2020 has been a big year for Saxon singer and heavy metal legend Biff Byford. It's the 40th anniversary of his band’s classic album Wheels Of Steel, and in February he released his first solo record, School Of Hard Knocks. Of the latter, he says: “It’s very mixed, musically. It’s not just another Saxon album with my name on it.”
Having recovered from triple-bypass heart surgery, Biff Byford is in good spirits, his dry Yorkshire wit very much in evidence, as he looks back on his life in music and pays tribute to some of his biggest influences.
The first song I remember hearing
As a kid in the early fifties, I heard a lot of church music, and there was Elvis Presley, but I didn’t really comprehend what was happening musically until the sixties. That period really shaped me.
There was all this fantastic stuff – The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Troggs with Wild Thing, great soul music like Ike & Tina Turner, and then Hendrix came along… Amazing.
The first song I played live
Paint It, Black by the Rolling Stones. I was a teenager, and my band’s first gig was at a youth club in Scissett, a little village in Yorkshire. I played guitar – quite badly – and sang it as well. It’s quite an easy song to sing. And the girls in the audience liked it. That was the main aim back then
The greatest album of all time
For me it has to be the first Zeppelin album. When I heard that, I was like: “Jesus!” My friend who taught me to play guitar was in a blues band, so I knew some of those old blues songs that Zeppelin turned into their songs. But the way Zeppelin did them was so powerful. It really blew me away
The guitar hero
Different eras have different guitar gods. The first one has to be Hendrix. When Hendrix came out he moved the goalposts. Gary Moore was another phenomenal player. Ritchie Blackmore, you can’t put down what he did.
And then there was Eddie Van Halen. When we were recording the first Saxon album, in 1979, I saw Van Halen at the Rainbow in London, and the guitar playing had the same effect on me as Hendrix did.
My favourite singers are the ones that have a great tone, or they take it somewhere that nobody else has been. There are so many great singers – Eric Burdon, Ian Gillan, David Byron from Uriah Heep. I loved the way Jack Bruce used to sing in Cream, and we all loved Kate Bush. She was a real rule breaker.
I love the songs from the big musicals of the forties, but The Beatles were the greatest songwriters of their era and probably any other. Nearly every one of their songs is great. That’s pretty incredible.
The best record I've made
I’m very proud of Thunderbolt [Saxon’s 2018 album]. That was as near perfect as we could get it. And of course, Wheels Of Steel was such a big record for us. We were going to get dropped after the first album didn’t do so well. It was a rough period mentally. But when we wrote those songs for Wheels Of Steel it was great. Everybody knew we were on to something.
The worst record I've made
When we made Destiny, in 1988, the band was in a pretty lousy state morale-wise. The producer put a lot of keyboards on the tracks after we’d finished them. Honestly, we just let that one go. But I think we learned a valuable lesson from that album: don’t let other people steer your car.
My Saturday night party song
I don’t have many parties at my place. I’m more likely to want to fiddle around with my model railway. But I’ve heard quite a few Saxon songs at parties and rock discos, and when Solid Ball Of Rock comes on the dance floor fills up. That’s a good party song. It gets you going.
My 'In the mood for love' song
On my solo album I wrote a song for my wife, called Me And You. That song is as near as I’ve ever got to being slushily romantic, but I think that people will relate to it. My wife, Sue, she likes the song. She didn’t say: “Nah, it’s not metal enough!” That would have been a bit of a downer.
Deep Purple, Smoke On The Water. It’s so… singalongable! The lyrics are quite complex – all that stuff about the casino burning down – but everybody knows them. That’s always the sign of a massive song, when people know all the words. Smoke On The Water is part of the DNA of rock music.
The best live band I've ever seen
There are so many. I saw Led Zeppelin in Bath in 1970. Canned Heat and the Small Faces at Barnsley Civic Hall. Alex Harvey was a great performer, theatrical rock, like Alice Cooper, who, incidentally, phoned me to wish me well after my heart surgery. But if I had to pick one show as the best, I’d say Yes at Sheffield City Hall on the Close To The Edge tour. Their music is complicated but it’s so catchy in a way
The song that makes me cry
Open Arms by Journey. Steve Perry has such a great voice. And that band has been the soundtrack to a lot of the sad stuff in my life.
The song I want played at my funeral
I don’t think I’d want a Saxon song for my funeral, so maybe something by Yes, something beautiful like Close To The Edge. It’s a long song, so it would be a long funeral, with drinks and sandwiches halfway through.