THE STORY SO FAR... Saxon’s beginning goes back to 1974, with the birth of Son Of A Bitch, a Yorkshire band who went through the usual musical chairs nonsense, before signing a deal in 1979 with French label Carrere. By this time, the line-up featured Peter ‘Biff’ Byford on vocals, guitarists Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn, bassist Steve Dawson [he and Oliver had started Son Of A Bitch] and former Glitter Band drummer Pete Gill. However, objections to their name in the US forced a change to Saxon. The band’s self-titled debut, produced by John Verity [with whom both Biff and Quinn had briefly played] was arguably the first NWOBHM album, being released in the late Summer of 1979. It didn’t exactly set the world – or the charts – on fire. But the stage was set for something spectacular, namely their second album, Wheels Of Steel.
The Story Behind: Saxon - Wheels Of Steel
With the release of their second album at the start of the 80s, Saxon pointed the way for the future of metal.
“How do I view that record? It’s obviously a classic. But, more than that, it saved our career,” says Biff with that familiar Yorkshire burr. “What you have to remember is that the first album had only sold about 12,000 copies, mainly to hardcore Son Of A Bitch fans. And, to be honest, it wasn’t very good. So, Carrere made it plain to us that, unless we did a lot better on the next record, we’d be dropped. They weren’t looking to sell huge amounts of copies, just for a big improvement. So we were under pressure from the start.”
The band were sent up to Wales to get together songs for the album, an experience that seems a little removed from the usual rock’n’roll tedium.
“It was a really wacky time,” laughs the singer. “Our management [Bleckner-Poxon] packed us off to a hut in the Welsh mountains, with about £15 between us. It was a weird area, because we were surrounded by loads of vegans living in tepees! We used to really wind them up, by ordering loads of meat to be delivered. So, we’d be in the hut with all these people just staring at us through the window, completely bemused.”
Aside from making friends with the locals, Saxon did actually get an extraordinary amount of work done, in a matter of a few weeks. The first two songs they wrote were to be the linchpin of the whole project: “We got Wheels Of Steel and 747 (Strangers In The Night) done quite quickly. And then everything just seemed to flow. By the end we knew that we were in a state of grace. The songs we had were not only the best we could have done, but perfect for the time. I think every successful band has that moment when they just get ‘in the zone’, and for us it arrived in Wales!
“The song ‘747...’ itself is often misunderstood. I’ve had people ask whether it’s about a plane crash. No. It’s actually two stories being linked. One was a love story, about two strangers meeting somewhere – an airport, a rail station, it doesn’t matter – and the other was a true story I’d read, about a plane trying to land in New York during a city-wide blackout in 1968. I just combined them.”
But, in many ways, the tough work lay ahead for the band. They now had to take those songs into the studio, and breathe loud life into them.
“We knew what we wanted, and that was the energy we had onstage. Somehow we had to make this happen. The guy who signed us to Carrere was Peter Hinton, and he was very keen on producing the album. What did we know? We were still very naïve, so all of us went along with the idea. The label agreed, and so we came down to London, ending up at Ramport Studios, which was owned at the time by The Who. Peter’s engineer was a guy called Will Reid Dick, and we took the piss out of his name mercilessly! To be honest, working with Peter turned out to be a brilliant decision. He got us exactly what we wanted. The album wasn’t full of effects, but was raw, live and right in your face. It had – dare I say it – a real punk edge, and that made this stand out from so much else at the time.
“Above everything, it was a loud record. In those days, of course, CDs didn’t exist, so if you wanted your album to be loud, it couldn’t have more than about 33 minutes of music. And then you had to go through a laborious process to cut it as loud as possible. But that’s what we were after.”
Despite the discipline of the studio, Saxon still found time to indulge in other activities while in London. They may have been from Yorkshire – and known affectionately as the Barnsley Big Teasers [after a track called Big Teaser on their first record], but they didn’t need any help when it came to dalliances on the seamy side.
“Every night, we’d leave the studio, and go to a porn club, a strip bar, or an after-hours drinking place. We’d pick up these girls, and take them back to the bed & breakfast place where we were staying – and we’d have a gang bang! Seriously, that’s what we did,” explains Biff, as if surprised that anyone would suggest they were just into tea and whippets. “We worked hard, and we played hard!”
What Saxon ended up with, though, was an album crackling with prime, primal metal. It was state-of-the-art... and bloody loud!
“There was a buzz about the record even before it came out. Carrere were distributed by Warner Bros, who were having big success with Van Halen, so they knew how to sell metal. I was taken round the pressing plant while they were getting Wheels Of Steel ready and was amazed at how many copies they were pressing up – it seemed like millions. There was a feeling that we were gonna happen – and big.”
For Saxon, it was to be a case of almost overnight success. On February 2, 1980 they played a gig at the Electric Ballroom in London, showcasing some of their new songs to a venue where fans needed megaphones to communicate to each other – it was less than half full. But, within a few weeks, the five-piece were arguably the biggest metal band in Britain. “It just seemed to happen so fast,” whirls Biff, still a little overwhelmed by it all. “What did it really was us appearing on Top Of The Pops. In those days, if you had a single just outside the Top 30, then they’d get you in to film a promo on the Tuesday – in an empty studio. If your single then made it into the Top 30 when the mid-week charts were published the next day, then you’d be on the programme, which went out on a Thursday. The Wheels Of Steel single was at No.33, when we did our filming. It went up to No.21, and we were on [it peaked at No.20]. You can’t believe how much of a difference that made. One day we were nobodies, the next we were still nobodies, but we’d been on the telly!
“We had a club tour booked, and suddenly the queues were going round the block. It was amazing. We also went on tour supporting Nazareth in March 1980, and almost every venue was sold out – a lot of that was down to us. Nazareth knew it, treated us well, and on the last date, gave us a bottle of champagne to say thanks. I think the combination of all the hard work we’d done in 1979, supporting Motörhead on their Bomber tour, and the TV exposure just made things happen. It was our time.”
Yet, there was an unexpected, and not wholly pleasant, side effect of this fame.
“I had to move out of my house,” sighs the singer. “My girlfriend at the time couldn’t handle what was going on. There were fans turning up and climbing the drainpipe. And, on one occasion, about 40 people were in my garden, just chanting Wheels Of Steel. It was insane.
“You know, when you’ve been on TV, suddenly everyone wants your opinion on anything. I’ve just found a tape of a radio debate I was on in 1981, talking about headbanging with a university professor and a policeman. It’s fucking daft. I might have to include this as a bonus track on a future release. Honestly, unless you’ve been there, you can’t appreciate what being on TV can do to your life.”
The single 747 (Strangers In The Night) was an even bigger hit than Wheels Of Steel, reaching No.13, while the album itself – released in February 1980 – made it to No.5. For a time, Saxon were bigger than Maiden and Leppard.
To date, the album has sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK alone. Although whatever the official figure, the real one is actually 40,000 higher.
“It’s a weird situation. We got gold records for Wheels Of Steel and were told that, at the time, we’d done about 160,000 copies. But, then someone said that the actual number was 200,000. Apparently, somewhere along the line, 40,000 copies couldn’t be accounted for. They’d been sold, but have never been included in our sales figures, because of an administrative cock-up. I told you, the whole story about the album is wacky.”
Want further proof that this album was slightly strange? There’s a mistake on 747... which has never been corrected...
“We had a power cut in the studio one day, while we were recording. Now, there was a back-up generator, but it didn’t kick in right away. In that time, the tape on the track we were cutting slightly stretched – it was on 747.... As a result, if you listen carefully, the drums and bass slightly slow down at one point. It’s hardly audible, but it’s there. In those days, everything was recorded onto tape, and you literally had to cut it up to remove anything, which could be very messy. So we left this in.”
Wonder what the tepee-dwelling vegans in the Welsh mountains would make of it all?
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT...
The year 1980 was, in many respects, the best of Saxon’s career. Both Wheels Of Steel and the follow-up, Strong Arm Of The Law (released later that year), were big chart successes in Britain, the latter reaching No.11. They got to appear at the first ever Monsters Of Rock show at Donington (headlined by Rainbow, and also featuring Judas Priest) and played with Motörhead on the spectacular Heavy Metal Barn Dance bill at Stafford Bingley Hall.
Only 1982’s Denim And Leather record matched these two on the British charts, making it to No.9 in 1982, while in America, their best success was a less-than-awesome 133 with ’85’s Innocence Is No Excuse.
Line-up changes and label shifts didn’t help their cause, either here or in America, as the band’s early promise quickly seemed to disintegrate. Things weren’t helped either by a lengthy and messy court case over ownership of the Saxon name, fought out between Biff on the one hand and Oliver and Dawson on the other.
But while things may never have taken off the way they threatened – both Maiden and Leppard left the Barnsley Big Teasers choking on dust as they fled into the commercial distance – nonetheless they’ve remained hugely popular in countries such as Germany, Greece and Spain, where loyalty to the old school never dimmed.
Today, well beyond their 30th anniversary, the new-look Saxon – Biff, Quinn, Doug Scarrett on guitar, Tim ‘Nibs’ Carter on bass and drummer Nigel Glockler – are enjoying a resurgence of popularity in Britain, as they’re again able to sell out decent-size gigs, even if their albums sales aren’t more a gentle breeze across the charts, rather than the gale force of 1980.
And their influence can be heard on everyone, from Hammerfall to 3 Inches Of Blood, Stratovarius to (ulp!) Avenged Sevenfold.
WHERE SAXON STAND IN THE CHAIN OF INSPIRATION
The album that broke the gruff Scottish types. Full of anthemic songs and riffed-up fire. Huge influence on Saxon.
Dirty, petrol-fume rock’n’roll. You can hear where Saxon got some of their biker groove.
Fire-breathing anthems, a concussively flamboyant sound – this did more than anything else to take metal into the 80s.
The Number Of The Beast
Bruce Dickinson’s debut, and the record that finally put Iron Maiden into the big time as the undisputed masters.
The Black Album
The record that did more than any other to pick up the baton of commercially viable metal and run it headlong into multi-million dollar selling territory.
Legacy Of Kings
[Nuclear Blast, 1998]
By the late 1990s, power metal – the bastard son of NWOBHM – was rife across Europe. And few did it better.
3 INCHES OF BLOOD
Advance And Vanquish
Metal massacre for the 21st Century – with Saxon as the surrogate granddads.
This was originally published in Metal Hammer issue 151.
Saxon play on the Ronnie James Dio Stage at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival on August 10. Find out more info and get your tickets here.
Read a Q&A with Biff here.