"Our first album was the first NWOBHM album." Saxon's Biff Byford on being heavy metal pioneers, touring with Motorhead and rocking Top Of The Pops

Biff Byford
(Image credit: Silver Lining Music)

Saxon are true metal pioneers. Present at the ground zero of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and helping to define the scene throughout the 80s, Yorkshire's finest would later experience the same struggles that the 90s brought many metal greats. Luckily, they rallied in style, releasing a slew of critically acclaimed albums as the 21st century rolled around to make them relevant to a whole new generation of fans.

In early 2009, Metal Hammer's Dom Lawson sat down with the band's beloved frontman, Biff Byford, to discuss his early life growing up in Yorkshire, his whirlwind Saxon career and the metal icons' glorious return to form in the 2000s. 

Metal Hammer line break

When and where were you born?

“I was born in Hunley in January 1951, a little town between the Dales and the Moors. I only vaguely remember it as we moved when I was four or five.”

Where did you spend most of your childhood?

“In a village called Skelmanthorpe. My father started life as a coal miner, but some huge fucking brick fell out of the ceiling and hurt him, so he moved into textiles and Skelmanthorpe was a textile village. It was a nice place to grow up in. I was brought up in the 50s and early 60s, playing out and climbing trees, swimming in dams and getting up to mischief, in that small village sense. Your mates were your mates for a long, long time. It was a good childhood.”

Were you a good student or were you a troublemaker?

“When I started at school I was useless. I just used to stare out the window. As I progressed I got interested in history and that sort of thing, then I got into music. There wasn’t really much music around, but my mother was a musician.”

Is that where you got your love of music?

“Yeah. My mum played the piano and the squeezebox and the church organ. So I was brought up around hymns. She was a Methodist and my father was a Protestant, Church Of England, but the Methodist stuff was much more singalongy. It was all stirring stuff.”

Has that influenced your songwriting with Saxon?

“There’s a big hymn element in the melodies, that highly melodic catchiness. Whether it comes from the hymns, I don’t know. My mother used to play them sort of things on the piano. They are all a bit verse-chorus. Maybe the Methodists were the early AC/DC! Ha ha!”

Metal has obvious parallels with religion...

“Totally. We’re steeped in ritual and a lot of our music is quite ecclesiastical, without necessarily meaning to be.”

What were your career prospects before music became a job?

“I was a carpenter when I first left school, an apprentice. My job was just banging fuckin’ nails into things. I’d make tea and fetch fish and chips, and do floorboards in endless new houses. But I got bored of it and I wanted some money to buy instruments, because I was getting into music at that point. I went down the coal mine to earn some money, but I was too tall. The face was only three foot, so I was too tall. They had all these Polish guys down there. Lovely guys, but they were all eight-foot wide and three-foot tall!”

What was your first serious band?

“The first serious one was The Iron Mad Wilkinson Band. I played bass. That was really the first band I sang in. From that, I met Paul Quinn and we formed a band, Coast, which was one half of Saxon. We started writing songs and making demo tapes. That was 1973 or 74. Deep Purple was one of the biggest bands back then. It was all very riffy, and that’s where we come from. Those were the bands that started me off on the long trek of wearing a headband and travelling around in the back of a Transit van.”

How did Saxon begin?

“There was this other band, S.O.B, which was the other half, with Steve Dawson and Graham Oliver. They lost a guitarist and we lost a drummer, so we got together. We were more proggy, they were more like Free. They were fuckin’ useless, actually, but they could play good. The two styles worked really well together. There was a nice chemistry. Together we came up with some great stuff.”

When did you become aware of the NWOBHM?
“A lot of people think we started it. It depends where you come from. Our first album was the first. It predates Def Leppard and Maiden. It was a culmination of prog rock style stuff and the Free thing. Listen to the album – it’s right there. We’d left a lot of that style behind by then, but those were the only songs we had. The producer was melody-orientated, so we went more with melodic songs, even though we were tending towards the heavier songs by that point.”

Was it exciting to be part of that new wave of bands?

“Definitely! We were playing working men’s clubs in the North East and Wales and the odd gig at the Marquee if we were lucky, then suddenly it changed. We got bigger gigs and a bigger audience and the first album was making some impact. It was an exciting time.”

Your second album, Wheels Of Steel, turned you into one of the biggest bands in the UK...

“We did a tour with Motörhead before our Wheels Of Steel tour, and we were playing some songs off the album. It added to the momentum. The record company were shit hot. We got a call one Tuesday telling us our single, Wheels Of Steel, had entered the charts at number 35, and if we went Top 30 that week we’d be on Top Of The Pops. Then we released the album, and by the time the next single went into the charts, it was huge.”

Why do you think the band's success tailed off as the 80s came to an end?

“The early 80s was a golden age for all the bands. A lot of people would say that Priest and Maiden and Whitesnake put out a lot of their best stuff between 1980 and 1984. The problem with Saxon is that we didn’t have the power of the US dollar to keep us going through.”

The split with Steve Dawson and then with Graham Oliver was very acrimonious and seemed to drag on for years...

“It did drag on. The thing with Steve is that he went and we didn’t hear much about it. But when Graham left, he knocked on Steve’s door saying, ‘Let’s get together and fuck these guys over’ and I don’t think Steve wanted anything to do with it.”

Was there ever any doubt that you'd keep the name and continue as Saxon?

“No, never. I always knew where the songwriting strengths are in the band. We let them use that Oliver/ Dawson Saxon name. They didn’t win anything. I’m always soft at the last minute at the courthouse and I was thinking, ‘Well, they should be allowed to make a living.’ I could’ve just said, ‘You’re not having anything, so fuck off!’ but I didn’t want to.”

How have you managed to keep gaining new fans while keeping your diehard supporters?

"We had to regenerate. If you’re not writing albums that compete with the albums before, then fair enough. But if you are, you need a regenerated audience. What people don’t understand, and particularly record companies, is that sometimes it isn’t about selling fuckin’ records. It never was! It’s about liking the band. Buying a record is just a way to hear the music, but these days there are millions of ways to hear our music. You can go onto YouTube and hear hundreds of versions of Crusader. We’re getting half a million hits on some of those songs. It’s all changed now.”

Your last few albums have been extremely well received. Is this a new Golden Era for Saxon? 

“I think so. Metalhead was an important album for us too, because it was a very heavy, dark album, very metal. We walk that line between rock’n’roll and metal. We love doing AC/DC-style songs, but like rip-your- face-off, aggressive stuff too. When we got Doug [Scarratt, guitarist], that made a big difference. Killing Ground was the first time he’d written songs with us; you can really tell that there was something different happening on that album. We’ve had really strong albums since then.”

In 2005, your house burned down. Was that a life-changing moment?

“It focused me. That’s the nearest I’ve been to being dead. There’s a song on the new album about it. It has an effect on you. You think, ‘Fuck it, let’s have a good time!’"

Your gig at Download 2008 was a turning point, too...

“It was a brilliant gig, but it wasn’t just a gig. We love playing live, so for us it was great, but the passion from the audience was what was great. The performance wasn’t great. The guitars weren’t working and it was a rubbish sound, but you rise above those problems when the audience is so willing and passionate and excited to be there. The Saxon chant at Donington was amazing. We were expecting a couple of thousand people, but there was about 15,000. We came in as underdogs and ended up being the band of the festival. We’re still fuckin’ here!”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #188

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s. 

With contributions from