the management side of things as to how the reunion with KK would go because there's been a lot of anguish between the two sides. I spoke to KK before. We flew together to Los Angeles and flew back together. We just decided, we are here at the invitation of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let's just be professional about this, just bite your tongue and just get on with giving the audience the performance they came to see. That's what we did.
I hadn't seen them for such a long time. I gave them all a big hug because I never fell out with anyone in the band. I fell out with the band's management, but not with them. I never had any cross words or any problems with anyone in the band personality-wise or creatively. I know there were issues that KK had, especially with Glenn and the management as well, but I didn't have those issues. I was able to reunite with the guys in the band without any problems at all.
Of course, I know Richie Faulkner from long before he joined Judas Priest. It was good to see him again because he lives in America now as well, so I don't get to see him very often. It was nice to get to meet up with everyone again and actually perform together.
Where did the idea for an all-Finnish lineup that you will be performing with tonight come from?
Les: Yes, this is something I was asked to do way back in 2019. Of course, the pandemic came along, and everything was canceled or put on hold. It's only now that it's been reinstated. I've never been to Finland before. I thought it was an opportunity to come over here and meet some of the fans. This is a meet-and-greet thing. It's not just a regular gig, where you go along, watch a performance, and then go home. It's an opportunity to meet some of the fans, do some signings, answer any questions they have, and perform some of the songs that I'm known for.
I never worked with these guys before, they're all Finnish guys. I had a little brief, very brief rehearsal with them last night.
Just one rehearsal?
Les: One rehearsal, yes. I could all fall apart, who knows so fingers crossed, fingers crossed. It'll be okay on the night, but it'll be the first and last time that I've worked with these guys, just for this one event.
Okay. I know these guys also very well and they are all experienced musicians, so you should be in a good company with them.
Les: Right. Okay. I'm glad I have your confidence.
That's all I had in mind for this chat, so thanks a lot for your time, Les, and wishing you all the best for your show here in Helsinki tonight.
Les: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here in Finland for the first time.
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