With heavy metal survivors Saxon’s wheels of steel set to grind to a temporary halt at Preston’s 53 Degrees on Saturday, February 15, I managed to lure lead singer Biff Byford away from the studio to talk heavy metal.
Quite something in itself, really. You only have to talk to a few of my old schoolmates to understand how unlikely that would have seemed 30 years back. And yes, it is that long ago.
Back then, I was a lone voice espousing great new wave acts like Blondie, Buzzcocks, The Blockheads, The Clash, The Jam, Squeeze, The Stranglers and The Undertones, while they were dancing to a different tune.
If you can call head-banging dancing.
We seldom agreed on music, other than maybe Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, or another band re-inventing themselves as a heavy metal outfit at the time, the mighty Slade. And I don’t think I even appreciated AC/DC until I realised they couldn’t possibly have been taking themselves seriously … finally getting the joke.
All my metal mates had their favourite bands. For some it was Kiss, for others Motorhead, or Iron Maiden. One lad was big on Saxon, right down to a pride of place patch on his denim jacket. And three decades later, his favourites have certainly proved their staying power.
Saxon never really went away of course, although it took cult backing from the likes of BBC 6 DJ Mark Radcliffe and Bristolian comic Justin Lee Collins to bring them back into vogue of late.
What probably helped even more was the public show of respect for Saxon meted out by the next generation of metal bands, like Megadeth and Metallica.
When I recently interviewed Chumbawamba guitarist-turned-playwright Boff Whalley, I must have subconsciously started thinking about Biff Byford, and asked – jokingly, I might add – one music promoter if he had Saxon on his books when talking about potential interviewees. He said he didn’t, but we agreed we’d both enjoy a word with Biff, with the inevitable Spinal Tap type musings following.
A week or so later, I thought I was being wound up when the Lancashire Evening Post told me Saxon were coming to Preston, asking if I fancied speaking to their lead singer. Was this some bizarre expression of karma?
The band had been due to visit last November, supporting historic tour-mates Motorhead, but a major health scare for the gruff legend that is Lemmy Kilmister caused a few flutters in the heavy metal world, and the subsequent cancellation of that tour.
While 68-year-old Lemmy tried to get a handle on his diabetes woes, Peter ‘Biff’ Byford and his band-mates decided to carry on with their own warm-up gigs for the dual tour, including that rearranged date at 53 Degrees.
Biff said: “We put some warm-up dates in before the Motorhead package. When they cancelled before Christmas, we cancelled these, but then thought we’d keep them in.
“They’re not large venues, but they’re good fun. We’re doing it for the fans, so we’re not disappointing them.
“We like playing smaller venues. We’re not ego-trippers. We like to mix it up a bit. It makes it more interesting.”
When I caught up with Biff, he was writing songs in the studio back in Yorkshire, the White Rose county having proved a key fixture for this 63-year-old rock legend.
Born near Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, his band formed in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, and he’s now based in Whitby, North Yorkshire, a dad of four, his eldest daughter having just started university.
He has a soft spot for Lancashire too, although the band estimate it’s been nearly 30 years since their last Guild City visit.
You’ll forgive Biff for not being too clear on the details, his band playing a fair few gigs since, while amassing millions of album sales worldwide.
Besides, the current line-up – Biff (vocals) and fellow founder member Paul Quinn (guitar), Nigel Glockler (drums), Nibbs Carter (bass) and Doug Scarratt (guitar) – have amassed 146 years’ service between them.
Watching him on stage, you’d think he was a darn sight younger, mind. So does Biff feel his age? And how does he keep fit?
“When you’re hill climbing, you tend to feel it a bit. It’s good going down, but not going up! I also do a bit of weight training. But I’m alright, touch wood. Time marches on.”
Has he ever tallied up the number of gigs over the years?
“Must be thousands. Perhaps I should probably try and do it one day, when I’m bored.”
A mate of mine, Dave Seddon, tells me the band last passed through his home city in 1986, playing the Guild Hall with an ominous sounding Japanese band called Loudness in tow. I kid you not.
But at the time of their first Preston show at the turn of the ’80s, Saxon were truly on the crest of a wave, in fact the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), alongside bands like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, carrying on Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin’s legacy.
“No. Pop really – stuff like The Kinks, a bit of Beatles, but more Rolling Stones. I was more of a long-hair and a biker in those days. I didn’t get into the harder bands until the ‘70s, Zeppelin and all that.”
Biff took an interesting path to the big time, including spells experiencing heavy metal of another variety on the textiles factory floor and surface work in a coal mine.
Saxon’s roots go back to 1976 in South Yorkshire, initially as Son of a Bitch, the name thankfully changed in time for an eponymous LP on French label Carrere in 1979, building a fan-base with supports to Motorhead and other established acts.
They went on to enjoy eight UK top 40 albums in the ‘80s, four reaching the top 10, and quickly asserted themselves among Europe’s top metal acts, with further success in Japan and the USA.
Their second LP, Wheels of Steel, led to two hit singles – the title track and 747 (Strangers in the Night) – being featured on Top of the Pops.
“It took some getting used to, that kind of stardom. In fact, I don’t think you ever get used to it. It’s all a bit Las Vegas. It was great though. You became more of a household name.
“It was the first time rock music ever got played on mainstream TV. Us, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Whitesnake – we were all on there. It just shows how popular our music was.”
“Definitely. Top of the Pops on Thursday night was watched by absolute millions. If you went on you could sell 100,000 records that week. It was silly, really.”
But it was their appearances at the first two Monsters of Rock festivals at Donington Park in 1980 and 1981 that secured their reputation for metal fans.
“Yes, and we still play that circuit. The first Donington was probably the gig that sealed our success. We were riding a bullet then. They were great times.
“They’re still great times. We’ve seen a great resurgence in ‘80s rock music, and we’re still making albums that people buy every year and a half.”
The hit albums and worldwide success continued, Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather released amid hectic schedules, and despite personnel changes a series of UK headlining tours and a sold-out European tour with Ozzy Osbourne as support helped elevate their profile.
By the time they returned to Donington in 1982, they were charting with The Eagle Has Landed, the following year’s Power & The Glory also proving a huge hit.
As the NWOBHM faded, Saxon broke new ground through a major US arena tour, and in 1984 the album Crusader sold another two million records on EMI, backed by successful tours both sides of the Atlantic.
In time they took more of a back seat at home, but continued success in Europe led to a switch to Virgin Records, recording their 10th LP in Hamburg in 1991.
Did Germany understand Saxon more during that wilderness period?
“A lot of our organisation came through there, and we recorded Solid Ball of Rock there. But sometimes you just have hits in some countries for no reason … other than it was a great album.”
A legal battle followed with two former band members over name rights, but the fans remained loyal, and the albums continued to stack up.
Then came involvement in Harvey Goldsmith’s 2007 documentary Get Your Act Together and a major comeback, and by 2012 they’d enjoyed three more Donington gigs, for the Download Festival, well and truly regaining their status on the scene.
Last year they released a 20th studio album, Sacrifice, and documentary Heavy Metal Thunder – The Movie brought further international success, as did the afore-mentioned endorsements from Megadeth and Metallica.
“It’s great when bands come out and say you’ve influenced them. We’re friends with Metallica and all those bands. It’s good that they support us and talk about us in the press. All good for the profile.”
You may also have seen Biff and his band appear on a Channel 4 advert, with celebrities asked what luxury item they would save from a burning house.
In the ad, with a link here, Justin chooses Saxon, ‘the greatest rock band ever’, even though ‘they’re behind with the rent’, before an explosion rocks the set, with Biff and co. seen staggering from the wreckage. Well worth a watch … or seven. So, has Biff seen his landlord lately?
“I don’t know where Justin’s gone, actually. We haven’t seen him around for ages. It was good fun, that. He’s a good ‘un, and a big rock fan.”
What kind of set will Saxon, who head off to Luxembourg the following week, be playing at 53 Degrees?
Biff and Paul have been in the band since the beginning, with the other members not far off. They obviously still like each other.
“We get on quite well. We see each other a lot on tour and while writing. We talk quite a bit on the phone too, and we’re into the same things.
“There’s not some sort of no hidden agenda. We’re all on the same wavelength.”
You’ve obviously kept in touch with Motorhead, but do you meet socially with all the other bands from that original scene?
“We meet Judas Priest quite a lot when they’re out and about, and get asked to play with a few bands. It is quite a bit of a family.
“I probably see Rod Smallwood (incidentally, another 63-year-old West Yorkshireman) than Iron Maiden (Rod co-manages the band), although I do occasionally see Bruce (Dickinson) down in London, for a drink.”
When I was thinking up questions for this interview, I couldn’t help but try a few of my old metal-heads for their suggestions (having ruled out straight away anything involving amps that went up to 11).
A couple came up with the goods, including Oxfordshire-based fellow Donington veteran Paul Gellatly, who wanted to know if the band had suffered any long-term effects from wearing spandex, denim and leather for so many years.
Biff replied: “Nothing yet … but you never know.”
Meanwhile, Sydney-based TV production maestro Nick Hopkin suggested ways for the band to re-engage with a younger audience, not least through renaming a few hits to make them more relevant today, coming up with Wheels of Toughened Polycarbonate, A380 (Strangers in the Night) and Suede and Synthetic Leather for starters.
Biff liked the idea, and added (with a throaty Yorkshire chuckle), “Yeah, if I need something else to do, definitely.”
But I reckon the chances of Saxon celebrating 40 years in the business in 2016 are pretty good already. And you can’t really argue with 13 million albums sold worldwide.
Biff added: “It is a lot of albums, but I suppose if you’ve got 20 studio albums, lots of live albums and tons of compilations, they will all add up.”
Tickets for Saturday’s Saxon show at 53 Degrees are priced £22.50 and a booking fee, with doors open at 7.30pm and more details from www.53degrees.net/
And for all the latest news from Saxon, head to their website here.
This is a revised and expanded interview/feature of one that appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post on February 13, 2014, with a link here.