SAXON – Wheels Of Steel

Released in November 1979, Saxon’s self titled debut LP was not the commercial success everyone had hoped for. Perhaps part of the blame could be levelled at Carrere Records – primarily a French disco label – not having the greatest experience of promoting a rock band. Maybe the problem lay with the album itself: while a hugely entertaining listen – especially from an historical viewpoint – it’s somewhat mixed in style. Tracks like ‘Stallions of the Highway’ and ‘Backs To The Wall’ point the way towards the brand of no nonsense metal Saxon would make their trademark, but others like ‘Frozen Rainbow’ have a footing much closer to a1970s almost past, a place where atmosphere and pomp outweighed sheer bluster.

In those days, of course, bands weren’t dumped on the scrap heap by their record labels after a flop, and in Saxon’s case – and ultimately Carrere’s too, since the likes of Ottawan weren’t going to be around forever – it’s a good job. Decamping to Wales, the band set about writing their second album; the record that would change their fortunes and the face of 80s metal forever… ‘Wheels of Steel’.

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REAL GONE GOES OUT: Saxon, Ramblin’ Man Fair, Maidstone, Kent 25/07/2015

For those who grew up in Kent, Maidstone’s Mote Park is likely to hold childhood memories of family picnics and feeding ducks.  It seems almost inconceivable that very same park in the middle of an incredibly residential area, albeit many years later, would play host to a variety of superb rock bands.  On the evening of Saturday 25th July, classic rock legends Scorpions are the headliners at the very first Ramblin’ Man Fair, but they’ve also got sterling support from NWOBHM legends Saxon, among others.

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SAXON – Saxon

In the late 1970s, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal created a musical storm. Fusing the heavy edges of the 70s rock giants with the energy of punk (although as a sub-genre it owed little else to punk), a new musical scene was born. You couldn’t go a week without Sounds featuring someone NWOBHM related.  Obviously, Iron Maiden remain the best loved of all the bands associated with the scene (save for perhaps Def Leppard; though, due to the Americanisms of much of Leppard’s material, Iron Maiden have remained the most true to the roots of the NWOBHM), but this debut by Saxon is a key album in the scene’s breakthrough; it’s regarded by many as the first album released by one of the big NWOBHM bands.

In 2009 this debut celebrated its thirtieth anniversary…and one of the first things you notice are the rough edges. It was clearly recorded on a small budget and in a hurry. In fact, you could be left wondering what producer John Verity did at the sessions, since the whole thing sounds like a demo. Things are often a little muddy and occasionally Biff Byford’s vocals feel a little lost.

That aside though, there are some decent songs here. The opener ‘Rainbow Theme’ is a short instrumental which leads into ‘Frozen Rainbow’ which reprises the theme at the end. Beginning with an open stringed bass riff (something bassist Steve ‘Dobby’ Dawson would make his trademark at live shows, leaving him with a free hand to point with – allegedly the main influence for Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls), the piece leads into the main guitar riff before settling into the song. It could be seen as an odd choice for an opener as it’s an epic, slow piece, rather than a stomping track to get things underway. The high point here is the guitar solo, a great howling and moody offering from Paul Quinn, nodding to his previous band Coast’s more progressive tendencies.  The track also allows an early insight into Biff’s vocal range – he’s a man with more to give than just a full rock belt.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of no nonsense rockers – ‘Backs To The Wall’ is based around a simple but effective guitar riff, coupled with ‘don’t let them get you’ themed lyrics; ‘Still Fit To Boogie’ is simple, but not as good as the lyrics are a little embarrassing now. Of the rockers, ‘Stallions of the Highway’ fares best, with it’s motorbike theme (which would recur throughout the band’s work over the next few years). If it’s complexity you’re after, the album’s rockers mightn’t do much for you. For those of you whom want something to get your teeth into, the album features a couple more brooding, epic style songs to keep ‘Rainbow Theme/Frozen Rainbow’ in good company. ‘Judgement Day’ (hands down, the best track on the album) thunders from the speakers and captures the band at full power. There’s a mid section where things get a bit gentle, again casting it’s musical net to include touches of 70s prog, but that’s just a build up to a climax, with twin lead guitar harmonies. For best results, check out the live b-side version of this track (included on the deluxe version of ‘Saxon’). Closing the album, ‘Militia Guard’ is the first of Saxon’s many war themed songs, and while the songwriting shows promise, it’s still the twin guitars which prove the high point.  An interesting piece, this is neither the straight metal that Saxon would perfect on their next two records, or seventies indulgence, but a cut and paste mix of both.  A huge closing statement, this sounds as if it were glued together from three or four musical ideas, but it’s to Saxon’s eternal credit that they make it work so well.

At just under half an hour, the original album and it’s eight songs fly by, with no messing. For those who want more, the 2009 reissue features 14 bonus tracks – including demos, BBC Session tracks and part of the band’s 1980 Donington Monsters of Rock appearance (the rest of which is featured on other Saxon reissues). It’s great to have the live tracks, as in most cases they’re superior to the studio versions. As for the demos, they’re presented here in a form which is almost identical to the finished album cuts, just a little rougher. The best of the bunch is ‘Big Teaser’, which features a guitar riff which gives a nod to Status Quo, something nowhere near as obvious on the finished album recording. The real gem among the bonus tracks is the BBC Session, where the band premier ‘Motorcyle Man’ and ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ – the latter being one of the band’s greatest achievements, and both tracks paving the way for the signature sound which made their next three LPs classics of the era.

‘Saxon’ might have a rough production, but most of the songs are rock solid.  While more geared towards fans – new listeners should hear ‘Wheels of Steel’, ‘Strong Arm of The Law’ and ‘Power and The Glory’ first – there’s plenty of interest here…and it’s best moments win out purely on the basis that Saxon never recorded anything quite like ‘Frozen Rainbow’ and the middle of ‘Judgement Day’ again.

The birth of 80s metal starts here.

December 2009/June 2018