As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, something strange happened to my musical taste in early 1980. It can be partly explained by the things I talked about back then: being away from home for the first time, finding it hard to latch on to a social group and finding comfort in crowds and music I didn’t have to think about too much, but that’s not the whole story.
I was definitely also strongly influenced by the music press. I dare say that, had I been a trendy NME reader, this post would have been about Joy Division or Gang of Four or something, but I wasn’t; as already admitted to, my music paper of choice was Sounds, and something happened to them in 1979 which eventually pushed me in this direction (not, thankfully, in the other direction they were going at the time, that of the Oi! subgenre, which I have to say left me cold at the time and still does.)
Throughout 1979, I’d been reading about, but not listening to, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Just a passing fad, I might have assumed, but I was – alongside all the other 1979 stuff – listening to the likes of Thin Lizzy and UFO (q.v.), and something definitely shifted in my brain.
I liked the idea of an offshoot of heavy metal, which had seemed a tired old genre, which harnessed some of the raw energy of punk and seemed to be about something more than trying to make Black Sabbath riffs and tropes sound new. I wasn’t, I don’t think, especially in the market for the NWOBHM at the time; too busy having my head turned by The Specials and the new Clash album. But something happened.
I’d been reading about these bands (it was my policy to read every article, interview and review in Sounds every week, regardless of my interest in the subject) for weeks, if not months, when I heard that a Saxon single had scraped into the UK top 20, and then heard it played on the radio. It was at once not what I had been expecting, and exactly what I’d been expecting. I thought this DIY genre of music would be a little rough and ready; not all polished chrome and steel, but I also recognised that the giant sound and distorted power chords were exactly what I’d imagined them to sound like.
There was something primal, something visceral about the Saxon sound, and I decided I’d like to hear more. I went out and bought the album, then discovered (in quick succession, I suspect), that they were coming to Aberdeen and that this would be my chance to actually see live music in the flesh.
You’ll perhaps have noticed that none of these memories have yet revolved around seeing a band or artist perform live. Part of the reason for that is that few bands made it all the way up north; another is that I still hadn’t got round to figuring out a reliable source of disposable income (I did, eventually, find a couple of jobs that summer), so adding the cost of a concert ticket to the price of an album was just out of my range.
It had to happen some time, though, and Saxon were it.
I’d left school, although I don’t remember if I was working that week or not. If I was, I don’t imagine I was able to hear much the following morning. Seeing Saxon live was a fully immersive experience – I can tell you pretty much which row I was in, who I was with, how little of the time I spent in my seat, and make a decent stab at which songs they played, but my overall memory of the experience is just how deafeningly loud it was. I don’t think I’d expected crystal clarity and to be able to pick out subtle nuances, but equally, I wasn’t expecting – I don’t think – to be bludgeoned by a noise so primal I could feel it as much as I could hear it. For the first time, I properly understood why so many rock singers pitched their singing voces so high – it was the only way to cut through the wall of noise and be heard. I also experienced live rock drumming for the first time, which in turn explained why everything else was so loud.
I had an absolute blast, to the point where I pretty much only went to metal gigs for the next two years, at some cost to my social standing and overall coolness.
For it must be admitted that I’d managed to pick a genre of music which had fallen off the bottom of the ‘hip’ scale. Whatever I enjoyed about it (and there was a lot to enjoy, at least at the time) had to be balanced against the fact that way before the likes of Metallica made this stuff mainstream and acceptable, I was listening to music which made my peers point and laugh. I have no idea if I was deliberately curating the ‘outsider’ effect, but I certainly wasn’t joining in with the discussions about cutting-edge music any more.
I did, eventually, discover all the music which my neighbours in Pollock Halls of Residence were raving about, but it was a little late by then. Until I woke up again, I was stuck in this world of long hair, denim, leather, spandex and high-pitched voices. I did enjoy most of it, to be fair, but I missed a lot, too.
And I’m not being entirely fair to myself – I was as deeply immersed in the world of chart music at the time, which was as varied and innovative as my chosen genre seemed formulaic and predictable. I just wasn’t buying those records, going to those gigs or putting those posters on my wall.
I did buy Wheels of Steel, though, and it set the tone for my album collection for a couple of years. I’m going to spare you almost all of that, though, as I know I’d struggle to tell you anything much about the majority of those records, which I bought, listened to a few times until I’d seen the band live, then sent to the back of the pile while I got on with the next one – I definitely pursued a policy of quantity over quality in those first couple of years in Edinburgh, and looking at what’s on my shelves now, I reckon that I’m interested today in less than 10% of what I owned back then – I did eventually, it seems, acquire a quality filter.
This album, sadly, isn’t one of them. I probably last listened to it in about 1983, and while I loved it at the time – and particularly loved the fact that it was released on a French disco label – I can recall only two of the songs on here, while the rest merge into a kind of sea of molten loudness. Let’s see if it can remind me what it was that took hold of me so strongly in early 1980.
Opener Motorcycle Man immediately unearths a long-buried memory of the live experience – it definitely started with the inevitable sound effect of a motorbike being driven at high speed across the stage before everything explodes into high-speed light and sound. It’s making me tired just listening to this; I have no idea how you starred a show with this and built from there. Otherwise, it’s a regulation metal song – verse, chorus, verse, solo, chorus, other solo, chorus to fade. The only thing which causes me to raise an eyebrow today is the middle eight’s brief dalliance with minor chords before leaping back into the second solo.
Two guitarists, two solos, as I recall.
Stand up and be Counted settles into a groove early, and gives me the first opportunity to appreciate the stentorian vocals of Biff Byford – among all the vocalists of this particular genre, he always stood out for his ability to be heard over pretty much any racket going on behind him. His was (and still is, for all I know) a distinctive, pure bellow of a voice; perfectly suited to this kind of music.
The first song I remember clearly is 747 (Strangers in the Night), which still stands out for its melody and story, as well as what I seem to recall became a Saxon trademark of launching straight into a memorable guitar line instead of just pulverising you with the riff. It certainly makes this song stand out; it is a much stronger piece of songwriting than what’s gone before. Again, some sound effects illuminate the whole thing, and I find myself singing along in parts.
Well, approximating singing along; there’s no way my voice can do that.
The title track and first single; the song which alerted me to this whole thing and which was responsible for so much over the next two years, turns out to be nearly six minutes long, which I definitely hadn’t remembered. It’s definitely a little too long to be in the company of a riff which doesn’t extend itself beyond the first three chords we hear, but it’s also quite hypnotic; I can see what attracted my attention in the first place, although I don’t imagine that the full length version made it on to the single – can’t see Radio 1 playing their way through that lengthy coda, for example, and I’m certain you couldn’t say ‘bullshit’ on the radio back then.
It’s a song about a car; it’s only remarkable to me because of what it led to, really.
It’s also followed by another song about a car – Freeway Mad – which begins withsome spectacular drumming, only to slip into a somewhat predictable retread of Deep Purple’s Highway Star. There are police sirens, though – American sounding sirens, which liven up the midsection a little before it subsides into a distorted guitar solo then takes its leave. Won’t stay long in the memory, that one.
See the Light Shining follows much the same pattern – rapid riffing, pulverising drums, and a vocal line designed for that moment in the set when the lights get turned on the audience and everyone yells back at the band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I’m sure the first time I saw it, I was up on my feet screaming with the rest of them. I do enjoy the voice here, though, and the mid-point breakdown; this was an accomplished set of musicians, and – as I’d noticed on the singles – well-produced to show off what they could do.
It’s just a little much, forty minutes of this unbroken. And I’m not even thirty minutes into it yet.
Street Fighting Gang starts with another of those rapid-fire riffs. Weirdly, while I’m listening to this, I’m imagining a slowed down, acoustic version. I don’t know if something like that exists, but I’d quite like to hear it. Oh, paired guitar solos, very much in the style of Wishbone Ash.
I know I loved it for a while, but I don’t miss it. It’s well-executed and probably miles better than so many of its peers, but – as I ‘ve no doubt you can tell – I’m working hard here.
OK, so Suzie Hold On sounds a little different; it’s the first time we’ve heard any bass work, and I can definitely hear the influence of Chinn and Chapman – writers of so many 1970s glam rock hits – in this; I can actually picture this as a single for Sweet; just tone the guitars down a touch, and you’d be there. I didn’t remember it, but I wonder if it’s actually the best track on here?
It’s also – if this is to be believed – the only track from the album they didn’t play live that night at the Capitol in Aberdeen. It is a little out of step with the rest of it, so I’m not that surprised, but I’ve enjoyed it more than anything else outside the two songs I remembered.
I wonder if anyone can guess how album-closer Machine Gun sounds? If you guessed rapid-fire riffing and thunderous drumming, well done. I really don’t have anything more to say about it; it doesn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect it to, and rumbles along for nearly five and a half minutes in exactly the way you’d expect, including some wailing guitar solos in the middle. Oh, and it ends with a giant explosion, because of course it does.
I’ve tried to listen to this with fresh ears; to try to find what excited me so much all those years ago, but I’m only finding faint echoes. I know that standing in front of Saxon while they played all this at you at mind-melting volume was a formative and unforgettable experience, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these nine tracks in the way they’re written or played; I can hear the adrenaline thundering through all of it, and appreciate the craft of it all, especially in the voice, but I’m afraid it was of its time. I loved it when I was 18; not so much forty years on.
Also, my ears hurt now.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
If you like this, I dare say you’ll like the other two I owned – Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather. They definitely found a formula which developed on the sounds on Wheels of Steel, and I dare say I’d find more to like and enjoy in those two. If you didn’t enjoy any of this, I’m not sure they ever strayed far from this pattern, even when covering Christopher Cross’ Ride Like the Wind.
Compilations to consider?
There’s one called A Collection of Metal, which I imagine contains everything you might need.
The last Saxon album I owned was the live album The Eagle Has Landed; they were a tremendous live experience, and I’m pretty sure I’m on there somewhere (there are about three or four live albums I’m in the audience of from around that time – I think this was one of them).
Well, you could go and make yourself a pot of Yorkshire tea – Saxon were famously renowned for their tea consumption….
Also, there’s apparently a film called Heavy Metal Thunder – the Movie. I kind of want to see what that’s all about.