As one of the leading bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement of the late ’70s/early ’80s (which also spawned Iron Maiden and Def Leppard), Saxon has been consistently issuing albums and touring since their 1979 self-titled debut. And in the process, has issued such classic metal albums as Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather (with each of those three offerings spawning a now-classic anthemic title track each).
One of the group’s co-founding members, singer Biff Byford, spoke with AllMusic in the middle of a European tour, and discussed their latest release (which is their 24th overall), the recent announcement of a band member’s impending departure from touring, and the NWOBHM.
AllMusic: At what point did you decide to do a follow-up to Inspirations?
Byford: “Not long after we made the first one, actually. We had good fun recording it and it was still more or less in the Covid period – so we had a bit of time on our hands. We had so many bands that we didn’t put on the first one – so many influences and inspirations. So, I made another list. But we could probably do five Inspirations, really. Every song on the albums – the first and second Inspirations – are all connected in some way to Saxon and its members.”
AllMusic: Which songs hold the most personal significance for you?
Byford: “A of them do really, because they all have little stories. It’s like the Animals – I was learning to play guitar and bass guitar, and that song was the first song I ever heard that started with bass guitar, really. I’d been learning that riff that began, ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place.’ It was quite a big influence on me as a young bass player back in the day. ‘Faith Healer’ – the first single – I used to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in the ’70s. Me and Paul Quinn used to go see them in the local theaters. They were a big influence on the band – they were very theatrical. People should check them out if they’ve never heard of them. Great learning days, really.”
AllMusic: “From the Inside” was an interesting choice, as that’s not one of Alice Cooper’s better-known tunes.
Byford: “Well, none of the tracks that we’ve used are very predictable. We’ve always tried to use songs that are a little bit not the big songs on the albums. But ‘From the Inside,’ we had an American car in the late ’70s, because they were quite cheap then – because they were left-hand driving and they were big, gas-guzzling things. It was either an Oldsmobile or a Lincoln Town Car. And the car was being shipped in from an airbase up in Europe. It had three 8-track cassettes in it – one was Lou Reed: Live, ZZ Top: Fandango!, and Alice Cooper: From the Inside. So, we listened to that album all the time. And even one of the lyrics on one of the songs [‘Jackknife Johnny’], there’s a line that says ‘Or like denim and leather are you faded and frayed.’ It just stuck in my head, really. And when I was thinking of a song about our audience, I used that phrase – ‘Denim and Leather.’ So, it came from Alice, really.”
AllMusic: One of the tracks is Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City.” Is it true that in the ’70s Kiss was not as popular in the UK as they were in the US?
Byford: “I think they were popular – but they weren’t as ‘mega-big’ there as they were in the US. And I think they were pretty big in Australia in that period. I liked Kiss…I wasn’t really a big fan of Kiss, but our drummer was, Nigel [Glockler]. But my favorite Kiss song is ‘Detroit Rock City.’ And Nigel was influenced by Kiss, so I put that song on for Nigel, really. I’ve met Gene Simmons in the ’80s. I think he was a big of the band and the Wheels of Steel album. He was producing quite a few bands then, and I think he was using Saxon as one of the examples.”
AllMusic: Were you surprised by Paul Quinn’s recent decision to ‘step back from touring’?
Byford: “No – he’s been talking about it for four or five years now. There’s a lot of pressure touring at the level we’re touring at. A lot of times on buses. I think he’s playing now better than he’s ever played in his life, actually. But I just think he thinks from a fitness level – so he made the decision. But we weren’t really surprised because we have talked about it quite a few times in the past.”
AllMusic: Looking back at the New Wave of British Heavy Metal today, was there a healthy sense of competition between the bands, or was it unified?
Byford: “I think there’s always competition in music. You’re sort of fighting for your band to do well. It’s the same at a festival situation where there are many bands on. Bands are always trying to be the best band on the festival, regardless of where they are on the bill – whether they’re opening the festival or headlining the festival. Everybody wants to do well. So, I think there is a healthy competition there. But I think bands love each other, as well. They love each other’s music – especially if it’s in the same genre. So yeah, I think there was a healthy competition…but I think it’s a friendly competition.”
AllMusic: Do you agree that punk rock served as an inspiration for the movement?
Byford: “I think it did. From quite a few aspects. Fashion, definitely – from the leather jackets and chains and the studs. We adopted that early on – as did a lot of bands. I just think the attitude was, ‘Just play the music.’ I mean, some of it was very fashion-oriented, but some of the punk bands were really great – the Clash. But I think the movement was very short-lived. It was quite an aggressive music, and I think we took that side of it. But I think the Sex Pistols made a mark on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Very much like Nirvana did years later – made a mark on how bands played and how they were perceived to be. We stopped playing long, 15-minute jams and we started writing music that was five minutes, sometimes seven minutes. But the punk movement did that – it condensed everything into three or four minutes of craziness. And we quite liked that.”
AllMusic: I’ve always felt that Saxon has had great guitar riffs – particularly early on. What are some of your favorites?
Byford: “‘Princess of the Night’ has got to be up there with them. Me and Paul wrote that riff together. It wasn’t quite like that when it first started life, but we changed it together. All great riffs usually work better if they’re written with the guy that’s going to sing on it – because it molds it together. ‘Wheels of Steel’ – that’s a Graham Oliver riff, really. And I was a big AC/DC fan from their first album, and I was showing the boys in the band that AC/DC stuff and took them to see them at Sheffield University. So, ‘Wheels of Steel’ really came from that AC/DC influence – that pounding riff. It’s quite bluesy – which is what AC/DC are, I suppose. Heavy blues rock, y’know?”
AllMusic: What do you attribute to what seems like a reappreciation of Saxon’s music in recent times – especially in the States?
Byford: “Up to Covid, we were working a lot in the States. We were doing our own shows, we did a couple of tours with UFO, we did a big tour with Motörhead on Lemmy’s last tour, we did a huge tour with Judas Priest. So, a lot of our fans from the ’80s were rediscovering us and we were making lots of new fans. I think our profile in America is pretty good at the moment – we’re just looking for a nice tour to get there, so we can play some decent venues…rather than just Sally’s Fish Bar or something. It’s always on our mind to go to America. I think streaming is good from the States, people watch our videos there, we have a lot younger fans that got into us from the touring and social media.”
AllMusic: How does touring compare now to in the ’80s?
Byford: “It’s always hard touring – even when you’re quite young. All the traveling does take its toll – especially if there are no days off. Endless shows one after the other. I just read an article on Keith Richards, and he was saying that the memory and energy of the audience from the night before keeps you going to the next gig – and I think that is very true. I think the whole ‘touring rock band thing’ you take with you – the audience from the night before and their energy and their love for the band makes you want to do another show. It doesn’t really make you want to get on the plane or get on the tour bus, but it wants you to play the show.”
For more Saxon info and tour dates, visit the official Saxon site.