Dodging flying beer bottles and sidestepping brawling hooligans isn’t everybody’s idea of fun.
Biff Byford and the boys of Son of a Bitch, precursors to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends Saxon, always found trouble in one particular live venue in the northeast of England – in the industrial town of Burnley – called the Bank Hall Miners Club, but that didn’t stop them from playing there as often as they could.
As the lanky Saxon front man recalls, “The money was good.” And it had to be, because there was a real possibility that one or all of them could wind up in the hospital after the gig.
“It was a club for miners, as the miners had their own club,” says Byford. “That was pretty hard actually. That was a pretty hard place. There used to be fights there every time we played – not because of the band, but because there were two gangs that used to stand across each side of the room looking at each other, and then at some point, they’d all charge at each other and that would be the end of the concert. So yeah, it was a bit rough. It was like ‘The Blues Brothers,’ where they’re throwing pots and bits of beer at the band and things.”
Even for young men craving rock ‘n’ roll excitement and even danger, the violence of the Bank Hall Miners Club was a bit much. Byford and Son of a Bitch, though, had to make a buck. And, regardless of the trials and tribulations of barnstorming England in a cramped van and performing at clubs and bars where many of the patrons might want to take a swing at them, it beat the hell out of working in the mines.
“When I was 17 or 18, I was working in the coal mines,” says Byford. “It was difficult. It was really hard work. When you’re that young, you’ve got mates in there, and I wasn’t in there for very long. It was a dangerous place. But, yeah, I know what it’s like to work hard for everything.”
Perhaps that’s why Son of a Bitch, and later Saxon, originally had such a large following in working-class communities in the north of England and in South Wales, landscapes once dominated by factories and “cut off from the south,” the more pastoral area of Britain, as Byford says.
“I suppose people just wanted to go out on a Friday or Saturday night and have a great time and just watch a great band,” says Byford. “All these little villages or towns had clubs or bars, and we used to play them. You could play one every night for a month. And that’s what we did.”
The song “Stand Up and Fight,” off Saxon’s newest LP Sacrifice, out on the UDR label, speaks to the struggles they encountered before the tsunami known as NWOBHM swept through the U.K. If the raging thrash and thundering traditional metal of Sacrifice – as well as other recent efforts like 2011’s Call to Arms, 2009’s Into the Labyrinth and 2007’s Inner Sanctum – is any indication, Saxon has rediscovered the passionate intensity and raw energy that made their early ‘80s albums such classics.
Making a ‘Sacrifice’
Sacrifice is Saxon’s 20th album, and for the occasion, Byford decided to take the con. Or, in other words, he assumed the role of producer, and he wasn’t shy about giving out orders.
“I just really wanted to make an album that I liked and not be beholden to the people who are not doing it,” says Byford. “The fans are quite happy with that, so that was good … there are no ballads, just good rock music, just good metal music. That’s what I wanted to do.”
The plan was to revisit Saxon’s most revered albums – the early ‘80s holy trinity of Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather – for inspiration, while incorporating the balls-out, crash-and-burn mayhem of the thrash-metal titans of today who were weaned on NWOBHM.
“I mean, we went back to the ‘80s a little bit for two or three of the songs, just to figure out what made us great,” explains Byford. “I think ‘Warriors of the Road’ and ‘Stand Up and Fight’ are sort of thrash-metal-y like the ‘80s were, and yeah, I just wanted to play with Marshalls and Gibsons really, and just play and not rely too much on too many digital tricks and just play like it is really. Some of the stuff is quite modern, like ‘Made in Belfast’ is a really heavy song, with the Celtic sort of style. We were experimenting as well, but yeah, I wanted the songs to have that kind of push like it was just recorded yesterday, but still have that one foot in the past.”
Infused with Irish folk accents, “Made in Belfast” certainly has historical significance.
“It was originally just a heavy riff and a melodic turn,” says Byford, referring to how the song was constructed. “I wanted it to have a Celtic feel to it, so we went and Paul Quinn wrote the more Celtic part of the beginning and we put it in the song. We liked it that much and it’s in all the bridges of the song. And in Belfast, not the song but the city, I went to see the museum, the Titanic museum. And I just thought it would be nice to write a song for the people that worked on the ships really, rather than those who were [passengers] on the Titanic.”
“Walking the Steel” also expresses empathy for the plight of the working man, although this time it’s the construction being done on One World Trade Center – one of the new towers being built on the old site of the former World Trade Center, which was destroyed by the 9/11 terrorists – that stirred Byford’s imagination.
“I went to Ground Zero in 2011, and we saw the progress being made on the towers, and we were talking to a couple of guys there,” says Byford. “And they called it ‘walking the steel,’ when they worked up there in the clouds.”
Available as a standard jewel case CD, a limited-edition deluxe digibook, a vinyl picture disc, a digital download that comes with a bonus song or in a direct-to-consumer fan package, Sacrifice was mastered by in-demand producer Andy Sneap, who has worked on a number of recent high-profile metal releases.
“We’ve known him for quite some time, and we wanted to work together a little bit last year, or the year before, but couldn’t get to it. He had a little bit of time free ‘cause the Killswitch [Engage] album was delayed a few weeks. So, I asked him if he wanted to mix the album, and he said he’d love to mix the album. So, that’s how it happened really, just over e-mail. He came down to the studio to talk a couple of times, while I was recording the band, and we came up with a plan.”
Giving Sacrifice that contemporary feel was important for Byford, as songs like the title track have the heaviness and raw power he imagined it would, while retaining that classic Saxon sound.
“I’m a bit mixed really. I love the melodic stuff, but I also love the heavy stuff as well,” admits Byford. “I guess I’m a bit of a hybrid really. I love the melodic stuff – ‘747’ from the early albums – but I also like ‘Motorcycle Man’ and ‘Princess of the Night,’ so I’m a bit of a sucker for it all really.”
And he’s in absolute awe of the guitar work of Quinn and Doug Scarratt on the latest record, as well as the performances of the band as a whole.
“The musicianship of this band is great,” says Byford. “So it’s a lot easier to go to different places with this band than it was with any other band. So, yeah, it’s great this time. It’s really inspirational.”
Back in the 1970s, Byford only had to witness the tough lives of his fellow miners to give himself the push he needed to make it as a musician.
In 1976, Byford, guitarists Quinn and Graham Oliver, bassist Steve “Dobby” Dawson and drummer David Ward – who would soon be replaced by Pete Gill – formed what would become Saxon in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, only they started out as Son of a Bitch. They toured England relentlessly, as is recounted in the 2012 Saxon documentary film “Heavy Metal Thunder.” The venues weren’t exactly posh settings.
Part of the excitement involved having copious amounts of sex with groupies in the band’s van – which also housed their gear – after a gig. Their one-night stands occasionally caused them headaches.
“You had to have a good pair of running shoes to get out of the way,” jokes Byford. “There was always somebody’s girlfriend that liked one of the band members, and you had to get out pretty quickly.”
While the U.K. club circuit provided Saxon, who ditched the name Son of a Bitch fairly early on, all the thrills and excitement they could stand, they had bigger dreams. And they had no intention of being just a covers band, which only served to rile audiences.
“In the early days, we used to do like three sets,” recalls Byford. “We used to stop and have a break and then start again. And usually by the end of the set, all of them were pretty rough actually. And we really didn’t do cover songs back then. So a lot of people used to ask for ‘Smoke on the Water’ and all (laughs). And we said, ‘We don’t play that.’ And then they’d usually riot, you know what I mean? After a while, people would come to see us because we were a good band then, so we actually got on a little bit easier as time went on.”
Securing support spots on tours with bigger bands, including Motorhead, gained them much-needed exposure and expanded their fan base.
“It was our first tour,” says Byford, referring to Saxon’s opening gigs with Motorhead. “I mean, they were pretty big then in the U.K. at the time. So, yeah, we jumped on their tour. It was great actually. They helped us out a lot – telling fans to buy our records and things. They were really cool about it. They were great.”
Gaining momentum, Saxon got signed to the French record label Carrere, which put out their self-titled debut in 1979. Carrere, however, would experience financial difficulties, and when the label went under, Saxon was homeless. It wouldn’t take them long to find another label, and in 1980, they released Wheels of Steel, which yielded the singles “747,” the title track and “Suzie Hold On.”
So began a period of intense creativity and ceaseless touring, with Saxon appearing at the very first Monsters of Rock concert on Aug. 16, 1980.
“We’d just gotten Wheels of Steel in the charts,” says Byford. “I think it had just gone gold in the U.K. So we went onstage … and it just was crazy, with 80,000 people going nuts, singing all the songs. Yeah, it was great. It was quite emotional for us. It was the first time we played to more than 2,000 people.”
On the road, Saxon encountered larger audiences and they were frothing at the mouth for something different. Much to their surprise, Saxon found itself at the vanguard of a burgeoning movement. NWOBHM was happening, and Saxon was taking notice “straight away really,” says Byford.
“It’s not like the U.S. It’s not like a massive country,” he adds. “In the U.K., it happened pretty quickly for us – two or three big magazines got a hold of it and gave us some fantastic reviews. You know, we played quite a few shows in the early days of Maiden, like at Manchester University and places like that. And yeah, it was a bit of a melting pot of bands really. I remember we played with a band called Samson back then. Bruce Dickinson was their singer, so I got to meet Bruce fairly early on as well.”
This conflagration of heavy metal and punk rock, combining speed and all-out aggression, was sweeping across England, as Saxon’s compatriots like Diamond Head, Budgie, Angel Witch, Girlschool, Motorhead, Tygers of Pan Tang and, of course, Iron Maiden blew the doors off the entire country.
“There was definitely a massive change in the size of audiences that had interest in the band,” says Byford. “I really think the magazines were a bit fed up with this punk thing. I just think they wanted something new to write about. And we were in the right place at the right time with some great songs.”
Humility aside, Saxon made it, at least in part, because of their insane work ethic. Striking while the iron was as hot as it could ever be, Saxon took whatever studio time they could get when they weren’t on the road. While Wheels of Steel was still going strong, Saxon released perhaps its finest recording, Strong Arm of the Law, which featured the title track and “Dallas 1 p.m.,” a song about John F. Kennedy.
“We were just very, very sort of inspired really,” says Byford. “We were just writing the first things that came into our heads. You know, they were great really. We had to work on the songs and get them sounding great – you know, with the arrangements. But generally, we’d have an idea and carry on with it and it worked out to be a fantastic idea – like ‘Dallas 1 p.m.,’ you know, I just sat down and wrote it. I said to the guys, ‘I’ve got this idea about writing a song about the Kennedy assassination and about when he was younger.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ And we had this riff flying around, and we put the two together and it worked fantastically. So, I think that song probably took about two hours, from the original idea to the finished song.”
Not every song came together as fast as that one for Saxon, but with their touring schedule having expanded worldwide, having a hit in Japan with “Motorcycle Man,” there was less and less time for recording. Saxon didn’t mind the work.
“We’d actually not been out of the country before 1980, and most of us had never been on a plane,” says Byford.
Though they were spending more time on the road and in the air, Saxon didn’t do much songwriting away from the studio.
“Not many. Not many. I think we probably wrote ‘Princess of the Night’ on the road,” says Byford. “I can’t really remember many that we wrote. I got a lot of ideas for lyrics on the road, but I can’t remember writing one song on the road really. The guitarist might try something at sound check, and it would come out way too long, but generally, we just went into the room on Day 1 and started writing the album.”
With an ever-shrinking window to record, Saxon banged out another seminal record in 1981 with the fan favorite Denim and Leather, the title track of which has been a rallying cry for many metal fans ever since then. “Princess of the Night” was on Denim and Leather, and it was one of the band’s most successful singles, but in the aftermath, Saxon’s united front started to crack, as Gill departed and was replaced by Nigel Glockler for an upcoming tour.
Still formidable, Saxon kept their foot on the gas, releasing one of metal’s greatest live albums in The Eagle Has Landed. They were headlining tours of their own and supporting superstars like Ozzy Osbourne. And they brought down the house at 1982’s Monsters of Rock Festival. The tide, however, was turning ever so slowly against Saxon, as the glam-metal outbreak spread and NWOBHM started to fade.
Despite it all, Saxon released Power & the Glory in 1983, and it surpassed their previous best in sales. What nobody knew then was that Saxon was about to undergo earthshaking changes.
‘Crusader’ for truth
1984 saw Saxon sign with EMI Records, and they kicked off their relationship with a new album in Crusader, a record that critics found a bit commercial but Byford never saw it that way. And the title track is still beloved by fans.
“It was a song [written] from the point of view of a young lad watching the soldiers go off to war,” says Byford. “And yeah, it’s just a historic song, and other people have all sorts of different interpretations, but it’s just a history song, like ‘Dallas 1 p.m.’ or ‘Made in Belfast.’”
There would be other new releases in the ‘80s, including 1985’s Innocence is No Excuse and 1986’s Rock the Nations, although they lost Dawson in the process. Paul Johnson was hired as Dawson’s replacement, but Saxon was growing weary of touring. In 1988, they released the commercial disappointment Destiny, and EMI dropped the band.
Not willing to give up the ghost, Saxon continued on into the ‘90s, signing with Virgin Records. But after recording Dogs of War in 1994, Oliver was dismissed for trying to sell recording of Saxon’s 1980 Donnington performance without the permission of the rest of the band. To this day, Oliver and Dawson haven’t been welcomed back to Saxon, although Byford has left the door open for reconciliation.
“I mean, never say never – we’ll see how it goes really,” says Byford.
These days, Saxon’s lineup includes Byford, Quinn, Glockler, Scarratt and Nibbs Carter, who replaced Johnson way back in 1988. And this version of the band has been on an incredible roll, with each succeeding album since The Inner Sanctum receiving ever-increasing critical acclaim. Sacrifice might be the best of the lot, and it’s going to give the Saxon fans in Metallica and Megadeth reason to up their game.
“I think those guys were really into the old attitude and concept of our albums then,” says Byford. “They were very sort of … no particular style, just great songs played full bore – you know, no holding back. So I think that’s what those bands from the U.S. sort of liked about us, that metal/punk sort of stuff. So, yeah, definitely – and I’m sure a lot of them will like two or three songs of this album.”
Odds are, they will.