If you’ve been a regular visitor to Real Gone, you’ll know that Saxon is a band who have been featured previously – more than once, in fact. …And deservedly so, since their long history has seen many changes; from changes in line-ups, to changes in management – the band, driven by the heavyweight enthusiasm of frontman Biff Byford, appears to be almost unstoppable.
This documentary film made by Coolhead Productions tells their story right from the beginning; when vocalist Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn were playing to small audiences in their slightly ambitious blues/prog hybrid Coast, while simultaneously Steve “Dobby” Dawson and Graham Oliver were getting gigs in a Free influenced hard rock outfit named Sob. Eventually the four musicians joined forces: Sob was renamed Son of a Bitch and with the addition of drummer Pete Gill, was eventually renamed Saxon.
Fans of the band’s first taste of success as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal will have plenty to sink their teeth into, since this movie sees their 1979-82 period discussed at great length, with a particularly in-depth segment regarding Saxon’s support slot on Motörhead’s ‘Bomber’ tour of ’79. As expected, Lemmy is on hand to recount a few stories and we are given an insight into a friendship which was formed between the two bands – a bond which remains strong. The main highlight with regards to storytelling comes from Saxon’s then manager – David Poxon – who recounts the night he was hired. Allegedly, he got stuck in room with the band who then embarked upon a five hour tea-drinking frenzy while Biff cornered him and talked incessantly.
The eighties are tackled with a similar depth, including some great in-the-studio footage of the band recording ‘Crusader’ with REO Speedwagon producer Kevin Beamish. For those looking for the traditional ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ spirit previously associated with Saxon, the 80s albums have always divided their audience. This documentary highlights that the band weren’t always sure with their direction here either – and it’s strangely comforting to hear that!
Although the documentary is superb, there’s a feeling that the band’s output between 1990 and their headline performance at the German Wacken Festival in 2008 is a little rushed. There are decent interviews with guitarist Doug Scarratt and bassist Tim ‘Nibs’ Carter, where they talk about joining Saxon; there’s the obligatory discussion regarding Graham Oliver finishing his tenure with the band. There’s also time given to the discussion of the Harvey Goldsmith documentary (which is claimed went some way to putting Saxon back on the right path, but from some angles here it looks like a hatchet job). But for the more casual fan (there are a lot of lapsed fans out there, and here’s hoping this documentary could inspire them to re-connect with the band), any discussion of the many albums Saxon released throughout the 90s and most of the 00’s appears to fly by in minutes. 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’ is discussed briefly as marking the beginning of a move back towards a more metal sound for Saxon, before barely any time at all is given to the albums which followed.
While all the interviewees have great stories to tell (Biff and Dobby are particularly engaging), ‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ is not always laughs abound. There’s a moment where the slightly boastful tones of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery turn to regret as Dobby recounts tales of times spent with groupies, particularly on the Mötley Crüe tour of ’84. Even though, as a viewer you know it’s coming, hearing the less optimistic voices of Dobby and Graham Oliver talk about their leaving the band/being fired also lends a gentle sadness. Biff also talks about his first wife and child and becoming a father at 17 and having to choose between them or life as a musician. When asked if he ever looks back, he replies: “No. I don’t think about it. You have to put it in a little package and put it away somewhere…”
If the late 70s and early 80s established the band as one of the leading lights in the heavy metal scene of the time, then their renewed vigour in the 21st Century really highlights why they’ve endured for so long. There are extensive clips throughout the film of Saxon’s St George’s Day performance in 2008 and the aforementioned Wacken 2008 performance. Here, with the Byford/Quinn/Scarratt/Carter/Glockler line-up, the band sound stronger and heavier than ever before and hearing Biff talk of Saxon’s future, he remains very optimistic.
In addition to the many interviews with past and present members of Saxon, their managers and the always enjoyable input of Motorhead, ‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ also features cameo appearances from other musicians, some very well known, some not so. Probably the most famous interviewee is Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who as always, comes across as a little self important. He says that Saxon were the biggest influence on his band… Y’know, I could swear I’ve heard him say that about Diamond Head and other bands too… On the plus side (and it’s a big plus) Lars’s contribution means the viewer is treated to a clip of Metallica playing ‘Motorcycle Man’ with Biff guesting on lead vocals!
Despite the last 45 minutes feeling a bit pieced together, ‘Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie’ is fantastic – a roller coaster of happiness and sadness; full of great stories and great tunes. If you’re a fan, you’re in for a fantastic journey.