Cult heroes: Saxon – Barnsley boys who forged the 80s metal boom

In their heyday, these DIY heroes were as big as Iron Maiden, blasting out songs about motorbikes and metal subculture that delighted their fans

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‘Totally DIY’ … Saxon in 1985. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Those who have been watching BBC’s repeats of Top of the Pops from 1981 might have a slightly distorted impression of that year in pop. Because so many episodes have had to be excised from the run – owing to their presenters having been revealed as perpetrators of sex crimes – you don’t get much sense of it having been a golden year for the Human League. In fact, Don’t You Want Me seems to have arrived fully formed at No 1, with almost no sign of the three big hits that preceded it.

You do, however, get an awful lot of two bands. Bad Manners appear to have been on pretty much every week (what must Jerry Dammers have thought, seeing his vision of ska as a politically engaged, progressive medium of social commentary reduced to endless refrains of Lip Up Fatty?), while through 1981 and 1980, heavy metal was represented primarily by Saxon.

This bunch of unlikely looking, spandex-clad blokes from Barnsley managed four top 20 hits across those two years – Wheels of Steel, 747 (Strangers in the Night),And the Bands Played On and Never Surrender. Amid the parade of beautifully coiffured new romantics, or compared to the dandy highwaymen of Adam and the Ants, there’s something deeply touching about seeing Saxon’s bassist, Steve “Dobby” Dawson, on Top of the Pops – a moustachioed, balding man with the look of a deputy manager of a sports shop, dressed up in trousers tight enough to count the change in his pockets, a leather jacket thrown over a bare torso. No matter how hard he tries, he doesn’t look like he’s in danger of being invited to join Van Halen anytime soon. As Joe Elliott of Def Leppard once put it: “There was something so … northern about Saxon. Maybe it was the moustaches.”

These days, the late 70s/early 80s UK metal boom is often perceived through the prism of a very few bands: Iron Maiden, who rose to sustain a near-40-year career as one of the world’s biggest bands; Judas Priest, whose British Steel album pretty much codified the scene; Motörhead, who inspired a generation of young metal fans to embrace extreme velocity as their modus operandi; Def Leppard, who were polished by producer Robert “Mutt” Lange and released two of the biggest-selling albums ever; and, for the purists, Diamond Head, the band who inspired Lars Ulrich and Metallica.

But at the time, Saxon were as big as any of them and bigger than most, by the simple method of singing about things that excited their teenage fans – motorbikes (Wheels of Steel, Stallions of the Highway, Motorcycle Man), flying (747 (Strangers in the Night), 20,000 Ft), steam trains (Princess of the Night), or warfare (Machine Gun, Fire in the Sky).

Their greatest subject, though, was themselves. Saxon were not a group who formed at university and instantly signed a major label deal. Singer Biff Byford had been a miner and a textile worker before Saxon surfed the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) – he was 28 by the time they released their first album – and he sounded delighted to mythologise the transformation in his fortunes in song. “When the band started to take off, it did feel like I was escaping,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “The band was totally DIY. Our PA was home-made – we went to the library and got books on how to build speaker cabinets. With NWOBHM, people just knew this thing was about to break. It was a very exciting time.

Read more at the Guardian

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