Before we get to the latest installment of Chris “Woody High” MacDermott‘s ongoing Spine of Overkill series, you should know that Woody‘s band, the most stoned Mighty High, are taking part in a charity auction of a test pressing for their Legalize Tre Bags album in cooperation with their label, Ripple Music.
Now then, on to the metal. This time around, Woody takes on 1980 double-whammy of righteousness from Saxon. Enjoy:
1980 was a big year for metal — Back in Black, Ace of Spades, Blizzard of Ozz and British Steel all came out that year. There were also debuts from Iron Maiden, Girlschool, Diamond Head and the Michael Schenker Group alongside solid albums from Thin Lizzy, UFO, Scorpions, Ted Nugent, Blackfoot and Van Halen. Somehow with all of this going on, Saxon managed to release TWO albums in 1980. And not just any two albums, but two of their best — Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law.
Saxon‘s self-titled debut came out in May 1979, just as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was beginning to pick up steam. It’s a good album but kind of a mix of Deep Purple with Status Quo, more hard rock than full on metal. The band hit the road supporting Slade, then Nazareth and then Motörhead on the Bomber tour. They originally were trying to get on a European tour with UFO but it turns out that going out with Motörhead was the best thing to happen to Saxon. They had to work hard to win over Motörhead’s rabid fans and helped spread metal fever throughout the UK. Being force fed speed and vodka by Lemmy on that tour must have had something to do with the second Saxon album Wheels of Steel turning out so great. Check out the great Saxon documentary, Heavy Metal Thunder, for all the gory details of that tour.
Recorded in The Who‘s Ramport Studio and released in May 1980, Wheels of Steel was the right album at the right time. Kicking off with “Motorcycle Man” Saxon really lets it fly. This has everything a metal biker anthem needs — speedy riffs, killer guitar solos, frantic double bass drumming and belligerent lyrics. This is metal at its finest. Plus, any metal song that starts off with the sounds of a motorcycle (Manowar‘s “Death Tone,” the On Parole version of “Motörhead,” etc.) is a good thing. “Stand up and be Counted” slows the pace down a bit with a riff similar to Nugent‘s “Yank Me Crank Me” off Double Live Gonzo mixed with some nice Thin Lizzy guitar harmonies. “747 (Strangers in the Night)” is another all-time classic with memorable guitar fills and impassioned vocals from Biff. Side one wraps up with another road warrior anthem, “Wheels of Steel.” They still play it at every gig. This song was designed to be played loud in a car cruising down the highway. It has a groove I like to describe as “speed limit rock” that puts it up there with “Slow Ride” and “Highway Star.” If you play the opening chord of the song on a loop it sounds just like SunnO))). The rhythm section of bassist Steve “Dobby” Dawson and drummer Pete Gill really lay it down on this one while the underrated guitar duo of Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver pull out some great solos. Biff tells everyone about his killer machine and when he says he “don’t take no bull-SHIT” it’s a true fist-clenching metal moment.
Side two opens up with a killer flanged out drum solo before erupting into yet another powerful driving song, “Freeway Mad.” “See The Light Shining” is dedicated to Fast Eddie for some reason. It doesn’t sound anything like Motörhead but is a good fist pumping headbanger. “Street Fighting Gang” has a definite Motörhead “Over the Top” influence and has some awesome solos from every band member including Biff‘s whistling. “Suzie Hold On” was probably their attempt at getting on the radio and bears a resemblance to Nazareth at times. The album wraps up with the all out blitzkrieg of “Machine Gun,” one of their fastest songs. Pete Gill‘s double bass drumming totally smokes and the guitars doing some intense Hendrix/Blackmore whammy bar destruction. This album was hard for me to track down when it first came out. Luckily, I had a friend in high school who would visit relatives in Germany once or twice a year. I’d give him cash and a long list of records to search for at the World of Music store in Munich. The sticker on the front cover confirms he got it for me there in December of 1982. Thank you, Bruce Adler, wherever you are!
Somehow after touring the UK and Europe, Saxon had time to record another album at Ramport and get it released by September of 1980. Saxon were always more into drinking tea than booze or taking speed. Maybe there’s something to be said for reasonably healthy living. It’s hard to argue with the results of Strong Arm of the Law. This album wasn’t released in the US until 1982 and that’s when I picked it up. Imagine my dismay when a few months later I see an import copy with a gatefold sleeve and totally reshuffled track listing. I didn’t bother buying the import and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. I rarely see it anymore. The music’s the most important thing but one of these days I’ll own both.
Side one of the US version starts off with the truly epic jam “Dallas 1PM.” Not only does this six-and-a-half-minute song groove like hell, it’s also a history lesson. This song came in handy when we were learning about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 10th grade social studies. I actually paid attention to see if what they were trying to teach me matched up with the lyrics of the song. Too bad the rest of the class didn’t kick as much as this album. The title-track is up next and is a real metal thumper. Dobby and Pete Gill set up a heavy groove and the guitars come in with a simple but killer riff. Oliver and Quinn worked so well together, sort of like the middle ground between Downing/Tipton and the Young brothers. More great lyrics from Biff about getting hassled by the cops for being longhaired metal muthas. “Sixth Form Girls” is a very catch ditty about molesting young girls. Most bands approach this topic with a sleazy attitude but Saxon makes it almost charming. Side one wraps up with the mid-tempo heavy rockin’ “Hungry Years.”
“Heavy Metal Thunder” was track one of side one in the UK but starts off side two in the US. Doesn’t matter where you put it, this is one of the most ferocious metal anthems of all time. Fast and totally kickass with great lyrics praising those who decorate their denim jackets –
“If your backs are embroidered, come down to the front
Don’t sit there and do as they say
We’re an army of thousands surrounded by lights
Nobody stands in our way!”
What can you say after that except “fill your heads with heavy metal thunder!!!” AMEN!!!
“Taking Your Chances” and “To Hell and Back Again” are both good songs but have the misfortune of being in between “Heavy Metal Thunder” and the outstanding “20,000 Ft.” Despite having a speedy locomotive rhythm “20,000 Ft.” is about air travel and lifetime membership in the mile high club. Goddamn, that song rocks.
Saxon occupies a unique place in the world of metal. Musically and lyrically they cover a lot of ground. A band like Iron Maiden was based more in fantasy or history, while Motörhead was down on the streets. Saxon has always had a little bit of both. They also have a lot more straight forward hard rock in their music than a lot of metal bands. It was such a bummer when they tried going commercial later in the ‘80s. Holy shit, they looked ridiculous in glam metal attire and the songs they were writing were the pits. But no matter how bad it got I never stopped playing their five or six records and eventually they stopped trying to be commercial and returned to being a kickass metal band. Despite lineup changes and legal problems with ex members, Biff and Quinn have never quit. Saxon‘s never gone more than a few years without releasing an album and they’re always on tour. Denim & leather forever!
Saxon, “Dallas 1PM” live
Saxon, “Machine Gun” live
Tags: Mighty High, Saxon, Saxon Strong Arm of the Law, Saxon Wheels of Steel, UK