The Eagle Has Landed... Again.
By Trace Rayfield
“Where were you in ’79 when the dam began to burst? Did you check us out down at the local show? Were you wearing Denim, wearing Leather?" The immortal words of Biff Byford from the title track of Saxon’s 1981 classic “Denim and Leather”. This was the album and subsequent tours that broke the band in America. With the release of arguably their two best efforts the previous year “Wheels of Steel” and “Strong Arm of the Law” fans of the underground NWOBHM – New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, like me and my best friend Wade Brooks were already “full on” hardcore fans of the band.
It was their 1982 appearance in St. Louis supporting UFO that began our relationship with the band. We were lucky enough to spend time backstage interviewing Biff and watching founding guitarist Graham Oliver warm up for the show. The best was yet to come as Wade and I, along with several of our friends, went to the band’s downtown St. Louis hotel for an after gig party to rival all after gig parties. We literally took over the hotel bar for several hours of alcohol induced mayhem. The band couldn’t have been more accommodating as they signed every autograph and posed for every picture requested. We went on to see Saxon two more times that year supporting Krokus and Cheap Trick. I was craving another chance to see Saxon and made the ultimate road trip to New York City to see Saxon headline at the now defunct Palladium Theatre in Manhattan.
As the band struggled into the new millennium, it was Europe where they concentrated the rebuilding effort most. Continual touring along with a steady diet of new releases allowed Saxon the outlet needed to regain their lost fame. In fact they are bigger now on the Continent than at the peak of the NWOBHM. So popular that they even headlined one night at last year’s huge Wacken open air festival in Germany which is no small feat.
As part of the “Warriors of the Road” world tour Saxon returned to the U.S. this year for a headlining club tour with Armored Saint in support as well as four arena shows supporting Judas Priest which is where we caught up with Biff and long time drummer Nigel “Pongo” Glockler to discuss their current resurgence in America as well as Nigel’s recent near death health scare.
Biff fondly recalled their time with Priest back at the dawn of the NWOBHM as they took them on tour in Europe for what they jokingly referred to as the “Steel” tour as it was JP’s “British Steel” tour as well as Saxon’s “Wheels of Steel” tour which he gives credit for breaking them outside their home country. This in addition to returning home to support Motörhead on their British tour proved to be the fuse that lit the stick of dynamite for the band. When asked what it will take for them to regain their status in the States, Biff responded that more arena tours with bands like Priest as well as festival type concerts where they can reach large numbers of metal fans would be the key.
I asked Biff the tough question about any possible reunion with the original NWOBHM line up which he quickly shot down. Hey, I had to ask. He feels they are loyal to the current members and since they were not key members such as a singer or highly recognizable player, any plans of a reunion are for the fans to dream about. Speaking for myself, I would love to see Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson back in the fold since they helped create the best songs they band has released. I believe it may also have more to do with the legal wrangling between the different factions over the continued use of the name Saxon which Biff won in a court case back in the 90’s.
We enjoyed going back to the roots of NWOBHM with Biff discussing the importance of Sounds music paper and Kerrang. Social media has played a big part in the bands recent return to the U.S fans attention, something that Biff enjoys taking a part in daily on both Facebook and Twitter. Biff enjoys posting live crowd videos of their ecstatic reception at these recent shows. When pressed for details on the new album he would only reveal the title of “Battering Ram”, which he assured us “it speaks for itself”. Killer title for sure on the upcoming release in October, which will mean more North American dates with a just announced run with Motörhead this September and an upcoming Euro tour this fall with Motörhead and Girlschool now being added to the bill.
We had the opportunity to talk to long time drummer Nigel Glockler, which we had met back on that tour in ’82. He even remembered the Alpine Valley resort gig because of the unique location in the Wisconsin woods. The conversation turned serious when we inquired about he’s recent brain surgery, which very nearly ended his playing career as well as his life. He was in a hotel in Newcastle he recalled when he was overcome with intense head pain, which he recognized right away was nothing he had ever felt before and he was in big trouble. He was able to contact his wife who assisted getting him into a local hospital quickly which is the only thing that saved his life. He joked with us that if he had been in some remote European location with less than stellar medical accommodations he more than likely would be six feet under right now. Close call for sure. As we showed him pictures from our first encounter some 33 years ago, Nigel’s spirits quickly returned to his normal cheerful self. Since we were surprised by the sudden departure of the previous drummer Pete Gill, we asked Pongo exactly how it came to be that he ended up in one of England’s hottest up and coming Heavy Metal bands.
He received a call from someone in Saxon’s camp one evening as he sat down to have a roast beef dinner at his parent’s house. Somewhat annoyed by the interruption to the ensuing feast, he dismissed the caller when pushed about possibly joining the band on the spot, when quickly telling him “I’m going to enjoy my dinner for now”. At first Nigel recalled little interest in making a permanent move as he was experiencing success with his current gig in British sensation Toyah Wilcox’ self titled project Toyah. What intrigued him most about joining up with Biff and co. was being an equal member of an actual band and not a player lost in the background of a popular singer like Toyah. It was an odd first meeting as Nigel admits he was not exactly a metal head. When they looked him up and down as he stood there in his yellow trousers and red trainers, Saxon thought they may have made a mistake. Of course all of that went out the window as he pounded along to their classics that he had just crash coursed the previous day or two. The rest as they say is history.
After discussing their current state of affairs with Saxon I had to ask Biff about a couple of recent collaborations he had with some Heavy Metal heavyweights. First there was his rendition of his classic “Motorcycle Man” that he performed with Metallica at one of their 30th anniversary shows in San Francisco. Actually what happened was “Lars called me when I was living in France back in 2009 and asked if I would join them in Paris to perform one of their favorite Saxon songs”. It seems Lars had just read Biff’s book and realized he had not paid one of the NWOBHM founders their due. There was a time Biff recalled that Metallica didn’t always pay them respect. It seems they have recently recognized Saxon publicly as being influences on their early career. After a good time was had by all in Paris, Metallica asked Biff to be a part of their 30th celebration in America which he was more than happy to do.
Saxon live is a must see regardless of how many times you have seen them. Saxon always kicks ass at maximum Heavy Metal Thunder. Saxon’s set in Chicago on May 21st had to be abbreviated which we found out on the bands tour bus when Biff got the word the venue had a curfew. Every song in their set roared. Biff is a great front man who pulls the fans into each and every song. The headbanging began with Motorcycle Man and continued with Sacrifice, Power and the Glory, Wheels of Steel, 20,000 Ft, Dallas 1 PM, This Town Rocks, Princess of the Night, Crusader and Heavy Metal Thunder. Wade made the trip up from St. Louis, so seeing and being with one of your favorite bands together with your old metal mate made this show that much more meaningful. A full circle moment for sure. This was Judas Priest headline show, so we could only imagine seeing Saxon headline on their own turf with a full stage show and full set list.
"Pull your head back, Hold your hands high, Shake your body, If it's too loud, And you're burning hot, fill your heads, With heavy metal thunder, Heavy metal thunder."