“I didn't tell the band, but I went to the gig and sat at the back. It was strange to see this other guy singing my lines… I really felt for him”: Michael Sadler was always going to rejoin Saga, and they knew it

Michael Sadler of Saga
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2012 Canadian pomp rockers Saga were celebrating the return of original singer Michael Sadler, who’d quit five years earlier and left his colleagues with the near-impossible task of continuing without him. Marking the release of 20th studio album 20/20, Sadler and co-founder Jim Crichton looked back – and forward – with Prog.

A career in rock music isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even for those who beat the odds to achieve longevity, the devil known as artistic compromise must be faced and often fought. Just ask Saga, who’ve been around so long that they share their name with a company that sells holidays for over-50s.

Melding the accessibility of FM radio to the joyful fruitiness of classic pomp-rock, Saga formed in Ontario, Canada, in 1977. Three years later, UK fans marvelled at both their levels of musicianship and vocalist Michael Sadler’s imposing walrus ’tache as they supported Styx during a heady three-night run at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It was interesting to see the players – and Sadler – all swapping instruments during the course of the show, and many of the audience left for home unable to extricate songs such as You’re Not Alone, Don’t Be Late (Chapter Two) and Careful Where You Step from their memory banks.

Returning for a mini-headline tour, Saga stopped off at the capital’s Lyceum in February 1981 and appeared at the Reading Festival that summer. By the time of the Heads Or Tales album two years later, they had become Hammersmith Odeon bill-toppers in their own right.

However, like so many before them, Saga’s impending triumph was scuppered by a support system that prioritised success in the lucrative singles chart above an album-based career. Indeed, the following decade would teach the Canadians that while scaling the mountain can be tough, attempting to remain at its peak is more challenging still.

The sad truth is that Saga were always bigger around the rest of the world than here in the UK. Many years earlier, Sounds magazine had travelled to Puerto Rico to file an unlikely report of demented Saga fans smashing their way into a sold-out venue with sledgehammers. Later on, while the group maintained visibility in mainland Europe, following a further Hammersmith appearance – this time to promote their sixth album, Behaviour – 13 years elapsed before Saga returned to Britain for a one-off club date in London in 1999.

For a devotee like yours truly, lucky enough to have witnessed those early gigs with Styx, following Saga’s fascinatingly topsy-turvy fortunes evenly matched the frustrating years of deprivation. “I lived in London a while, so I know all about the English press,” cackles Jim Crichton, the band’s bassist and keyboard player. “You guys love taking an act that’s never been heard of, building them up as The Second Coming, and three weeks later they’re being shredded. So after 35 years, I guess we haven’t done so bad.”

Beyond blaming their record company, neither Crichton nor Sadler can adequately rationalise the decade during which Saga stayed away from the UK. “I suppose we made some poppier-sounding records that confused the fans, and the whole music business began to erode in the 90s,” points out Sadler. “But when you think about it, it’s strange what a small body of water [The English Channel] can do to a band’s fortunes.”

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Saga’s rocky relationship with the UK appeared to reach a nadir in May 2006, when a one-off gig at London’s Garage attracted approximately 150 people. Even the presence of dedicated fans Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden couldn’t soothe the group’s disappointment and bemusement.

“The size of the crowd freaked us out,” Crichton admits. “We were scratching our heads backstage. It had happened once before in Denmark; we later found out that we’d actually been billed as a Saga covers band that night, so we stopped the show and chatted to the audience instead. But the most puzzling thing about that London gig was that we were playing great shows throughout that whole tour. Whoever promoted that show should be ashamed of themselves. There were no posters, no advertising. It was suicidal.”

It would have killed me to be on the road and have the wife call and say, ‘Today your son said his first word’

Michael Sadler

Crichton was unsurprised when Sadler announced his intention to quit Saga in late 2007, seeking to focus on family life and extricate himself from the stress of being in an active travelling band. “Mike had been thinking about leaving for four years,” reveals Crichton. Sadler had been battling problems with alcohol – since vanquished; his 2011 solo record was called Clear) – but was about to become a father.

“It would have killed me to be on the road and have the wife call and say, ‘Today he said his first word.’” explains the singer. “That’s far, far more important than anything I could do musically.”

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After some dates to promote the 2007 album 10,000 Days (named after approximately the amount of time Sadler had spent with the band – 27 years), Saga were without a lead singer. Presumably they came close to breaking up at that point? Crichton laughs: “Weirdly, no. We never even discussed it. Whenever Ian [Crichton, guitar], Jim [Gilmour, keyboards] and I get together, it’s always fun. We just needed to find a way to do it differently.”

After what Crichton now terms “the silliness of a singer search on YouTube,” Saga appointed Rob Moratti, a fellow Canadian whose voice was very different to that of his predecessor. The resulting Saga album, 2009’s The Human Condition, received a generally lukewarm response. Prog’s verdict: “This isn’t awful by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just not a Saga album in the truest sense of the term.”

We tried to reinvent ourselves… it didn’t really work. Half of the fans loved it, the rest hated it

Jim Crichton

“What can I say?” shrugs Crichton. “Everybody wanted The Voice. Nobody sings quite like Michael. It was inevitable that without him Saga would become something different. But I still really liked that album; it was edgy and a lot heavier. We tried to reinvent ourselves – but as often happens when something like that is attempted, it didn’t really work. Half of the fans loved it, the rest hated it. We’ve had to get used to the fact that they just want Saga to sound like Saga.”

Appearances in the UK were conspicuous by their absence, but the Moratti-fronted incarnation of Saga came to Europe twice and also toured North America. According to Crichton, some of the fans accepted the change but the band quickly knew “it was going to be an uphill battle.” In an extremely strange cloak ‘n’ dagger twist, Sadler actually attended a show by the ‘new’ Saga.

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“I didn’t tell the band I was going to do this; but I bought a plane ticket, went to the gig and sat at the back with a baseball cap, then left without saying anything to anybody,” he laughs. “It was very, very strange to see and hear this other guy singing my lines.” He continues: “But let me say this – I think Rob took an unfair amount of stick from some quarters. The guy had played maybe three live gigs before he joined Saga. I spent 30 years learning my craft. I really felt for him.”

It wasn’t too long before Sadler decided that he would like to return to Saga. While this was excellent news there was just one problem: the group had already started writing a second album with Moratti. So how did the stand-in singer take the bad news? “Rob was a total gentleman about it all,” says Crichton. “It wasn’t a complete shock, let’s put it that way.”

When you think about this band’s history, it’s almost like Michael was gone for 10 minutes… You close your eyes, reopen them and there he is again

Jim Crichon

“When I left, there was an unspoken thing between myself and the guys that I probably would be coming back,” Sadler admits now. Of course, the million-dollar question is how Sadler’s personal circumstances changed enough for him to allow him to rejoin Saga? “Basically, I wanted to be there for the child’s first year – to secure that bond,” he responds. “He’s older now and aware of what Daddy does for a living, and also that he must be away sometimes.”

Crichton can scarcely conceal his joy at working with his old friend again. “When you think about this band’s history, it’s almost like he was gone for 10 minutes,” he enthuses. “You close your eyes, reopen them and there he is again.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group knuckled down to create some familiar-sounding yet exhilarating new music. Titled 20/20, their handiwork is a signature Saga record. Anywhere You Wanna Go, for example, is a superb ong that plays to all of the band’s familiar strengths. “Given that we started working on it with Rob and ended up doing a complete 180 degree turn, I’m absolutely thrilled by the way it came out,” says Crichton. “Luckily, the way this band works, the music tends to come along first.”

There were songs that almost made me – I don’t want to say cringe... I’d rather we hadn’t recorded them

Michael Sadler

So it’s only fitting that Saga display restored levels of confidence in the record label responsible for releasing and promoting their music. Following the concert release Heads Or Tales – Live, which featured Moratti, 20/20 is their second product to be worked by earMusic, the fast-growing German company whose roster includes Deep Purple, Chickenfoot, Uriah Heep, Marillion and Keith Emerson.

“Our previous label [Inside Out] came apart, which is happening to a lot of companies, so it’s wonderful to be working with a company that feels pretty healthy,” points out Crichton. “I love their energy.”

“Better still,” chirrups Sadler, “they actually seem to have a plan for us! Though of course some of the reasons [the band failed to break though] were down to us.”

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The band’s AOR-friendly era certainly figures among those factors. Prog wonders whether Saga can swear they never crossed the line between wanting to share their music with as many people as possible and selling out their art. “Wow! Saving the tricky questions till the end, huh?” retorts a clearly amused Sadler.

“Okay, I suppose we came very, very close on a number of occasions, especially on Steel Umbrellas [1994]. Some people might say Wildest Dreams [1987], but I really like that record. I don’t know that we crossed the line with an entire album, but there were songs that almost made me – I don’t want to say cringe... I’d rather we hadn’t recorded them. There were some ‘What were we thinking?’ moments, definitely.”

Take Prog’s word for it: 20/20 is reassuringly free of such dips and should allow this fine Maple Leaf institution to find its feet again.

After passing his own YouTube audition, Mike Thorne has replaced ex-Helix man Brian Doerner on the drum stool, and Saga now feel ready to tour again. And, yes, despite the debacle at the Garage, that includes the UK. “When we go to Europe, not jumping onto a ferry would make no sense,” sums up Sadler. “We have absolutely nothing against England.”

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.