With Saxon’s wheels of steel set to grind to a temporary halt at Preston’s 53 Degrees this weekend, lead singer Biff Byford stepped away from the mic in the studio to talk heavy metal with MALCOLM WYATT.
Recent health scares for Motorhead legend Lemmy Kilmister caused a few flutters in the heavy metal world, and the subsequent cancellation of the band’s headline tour.
The 68-year-old’s diabetes woes proved a blow too for their tour guests Saxon, but the veteran Yorkshire rockers were determined not to disappoint their loyal fans.
Peter ‘Biff’ Byford and his band-mates decided to carry on with the warm-up gigs planned for their dual tour, including a show at Preston’s 53 Degrees – originally set for November – this Saturday.
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 30-plus years since their last Guild city visit, back in the Preston Poly era.
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. 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. I should probably try and do it one day, when I’m bored.”
At the time of his last Preston show, Saxon were 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.
His autobiography, Never Surrender, published in 2002, suggests Biff was a shy lad in his schooldays.
So what was he listening to then – was he already a heavy rock fan?
“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.”
Did it help that there were just three TV channels at the time?
“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 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 in 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 endorsements from next generation metal outfits like 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.”
There was cult backing from BBC Radio 6 DJ Mark Radcliffe and comedian Justin Lee Collins too.
In fact, Biff and his band appeared on a Channel 4 advert, with celebrities asked what luxury item they would save from a burning house.
Justin chose 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.
“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.”
So what kind of set will Saxon play at 53 Degrees?
“A mixture really. All the big hits, a few songs from Crusader, 30 years on, and a few tracks we might not play again in that order. Should be a good night.”
Biff and Paul have been there 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.”
And you can’t really argue with 13 million albums sold worldwide.
“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/