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Saxon

+ {Son Of A Bitch} + {Oliver/Dawson Saxon}

For a good part of the 80s the name of SAXON was bandied about in the same circles as other young NWOBHM purveyors IRON MAIDEN and DEF LEPPARD, but just as Betamax videos took the wrath of VHS, one of England’s finest hard rock acts slowly crumbled. A by-product of Castle Donington and the ear-bashing “Monsters Of Rock” annual fests, America unfairly thought them as poor cousins to the aforementioned greats. Still, if there were a couple of records that set them apart from their multi-platinum rivals, then it’d have to be the glowing `747 (Strangers In The Night)’ and `Wheels Of Steel’.
Formed 1976 in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, the group were going nowhere fast when they toured under the name Son Of A Bitch; messrs Peter “Biff” Byford (vocals), Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn (lead guitars), Steve Dawson (bass) and Pete Gill (drums) – the latter superseding David Ward – changed their name late in 1978 to the slightly less hoary SAXON and, in turn, garnered support slots to MOTORHEAD, among others. Unfashionable, but grabbing any lifeline to stardom, the group managed to secure a deal with French disco-orientated imprint, Carrere, who were now branching out across the English Channel and, more importantly, on the other side of the Atlantic.
SAXON {*6} didn’t exactly spread their message sales-wise when released in May 1979, but at least it provided them a platform to exercise their metal muscle. With their vaguely biker, road warrior image and pre-SPINAL TAP-friendly lyrics, example `Stallions Of The Highway’, the eponymous LP embrace old-style metal-prog (`Rainbow Theme’ and `Frozen Rainbow’) to mindless boogie glam (`Big Teaser’ and `Backs To The Wall’); note that all four cuts gained minor chart status when released the following summer.
By this time, SAXON were turning headbanging skulls by way of the Pete Hinton-produced WHEELS OF STEEL (1980) {*8}. Climbing to No.5 in the charts, the set was defined by the aforementioned classic rock gemstones, `Wheels Of Steel’ and the disaster-baiting `747 (Strangers In The Night)’ – both successive, chrome-plated Top 20 smash hits. The stylish quintet came to characterise the nascent NWOBHM movement, competing with legends-to-be Maiden and Leppard in a three-horse race that saw SAXON stretch out a neck for pole position – but music is no Derby, more a Grand National.
The extent of the group’s popularity among the metal hordes was illustrated with a quick-fire near-Top 10 follow-up, STRONG ARM OF THE LAW (1980) {*7}; sadly, the title track stalled outside the main 60. Road hungry to a man, SAXON embarked on their first major headlining tour in support of the record, keeping their profile high as screecher Byford and Co thrashed their way through the likes of opener `Heavy Metal Thunder’ (raining on BLACK SABBATH’s decade-old eponymous title-track/album’s parade), `20,000 ft.’, `To Hell And Back Again’ and the political `Dallas 1 PM’ (an ode to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination).
While this album perhaps lacked their trademark heavy/melodic punch, SAXON came storming back the following year with the infamous (wot no spandex?) DENIM AND LEATHER (1981) {*8} – surely a cue for the likes of MANOWAR if ever there was one. The record again made the Top 10, spawning another couple of monster hits in `And The Bands Played On’ and `Never Surrender’; although equally medieval, `Princess Of The Night’, failed to capture a top chart position. When Pete Gill was duly snatched by MOTORHEAD, Nigel Glocker (a sticksman who’d played for unlikely punk-pop source TOYAH) came to the rescue.
A hard-grafting live act and respected nationwide, they couldn’t buy a hit in America. Still, the live THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (1982) {*6} produced their best returns in Old Blighty since their chest-beating sophomore set. The same couldn’t be said for studio album number five, POWER & THE GLORY (1983) {*5}; SAXON, and freshman producer Jeff Glixman – it seemed – were caught up in a vain attempt to crack the American market. While IRON MAIDEN were Top 20 courtesy of “Piece Of Mind”, Byford and his boys were struggling to find a better position than No.155!
These were SAXON’s glory days however, although inevitably it couldn’t last. By the release of 1984’s CRUSADER {*6}, their thematic theatrics and bombastic AC/DC-like ballad-rockers proved unyielding for a buying public saturated by hundreds of other – and some would say more adventurous – metal flag-bearers. Produced by AOR knob-twiddler, Kevin Beamish, the record was a blatant attempt at securing FM radio play, which only served to alienate even some of their more ardent fans. Although the album made the Top 20 (their first for Parlophone Records and the last to achieve this standing), SAXON’s next effort, INNOCENCE IS NO EXCUSE (1985) {*6}, struggled to maintain more than a few weeks in the charts, while old NWOBHM muckers, IRON MAIDEN, et al, were in the process of worldwide metal domination.
Undeterred, and with Paul Johnson replacing Dawson, the group made an attempt to return to a more cliched style on ROCK THE NATIONS (1986) {*4}. If only to hear ELTON JOHN play piano on the sickly `Party ‘Til You Puke’, then SAXON at least achieved some pop credibility – God knows why their blend of sugar-sweet glam-metal was binned rather than subsequent “Hysteria” stars DEF LEPPARD was a debate that kept most metalheads (and SAXON, themselves) baffled for yonks.
An inappropriate cover of CHRISTOPHER CROSS’ `Ride Like The Wind’ (a minor hit from 1988’s rock bottom DESTINY {*3}), however, signalled that SAXON wouldn’t be chasing METALLICA’s throne just yet. Glocker had by now bailed for supergroup GTR (alongside the Steve’s HACKETT and HOWE), and Nigel Durham had taken his place; further personnel upheaval came when the youthful Nibbs Carter was enlisted for a Hungarian concert bash, ROCK’N’ROLL GYPSIES (1989) {*4}; just as unappealing was the GREATEST HITS LIVE (1990) {*3} debacle.
In an effort to get back to their roots, SAXON undertook a UK club tour in 1990, playing material from their classic early 80s period to receptive audiences and, for once, decent reviews. In what appeared to be a final attempt to break the US market, the group had signed to the American-based Enigma label (Virgin International in the UK) for the SOLID BALL OF ROCK (1991) {*5} set.
Although once again their Stateside efforts amounted to not that much, SAXON’s resilience won out with a clutch of 90s albums which, if never standing any chance of winning young converts, at least pleased stalwart fans. With Glocker back in the fray, the likes of FOREVER FREE (1993) {*6} – featuring a rousing cover of WILLIE DIXON’s `Just Wanna Make Love To You’, DOGS OF WAR (1995) {*5} and UNLEASH THE BEAST (1997) {*5}, were no-frills efforts on various records labels making absolutely no concessions to market trends; Doug Scarratt had now superseded Graham Oliver, who’d resurrected Son Of A Bitch, and, in turn (with Steve) the competing Oliver-Dawson Saxon alumni.
Bypassing a rather dated and lacklustre THE EAGLE HAS LANDED PART II (1998) {*4}, and with fresh German drummer Fritz Randow, SAXON forged ahead with studio set number whatever, METALHEAD (1999) {*5}, in which they continued to fly their true colours; Byford, Quinn and Co content to be the curators of vintage NWOBHM for the new millennium.
Slowly but surely, SAXON were regaining ground, balancing on a medieval metal precipice of prog on their cover of KING CRIMSON’s `Court Of The Crimson King’ on KILLING GROUND (2001) {*6}; the double-disc re-recorded concert timepiece, HEAVY METAL THUNDER (2002) {*5}, was one strictly for the faithful fanbase.
If the fictional SPINAL TAP had an extreme revolving-door exit strategy, then SAXON’s drumming policy was equally comical and outrageous, as Jorg Michael looked to stay for more than just a short visit. 2004’s jingo-istic LIONHEART {*6} stooped to conquer any pretenders to their medieval-metalist throne. Up there with British bawlers, Rob Halford and Brian Johnson, Byford was again king for a day on `Witchfinder General’ and `Beyond The Grave’; the release of the retrospective live double-set THE EAGLE HAS LANDED III (2006) {*6} was hardly unexpected, but it was accepted by loyal supporters.
Allowing the strengths of comeback kid Nigel Glocker back into the fold, THE INNER SANCTUM (2007) {*6}, INTO THE LABYRINTH (2009) {*6} and CALL TO ARMS (2011) {*7}, all rose above the parapet of nu-metal, affixing them as true gods of the once-lauded NWOBHM scene.
Byford, Quinn, Scarratt, Carter and Glocker showed no signs of taking a deserved pension, when the release of umpteenth studio set, SACRIFICE (2013) {*6}, reminded punters just how glorious SAXON really were – or are! Stirring up their re-vamped no-holds-barred molten-metal, the 5-piece delivered their “And The Bands Played On” raucous and rebellious rockers on chunky riff-tastic cuts, `Walking The Steel’, `Made In Belfast’, `Warriors Of The Road’, et al.
Old school, full throttle no frills metal, SAXON were ready to fight the force of old rivals IRON MAIDEN and DEF LEPPARD by way of their own Top 50 set, BATTERING RAM (2015) {*7}. Nearly 40 years in the business, Biff and Co relayed their heavy metal hymns in ear-shattering style on best bits, `Eye Of The Storm’, `Queen Of Hearts’ and the storybook `Kingdom Of The Cross’.
© MC Strong 1994-2001/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Nov2015

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