As 1984 drew to a close so, too, did Saxon’s contract with Carrere Records. The past few years had been good to them, though: in a little over five years, they’d released seven albums for the French label, which scored six top twenty UK chart positions. That year’s woeful ‘Crusader’ aside, it represented an impressive body of work, one of which any classic metal band could be proud. Obviously, with Saxon being one of the decade’s biggest metal acts, a new deal wasn’t hard to secure and Biff Byford and the boys subsequently signed with giants EMI for a three album deal that would last the rest of the decade.
With the new label’s support, Saxon set to work. The resultant album, ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’, eventually emerged in June 1985. A more commercial offering – with a lot of the material closer in spirit to ‘Nightmare’ (from 1983’s ‘Power & The Glory’) than ‘Wheels of Steel’ and ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ – ‘Innocence’ is one of those albums that didn’t please everyone at the time; not least of all founding bassist Steve ‘Dobby’ Dawson, which is bizarre considering he co-wrote everything. Its track list might read like a bunch of hard rock clichés, but this is a record that’s weathered the passing decades very well indeed. Perhaps the most obvious thing about the album is that Saxon are playing much better than on the bulk of ‘Crusader’, and a much stronger production job often brings out the best in Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver’s guitar work.
Following in a fade in of keyboards comes a typical Saxon call to arms and ‘Rockin’ Again’ harks back to the more melodic parts of ‘Power & The Glory’, with Quinn laying down some sparse, picked guitar accompanied by the softer side of Biff Byford’s easily recognisable riffs. By the time the rock edge kicks in, the ploddy pace recalls the similar call to arms style of the classic ‘Denim & Leather’, only this time augmented by a shine that’s distinctly from 1985. Reaching the featured guitar solos, Quinn and Oliver step forward with some tough melodic chops, while the main hook used throughout often treads a fine line between bombastic and something that’s desperate to be on MTV. The crowd pleasing chant style of the main hook should make it classic Saxon fare, but the pace is a touch heavy handed…especially for an opener. Elsewhere on the album, the fast paced ‘Everybody Up’ aims for similar crowd pleasing bombast, but with a classic 80s metal riff throughout and Byford in fine semi-shouty voice, does a much better job. In fact, considering the pace, the brilliant and relentless riffs, rousing hook and lyrics like “we are back to rock you…everybody on your feet” alluding to the audience and the band coming together to have a great time, it’s a genuine mystery as to why it had to settle for being track three, side two instead of being used to open this collection. It certainly would have made Saxon’s transition towards more commercial sounds much less of a shock to many.
A touch lighter, ‘Call of The Wild’ features an intro of shredded guitars that owe as much to ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ era Judas Priest as classic Saxon. The number that quickly unfolds has a brilliant melodic metal verse – its fist-pumping riffs almost playing out like an accelerating heartbeat – while Biff’s vocals are more than assured. It’s the kind of performance he’s put in many times by this point in the band’s career, but he’s far from going through the motions. The solos adopt a style that represents the best 80s metal and chorus full of gang vocals accentuates the never say die attitude. Compared to the likes of ‘20,000 Ft’ and ‘Machine Gun’, the AOR leanings are obvious, but it’s a fantastic track that, with hindsight, deserves much more love. If that was off-putting to fans, then a couple of other songs on ‘Innocence’ would have been totally unacceptable to such narrow minded listeners, not least of all the album’s first single ‘Back On The Streets Again’. Made for 80s rock radio, it’s a slab of shameless AOR and as a result, it’s a track that so many fans seem to hate. However, if you like punchy melodic rock where chopping guitars are augmented by a wave of keyboards, it’s a real corker. Dawson pummels his bass throughout and it’s just about possible to hear the same muscle from behind ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’, but this is more about the interplay between guitar and keyboards, as well as including one of the album’s finest vocals. The twin guitars chug lightly, underscored by stabbed keys; the lead guitars that pepper the fade out show a mix of melodic flair and guts. A huge feature of the number, a pure AOR hook allows for harmony vocals to play a huge role for the first time on a Saxon LP. It’s the kind of track that’s got more in common with Praying Mantis or Magnum, but Saxon give it their all and if you like the style, it holds up to repeated listens. This really should have been a hit; obviously releasing it two months after the album was a mistake…
Taking a melodic rock blueprint and injecting it with more of a punch, elsewhere, the spacious ‘Broken Heroes’ tells the tale of Viet Nam veterans, showing off the band’s more thoughtful side. The narrative taps into a similar simplicity as ‘Dallas 1PM’ – an earlier track recounting the JFK assassination – and again the general naivety doesn’t spoil the performance. The big draw here is some lovely playing from Quinn who uses the track to throw out muted chords aplenty and while the solos are sedate, they’re impeccably played. Giving the chorus a lift, Nigel Glockler’s drums bring a sizeable thump without heavy-handedly detracting from the guitar work. It isn’t the album’s best track, but it comes pretty close…and although a one line chorus could be seen as a drawback, with everything else so well arranged and Byford treating the material with a genuine care, it’s easy to overlook any potential laziness.
Another track resembling classic Saxon, ‘Devil Rides Out’ is a genuine throwback to those Jeff Glixman produced ‘Power & The Glory’ sessions. At the heart of the track lies one of Dawson’s beloved open-string bass riffs; this provides a pumping sound from which the rest of the number grows. The riffs are tough and choppy; the brief solo includes enough fretboard mangling from Oliver to keep most listeners happy and a slightly more forthright vocal easily stirs memories of Saxon’s early classics. Decades on, the Hammer Horror inspired chorus might seem a bit silly, but it really is all in the performance – and in terms of 80s rock, this is a winner. Similarly, ‘Gonna Shout’ finds a perfect balance between melodic rock and 80s metal punch and with Biff pushing his voice and the backing vocals rousing everything along the way, it’s an album highlight. The clichéd lyric ought to be a drawback, but this actually manages to be fun – as per 1983’s ‘This Town Rocks’ as opposed to 1984’s teeth-clenching embarrassment ‘Bad Boys Like To Rock ‘N’ Roll’. There are enough speedy riffs here to keep fans of earlier Saxon works entertained, while a brief lighter interlude showcases Quinn’s cleaner tones – something always very welcome. For those who think Saxon reached burnout at the end of 1983, this is more than worth a listen.
Another single, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsy’ brings crunchy rock, MTV-friendly hooks and with a key change in the verse helping to maintain interest, it shows that Saxon were absolute naturals at radio friendly rock. Despite this, the single gathered no real interest and was a massive flop. A pity, as it’s a really likeable rocker. Musically, there are moments here that sound like bits are recycled from other tracks – some of ‘Innocence’ can perhaps seem a little formulaic – but between a solid mid-pace comparable to the Kiss hits of the day, a great (but cheesy) hook and a fantastic guitar solo, it’s great. The band sound like they’re having a fun time, but as history as proved, this wasn’t especially the case for everyone. It’s another of those tracks that seems to improve with the passing of time – and an increase in volume. Looking back, it was the ideal single, completely representative of the new album. Decades on, it still manages to be one of the highlights.
Closing the album, Saxon truly revert to type and unveil a thundering pair of hard rockers that are on par with the best bits of the ‘Power & The Glory’ album. ‘Raise Some Hell’ opens with a massive drum sound from Glockler, over which Graham Oliver offers a couple of equally huge chords and Quinn counters with a huge lead wail. So far so good. Moving into the verse, it settles into something that has plenty of grit; fast staccato riffs are balanced out with more superb hard but melodic rock. The crowd pleasing lyric is typical of Saxon’s more “stand up and be counted” ethic, but Biff – as is so often the case – makes a potential cliché seem more appealing through his sheer enthusiasm. Better yet, the album’s heaviest track, ‘Give It Everything You’ve Got’ is a deliberate throwback to ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’, complete with aggressive bass drum pedals and howling guitars. Quinn and Oliver waste no time in unleashing their earlier fury and a lengthy guitar solo featuring a couple of bars of massive shreds and squeals from each is unmissable. By the time these four minutes are over, it’s more than clear that, despite a few stylistic changes, Saxon still have that old fire.
In these ten songs, Saxon straddle the gap between their past and the more commercial future of 1988’s ‘Destiny’ LP. In hindsight, if there’s any drawback with the album it isn’t in their choice of softer, more radio friendly material but rather in its bewildering sequencing: all of the massively uptempo tracks that closest resemble “classic Saxon” are pugged away at the end. That said, that doesn’t stop it being a great listen and tracks like ‘Back On The Streets’, ‘Broken Heroes’ amd ‘Everybody Up’, show the best of the band’s talents at the time of recording and actually make the album a worthy addition to any Saxon collection.
Much like Steve Dawson, some fans were dismayed with Saxon’s more commercial direction, but that didn’t stop the album shifting enough units to break the UK top 40 (the last time they would do so until 2018). The remaining members of Saxon weren’t deterred by the mixed reaction either; they used the same formula of rockers and radio friendly fare for ‘Rock The Nations’ which appeared on record shop shelves a little over a year on. Their sounds mightn’t have been quite as heavy by the mid 80s, but Saxon’s work ethic obviously still carried plenty of weight.
[A 2018 CD reissue presents the album in a deluxe digibook sleeve featuring unseen and rare photos, as well as various bonus tracks including demos and b-sides.]
Read a review of ‘Rock The Nations’ here.