SAXON – Destiny

The landscape of hard rock music in 1988 looked very different, in comparison, to that of a decade earlier. When Saxon began their recording career in the late 70s, rock and metal were solely the reserves of the readers of Sounds magazine, the devotees of the Radio One Friday Rock Show and festival goers. By the late 80s, it was no longer considered such a niche genre: bands like Europe and Poison had scored chart success on both sides of the Atlantic; Def Leppard‘s ‘Hysteria’ was one of the biggest selling albums of the era and Guns N’ Roses were on their way to becoming a worldwide, stadium filling phenomenon. Whitesnake‘s ‘1987’ was selling by the bucketload to a broad demographic and even Metallica – a band that only a couple of years earlier seemed entirely marginal – were on the cusp of UK singles chart success, and yet Saxon, in terms of commercial success, appeared to be floundering.

In an age where image had become increasingly more important, Biff Byford and the Barnsley boys just didn’t fit. A band who’d scored massive album successes in the UK were no longer untouchable. 1986’s ‘Rock The Nations’ had been relatively unsuccessful in comparison to some of their earlier LPs and they hadn’t had anything remotely like a hit single since 1983. Their 1985 album ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’ had gained them a little more Transatlantic attention, but three years on, they were still hoping for a major US breakthrough.

Maybe a change of image would help. Maybe even a cover of a popular US radio staple. 1988’s ‘Destiny’ – recorded in London, Berkshire and New York – brought both, much to the bewilderment of UK fans who still wanted ‘Wheels of Steel Mk II’. Biff emerged that year with a slightly bigger mane, but more tellingly, founding guitarist Paul Quinn had traded in his thinning hairline and baseball cap for a full head of curls…possibly on loan for the week from Quiet Riot’s Kevin DuBrow. The new-look Saxon were a now a little more MTV friendly and looking for a hit.

A cover tune seemed like an obvious “in”, even if their choice of cover wasn’t quite so obvious. Given that Saxon could’ve chosen to revive a number of old 70s rock classics, it’s strange that they turned their hand to Christopher Cross’s ‘Ride Like The Wind’, a light piece of yacht rock… Predictably, some fans hated it. They were wrong to be so critical, of course. It’s actually very enjoyable and holds up very well indeed. Stripping away the shuffling rhythm and congas in favour of bringing the main riff upfront and toughening it up slightly, Saxon actually sound great. The bulk of the melody is the same, only bigger and bolder, and although Biff is no match for Christopher’s perfection and smoothness, his melodic rock voice approaches each line with strength and conviction. The commercial production gives the dual guitars a pleasingly melodic punch, while the shinier drum sound seems much closer to that of an AOR LP. Reaching the instrumental break, Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn retain plenty of dignity when shoehorning in some great soloing and a huge backing vocal appearing throughout helps to take Saxon to their commercial zenith. By the time the instrumental fade arrives – complete with another great solo featuring some subtle tapping – it’s obvious that this was a fantastic decision from all concerned. The finest hit single that never really was.

A little tougher – though not necessarily heavier – ‘Where The Lightning Strikes’ kicks off with a riff that sounds a little like Judas Priest’s treatment of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Green Manalishi’ and in doing so, signifies ‘Destiny’s melodic hold will continue. The melodic riff is quickly contrasted with a couple of lead guitar squeals that nod to the immediate past. With new boy Nigel Durham laying down a simple rhythm on the drums, it quickly settles into a reasonably generic 80s hard rock tune that allows Biff enough room to wring out the best from each line. The chorus takes a step forward with a memorable hook bolstered by backing vocals, but he real saving grace here, though, is the mid section. A nifty guitar solo coupled with a darker spacious passage full of whoahs gives the track the ominous quality as suggested by the title. It’s entirely the product of the studio – something that could easily be said regarding the perfection of ‘Destiny’ as a whole – and not necessarily what some fans wanted, but decades on, it still sounds pretty good.
Following the same pattern as Saxon’s two previous albums, track three brings a much purer AOR sound to the table and as with ‘Waiting For The Night’ [from 1986’s ‘Rock The Nations’], ‘I Can’t Wait Anymore’ proves that – despite being from Barnsley – Saxon were able to go toe to toe with the likes of Survivor and Boulevard in the AOR stakes. The rhythm guitars are incredibly clean, almost coming with a bell-like clarity; plinky keyboards are a universe away from Saxon’s former years and the rhythm could be one of any of the Desmond Child/Diane Warren mega-hits of the day. It’s easy to imagine some fans’ heads exploding and them disowning the band forever, even though this – and ‘We Are Strong’, later on the album – are among the best examples of Brit AOR not recorded by Strangeways. On this track, especially, Biff really demonstrates his abilities as a charming and tuneful vocalist; a man capable of so much more than the gutsy shouting on the likes of ‘Play It Loud’ and ‘Wheels of Steel’.

In terms of solid riffs and melodic touches, ‘S.O.S.’ provides another highlight, especially in the way its verses could blend in with material from 1985’s ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’, but with a keyboard filled chorus, the current AOR intentions are still more than clear. Like a lot of the material on the previous two albums, it could seem generic in lesser hands but Quinn’s gifts for great melodies and Biff’s natural style really carry the material through. The stomping mid pace is occasionally comparable to a couple of the best tracks on Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Odyssey’ (a Rainbow-centric disc released just two months earlier) and the chugging, muted guitar parts that eventually play an important role are definitely a highlight. With Quinn and Oliver trading licks throughout an extended instrumental break, this is one of ‘Destiny’s finest moments, especially as far as scale is concerned.

With a keyboard laden intro, ‘Song For Emma’ promises something darker, but quickly heads for familiar melodic rock territory, replete with huge backing vocals and sweeping lead guitar parts. However, like so much of ‘Destiny’, it’s hard not to love the guitar playing even if you’re not a fan of the style. Underneath the bigger parts of this track, Quinn adds a lovely clean counter melody much as he had with 1983’s ‘Nighmare’, while the featured solos are all played with impeccable style. This kind of AOR would have seemed unthinkable for Saxon only four years earlier, but again, this track shows their natural affinity with the radio friendly style. Such a pity the radio didn’t care. Switching the shiny rock for a pounding battle metal riff, Durham gets to hammer at his bass pedal properly for the first time, while Byford delivers a grittier vocal. Could old style Saxon belatedly be making an appearance? Nope. The chorus dispenses with the heaviness and ushers in a more commercial edge and group vocals – more akin to Keel or Stryper than Saxon of old– but the end results are memorable enough. Unless you’re completely uptight, of course, there’s a great deal to love about this track (ridiculousness and all) since there’s a shredding guitar solo along the way and some beautiful twin lead work throughout. In terms of the blending of classic metal with something softer, this track is perhaps the best example from Saxon’s tenure with EMI.

On ‘Calm Before The Storm’, the clean production makes Durham’s drums sound really synthetic and a keyboard used as a counter melody on the chorus seems oddly jarring, almost as if it were used as a guide and someone had planned to record something better later. Although a by-numbers rocker, It’s saved from complete mediocrity by Biff’s knack for storytelling. Concerning a working man finding his place in the world before the jobs dried up, it’s definitely one of the album’s best all round lyrics. Despite his best efforts, though – and despite being the song which gives ‘Destiny’ its name – it just can’t compete with the best material on this disc. Elsewhere, ‘Jericho Siren’ offers something similar; the high points being a great choppy rhythm guitar, a gritty solo and the fact that it’s about the only time Paul Johnson’s bass is properly audible on the whole album. It’s a pity, then, that Saxon forgot to write a chorus. Another dip into purest AOR, ‘We Are Strong’ is another unmissable track. Its intro borrows a blanket of keyboards from Van Halen, before grabbing the attention with another mid-paced and very clean arrangement. A rousing chorus sounds as if it were tailor made for US rock radio, while Biff’s voice reaches into an equally melodic place. The blend of keyboards and soaring guitars is absolute perfection and overall, it’s another tune that would be considered an AOR classic in the hands of an American band. No amount of melodic rock quality would win over those old Saxon fans, though…

Closing the album, ‘Red Alert’ goes for something a bit heavier, by way of throwing those old fans a bone. Tough guitars lead the way into something that starts out as if it’s going to be a boogie rocker, before ploughing ahead with a punchy drum and guitar assault that’s easily comparable to the best bits of ‘Power & The Glory’ from five years earlier. The fan appeasing goes a little further in that the lyric concerns Saxon on the road and how the intensities of their live show could reach the levels of nuclear meltdown. Hearing Biff yelling “Red alert, red alert / Screaming in the night” comes from a place of love, but also manages to be of the purest Spinal Tap-like fare, so it’s lucky the tune – and the lead guitars, especially – manage to save face. Oddly, despite being ‘Destiny’s only track that could be called “traditional” Saxon, it’s outshone by most of the more AOR based material. You might think their hearts aren’t in that metal style any more…but 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’ tells another story.

Saxon’s third attempt at something more commercial – and their last release for EMI – ‘Destiny’ failed to chart in the US. Given how good ‘I Can’t Wait Anymore’ and ‘We Are Strong’ are in their chosen field, this seems rather baffling. In the UK, it fared only a little better. Decades on, poor old ‘Destiny’ is still the elephant in the room; an album mocked and derided in some fan quarters – some even calling it “The Record That Should Not Be Named”. Ignore all of that; it’s really for the best: even with a few flawed tracks, it’s a great record. Granted, it’s got very little of the old Saxon denim and leather; there are no obvious songs about speed and motorbikes, but it’s got fantastic playing throughout, some brilliantly polished performances and more than a handful of cracking, very accessible rock songs. The sad fact is, if this album were released by anyone but Saxon in 1988, it would have fared better all round and by now it would far more respected as a melodic rock essential.

[A 2018 reissue adds several bonus tracks, including period demos, a 12” single and b-sides. A strictly limited gold vinyl edition was also released. At least ‘Destiny’ became a gold record in the end!]

Read a review of ‘Saxon’ here.
Read a review of ‘Wheels of Steel’ here.
Read a review of ‘Innocence Is No Excuse’ here.
Read a review of ‘Rock The Nations’ here.
Read a review of ‘Call To Arms’ here.

July 2018