As one of metal’s most enduring acts, Saxon have weathered their fair share of musical storms during an almost forty year career. Changing trends, line-up shifts, and the tidal wave of Grunge have all affected the NWOBHM heroes, yet today they’re stronger than ever. About to release an awesome nine LP box set that covers these stormy eras (1991-2007), band leader Biff Byford is in no doubt that ‘Eagles and Dragons’ traverses their “metamorphosis”. We caught up with Biff to talk about the box, and the chequered history that created it.
Hi Biff, how are you today?
I’m fine thank you.
I have to start off by talking about the events of late last year, and the death of your good friend Lemmy Kilmister. You played with Motörhead at their last ever show, didn’t you?
Yeah, I think the last show was not far off Christmas really. I mean Phil [Taylor, Motörhead guitarist] had a bit of a health scare, and they cancelled three shows, but the last show we did with Motörhead was around the 17th or 18th of December.
Had you any inkling then that it could possibly be the last Motörhead show?
No, not really, and neither did he I don’t think. I mean, he wasn’t well, obviously, but since his last visit to hospital in America he’d actually got it a bit more together; the diabetes thing. He was controlling it quite well. The cancer thing came out of the blue, I think.
So it was a bit of a shock for you when you learned that he’d died?
Definitely. I was talking to him a couple of days before he died. It was very quick. Once he found out he’d got terminal cancer he just died, so whether he just gave up, I don’t know.
Musically, you would have only just come off a U.K. tour with Motörhead and Girlschool, wouldn’t you?
Yeah. I think his plan was to do this tour with us and Girlschool, because we were from that era of the 80s, basically; from the ‘Bomber’ thing, when they were as big as they could possibly get at that point. It was a great package, and it was sold out everywhere, so I think that was going to be his last tour really, and he was just going to do festivals and make the odd album. But we’re going to try and put some shows together in October through to December in the U.K. and Europe, and maybe bring out Girlschool. So it will be a little bit of the same package that people can go and see.
Given your touring history together with Motörhead, Saxon seem best-placed to pay tribute in such a way.
Yeah, I think it would be good for the fans anyway. We could invite Mikkey [Dee, Motörhead drummer] and Phil down to a couple of the shows and maybe and jam a couple of songs, That might be a good idea. We’re looking at different things, but we still have unfinished business with the ‘Battering Ram’ album, so we need to finish touring on that.
Moving on, you’re releasing a vinyl box set; ‘Eagles And Dragons’. It’s a modern Saxon retrospective, would that be a fair thing to say?
It takes you through the dark hours of British metal scene really; 91, 92, 93, 94. They weren’t massively successful years for British rock bands really. I mean, Motörhead were struggling, Saxon were struggling, Maiden had a different singer and they weren’t really up there, and Judas Priest had a different singer, so it wasn’t a good time. Grunge came along and kicked everybody into touch, really. But those albums are the albums that helped us survive through that period.
The box set covers a lot of Saxon history; your transitional years from the re-righting of the band with ‘Solid Ball Of Rock’.
Yeah definitely. We were definitely morphing into something different. On ‘Destiny’, the last album [prior to ‘Solid Ball Of Rock’]; that Saxon had run its course, really. We couldn’t really take it any further without repeating ourselves. We were changing into a different band, with the different members joining along the way. The last album on there is from 2009, so by then we’d recovered all our past glories. So yeah, you’re right really; it’s really the metamorphosis albums.
The ‘Destiny’ line-up only lasted one year, didn’t it?
Yeah, the chemistry wasn’t right in the band. I just think that we weren’t very happy. The two new guys [Paul Johnson, bass and Nigel Durham, drums] were very happy, but I don’t think me and Paul [Quinn, guitarist] were very happy. It just wasn’t right; that incarnation of Saxon wasn’t a great one, I don’t think.
Your cover of Christopher Cross’ ‘Ride Like The Wind’ from that album still endures though.
That was the high point of the album really. Me and Paul transposed it from the more jazz rocky version of Christopher Cross, and it was more ‘Wheels Of Steel’, ‘Solid Ball Of Rock’ style. It was a big hit for us. It got tonnes of airplay, and still does actually, that version. We didn’t turn it into like heavy metal; we just turned it into heavy rock, which was great. It was a great piece of work by Mr. Quinn. It’s one of those songs at the end of the night where I ask the audience what they want to hear, and depending on where we are at on the planet, sometimes in Spain or down in South America, they start chanting ‘Ride Like The Wind’, so we play it. It’s a very easy song to play, apart from the jazzy part in the middle, and the way we play it, it’s very anthemic.
1995’s ‘Dogs Of War’ was the last album to feature original guitarist Graham Oliver. Was it difficult losing such a key member?
The album’s great, and there was a bit of controversy because they [the record company] took off Graham’s guitar solos and put somebody else on there for some strange reason. It was something to do with record company bullshit. That was Doug [Scarratt, guitarist]’s first tour, the ‘Dogs Of War’ tour, because Graham left the band on New Year’s Eve 1994. He wasn’t around after, and that was the last gig he ever played with us. Doug was in for the tour, which went out about three months later.
Moving forward to 2007 and the year that ‘Inner Sanctum’ was released, you appeared on the reality TV show ‘Get Your Act Together’ with Harvey Goldsmith.
We made a decision to do that show, and I think it really turned a corner for us. I think a lot of media came down onside on that, because I think the concept of the show didn’t work for us. We were already on a roll, on our way back to strength. I just used the show as a springboard to let everybody know we weren’t changing, we hadn’t changed, we were still around and we were great. In that respect it worked for us. If we’d have had our hair cut and worn stupid clothes, and danced to their tune, I think it would have been a different thing, but we were defiant.
It seems like a ludicrous suggestion that Saxon should have changed direction, that far into your career.
Yeah, well you know, it’s TV, it’s a different dinosaur. Those shows they all have the same format, don’t they? They dumb you down as needing help, and then they give you help and that doesn’t work, and then depending on how it goes you can be a failure or a success after it. That’s how those shows work, the fly on the wall shows. I wasn’t having it.
Me and Harvey had some tremendous rows on camera. We had an album launch in London and Harvey was there, and he got goaded by the press actually: “Why the f**k are you trying to change Saxon? There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re a great band. F*****g leave them alone.”
The documentary opened by saying that the band were at ‘rock bottom’ at the time. That wasn’t the case at all, was it?
No, it wasn’t the case, but I think we handled it well. It was definitely a clash of personalities between me and the producer. Harvey was just doing the show, trying to do his thing and get famous on TV like Alan Sugar or something, but it didn’t work for him. I think that our programme was the most interesting actually.
Back to the present day, and Saxon are playing at this year’s Download festival.
Yeah, we’re doing Donington. We’re the underdogs again in the tent. We wanted to do a bigger, longer show than thirty-five minutes on the main stage. I thought it would be better to do a headline show in the tent. It’s quite a big tent, and I think that’s going to be the place to be; with Saxon and Ghost. There’s quite a lot of great bands on in that tent.
How many times have you played at Donington now?
Five or six times. We have fond memories of the last time. It’s a great festival to be at. If you’re a metal band or rock band you have to have Donington or Download in your resume. You can’t ‘not’ play it. A lot of fans are saying, oh you’ve got to be on the main stage on the main bill, which is quite nice. We played the tent the first time we played Download, after the eighties, and it was great.
Finally, I was wondering if you still had the original ‘Crusader’ album artwork hanging in your house.
I do, yeah. It’s on my stairway actually, and it’s the actual one. Paul Gregory’s a fantastic Artist. His artwork features on a lot on the albums in the box set. His first one was ‘Crusader’ and he’s done this exclusive artwork for ‘Eagles and Dragons’ as well.
'Eagles And Dragons' is released on 18 March 2016, and is available to pre- order here.