In some people’s minds, Samson are often considered either a second division act of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or simply “that band that Bruce Dickinson used to be in”. While neither is technically incorrect – historically, most NWOBHM bands are now second division compared to scene titans Iron Maiden and Saxon, and Bruce was in the band – such basic thinking does Samson a massive disservice. By the time they’d recorded their debut album in 1979, the band were actually at the forefront of the emerging scene. They were one of the first to release a full length album and despite some fluctuation in early line-ups, at their best, they could more than hold their own when it came to hard rock entertainment.
Their back catalogue has been reissued several times over the years, but this box set from Cherry Red Records/HNE Recordings is perhaps the finest of all of the Samson reissues. Joining their other mid-priced sets covering the albums from 1986’s ‘Joint Forces’ to their ‘PS’ swansong in 2006, ‘Bright Lights: 1979-1981’ is the best of the lot. Covering the formative years with Paul as bandleader and vocalist as well as a complete collection of recordings made with Dickinson, it’s a box for long-time fans and the merely curious alike. For those coming to the albums for the first time – and there will always be some – it’s worth noting that although 1980’s ‘Head On’ is where the fun truly begins, when hearing the album in period context after 1979’s ‘Survivors’, it sounds even better.
Recorded quickly in April 1979, Samson’s debut LP hit the shelves barely two months later, but by that time it was already out of date. In the intervening weeks between finishing the recording and getting the sleeve printed, Paul Samson had stepped aside as lead vocalist and the job was handed to one Paul Bruce Dickinson (soon to be nicknamed Bruce Bruce), previously of the band Shots. Paul Samson’s vocal styie and Bruce’s were worlds apart and subsequently the independent Laser Records found themselves saddled with a studio recording they’d struggle to promote since it bore little to no resemblance to the current live act. As a result, ‘Survivors’ was never a commercial success, but remains popular among lovers of late 70s hard rock and metal.
Looking back, it’s actually a pretty good record. Half of it owes more to relatively old fashioned hard rock and pub rock than the emerging metal of the era, but its best tracks show a band that are more than talented enough – even if Samson’s vocals are a touch on the flat side in places and some of the lyrics are…naive. (Under)produced by Gillan’s John McCoy, the record has a brilliant rawness, something which really comes across during the opening track ‘It’s Not As Easy As It Seems’. A tune that occasionally sounds like a cross between Thin Lizzy in a very aggressive mood and the gruffness of Judas Priest circa 1977, the bass work really buzzes and Samson’s lead guitar work is placed so highly in the mix, it comes with a fantastic piercing edge. The obvious flaws come from Samson’s lead vocal; no more than an enthusiastic pub singer, he does his best, but it’s already obvious he’s not right for the job in the long term. Also brilliant, ‘Big Brother’ is a number with a hard rock strut that occasionally sounds like an homage to UFO or even a nod to Uriah Heep in one of their straight up rock moods. It doesn’t come close to capturing any of the sheer energy of that year’s debut from Saxon or Iron Maiden’s ‘Soundhouse Tapes’, but during the extended instrumental break Paul’s guitar tones are enjoyable and his gift for a simple musical hook are more than evident.
Another highlight, the album’s ballad ‘Tomorrow or Yesterday’ shows how Paul actually has a reasonable voice for softer material and includes a lot of multi-layered guitar work with more of a melodic edge than before. It’s one of the only times where you’ll get any sense of McCoy putting in the hours production wise, since the bass is warm and the piano playing is suitably rich. Stylistically, it’s very different from the bulk of the LP, occasionally sounding like Rick Derringer’s ‘Jump Jump Jump’, but therein lies its major charm. The multi-layered guitars sound a little rough at times, but the melody is so strong the number is easy the album’s most enduring six minutes. Shoehorning a fast instrumental break into such a slow and tuneful number foreshadows a preference Paul would show later on for wedging in aggressive playing where it’s not expected. Although this deserves to kill a great track, it actually suggests someone was thinking ahead to live performances and how this might jolt the audience in a brilliant and unexpected way. Paul’s lead work is great throughout, which is more than can be said for the “strangled cat” style of keyboard solo courtesy of Gillan’s own Colin Towns… ‘Survivors’ is worth owning for this alone (that’s the track, but not especially that keyboard solo).
‘Six Foot Under’ quickly becomes a great vehicle for Paul’s guitar riffs, but the whole band can be heard going at full pelt throughout. Guesting on piano once more, Towns adds various rock ‘n’ roll inspired flourishes which often seem so much at odds with the hard rock, but never enough to spoil a solid tune. The biggest interest, though, is the opening (and recurring) riff: it’s a dead ringer for Gillan’s ‘Running White Face City Boy’ which had yet to be recorded. Since McCoy and Towns were involved with both tracks, it’s easy to suspect they purloined one of Samson’s best riffs and put it to even better use…
When ‘Survivors’ is good, it has a DIY appeal that has a fair amount of charm. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. Material like ‘I Wish I Was The Saddle of a Schoolgirl’s Bike’ and ‘Inside Out’ let the side down with basic blues rock plodding and/or embarrassing lyrics, while the spacey instrumental ‘Koz’ hovers somewhere between a driving rocker from an early Magnum LP, an odd Sweet throwback and something sounds like a waste of time that Hawkwind would’ve even binned in 1972. These three songs do some severe damage to the album as a whole; in the case of ‘Inside Out’ especially, there’s nothing that remotely suggests a band that are ready to leave the pub circuit, let alone press their songs onto a piece of plastic.
To be fair, ‘Survivors’ is a reasonable enough first step into the world of recording, but doesn’t often play like something from a band who’d just embarked on a career that would span over two decades. The record sounds like a demo, but looking back, given that it was all recorded in a blur and the band were already moving on by the time of its release…it sort of was, whether that was the intention or not. It’s the sort of record that really doesn’t deserve your twelve quid as a stand-alone CD purchase, but included as part of a box set that features some indispensable stuff, it’s mostly very welcome, warts and all.
[This edition of ‘Survivors’ includes a wealth of bonus tracks: as per the earlier expanded edition, the album is joined by the 1979 debut 7” ‘Mr. Rock & Roll’ and ‘The Shuffle’ featuring Paul Samson on vocals, as well as seven re-recordings from 1980 featuring Bruce Bruce.]
By the time Samson returned to the studio in 1980, they sounded like a completely different band, but then in many respects they were. Bruce Dickinson had settled in as vocalist (or as much as he would be; according to his autobiography, the band’s attitude to rehearsing and recording wasn’t the most professional) and the band had also acquired a full time drummer, one Thunderstick, previously of Iron Maiden. The resulting album ‘Head On’ was to be one of Samson’s finest records.
Straight from the opener ‘Hard Times’, there’s a real energy that just wasn’t always present on the debut. The way this particular track opens with Thunderstick rattling his kit and a few sharp guitar chords sets everything in motion and then once Bruce starts to sing, we hear the improved Samson in full flight. There’s an edge that places the band right in the centre of the NWOBHM stylistically – or head on, if you will. Between a great drum part, a reasonable hook and some great guitar work the album quickly suggests something that’ll stomp all over its predecessor. A similar professionalism pumps the heart of ‘Take Me To Your Leader’, a rough and ready neo-thrasher that allows Dickinson to adopt full scream in places, despite the arrangement having a bizarre kitchen sink approach. ‘Manwatcher’ melds the band’s new found metal chops with a fuzzy groove that sounds like a Gillan leftover, but even here, Bruce’s sense of occasion combined with a grandiose backing vocal places it on a tier above the debut. It’s one of those tracks worth hearing purely for the use of stereo split and some inventive guitar work from Mr. Samson himself.
One of the album’s most famous pieces, ‘Thunderburst’ is familiar to almost every metal fan across the globe. An older composition, it had been written with Steve Harris during Barry ‘Thunderstick’ Purkis’s year in Iron Maiden at some point prior to the end of 1979. A short instrumental, it opens with an acoustic guitar motif before a world of power chords lay down a very strong melody. Between those chords, Barry rolls across his toms in an almost thunder-like way and this continues until a dual guitar and vocal adds an extra melody. A year later, the track re-appeared (slightly reworked) as ‘The Ides of March on Iron Maiden’s ‘Killers’ LP, much to the annoyance of Thunderstick who received no writing credit. While the Maiden recording is superior thanks to ex-Samson man Clive Burr being a superior drummer and the arrival of a new, fast section, Thunderstick still deserves full due for what remains an excellent piece of music. [For further reading, check out Real Gone’s archive piece on the ‘Killers’ LP here.]
Although Samson had moved in a harder direction, musically speaking, the album’s best track isn’t actually one of its more metal influenced. The slower and almost bluesy ‘Vice Versa’ would eventually become a highlight of the live set and even in its studio guise, it more than shows off a band capable of valuing melody over bombast. The use of clean guitar sounds throughout lends a texture that some NWOBHM bands would never find; the louder moments are a brilliant blend of hard rock and something a little pompier and Bruce’s full range of vocal tricks is given free rein. …And that’s before the full-on instrumental break where the band really cut loose. To be fair, that sounds like it’s been pasted in from a failed musical experiment, but it still works well enough. The album’s closer ‘Walking Out on You’ brings a lot of atmosphere with a nice mix of metal and moodiness. Or at least it should, considering Samson plays a blinder of a solo and the main melodies are all great. It’s actually ruined by poor post-production ideas that drown Bruce in a truckload of echo and reverb…largely killing a great song in the process. It’s a pity this is the last thing you’ll remember as the disc stops spinning, especially since ‘Head On’ is home to some genuinely great material.
‘Head On’ mightn’t always be the most consistent album, but when its good, it it shows a real spirit; it’s the work of a band ready to take their career to the next level. For all fans of the NWOBHM, it should be considered as important an album as Saxon’s debut (it’s better produced than most of that) or Def Leppard’s too often overlooked ‘On Through The Night‘.
For lovers of ‘Head On’, ‘Bright Lights: The Albums 1979-1981’ offers a very interesting curio in the “Tony Platt Mix” of the album, making its debut on CD. The sleeve notes give no information about when this mix was created – or, indeed, why – but it has enough substantial differences throughout to make it a welcome addition to any Samson collection. Half the fun is in the discovery of the small stuff, but most notably, the rhythm section are much higher in the mix. On ‘Vice Versa’, especially, this gives the recording a real feeling of warmth the mix from the original LP lacked. There are a couple of other tweaks too – during the fast section, a rhythmic noise is far clearer. It might be handclaps; it might be Judas Priest rattling cutlery on tin trays, but it’s more obviously there. The extra oomph also brings out the more melodic edges of ‘Thunderburst’ and gives Aylmer’s bass more of a natural feel on the album closer ‘Walking Out On You’. Thankfully, this alternate version also strips Dickinson’s vocal of the previous echo, which is obviously an improvement since he offers a such fine performance. There are also vast differences in the collection of voices used at the close of the LP… Whether any of these musical changes are better or worse will be a personal preference, but there’s a genuine need for both versions of the album to be included.
[The two CDs include just three bonus tracks: a long version of ‘Kingsway Jam’, the 7” edit of ‘Hard Times’ and the non-album ‘Angel With A Machine Gun’]
Returning to the studio in January 1981, Samson recorded their third LP ‘Shock Tactics’ in less than a month. With Tony Platt in the producer’s chair, the album has a slightly more commercial sound but just as ‘Head On’ presented a huge leap forward, the opening track from 1981’s ‘Shock Tactics’ perfected everything the early incarnations of Samson set out to create.
While still keeping a firm hold on Paul’s love of classic hard rock, ‘Riding With The Angels’ presents the band with a genuine sharpness. Bruce’s vocals have found even more confidence and this track is one of the first times his soon-to-be-world-famous air-raid siren wail can be heard in full effect. Part of the brilliance here also comes from a sharper sense of song writing: the song’s writer, Russ Ballard, had a track record for handing rock bands tunes that either were hit singles (Rainbow‘s ‘Since You Been Gone’ and ‘I Surrender’; Roger Daltrey‘s ‘Just A Dream Away’ and Night Ranger‘s ‘I Did It For Love’, among others). Although it didn’t give Samson a massive hit single, it gave them a track that would genuinely endure the passing decades in a way that some of their prior material had no hope of doing…
Following the melodic metal of the opener, ‘Shock Tactics’ takes some sharp and quick musical detours. ‘Earth Mother’ presents a nice hard rock groove – showing both how well Thunderstick had grown as a drummer and how Bruce was now a world class vocalist – while ‘Nice Girl’ pushes Samson into a souped up blues-rock territory and ‘Blood Lust’ changes down gear for a heavy blues that gives Bruce far more room to stretch those vocal muscles. Each different from the track before, yet still feeling like the same band constantly feeling their way. Paul’s guitar work is great throughout (which is more than can be said for some of the lyrics). On ‘Blood Lust’, especially, the way he drops busy guitar runs against Aylmer’s solid basslines provides an album highlight. Retrospectively, of course, it’s Bruce who is the true star here and on this album’s first four tracks, we get to hear his full range. Closing the album’s first side, ‘Go To Hell’ has a strong tune and, again, shows a lot of energy, but a few dodgy rhymes and already clichéd song writing makes it feel like a tune that deserved better. Still, there’s enjoyment to be had from Aylmer’s bass work and a few sharp moments of lead guitar.
With side one of ‘Shock Tactics’ showing off a band at the peak of their powers and basically wedging all of their different styles into twenty minutes, the second side is undoubtedly inferior. That said, its two “epic” tracks have so much to enjoy. An album highlight, ‘Bright Lights’ manages to combine a NWOBHM feel with something that sounds like high octane pub rock, drawing things closer to the debut. At the time of recording, it’s likely that only Saxon could’ve conceived something similar, but even then, Biff Byford’s voice wouldn’t have tackled such a siren wail on the chorus. Also excellent, the emotive ‘Communion’ shows off Bruce’s voice in its purest form against clean guitar work, foreshadowing a couple of the great Maiden ballads. It’s one of those tracks where less is more and Paul Samson obviously had enough taste to recognise this. Even by the time the heavier moments kick in halfway, the riffs are sedate enough to make sure Bruce’s voice is the main feature. Since it ranks among his early career bests, it’s a shame more people aren’t aware of this number.
Between those great tracks, the remainder is a bit throwaway. ‘Once Bitten’ has a great weight to the riff and a superb guitar solo, but beyond that, there’s nothing. One line choruses are rarely acceptable and with a lack of melody or imagination, this is no exception. Also, despite some strong performances earlier, Thunderstick reverts to playing his kit in a very lumpen manner. Imagine a man bashing snare drums with frozen pork chops and you’ll have half an idea how he sounds. It’s definitely the album’s weak track…and although ‘Grime Crime’ benefits from some actual energy, a selection of appalling lyrics atop a pub rocker driven by a Steve Dawson-esque bassline means it doesn’t hit the mark in the way Samson were already capable. Bruce is superb throughout, but he’s utterly wasted on the material…
Even with a couple of duffers, ‘Shock Tactics’ would be Samson’s most consistent album to date. It doesn’t always have the excitement of the best bits of ‘Head On’, but it presents a far more assured band throughout. Most importantly, the band now had a great back catalogue of material ahead of one of their most high profile (and celebrated) shows ever.
[This expanded edition of ‘Shock Tactics’ includes three bonus session takes – ‘Little Big Man’, ‘Pyramid To The Stars’ and ‘Losing My Grip’.]
LIVE AT READING ’81
Samson’s set from the Reading Festival in 1981 has become stuff of legend. Not only does it represent an early incarnation of the band at the peak of their powers, but the audio recording remains one of their best known. It has been issued on CD several times – not always entirely with the band’s blessing – but its almost omnipresent status doesn’t mean its inclusion within this set is at all unwelcome. Let’s be honest – an anthology of early Samson works really wouldn’t be complete without it.
It’s worth noting that the master used for this edition sounds amazing. The drums on the opening number ‘Big Brother’ really, really punch and the echo on the lead guitar comes through in waves, just enough to remind you that this was recorded live for a subsequent radio broadcast. Bruce had slowly found his feet on the studio recordings, but during these fifty minutes he sounds like a man whom has really found his true calling – the epitome of a man ready to go on to bigger and better things. Much bigger things, obviously: it was after this show he was approached backstage by heavyweight manager Rod Smallwood and invited to join Iron Maiden. This show would have surely reassured the Maiden lads they’d made the right decision.
The set moves on at a frantic pace – rivalled only by Rose Tattoo’s incendiary performance that same afternoon– with ‘Take It Like A Man’ showcasing Dickinson’s soon to be world famous siren wail in full effect and ‘Nice Girl’ shifting into a heavy boogie rock, before the more AOR-centric ‘Vice Versa’ shows how Samson had a broader musical palette than a few of their peers. Bruce drifts in and out of the mix in a couple of places, but that only adds to the authenticity, and if there were any doubt previously, on the latter, drummer Mel Gaynor (replacing the already departed Thunderstick) sounds fantastic behind the kit. It’s one of those performances that makes him seem as if he’d been in the band for much longer than he had prior to this gig. It also gives no hint that he’d later become a pop-rock superstar occupying the drum stool in Simple Minds…
A nine minute rendition of ‘Walking Out On You’ presents the only obvious loss of focus, since it opens with almost four minutes’ worth of clatterous noise that surely would have lost a section of the audience, but by the time the set closes with ‘Riding With The Angels’ and ‘Gravy Train’, Samson are more than back on form. Although this is the most widely heard live recording, thanks to endless reissues since 1990 and a couple of repeats on the Radio 1 Rock Show during the first part of the decade, ‘Live At Reading’ remains an essential listen for anyone interested in the band’s formative years, or hearing the recording that truly put Bruce Dickinson on the metal map.
[This edition includes three bonus tracks, ‘Red Skies’, ‘Turn Out The Lights’ and ‘Firing Line’ recorded at 1981 rehearsals, as per the 2001 CD release.]
With ‘Bright Lights: The Albums 1979-1981’, HNE Recordings have delivered the ultimate box set of early Samson material. The albums have all been sourced from decent masters and – thankfully – all bonus tracks from previous editions are present and correct. For those who never purchased the Dissonance Records reissues, this box set is a must. For those who’ve got those reissues already, the addition of the Platt mix of ‘Head On’ might just be enough to convince an upgrade is necessary. Unlike so many HNE/Cherry Red clam-shell sets, the lack of decent sleeve notes is a mild irritant – especially since the internet sheds no light on the alternate ‘Head On – but it’s a minor bugbear, all things considered. Since it covers almost every note recorded between the band’s inception and Bruce’s departure, this is still highly recommended listening for everyone interested in an important piece of NWOBHM history.