While they did not achieve the level of success in America as Iron Maiden, Motörhead, or Judas Priest, Yorkshire-based Saxon was an early battalion on the front lines for the invasion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (that's NWOBHM to music nerds) in the late '70s and early '80s.
Often themed around sword-and-sorcery scenarios (and motorcycles), Saxon's music hit its peak on albums like Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law, Power & the Glory, and Denim and Leather. The last one's title track also became something of a rallying cry for metal fans. And despite changes in taste in popular music (and musical styles and group lineup), Saxon has never stopped pillaging on stage or in the studio.
Recently released in the U.S., Call to Arms is the band's 19th studio album. Highlight songs like "Hammer of the Gods," "Afterburner," "No Rest for the Wicked," and the title track showcase the band at its bludgeoning best. The deluxe edition also includes a bonus disc with seven numbers from a 1980 show at Donnington, including fan favorites "Motorcycle Man," "Backs to the Wall" and "747 (Strangers in the Night)."
Saxon's current lineup includes original vocalist Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn, along with Doug Scarratt (guitar), Nibbs Carter (bass), and Nigel Glockler (drums). Rocks Off spoke with Byford about the record, younger faces in the audience, and why his family likes Florida.
Rocks Off: How does this record stand out to you from the others?
Bill Byford: Well, I think it's the best one we've done in 20 years, seriously. It's much more like the classic Saxon sound, that '80s metal sound. But it's not dated. It's already out in a lot of the world, and we're looking forward to its release in America.
RO: Was there something you wanted to do differently, or it the beauty of a Saxon - like an AC/DC record or Iron Maiden - is that the listener pretty much knows what they're getting.
BB: Well, those bands have lasted because they [deliver] what they know their fans want. And look how big they still are today. We tried to do something a little bit different for a time, and it didn't always work out. This one is more like those earlier records that people really have responded to.
RO: Whose idea was it to put the famous World War I British military recruiting poster "Your Country Needs You" on the cover?
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BB: Mine! I've always loved the image, and it's been used on a lot of things. It's in the [public domain] now. But the thing is, it looks great on a T-shirt! It also fits in with what the record is about.
RO: Since you and Paul are the only remaining original members, is there extra pressure on the two of you to uphold the band's history today?
BB: I wouldn't call it pressure but yes, we're very aware of that. We're [fortunate] enough as a band to have been around for a long time. Other bands from [our era] only lasted a few years.
RO: Heavy metal is a genre that's really taxing for a vocalist, yet you sound pretty much the same on Call to Arms as you did in the early '80s. Do you do anything special to keep the voice in shape?
BB: Not really. Just take care of yourself, it's pretty basic. I've never abused my voice since we started the band. It may sound a bit different today, a little lower, but you know other than having a few drinks, I take pretty good care of it!
RO: "Denim and Leather" has really been taken to heart by fans of heavy metal. At what point did you know that it had kind of transcended just being a song into something more?
BB: It was written with that [thought] in mind because if you liked this kind of music, that put you out of the mainstream. It's really a tribute to the fans, and they picked up on it immediately.
RO: I was at an Accept show last year, and was surprised at how young some of the crowd was. Are you seeing that at your shows now?
BB: Oh sure, we see a lot of younger faces these days. There's a lot of renewed interest in the classic hard rock and metal from the '80s, which is very interesting to me.
RO: Finally, what are the future plans?
BB: We've got a lot of touring to do all over the world, and then we'll take a break. I might bring the family to Florida! I like it there. Then next year, we'll start writing the next record. I may also do a solo record because I have a deal with this company and they asked me to. I've never done one before, I'm just glad that people still want to hear me!
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For more on Saxon, visit the band's official site at saxon747.com.
Saxon plays with Helstar, Rotting Corpse, and Legion 8 p.m. Thursday at Stereo Live, 6400 Richmond. 832-251-9600 or stereolivehouston.com.