Following the tour for 1985’s ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’, founding member Steve ‘Dobby’ Dawson quit the band, leaving Saxon without a bassist and with far less of a moustache quotient. Without securing a replacement, the band re-entered the studio. With Biff Byford handling vocals and bass duties for the recording sessions of what would eventually become ‘Rock The Nations’, Saxon wouldn’t lose momentum. This seemed like the natural solution until a permanent replacement could be found.
Released in October 1986, on the surface, parts of ‘Rock The Nations’ appear to be very similar to its predecessor in that it can be fairly glossy – certainly compared to a couple of Saxon’s earlier albums. Unlike ‘Innocence’, though, it has the benefit of gut-busting rockers to placate older fans that sound like far more than an mere afterthought. Between these and a couple of well-crafted melodic tracks, it manages to showcase most of Saxon’s talents within one record in a way that no Saxon album had since 1983. It has two other major plus points: the presence of producer Gary Lyons and an unlikely guest star – Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Elton John.
Elton guesting on a Saxon album seems about as likely as a duet between Rob Halford and Stevie Nicks, but nevertheless, he’s here on two tracks. The collaboration came about more by accident than design, since Elton and his band were in the adjacent studio recording the album that would eventually be released as ‘Leather Jackets’. Elt, calling upon his previous experience as a hard working session man, ended up sitting in with the band. While his presence is a huge boon for the album as a whole, one of his guested tracks is best forgotten. Previous Saxon records could be guilty of having a couple of weaker tracks, but a couple of massive clunkers on ‘Crusader’ aside, they never managed anything as woeful as ‘Party Til You Puke’. A live-in-the-studio sounding rock ‘n’ roller, it really is as bad as its title suggests. The track opens with some retro rhythm guitar, before thundering drums drive the bulk of the verse into a car-crash that sounds like a silly take on something by Rose Tattoo…only with extra rinky-dinky piano. On the rockier parts, Elt’s in there hammering on the ivories, but in truth, other than a brief flourish near the end, you’d be hard pushed to tell it was actually him. The likes of Chris Stainton or Alan Bown could have done a similar job. When the guitar solo begins, the metallic edge and sheer energy suggests it might rescue a little bit of dignity, but that goes out of the window when a couple of stops are filled with novelty interludes. Make no mistake: ‘Party ‘Til You Puke’ isn’t just a bit misguided, or bad. It’s bloody awful. It’s only saving grace is that you can imagine Biff getting on the phone the following day, saying “…you’ll never guess who we’ve worked with!”
Elton’s second appearance, thankfully, is far better. A big ballad, ‘Northern Lady’ is a sprawling affair that’s given a bit of extra sparkle with his piano presence. It would be a great track without him, to be fair, but the purity of his accompaniment adds just that extra something. The coming together of acoustic guitar and piano in the intro has a great melody and with more than a hint of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Thank You’, the number very quickly moves into something slightly heavier. The introduction of chugging guitars – by turns heavy and melodic – gives the number an instant drive; Biff looks to the softer side of his voice to recount this tale of a lost love and it results in the album’s best performance. Most impressive of all, though, is Nigel Glockler’s drum sound. Producer Lyons used a similar technique heard on Lone Star’s ‘Firing On All Six’ and the Reggie Knighton Band album (both of which he engineered) to really bring out the drums so they sound four times louder than everything else – it’s almost as if Nigel is in the room with you. With the addition of a great melodic guitar solo, there’s little doubt that this is special. By the close of the track, with those enormous drums in full flow and a selection of twin lead guitars adding a wonderful melody, there’s a real sense of everything being on a bigger scale than anything Saxon have ever recorded – something amplified further by a few crowd-pleasing whoahs to top off everything.
In many ways, the two tracks featuring Elton represent ‘Rock The Nations’ at both its best and very worst, but the other single, ‘Waiting For The Night’ is also essential listening, showing off Saxon’s AOR skills in a similar way to the previous album’s ‘Back On The Streets Again’, only better. Another track hated by fans, it’s actually a marvellous stab at radio friendly rock. The opening guitars represent twin lead perfection – almost sounding like guitar synths – and the verse is a pleasingly punchy workout where rhythm guitars and an enthusiastic vocal result in something that only a hard heart could dislike. It’s when shifting into the chorus, though, that this track reaches it’s full potential, with the re-introduction of those twin guitars and Biff handling a very American sounding hook that calls to MTV. American rock with a very British accent rarely sounded better. When released as a single, it wasn’t the great success it deserved to be, proving in many ways that Saxon were rapidly falling out of favour in the UK. Sadly, at this point, with great players and great songs but no hit singles, Saxon’s only real drawback was actually being Saxon. Had this track fallen into the hands of Europe or someone similar, it would have had every chance of being a hit.
For those dyed in the wool fans looking for rock stompers, the title cut is more than happy to oblige. With a huge drum sound leading the charge, Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn drop into a very solid riff, before Biff launches into another song about being on stage and thrilling the awaiting crowds. Tales of “flashing lights” and music that “fills the night” is simplistic, but Saxon know their audience. Overall, in terms of song writing it isn’t quite as effective as ‘Denim & Leather’ in the anthem stakes, but it’s a great stab at something similar…and the actual performance cannot be faulted, especially with Quinn bending his strings to create dirtier sounds on the chorus and he and Graham absolutely hammering when it comes to solos. The fans are one of Saxon’s most loved song topics, along with motorcycles; battles come a close second…and in ‘Battle Cry’, the lads unveil another strong effort. It’s got a chest-beating machismo that non-fans could easily sneer at, but the song represents Saxon firing on all cylinders. Glockler plays his arse off behind the kit – once again the power of his drum sound on this LP cannot be understated – and that, in turn, means the rest of the band take things up about five notches. In terms of riffs, this number could slot into the ‘Power & The Glory’ and ‘Denim & Leather’ albums easily – it’s very much influenced by the band’s earlier output – and, much like the title cut, the solos are amazing.
As for the rest of the album, the quality wobbles in places and there’s one more rather dodgy affair, but thankfully nothing plummets the depths of despair like ‘…Puke’. After the title track, the audience rousing ‘We Came Here To Rock’ seems to retread familiar ground and could be seen as surplus, but whereas ‘Rock The Nations’ is very obviously the work of Saxon, ‘We Came’ tackles things from a more US-styled perspective. With a touch more melody, this has more than a pinch of influence from Keel and Twisted Sister, but thanks to Biff’s no-nonsense voice, it doesn’t ever feel entirely faceless. It’s closer to filler material than some of the album, but between a reasonably passionate vocal (considering the relatively throwaway nature of the material), some punchy riffs, a quirky solo and a very melodic instrumental break under the guidance of Quinn, something that should be tat ends up far more enjoyable. As far as Saxon’s forays into rock songs about rock is concerned, it absolutely stomps over ‘Crusader’s nearest equivalent.
The earliest composition written for this album – still early enough to claim a Dawson co-write and a sporting a lyric which gave the previous LP its title – ‘You Ain’t No Angel’ has some solidly enjoyable musical moments and one of the heaviest riffs this time out. Nudging towards a stomping arrangement that owes more to Dio than anything, Biff and the lads go all out in hard rock stakes. With a howling guitar solo and with the aforementioned riff never subsiding too much, it should be great. However, it has a fatal flaw: no only does it play up to the misogynistic values that cut through so much rock between the mid and late 80s, it does so with the subtlety of a mallet, complete with tacky spoken word interlude from a voice-over actress playing a groupie. Urgh. Such a shame that Quinn, Oliver and Glockler’s rock solid efforts are wrecked by crass verbiage; a choice that ultimately makes this track best avoided.
‘Running Hot’, meanwhile, finds a love of disposable rock that like ‘Battle Cry’ is geared towards the trashier end of the US market. A little more Twisted Sister than New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it actually works out fine thanks to a great vocal and an arrangement that finds a safe space between ballsy hard rock and something more melodic. While the song itself could be considered reasonably generic, an absolutely blistering guitar solo raises the bar considerably. It’s no ‘Waiting For The Night’ or ‘Battle Cry’, but that doesn’t stop it being great fun. ‘Empty Promises’ taps into similar US-centric hard rock, this time making a much bigger feature of Glockler’s aforementioned drum sound which sounds incredibly weighty here despite his performance having a genuine simplicity. Beyond the drums and a chunky guitar part, though, it’s not especially memorable until the instrumental break featuring an especially uncharacteristic usage of a talk box. If you want hard rock for hard rock’s sake, it’s far from terrible, but Saxon – prior and post ‘Rock The Nations’ – have shown greater skills. While it’s definitely average fare, it doesn’t actually damage the overall quality of the album: between the title track, ‘Northern Lady’, ‘Battle Cry’, ‘Waiting For The Night’ and ‘Running Hot’, there’s plenty of top-tier material to be heard.
After recording the album but before getting the artwork finalised, Saxon found a permanent bass player in Paul Johnson (thus giving him full credit on the LP sleeve) and headed out for their regular punishing tour schedule. On the road, the band remained a reasonable draw, but ‘Rock The Nations’ was not a hit with the UK’s record buying public. Failing to score anything like a moderately successful single since signing with EMI, and now having an album failing to reach the top 40, a band who could once do no wrong in the eyes of British rock fans ultimately found their star falling rapidly.
The relative lack of success for ‘Rock The Nations’ is strange, considering it is an album with a bit of everything: thundering rockers, well arranged melodic tracks, even a huge ballad. It isn’t as consistent a listen as ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’, but for that very reason, it’s always been a far more interesting one. It’s a record that the more casual admirers should seek out – even with the rock ‘n’ roll dross of ‘Party ‘Til You Puke’ ranking as one of the worst songs ever, there’s so much here to love.
[A 2018 reissue presents the album in a digibook sleeve featuring rare photos. A selection of bonus tracks offers a 12” version of ‘Waiting For The Night’, a few live tracks and a couple of demo recordings.]
Read a review of Saxon’s ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’ here.
Click on the Saxon tag at the bottom of this article to find our other Saxon pieces.