“They must have realised it was a bit stupid”: Metallica have never covered a Saxon song, and Biff Byford has a theory why

Saxon in 1980 with an inset of Metallica’s James Hetfield
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns/Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Metallica have never been shy of wearing their influences on their sleeves. Over the course of their 40-plus year career, the US band have paid tribute to many of the bands that inspired them by covering their songs, Countless artists have got the Metallica treatment, from household names such as Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Motörhead to lesser-known bands like Diamond Head, Misfits and Budgie.

Yet one major band have missed out on the Metallica stamp of approval – British metal warhorses Saxon. It’s not as if Lars Ulrich and co weren’t aware of them. The drummer cited the band’s Strong Arm Of The Law as one of his favourite records from his formative years. “Heavy Metal Thunder is just an anthem,” said Lars, who saw Saxon play in 1981 when he spent time in England. “Whenever you listen to the song, you were there, you were in the thick of it, you were a part of what was going on.” Yet despite that, Metallica never got around to covering Saxon on record – and singer Biff Byford has a theory why.

In the early 80s, Saxon were one of the most exciting heavy metal bands in Britain. Formed in the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley in 1975 as Son Of A Bitch, they helped spearheaded the NWOBHM movement that also produced the likes of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. In fact, Saxon’s second album, 1980’s Wheels Of Steel, had crashed into the UK Top 5 two weeks before Maiden’s self-titled debut album achieved the same feat.

“We were big in Britain, no argument,” Biff told Classic Rock in 2018. “Probably the biggest of our generation of metal bands at the time. We’d done it through hard graft and killer songs; none of that trendy image rubbish.”

Having conquered their home country, America was next in their sights. Saxon’s first experience of touring the US was as opening act for Rush in late 1980. But it would be another 18 months before they returned to the US as headliners in their own right - which is where they first crossed paths with Metallica.

On March 26 and 27, Saxon played two shows at LA’s Whisky A Go Go club – their very first shows in the city. The band themselves had picked the support band for each night after sifting through tapes of potential candidates. The band they picked to open on the first night were future 80s rock superstars Ratt, at the time carving out a name for themselves on the Sunset Strip scene. And for the second night, they’d come across a tape from a brand new band who had played just one gig to date. Their name? Metallica.

“It was the quality of the demo and the tunes that stood out,” Saxon guitarist Graham Oliver told Classic Rock in 2018. “The others were rubbish.”

A buzz surrounded the two Whisky shows. Several other musicians turned up in the dressing room, including Ozzy Osbourne, who was still reeling from the death of guitarist Randy Rhoads just a week earlier, and a hot new band named Mötley Crüe. “Our tour manager said, ‘Their favourite song is Motorcycle Man, they really want to meet you,’” recalled Biff. “We said, ‘Bring ’em in!’ Eighteen months later we were supporting them!”

Unlike Ozzy and Crüe, no one really knew who Metallica were, to the point where Saxon didn’t bother watching them soundcheck. Still, the singer did catch their set later that evening. “I remember watching them, thinking, ‘They’re gonna be huge.’” the singer told Classic Rock in 2018 (coincidentally, the other band playing that night were Trauma, featuring future Metallica bassist Cliff Burton).

The two shows Saxon played were both triumphs, even if they never really made the US breakthrough they should have. On the other hand, Metallica’s star was in the ascendency – just over a year later, they released their landmark debut album, Kill ’Em All, ushering in a new chapter in metal history.

Over the subsequent years and decades, Metallica repaid the debt they owed to the bands that inspired them by covering their songs, most famously Diamond Head’s Am I Evil?. Yet a Saxon cover never materialised – and according to Biff, the reason why stemmed from a petty incident at that Whisky A Go Go show.

“We had a fan onstage, built into a wedge – we used to get hot,” Biff told Classic Rock. “The fan used to come on every so often to cool us down. I think one of the Metallica guys asked if they could use it and our tour manager said no. I think that’s why they never did a Saxon song, or we never played with them again. We didn’t really talk to Metallica again until after my book [Biff’s 2007 autobiography Never Surrender] came out.”

Biff humorously addressed the ‘fan incident’ in the book. “I said, ‘Look, if you want to use the fan in the future, it’s no problem.’ They got in touch with me after that. They must have realised it was a bit stupid.”

Metallica have never explained why they didn’t record a Saxon cover, but any beef, real or imagined, has long since been squashed. In 2009, Biff joined Metallica onstage in Paris to sing Saxon’s 1980 biker anthem Motorcycle Man, and again in 2011 during the American band’s 40th anniversary gigs in San Francisco. “We’ve become really good friends,” the singer told Classic Rock. “So there’s a happy ending to it all.”

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.