Biff Byford is not preachy. The Saxon frontman writes discernible lyrics culled from history and myth, with songs about Zeus ("Thunderbolt"), the Wright Brothers ("The Secret Of Flight") and Merlin ("A Wizard's Tale") on their album Thunderbolt, arriving February 2, 2018. With refreshing alacrity, he'll explain exactly what his songs are about, but what we take from it is up to us, the listeners. Is the vain and capricious Zeus an allegory for a certain world leader? Only if you want him to be.
The most fascinating history Byford writes about is his own. The song "They Played Rock And Roll" covers Saxon's tour with Motörhead in 1979, a seminal time when British metal was entering its second phase. Saxon's landmark albums Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm Of The Law, both released in 1980, helped define that era. One of their peers, Def Leppard, veered into pop, but Saxon kept the heavy metal thunder rolling, with a slight detour around 1986 when as Biff explains, they took some of the edge off.
Here, Byford discusses some of the standout tracks on Thunderbolt along with some Saxon classics. He also explains the big thing they learned from Motörhead (other than how to rock a bullet belt) and the origin story behind the name Biff.
Songfacts: Many of your songs are very bellicose but have the opposite meaning. You've explained that they're anti-war.
Byford: Yeah, definitely. I'm an anti-war type guy but I certainly sympathize with the common soldier, if you know what I mean.
Songfacts: I'm wondering if you're making an allegory here of any kind?
Byford: Well, a lot of our war songs are songs about history, first. But a lot of the war lyrics that I write are basically saying that when governments go to war with other countries, it's the common people, the working-class people, who die for their inabilities to compromise or to negotiate things without a war. More so in the past. Obviously, you couldn't negotiate with the Nazis, but generally it's the common man that dies and it's always the families that lose their sons and daughters for the sake of a prime minister or a president or a dictator sending young men to war.
Songfacts: Along those lines, you have a song on this album called "Sniper." Would you talk about that?
Byford: Well, "Sniper," these ideas have been floating around for quite some time. I think "Sniper" has got to be one of the loneliest jobs in the world, and there have been snipers and sharpshooters, as they used to be called, since way back. Even medieval knights, the crossbow men, were snipers. They used to hide and pick off the generals or the most important guys on the battlefield.
So it's a good subject. It's not particularly one type of sniper, just snipers in general. These guys get sent off to kill people and do they ever ask why? Do they ever ask, "Why are we shooting this guy or why have we picked out that guy?" I think it's just a strange job to do, really, to be asked to do that. Some soldiers do it and follow their orders and kill people.
Songfacts: You wrote "They Played Rock and Roll" before you knew of Fast Eddie's death.
Byford: I came up with the idea before Lemmy died, actually. The very first tour we ever did was in 1979 and it was with Motörhead. We were a new band, just got our first album out and were about to release our second album, Wheels Of Steel, which went ballistic in sales over here. So, that tour for Saxon was a pivotal point in our very early career.
So, the song's about that tour basically. They recorded No Sleep 'til Hammersmith on that tour, The Bomber Tour, so the lyrics reference that. They taught us a lot about rock and roll because we were just naïve village boys.
Songfacts: What are some specific things they taught you, Biff?
Byford: Well, they allowed us to travel on their tour bus, they got us hotel rooms in all their hotels, they took us to a load of TV shows they were doing, because they were massive at that time. So, they befriended us and took us on board and showed us what Jack Daniels tastes like, and various other things. They used to bring quite a lot of models and people on the bus because they were quite well-known, especially Lemmy, so their entourage was something to behold, really.
Songfacts: But, was there any type of advice or something that you did differently after meeting them?
Byford: Oh, yeah, we did. I'll tell you what we did: We started meeting fans after the show in the venue because that's what Motörhead used to do. Lemmy said, "Never forget your fans, and if people have paid money, if they're waiting outside in the snow and in the cold, then bring them in the venue and sign the autographs in there." So, we started doing that, specifically, after Motörhead did it.
They gave me some bullet belts. We used to wear bullet belts in them days, so I used to start wearing bullet belts as part of the Bullet Belt Club. So, yeah, it was very leather jacket and jeans and bullet belts and studs. It was very rock and roll but metal, really. What can I say?
Songfacts: That is recognized as a very important time in music history. Did it feel like that at the time?
Byford: There was an explosion of talent in the '80s, definitely. There was an abundance of inspiration flying around for all the bands to tap into. Maiden, Priest, Saxon, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Motörhead - we were all writing great songs in that period. I don't know why, maybe it was in the water.
And there was a sense of freedom. We could write very fast or quite short songs and not get involved with huge keyboard and guitar solos and drum features. We were writing songs, basically, for a generation of people that were young in the '80s.
Songfacts: What were bands like you and Motörhead doing differently than, say, Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple?
Byford: Well, we were playing very fast stuff. It was very punk influenced. It was very aggressive playing. It's based on blues music but there was a lot of aggression in those early songs and the guitar sounds were right in your face. I don't think there was a lot of subtlety in the music. It was like, if there's a guitar riff, let's just play it to death and let's make sure it's the heaviest guitar sound we can possibly make with the machinery that's available.
Obviously, we were listening to Zeppelin and Sabbath and Purple and Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash and all those bands, but we were actually listening to the Sex Pistols and The Clash, some of the punk bands that were sounding more alive, I suppose, and more aggressive. So, we took that with us, really, and a lot of our fast songs are very, very punky, as are Motörhead's, you know.
Songfacts: Did you guys play on a bill with The Clash at one point?
Byford: We did, yeah. We played Manchester Belle Vue. They were on a smaller stage at the other side of the room, but yeah, we played with them, definitely.
I don't know what the audience thought of them. There were about 5,000 people in there and we were playing our brand of rock music as opposed to their quite political and radical stuff. But we love The Clash. They went on to become a really great band, outgrowing the punk thing. And they remembered us. Joe Strummer remembered us and used to jam "747" with us sometimes in the dressing room.
Songfacts: Did you ever consider going the Def Leppard route and moving in more of a pop direction?
Byford: Not at that time, no. We were more of a street band. We were more a band for the people, really, so we weren't really bothered about going down the more sophisticated route. We were happy where we were, being the sort of rebels and rock and roll.
Songfacts: You said you didn't at that time, but did you ever later on?
Byford: I think around about 1986, we were with a couple of producers that were making us a little bit softer. You know, more radio friendly. And I don't really think it worked, although a couple of those albums are massive.
I don't think it really worked for us. It was a bit like cutting our balls off, if you know what I mean.
Songfacts: Is that what it felt like to you when you were making those albums?
Byford: I don't think so. I don't think you're thinking it at the time. Basically, we just played and recorded and then it was mixed - I don't think we were even there, so we didn't really have an idea what it was going to sound like, to tell you the truth.
It was a great time, but we changed slightly. Our fan base changed a little bit, but it was the time of MTV, so everybody changed.
Songfacts: Did you ever end up on MTV?
Byford: We did get play on MTV. It wasn't on every 20 minutes, but we did get played quite a bit, yeah.
Songfacts: In the Thunderbolt track "Roadie's Song," you sing about how there are "16 beds in the bus." Is that true?
Byford: Sixteen beds inside the bus? Sometimes it is. Sometimes we have 12, sometimes we have 16, sometimes we have six, but generally, when we're touring with the full crew, like in America, the bus will have between 14 and 16 bunks, yeah.
Byford: You've never been on a tour bus?
Songfacts: I have, but it didn't occur to me that there were 16 beds packed in there. I guess they're hidden away when lowly journalists come in.
Byford: You'll have to come on our bus then and we'll sort that. You have to remember that if they're three high, it doesn't take up a lot of space.
Songfacts: How long have you had your road crew?
Byford: This particular road crew, the American crew, I think we've had about 10 years.
Songfacts: Wow, that's a long time.
Byford: Some of the English guys we use in England, we've had longer. Fifteen years, something like that.
Songfacts: I wonder if the career span of a roadie is actually shorter of that of a musician because they take more wear and tear.
Byford: I don't really know, actually. A lot of crew members go on to do other things, like theatres. A lot of crew people are actually in bands - they are musicians and they're earning money, like any job, I suppose. You do find a lot of the guys are musicians or singers.
Songfacts: Now, early on, you didn't have roadies, did you? You were doing all this yourself?
Byford: Oh, we used to do it ourselves in the back of a transit van. But on the Motörhead tour we travelled on the bus. Our crew were in a small truck and they used to drive with three people in the front. After that we became so big we had to have a tour manager and everything else that goes with the success, but in the early days it was just basically us and two guys, who were actually school friends.
Songfacts: I heard a story where very early on, you guys would ask the audience for a place to stay that night.
Byford: Yeah, when we were in the clubs we used to. We used to get quite a lot of offers and it was good fun. People are quite nice with that, really. I don't know if you'd get that in London, but definitely in the more rural parts of England, you'd definitely get a room to sleep in.
Songfacts: Did you have a specific creature in mind when you were writing the song "Predator"?
Byford: No. It's basically about the animals that are on top of the food chain, like a lion or a tiger, or a crocodile or a shark. A couple of people thought it was about the film Predator, but it's not. It's about whatever's at the top of the food chain in that particular environment.
Again, it's a cool thing to write about and I got Johan from Amon Amarth, my friend, to do the low octave voice, so it sounds pretty evil.
Songfacts: It does. It sounds absolutely sinister with those growls on it.
Byford: Yeah, definitely. It's a good riff, as well. It's a modern riff but it's got vintage-sounding guitars on there so it sort of sounds quite retro, as well.
Songfacts: A song that's intriguing to Americans is "Dallas 1PM" because you're a British metal band and you really captured it so much better than many of the Americans did. Can you talk about writing that song and why you did that?
Byford: Yeah. It was 1963, wasn't it, when Kennedy got killed?
Byford: Well, I was 12, so I remember seeing it on TV and I remember learning about it in the history lessons at school. And then, the first time we went to America, it just stuck in my mind.
The thing is, with me, I try to match up the lyric and title with the riff. If you're going to do a song about "Dallas 1PM" or if you're going to do a song about [Thunderbolt track] "Nosferatu," I think the music has to suit the title. That sort of haunting riff, that guitar thing, comes in and the drums come in and then the second guitar comes in. I came up with the chorus first:
The world was shocked that fateful day
A young man's life was blown away
So, that's the first line I came up with. And then, after reading a couple of books about it and seeing various films and history lessons, I completed it. 1 p.m. is the time that Walter Cronkite announced it, saying that "President Kennedy died today at 1 p.m." So, there was the title: "Dallas 1PM."
It's a great song put together from bits and pieces of ideas we had. We went down the conspiracy theory road, so we put in three gun shots rather than the one. We spent a bit of time. It was all done on analog, so we were flying different machines in at certain times with marker pen on the tape, so it was all a bit industrious.
Songfacts: You mentioned "Nosferatu" where the music absolutely syncs with the lyric. Can you talk about why that got the subtitle "Vampire's Waltz"?
Byford: I'll tell you why: because it's in waltz time.
Songfacts: I was trying to figure that out. There's a lot going on there.
Byford: It's, one two three, one two three, and I start on the waltz timing. In a lot of the Dracula films down the years, there have been scenes where people are waltzing, usually in Victorian times or Georgian times, dancing in a ballroom, and you can't see the vampire in the mirrors. And, in the middle of the song, it goes into a sort of spacey feel, and I sing:
Beneath the abbey vaults
We danced the vampire's waltz
I wanted to call it something other than just "Nosferatu," so people get an idea of where I'm coming from with the song. And I wanted the song to have a gothic feel. If you're going to sing about Dracula, it has to have that gothic, velvet-top-hats, women-in-huge-ballgowns feel. I think that image and that atmosphere comes across well with the song.
Songfacts: One song that has stayed in your setlist is "Crusader." Can you talk about writing that and what you were trying to convey?
Byford: Well, the "Crusader," it's what we used to learn at school. We used to read about the Crusades back in the day, Richard the Lionheart, and all these figures that obviously weren't as fantastic as people make out they are.
It's a song written from a young boy's point of view, watching the knights and soldiers leave for crusade, basically. And that's what it's about. It's a third-person song, and he wants to go with the knights and his father or his uncles who are going off to the crusade, and he can't because he's too young. That's the idea behind the song.
Songfacts: Were you trying to make any statement regarding religion?
Byford: Not really, no. It's just a historic song. People have to remember that England's history is full of wars and invasions. You know, the Romans, the Vikings. Our whole history revolves around combat, and I suppose as a boy, when you read about war and the Crusades and the Vikings, it all seems to be good boy scout stuff. I suppose in reality, it was absolutely brutal and bloody, and billions of people died, but when you're a boy and you're listening and reading and watching these films, it's all a bit glorified and it's all a bit marching off to war.
So, that's the type of song it is. It's not making any statements - it's not anti-anybody or pro-anybody. It's just a boy watching the crusaders go off to war.
Songfacts: There are a number of places where you could have gotten this title, but I'm wondering where "For Whom The Bell Tolls" came from?
Byford: "For Whom The Bell Tolls," the very first idea I had on that came from the film. I think it's an Alistair MacLean book, For Whom The Bell Tolls. [MacLean wrote a book called When Eight Bells Toll; Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls, on which the 1943 movie is based.]
And then we wrote the lyrics about the saying "for whom the bell tolls."
Songfacts: When you are watching a movie or reading a book, are you constantly thinking of how to turn it into a song?
Byford: [laughs] Well, things go into your head, don't they, and then they come out at the most stupidest times. I don't think I actually watch things or read things to get titles, I just think when I see something or read something or I'm taught something or something's purveyed to me, I don't immediately think that's great for a song title, but it goes in and it comes out later on when I'm in that writing mood.
When I have music around me, I'm looking for the inspiration for the title, really. Some ideas I'll just write down randomly on my phone if I get an idea.
Songfacts: How did you get the name Biff? [His real name is Peter.]
Byford: Well, my brother was called Biff at school, and I think it comes from Byford. Biff – Byford, I suppose. I don't know. Maybe he used to hit people. But I got it off my brother who was older than me. He was at school before me and as I got to school, he left, so people used to just call me Little Biff.
January 24, 2018
Our 2014 interview with Biff
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