While they never truly replicated the Stateside commercial success of Maiden or another fellow British band from the era, Def Leppard, Saxon in recent years seems to finally be getting the props they deserve for albums like Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law, and the aforementioned Denim and Leather, as well as the many headbanging anthems they spawned.
In this chat with their frontman Biff Byford, we discussed two albums Saxon issued in 2013 (Unplugged and Strung Up and Sacrifice), the stories behind several of the band's metal classics, and if bits of This is Spinal Tap were influenced by Saxon's shenanigans.
Biff Byford: Well, it's a mixture of different projects that we were doing. I had the idea to do an unplugged album, and then we moved off that to more general projects. I just thought it would be a good idea to put all our projects together on one album and try to make it interesting for the fans. I think it's a good package.
Songfacts: Are there songs that you feel worked best in the unplugged or orchestral setting, and were there any that you attempted that didn't work so well?
Biff: Yeah, we did a couple of the fast songs, the more thrash rock-y ones that didn't really work orchestrated or unplugged, acoustic.
But we've been doing this sort of stuff now for about three or four years. Some of the acoustic stuff, it was done a couple of years ago, and "Crusader" was done four years ago. In the last year we've upped the game a little bit, because we wanted to release it. It's been a labor of love, really. It just came together by accident, I suppose.
Songfacts: Something that I was impressed with are the vocals on the album. How did you approach singing these versions?
Biff: I tried to keep the melodies fairly similar, but some of the things are a bit bluesier. It's my voice now on there rather than my voice in 1980, which gives it a different slant. But I'm quite happy with all of the vocals on them. I mean, some of the acoustic stuff, it's just me and an acoustic guitar, so it's pretty bare and out there, if you know what I mean.
Songfacts: Looking back, how would you say that you write your best songs?
Biff: I've usually come in with a couple of ideas. We all play instruments, so we can all write. We have a lot of ideas, and then we'll just bash them around a bit and I'll usually take them away and arrange them and put down some melodies, maybe write some lyrics, and we'll take it from there.
We don't really consider the guitar riff a song, if you know what I mean. We have to work a lot harder than that. So it's just basically bouncing around from different members, I suppose.
Songfacts: Something that I've always felt about Saxon is that the band is very underrated when it comes to the amount of great guitar riffs, especially songs like "Strong Arm of the Law," "Wheels of Steel," and "Princess of the Night." Were those parts entirely written by Paul [Quinn] and Graham [Oliver] back in the day, or did you ever have a hand in coming up with those melodies for those riffs?
Songfacts: Something that I've always enjoyed about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands back in the day was how those bands incorporated elements of punk into their sound - the songwriting was very succinct and straight to the point, and there were so many great anthems. Would you say that you would like to see bands return to that approach?
Biff: I think with the new album, Sacrifice, we did go back to those days of playing fast, aggressive riffs. I think a lot of Metallica and Megadeth were influenced by our early fast stuff. So, yeah, I think bands should go back to that. Bands should release some aggression - try to play things as fast as you can.
Songfacts: What do you remember about the writing and recording of the song "Princess of the Night"?
Biff: Well, "Princess of the Night," I remember exactly. I had two titles. I had a title of "Wheels of Steel" and I had a title "Princess of the Night." And I didn't use "Princess of the Night" on the first two albums. But Paul Quinn came up with a riff and it sort of fit my lyrics. So that song was written very quickly, very quickly indeed. I already had the lyrics and the riff went together so simply, really smooth.
Songfacts: And you just mentioned the song "Wheels of Steel."
Biff: I was heavily into AC/DC's first album, and a few of their bootleg things that we found. I turned the band on to AC/DC. And I think although that track doesn't sound like AC/DC, it's a bit more rugged, I suppose. "Wheels of Steel" has definitely got an AC/DC influence in that.
Songfacts: What about the song "Strong Arm of the Law"?
Biff: "Strong Arm of the Law," I think that was Graham's riff, the verse riff. We were stopped by the police on numerous occasions when we had this huge American car, and that's basically what it's about. It's a story about the police stopping us on London Bridge in London and it stuck in my head. So I wrote some lyrics about it when I got the opportunity.
Songfacts: What about "Motorcycle Man"?
Biff: "Motorcycle Man," that was a Paul Quinn riff - a very fast riff.
Songfacts: And you mentioned coming to America. What were your initial impressions of America when Saxon first played there?
Biff: The very first tour we did was with Rush in the '80s. Which was great, since we're huge Rush fans. It was a fantastic place to come. It still is, actually.
We were very busy in them days. We were playing with Rush, we were doing the Whiskey A Go Go and we were all over the place, really. We were doing gigs on the West Coast in America. We were flying backwards and forwards all over the place. So it was quite an exciting time, those early '80s.
Songfacts: Are there any standout memories about touring with Rush back in the day?
Biff: Not really with Rush. We knew them and we ate with them and we said hello a lot, but we didn't really have too much to do with them. They were a little bit untouchable in those days. But yeah, we had some great times. They once invited me on the bus to travel with them, but I didn't think it was fair that the rest of the guys wouldn't be on it. Sort of kick myself on that. I should have gone on it!
Songfacts: Similar to how Metallica recently toured as part of the Big 4, with Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax, would Saxon ever be up for doing a similar tour if it was bands of New Wave of British Heavy Metal?
Biff: We did one in Spain. We did seven shows in Spain with Judas Priest, Motörhead, and Saxon. They called that the Big 3. So we already do that sort of thing if we're asked. Yeah, we'd do it. Definitely I would do a sort of '80s bill. No problem.
Songfacts: It would be great to see Saxon along with Iron Maiden, also Def Leppard and bands that like that. I think that would be a really cool tour to see.
Biff: I don't think you'd get Def Leppard with Iron Maiden, but something like that would be great.
In an interview with Rhino Records, Dawson said that the famous "cucumber scene" may have been based on a photo of Dawson that appeared in Sounds magazine:
"I had those stripey trousers on, and we were there in full spandex and leather, walking around London, and we just happened to go by a shop that sold vegetables. And I noticed this cucumber, so I picked it up and put it in the, uh, usual pose – sticking out – and that was on part of the feature! We told that story to Harry, and I think he just altered it slightly about being down his trousers."
Biff: No. I don't have any memories. He met our bass player [Steve Dawson] then. So I don't really have any memories of him, actually. I don't think anybody else does, either, apart from the old bass player. I think it's a bit blown out of proportion by the ex-members. They seemed to get a little bit of kudos out of it. But no, I can't remember him at all, really. I don't think I spoke to him. But he definitely met our bass player.
Songfacts: And actually seeing that movie, did you see any scenes that you think he may have taken from seeing Saxon or anything like that?
Biff: No. I didn't see anything. They didn't really have a frontman, though, did they? It was like a guitar band, wasn't it, really, Spinal Tap? It wasn't really based on the 5-piece band, was it?
I loved the film, don't get me wrong. But I didn't see anything in there... maybe walking through the metal detector with a cucumber. But I never saw Steve Dawson do that.
Songfacts: From a songwriting perspective, what would you say is your favorite Saxon album and why?
Biff: It's always got to be the last one, hasn't it? I think Sacrifice is a great album. I'll leave you to that, really. [Laughing]
April 30, 2014. For more Saxon, visit saxon747.com.
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