Biff Byford: "The late 70s were a wasteland – Saxon came out of that"
With grit, determination, great songs and classic albums rather than flash and style over substance, in the 80s Saxon rose to become the flag-carrying kings of heavy metal
Biff Byford is on top of the world. More specifically, on top of a piano, peering out of a window and down at a line of dozens of people below him.
He and his bandmates in Saxon are holed up in a room on the second floor of the Whiskey A Go Go, the fabled Sunset Strip club that has been the launch pad for some of LA’s greatest rock bands. Tonight, March 27, 1982, it’s host to five Yorkshiremen with fire in their loins and Castrol GTX running through their veins.
Pan an imaginary camera around the room and you’ll see a scene that defines the coming decade. Over there is Saxon’s old touring buddy Ozzy Osbourne and his girlfriend Sharon Arden. Ozzy is still distraught over the death of his guitarist Randy Rhoads a couple of weeks earlier. He’s dealing with it by getting as fucked up as possible all the time. Today he’s barely coherent.
The camera swings around as the door bursts open and four hotshots with leather jackets, eye make-up and candyfloss hair tumble in. This is Mötley Crüe, the buzziest band in LA right now. They’re huge Saxon fans – especially bassist Nikki Sixx – and they’re here to meet their heroes.
Follow that same camera down the stairs and into the venue’s main room. On stage, four teenage headbangers are snarling their way through a song that sounds like a feral animal that’s been starved for weeks then let loose. They’ve been chosen by Saxon themselves to open both of today’s two shows. Their name is Metallica. God alone knows what will become of them.
For the past two years, Saxon’s career has swung faster and faster in one direction: upwards. Their last three albums – Wheels Of Steel, Strong Arm Of The Law and Denim And Leather, machine-gunned out in the space of 18 months – have been stone-cold instant classics. Back home in Britain they’re standard bearers for a new grass-roots rock movement, unlikely pop stars, bona fide working-class heroes. Here in LA they’re heavy metal crusaders, emissaries from another place bringing new sounds and new velocities that will electrify what’s happening in a town constantly looking for its next fix of excitement.
“We were big in Britain, no argument,” Biff says. “Probably the biggest of our generation of metal bands at the time. We’d done it through hard graft and killer songs; none of that trendy image rubbish.”
Los Angeles falls for Saxon, but in the end America never truly does. Maybe their music is too driven, too macho, not mellow enough. Maybe their Yorkshireness is too undiluted for Boise, Idaho and Hell, Minnesota. Maybe – with their moustaches and mix’n’match hairlines – they’re just not pretty enough.