He’d come to believe they’d run out of steam in terms of creativity, and he didn’t want to be part of an outfit that simply played on its past achievements. On top of that, he felt it would be impossible to create an iconic album like British Steel in the modern environment.
Downing surprised fans by bowing out in 2011 just as the metal gods announced their final large-scale world tour. They hired young gun Richie Faulkner in his place and are continuing work on a new album.
Now the guitarist – whose departure left bassist Ian Hill as the only original member – tells The Midlands Rocks: “I’ll never get away from this ‘retirement’ thing. What happened was that I quit.
“‘Retired’ implies that I am not physically able to do it. I am able to do it, but I didn’t want to do it; I just wasn’t enjoying it any more.
“A lot of things had changed. I think I counted about thirty reasons why I didn’t want to do it at the time, and that’s an awful lot of reasons.
“In all honesty I think that in so many respects it had run its course. If you’re part of a songwriting team you get the recognition and reward for creating something. But for me Priest became about going out and playing live and replicating exactly what people had enjoyed ten, twenty or thirty years ago.
“The fans would be just as happy if they could see us take them on a walk down memory lane – I think that’s what people enjoy most. And I understand that, because if I could go out now and see Eric Clapton with Cream then I would be the happiest person in the world.”
Once he felt there was no opportunity to “invent and create,” he also felt it was time to go. And that, in part, was to do with the changes in the industry over the past 15 years.
Downing reflects: “If the industry was still healthy and people still had to spend their hard-earned money buying a record, it would be different.
“We used to buy an album and think, ‘Well it’s not that good, but I’ll play it a million times and I’m sure I’ll get into it.’ Now it doesn’t get a second chance.
“In the past there was always the opportunity to create a record like The Dark Side Of The Moon or British Steel or Back In Black that would be indelible, and people will always come back to. I think that opportunity has gone now – it would take a miracle for one of those to happen again.”