Legendary metal producer Andy Sneap is about to hit the road with his band Hell, as main support to Saxon, for an impressive run of UK dates. He is also about to work with the band in the studio as they ready the follow-up to 2013’s well-received Sacrifice album. We spoke to Andy about his love of the British metal stalwarts and why Biff Byford is one of metal’s most stubborn and sarcastic protagonists…
What are you first memories of hearing Saxon?
“It was via Tommy Vance on the radio, I think, on the Friday Rock Show. He was a pioneer for Saxon and he had jingles with Biff on. But I first saw them on the Eagle Has Landed tour, back in ’83 at Derby Assembly Rooms. Cheetah, that all-girl band, were supporting. I also saw them on the Crusader tour at Sheffield City Hall, and I think Verity were supporting and Battleaxe too. Obviously they were great back then. That tour was classic… I’ve still got the program from that.”
Do you think Saxon get the recognition they deserve?
“Well, they are a bit overshadowed by Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, I guess. They were really there at the tail-end of the ‘70s. They were successful… they sort of got there but never broke as big as Maiden and Leppard did. Saxon had that three or four album run in the UK and Europe in the early ‘80s and they were seen as being a big band. They never quite made it to that bigger level in America, unfortunately… and that surprises me, really. Listen to those songs now and they’re as good as anything else from that era. Maybe the band’s image held them back. They were very much the working man’s metal band back then. Maybe it was one moustache too many for the Americans! Ha ha! But I loved them and I still love them. Those classic songs have really stood the test of time, and you can’t go wrong with those early albums in particular. Listen to Denim & Leather and Wheels Of Steel… they’re just classics, aren’t they? I really, really love No Surrender. That’s probably my favourite Saxon song. The key change into the chorus… I love that.”
Saxon have survived nearly 40 years, which is more than can be said about a lot of the NWOBHM bands…
“That’s the funny thing. Saxon were around before the NWOBHM thing kicked off, really. They were out there at the tail-end of the ‘70s. People look back at those days with rose-tinted glasses, but there was a lot of shit at that point, wasn’t there? That happens with any scene, really. Saxon really stood out at the time. They had a little bit more of that rock ’n’ roll edge. It wasn’t just straight metal. A bit like Motörhead, I guess… Saxon have that bluesiness in there, especially when you listen to Paul Quinn’s guitar playing. He’s such a bluesy player and so underrated, I think. His solos on [classic 1982 live album] The Eagle Has Landed are incredible – he’s just wailing away. I did some of the orchestrated versions of those songs with them more recently [for 2013’s Unplugged & Strung Up], and it blew me away what Paul was playing, even though the riffs are so simple. Biff’s voice and the solos, on top of those incredibly simple riffs, it’s always made them special…”
Biff’s such an underrated singer, too…
“Oh yeah, and I think he’s singing better now than ever before, to be honest.”
How do you explain their longevity?
“Knowing Biff, it’s just being stubborn and sticking at it. They obviously went through tough times in the ‘90s when metal was getting shunned and it was the uncoolest thing to be, but luckily Saxon still had a fanbase in Europe. Even with the Harvey Goldsmith thing on TV [Saxon appeared in an episode of legendary promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s Get Your Act Together documentary series in 2007], it just woke people up to what a great band they are and it made people go back and revisit the classic albums. When you look at the timeline, those classic albums were all put together within an 18-month period, so it was a really golden time for them. It’s obvious that they went for the American market in the late ‘80s, like a lot of bands did back then, and they lost the feel of what the band was about. But that Englishness, that was part of Saxon’s charm, so it’s great that they’ve kept plugging away and stayed as popular as they are over here.”
How do you regard their more recent material?
“Biff has promised to send me a bunch of the more recent albums, but I’m still waiting! Obviously I’ve heard Sacrifice [2013 album, co-produced by Sneap and Biff Byford] many times! On Sacrifice they needed to strip things down and get back to basics, and they were writing together in the studio, which I think worked for them. They’re very much back on track now, and it’s obvious that the fans are still there for them. They can tour round the UK and do 12 or 14 shows and they can pull it off easily. Not many bands can do that these days.”
You’re working with the band on their next album… how’s it shaping up?
“I’ve been in the studio a couple of times with Biff recently, just working on ideas, and they’ve got 11 or 12 rough riff ideas together, so a new album is in the pipeline. It sounds pretty good to me. They’re in a better place with this one than they were with Sacrifice at the same stage. I think they want to get a more whole band vibe together before we commit to going into the studio. It’s definitely heavy and I don’t think anyone will be disappointed with it.”
So are you excited about hitting the road with Saxon in February?
“Definitely, it’ll be good fun… but it’s Biff’s humour that’ll get you down! He’s dryer than a dry thing. With us all being very Northern, there’s a lot of very sarcastic humour flying around. We just want to get through the shows in one piece… it’s not as easy as I remember it! Ha ha! I’m 45 now and sleeping on hotel room floors is not much fun! Saxon’s crowd are a hard crowd, though. They’re an older crowd and maybe, although this band originates from the ‘80s, we need people to be open-minded to some degree. I think the Saxon crowd are a bit taken aback by us, but they’ve usually warmed to it by the end. We hope to get a few new fans on board. It’s definitely a very healthy thing for this band to do.”
Hell and Saxon are playing the following dates this month:
February 4th Rock City, Nottingham February 5th Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton February 6th Academy, Oxford February 7th Shepherds Bush Empire, London