Diagnosed with a heart condition that required immediate surgery last September, Saxon main man Biff Byford has had to sit back and take stock. Adding further credence to the personal nature of debut solo album ‘School of Hard Knocks’, the fact that the health scare coincided with plans for the album - his first ever solo release - is something that is not lost on the Yorkshireman. “I don’t know; maybe it was a bit of a premonition”, he tells us as we sit down for a chat. We caught up with Biff to talk about the set, Saxon past and future, and why things have rarely been better for the NOWBHM marauders. Inquisitor; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Biff, I have to start off by asking you about your health; how have you been since your health scare last year?
I’m pretty good, thank you. Yeah, some days are good; some days are a bit difficult, but yeah, it’s getting better, slowly but surely.
That must have been a bit of a shock for you.
I didn’t see that one coming, no. They didn’t really know what to do; it wasn’t a clear cut case of what they wanted to do. In the end they just decided to do a heart bypass to get rid of the problems, so it’s what they did.
You’re new solo album ‘School of Hard Knocks’ was in gestation around this period; was that coincidental?
Yeah, it’s coincidental, really. I don’t know; maybe it was a bit of a premonition. I recorded it in January last year, and it was on the cards for release in this period. You can’t just release an album when you feel like it; it has to be programmed in, and the distribution; Warner Bros. have to be ready for it. So yeah, it was slotted in for release and I had the heart attack, and actually I came out of that and decided to keep it the same release date, just because there’s nothing really happening around Saxon, apart from the rescheduled 40th anniversary shows and a few festivals in the summer, really.
You’re more than forty years into Saxon’s career, with twenty-two studio albums, so why was now the right time to release a solo album?
I’ve been mulling it over. I’ve been writing songs for quite some time with the solo album in mind, but nothing too definite, just an idea in my head. Nigel [Glockler, Saxon drummer] had a solo album quite a few years ago; Paul [Quinn], the guitarist is in another band as well who’ve got an album out, so I thought; “well, I’ll put mine out and see what happens”. I thought it was a good time to do it. Like I said, there’s a break in the Saxon world a little bit. You don’t want to be releasing solo albums when Saxon are releasing their new album; it’s confusing for people.
Is it daunting at all to see your name on a poster, and your name on an album cover, rather than the Saxon logo?
It is weird, I must say. I’m getting used to it, but it’s a bit weird. I’m not used to doing things for myself; I’m used to doing things for the band. It’s a bit strange doing interviews like, I’m No.1 on the Amazon newcomers list thing, and I had to do a podcast! But it’s getting a massive amount of interest, the album. It’s quite surprising. It took me by surprise a little bit, to tell you the truth. You expect to release it and people would go; “oh yeah… another solo album from somebody”, but actually, there’s been quite a bit of airplay around it, and people really like it.
It’s a very personal album in places; was the lyrical direction informed by your health problems, or was it always slated to be that way?
I chose the tracks while I was having the health scare, so I suppose that might have come through a little bit. But there are different styles on there; it’s really varied. There’s a love song that I wrote for my wife about our 25th anniversary [‘Me and You’]; there’s a couple of prog rock songs on there, because I loved that in my early years – I was a big prog rock fan; there’s some straight rock and roll on there – ‘School of Hard Knocks’ and ‘Welcome to the Show’ – so it’s a very mixed style album. I don’t think you’ll be bored listening to it.
You’ve touched on a few tracks that I want to talk about; ‘Welcome to the Show’ is a great opener, with a real catchy chorus.
It’s in the flavour of ‘Wheels of Steel’, ‘747 (Strangers in the Night)’, that type of thing, so it’s got a good guitar riff, a strong melody, and a good hook. I think it’s in that sort of ‘80s style, really.
Then there’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, which is a bit of an epic, in that prog style that you mentioned.
Yeah, it’s a total prog rock track; it could have gone on forever, really! I think me and Fredrik [Åkesson, Opeth guitarist and collaborator] could have written an entire album around that song and topic. It’s a difficult song to play, that one; there’s a lot of jazz elements in it; different time signatures and things. But I might do a video, or I might do a shorter version live; just take out some of the more complex bits in the middle; I don’t know, we’ll see.
You touched on the love song ‘Me and You’, which is in the tradition of the classic pop song, and is the biggest departure on the album.
Well, it’s definitely a curveball, and there’s nothing wrong with a curveball, is there? It’s a bit more like a Tom Petty type thing; that’s what I was going for, a Bryan Adams-ey type style, because I like that style as well. But I know what you mean; should I put it on the album? Should I not put it on the album? And then I thought; “sod it, it’s my solo album, I can do that”.
You’ve played some bass guitar on this album.
Well, I do play a lot of bass when we’re writing in Saxon. When we’re writing, sometimes Nigel plays keyboards and Nibbs [Carter, bass guitarist] will play drums and I’ll play bass. So, I do play bass quite a lot. On the album, I played bass on ‘Me and You’, and I think bits of ‘School of Hard Knocks’.
Moving onto the tour, and you’re bringing out comedian Don Jamieson – who’s just called his new album ‘Denim and Laughter’ - with you.
He has, yeah. [*laughing*]. He’s a good mate of mine.
The evening will be spilt into two halves; an interview section, and then a live set.
Yeah, I’m going to be talking about the old days, really; all the things I’ve done through Saxon and before, and just anecdotes and stories about the old days, and Don’s going to sort of go backwards and forwards with me. So it’s a bit like a talk show format, really. I think it’s a fairly unique thing we’re trying to do. People tend to think it’s going to be a q&a, but it’s not. I mean, people can ask questions if they want, but no, it’s going to be stories; stories I’ve not told.
Surely there is a book in Biff Byford?
Well, there is an autobiography; it’s called ‘Never Surrender’. It’s not really that available. I think I probably went with a rubbish publisher, but you can get it on Amazon. We might be selling them on tour, if we can get hold of four or five copies! It came out around 2004, through a German publisher. I think it was done in German first, and the English versions came a bit later. You can buy it, but it’s not on Kindle yet. We are trying, but it’s proving a bit difficult.
Elsewhere, and outspoken US critic Razorfist has just uploaded a ‘Metal Mythos’ episode on Saxon; have you seen it?
I’ve seen a bit of that, yeah. I thought it was pretty alright. It’s pretty on the ball, I thought. He’s a bit quick fire; shoot ‘em up, shoot ‘em down, but that’s his style. Yeah, I thought it was alright!
One of the subjects he touched on is the band’s ‘Destiny’  album, which is much maligned, even by the band.
Well, the thing is, it was a bad time for Saxon then. I think the content of the album seems pretty good to me; the songs are great - ‘S.O.S’ and stuff like that - but we were going through a lot of bad things, and the album really saw it. I don’t have good memories of making the album or being in the band at that time, because shortly after that it all went sort of pear shaped again [Saxon were dropped by EMI records]. So, I suppose it was a good album for us if it was sorted out where we were going to be going. I mean, if I hear the album it sounds great, but for me, there’s too many keyboards on there, and just a lot of stuff that was put on there. But I do like the album; I don’t dislike the album.
There is a great cover of Christopher Cross’s ‘Ride Like the Wind’ on there.
Yeah, it’s the best song on the album actually! [*laughing*] Yeah, it’s a great song. Christopher Cross sent us a message saying he loved our version. We used to play that Christopher Cross album. We had a cassette with all the different songs on for the bus we used to travel around on, and that song was on the tape that we had. So when the record company said; “we need a song that’s more like a rock and roll, ‘Wheels of Steel’ type thing”, the producer said; “have you got any ideas for a cover?”, so I said; “yeah, ‘Ride Like the Wind’ might be good”. So me and Paul transposed it. Christopher’s version is quite jazzy, buy catchy, so we developed the catchy side of it, and Paul did a great job, with the guitar, and chorus into that rock. I mean, it is a massive song. At the time people were a bit; “Ugh, ‘Ride Like the Wind?!”, you know, and connected it with Christopher Cross being a little bit more softer, but as time’s gone on, the track’s become an absolutely massive live favourite.
When you look back over your career, is there anything that leaps to mind as some of the high points?
Well, not dying last September was a good one. Yeah, we’ve had some ups and downs, some highs and lows, but we’re still on highs; at the moment we’ve sold out Hammersmith, and the Manchester Apollo, so we’re on a bit of a high at the moment, really. At the moment, I think a lot of people have come back to love Saxon again, and I think we’ve got a lot of new fans as well, so we’re very lucky at the moment. We’re as strong now as we’ve been in the last twenty-five / thirty years.
You began recording the new Saxon album in October; what can you tell us about that?
Yeah, we’ve done the drums and the guitars and bass. They’re just waiting for me to get back on form to do the vocals, really. I haven’t written the lyrics yet, but they don’t know that, so keep that quiet. So yeah, we’re going to get these shows out of the way first, and then we’ll start working on the next Saxon album with a full vengeance, really.
Finally, what does 2020 and 2021 hold for you and Saxon?
Well, we’re doing a lot of festivals this year, and we’ve had some big things offered for next year. I think the new album will be out next year to coincide with the tour. We’ve been offered something quite special; I can’t tell you about it, but we might be going out with some other bands next year. Yeah, that will be happening, I think, so keep your eyes peeled!
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Biff Byford's 'School of Hard Knocks' is released on 21st Febuary 2020. Click here to order.