With their recently released ‘Thunderbolt’ album garnering universally great reviews and a typically busy touring schedule, including special guest status on the USA leg of the Judas Priest ‘Firepower’ tour, 2018 is shaping up very well indeed for Barnsley’s finest Saxon. The NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) legends have been cranking out their brand of heavy metal / hard rock for 40+ years and show no signs of slowing down. An ideal time then for a look back at the roots of the band as their catalogue gets a welcome reissue via Union Square Music / BMG. The band’s first six albums have been reissued in 24-page media book CD packaging or, if you prefer, rather fetching coloured splatter/swirl vinyl in keeping with each album’s primary colour scheme. The vinyl pressings look especially cool and scream collector’s item.
Formed in 1977 as Son of a Bitch (a moniker that was always going to be an issue) from the ashes of two local bands Coast and Sob the original line-up featured Peter ‘Biff’ Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver, bass player Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill. Back in the late 70’s the UK rock scene was enjoying something of a renaissance in no small part to an underground movement dubbed NWOBHM by Geoff Barton in Sounds (essential reading for myself and all my school friends in those days) and the band were soon touring with the likes of Motorhead. A record deal with the UK branch of French based label Carrere (a label best known for disco hits by Clout ‘Substitute’ and La Belle Époque ‘Black Is Black’) followed and with a name change to something a little more marketable Saxon was born.
Before we get into an album by album breakdown of the releases it would be remiss of me not to mention the packaging and track selection. All six albums have the same track listings as the previous reissues from 2009/10 — with two notable exceptions — but there is no claim of remastering (the albums are all copyright 2018 with a production credit for the year of release) but I’d assume these are identical sonically to the previous reissues. The media books are attractive with several period band pics, ticket stubs, single sleeves (including the odd Japanese release which is always cool) and lyrics, but only contain a short intro piece on each album rather than the extensive sleeve notes on previous issues. If you don’t have the 2009/10 releases these are essential and even if you do fans will want to check these new reissues out. The vinyl looks like a no-brainer of a purchase, so credit card be damned as they say.
Saxon – S.T. The band would release their debut self-titled album on 21st May, 1979. The album was produced by John Verity (Argent) and is a very interesting listen for fans only familiar with later day Saxon. Opening with ‘Rainbow Theme/Frozen Rainbow’ you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d put the wrong CD in the player as Saxon show a liking for a more, almost, prog rock sound, which is perfectly understandable when you consider these songs were written in the mid 70’s, while ‘Big Teaser’ is almost glam rock in comparison. As with so many debut albums the band were still finding their feet and their sound but ‘Stallions of the Highway’ is Saxon at their most Saxon and would be a worthy blueprint for future recordings. Clocking in at less than 30 mins the debut leaves loads of room on the CD for extra material which include the original Son of a Bitch demo recordings with ‘Rainbow Theme /Frozen Rainbow’ utilizing a markedly tougher guitar tone and extended drum fills, a live B-side and an interesting session for the influential Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio (essential listening for any budding rocker at the time) features early versions of ‘Motorcycle Man’ and the seminal ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ which would both appear a few months later on the ‘Wheels of Steel’ album. The set is rounded out by three tracks recorded at the first Monsters of Rock Festival at Castle Donington in August 1980.
Saxon – Wheels Of Steel: Released almost a year after their debut, ‘Wheels’ would propel Saxon into the UK big leagues as they enjoyed single success with the title track and ‘747 (Strangers in the Night)’ entering the UK Top 40 (the album would enter the chart at no.5). The band would become regulars on BBC TV show Top of the Pops (a very big deal for any band in those days especially a metal act) and ‘747’ would be my introduction to the band as I remember buying the 12” single back in the day. Saxon were probably the premier UK NWOBHM act at this time ahead of future multi-million selling acts Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and 'Wheels' would spark a period of impressive productivity. Co-produced by Carrere A&R man Pete Hinton and the band ‘Wheels Of Steel’ finds Saxon effectively laying down, in steel reinforced concrete, their trademark sound.
The opener ‘Motorcycle Man’ finds Biff giving it everything he has over wailing twin lead guitars and pounding drums. ‘Stand up and be Counted’ continues the onslaught before ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ demonstrates there is much more to Saxon than big riffs and songs about burning rubber. Anchored by Steve Dawson’s solid bass track, Quinn and Oliver’s guitars play off each other with the opening guitar part particularly effective, while Biff deploys admirable vocal subtlety with a lyric about a Scandinavian Airlines plane running out of fuel due to a power failure on the ground which is, I believe, based on an actual event. The title track from the album really needs no introduction but Quinn and Oliver’s riffing echoes primetime era Judas Priest, throw in a catchy chorus line and you’ve heavy metal gold. As my taste in music has always leaning heavily on the melodic, I really enjoy Saxon when they tone down the metal bluster (apologies to hardcore metalheads) and the third single from the album ‘Suzie Hold On’ works really well. I wonder if the subliminal influence of The Who (the album was recorded in Ramport Studios owned by Townsend & Co) had an effect on the song structure as ‘Suzie’ always sounds like it has the feel/construction of a Townsend song, especially the verses. ‘Suzie’ reappears among the bonus tracks as a, very rough, demo recording alongside ‘Wheels of Steel’. The extra material is completed by another live B-side and more tracks from the 1980 Monsters of Rock show.
Saxon – Strong Arm Of The Law: With a speed that could be considered almost miraculous four months on from ‘Wheels’ and Saxon were back again with their second album release of 1980 (by the late 80’s it would take Def Leppard four months to get their coffee orders in, let alone actually record an album). With the same production team and studio in place Saxon adopted an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach and the result was another fine release. ‘Dallas 1PM’ is the perfect track to showcase the versatility of the band’s song craft and another slab of ridiculously catchy melodic metal in the title track would become classics of the genre. Both tracks would enjoy success in the UK singles chart while the album would follow ‘Wheels’ into the upper reaches of the UK album chart peaking at No.11. ‘Dallas 1PM’ may well be the finest song the band have ever penned, very few acts of the time would use the John F. Kennedy assassination as inspiration for a song. The band took an epic approach on ‘Dallas’ with snippets of police radio dialog and a terrific escalating guitar solo. The song was so strong that rather than closing the record, as it does here, ‘Dallas 1PM’ was promoted to open the album on US pressings (an interesting decision that’ll have hardcore fans seeking out the original USA release for their collections). Many reviewers and fans claim ‘Strong Arm of the Law’ is Saxon at their finest and it’s hard to argue as this is as consistent an album as you’ll find in the Saxon catalogue.
At only eight tracks ‘Strong Arm’ is lean and mean with absolutely no filler, chock full of fist pumping metal with bags of melody. The band had developed a knack of including their fanbase in their songs, a trick that would reach its zenith on the upcoming ‘Denim and Leather’ opus. An excellent selection of bonus tracks round out this release with the highlight a 1982 live radio session recorded for David ‘Kid’ Jensen that included ‘Dallas’ and ‘747’ and really does demonstrates how mainstream Saxon had become at this point in their career. The band even performs ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ for the first time during this session. Metal and hard rock acts were making massive inroads into the UK musical consciousness in the early 80’s with Saxon leading the way. The album is rounded out with two 2009 remixes, an alternate version of ‘To Hell and Back Again’ and an early version of ‘Sixth Form Girls’ entitled ‘Mandy’ that finds Biff and the boys working out the kinks of the tune on this early take.
Saxon – Denim And Leather: For the first time Saxon would leave the UK for the recording of their new album in Switzerland at Aquarius Studios in Geneva (with additional recording and mixing at Polar Studios in Sweden). This new approach included a change in producer as Nigel Thomas (Joe Cocker / Juicy Lucy) was behind the desk. Released a year after ‘Strong Arm’ the band’s latest opus proved even more successful than before with no less than three of its nine tracks cracking the UK Top 20 singles chart. The arrival of Nigel Thomas added a certain something to the overall sound of the album with Pete Gill the main beneficiary as he enjoyed an improved drum sound. The sound is shiny and bright on the top end allowing the guitars to cut through but with a little more warmth to the bottom than some of the band’s earlier recordings. Unfortunately this would be Gill’s last album with the band as a hand injury would force his departure although I’m pleased to report this didn’t prove career ending as he would later turn up in Motorhead.
There is some fine material on the album most notably ‘Princess Of The Night’ which was about a steam locomotive and struck a chord with a wide range of the populace that still held an affinity with the, recently departed, steam railways. The crowd pleasing ‘And The Bands Played On’ does an excellent job, alongside the title track, of emphasising the link between the band, the music and their fans. ‘Denim and Leather’ is probably the ultimate fan song with its mention of listening to Tommy Vance on the radio on Friday night and spending all your spare time in record shops, which was how we all spent our time in those days (that and finding a pub that’d serve us). Saxon have always been blue-collar and it’s this down to earth attitude that proved such an important part of their early success. The band were by now experiencing international recognition with the excellent ‘Midnight Rider’ an effective travelogue of their US tour that finds the band once again utilising their knack for penning a catchy tune with no obvious loss of power. Touring for ‘Denim and Leather’ on a run of sold out UK and European dates would see the arrival of new drummer Nigel Glockler and the recording of their first live album ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. These shows are also notable for the inclusion of opening act Ozzy Osbourne as he launched his post Black Sabbath solo career. This reissue is rounded out by the B-sides to the ‘Never Surrender’ single and a terrific selection of tracks recorded during the 1981 tour.
Saxon – Power & The Glory: With the success of ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ live album and the ‘Denim And Leather’ tour it would be nearly eighteen months before fans would be able to welcome another Saxon studio album. ‘Power & The Glory’ would not see the light of day until March 1983 but the wait would be worth it as ‘Power’ would sell 1.5 Million copies and raise the band’s profile especially in the USA. With European success achieved ‘Power & The Glory’ finds Saxon with at least one eye on the American market. The band would venture to the USA to record the album in Atlanta at Axis Sound Studios with Jeff Glixman at the helm. Glixman had made his name with a run of mega-selling albums for progressive rock / AOR act Kansas before dipping his toe in UK waters with Gary Moore and Magnum. Glixman’s production on ‘Power’ seemed to divide opinion, personally I think he did a great job of harnessing the band’s power but adding a sheen that would work well on radio, Saxon had always displayed bags of melody amongst the riffing and Glixman does a fine job of bringing those melodies to the fore. The guitars cut through well and the rhythm track is solid but I’m not always sure about some of the material here. Again the band opted for a lean eight track album which doesn’t really leave room for less successful fare ‘Watching The Sky’ and especially ‘This Town Rocks’ which tries a little too hard to be a fan favourite in the making. Elsewhere the studio trickery received by ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ neuters much of the power displayed on the 1982 radio session version; effectively trying to make the track more epic seems to remove much of its grandeur. Despite this, the band again pulled two fine singles out of the bag with the title track and ‘Nightmare’ which benefis mightily from Glixman’s production flourishes.
The two additional tracks from the recording sessions included here as bonus tracks; ‘Make Em’ Rock’ all pounding drums and squealing guitars and ‘Turn Out The Lights’ which benefits from some very catchy guitar lines that give the song an almost pop edge (probably the reason for its exclusion) would have been worthy additions to the running order. Interestingly ‘Turn Out The Lights’ also turns up among the seven demo tracks recorded at Kaley Studios in 1982 that round out this set. The band must have really liked the song but just couldn’t quite get it how they wanted it for inclusion on ‘Power’. It’s worth noting that ‘Make Em Rock’ and ‘Turn Out The Lights’ from the Glixman sessions did not appear on the previous 2009 reissue. The Glixman version of ‘Suzie Hold On’ and the ‘Denim and Leather’ live B-side are omitted here. ‘Power & The Glory’ would prove a commercial success and mark the end of Saxon’s tenure with the Carrere label as the band would sign for EMI in 1984 and release the most controversial album of their career.
Saxon – Crusader: With the might of the EMI Corporation in their corner Saxon again returned to the USA and the confines of the world famous Sound City Studios in Los Angeles with Kevin Beamish in the production chair. ‘Crusader’ would prove a very successful album commercially, selling over two million copies, but would unfortunately split their fanbase on its release in April 1984. Kevin Beamish was one of the hottest producers of the time; he’d made his name in the preceding years as REO Speedwagon had gone from a talented hardworking blue-collar rock act to multi-platinum selling status almost overnight with the ‘Hi-Infidelity’ album. My guess is Saxon and their label thought he might be the ideal man to do a similar thing with the British act. The results are mixed to say the least but when it works it works really well.
I remember a friend of mine rushing out to buy the LP back in the day. The iconic title and cover imagery would prove an immediate draw, while musically an epic introduction leading into the title track meant things were looking pretty good for Saxon fans (despite the slightly dodgy voice over work). Bassist Steve Dawson has been reported to have said the inspiration for the title came from the banner on the Daily Express, a popular UK newspaper, so it doesn’t look like the band had any plans for a concept album on the crusades. Unfortunately, the album instantly loses its way with the frankly terrible boogie rock of ‘A Little Bit Of What You Fancy’ before the band again dip into the history books for ‘Sailing To America’ which references the Mayflower. ‘Sailing’ is easily the best thing on the album and perfectly blends Beamish’s production skills with Saxon’s grit and love of a good melody. Blessed with a catchy chorus and deft lead guitar fills ‘Sailing’ is one of my favourite Saxon tracks and made an excellent choice for the lead single from the album. Unfortunately, as Def Leppard had found a few years earlier, giving a shout out to America was considered tantamount to treason for hardcore fans of UK rock acts as their ‘Hello America’ release had demonstrated. Elsewhere a version of ‘Set Me Free’ by UK glam rockers Sweet (the first time Saxon had included a cover song on an album) proved to be an unlikely success. ‘Just Let Me Rock’ was a pleasant mid-paced foot stomper with Steve Dawson’s bass parts especially effective while ‘Bad Boys’ (Like To Rock N Roll)’ picks up the pace but lyrically the band are struggling with very clichéd material (‘Bad Boys’ might have been better in the hands of their old Carrere label mates Rose Tattoo) while ‘Rock City’ is another unfortunate example of this. The problem with ‘Crusader’ is that although some of the material is excellent, most notably ‘Sailin’ and ‘Do It All For You’ which could have been a hit for any band of the time with an effective MTV music video but didn't feel like a Saxon song, the band had lost their identity and what made them stand out from the crowd. ‘Crusader’ is probably the best sounding release in the Saxon canon up to this point and the collaboration with Beamish works really well from a production standpoint but some of the the material seems lacklustre and rushed. This reissue again concludes with a set of late ’83 Kaley Studio demo recordings including ‘Borderline’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ (not the Beatles song) which failed to make the final album. Fans should note that one of the Kaley Studios demos from the previous reissue is missing ‘A Little Bit Of What You Fancy’ and has been replaced with the previously unreleased ‘Living For The Weekend’ which is listed as an Outtake Demo Session track and to be honest sounds like it.
Looking back on the early years of one of the UK’s most popular and influential metal acts has been an interesting and enjoyable experience. The CD reissues are very well presented and overall sound very good, especially when you consider how the earlier albums were recorded very quickly on small budgets. These six releases offer a great window into the early evolution of a band that refused to rest on their laurels and it's to their credit that they remain a very relevant part of today’s metal scene.
All six of these Saxon reissues are available now via Union Square Music / BMG.