The Road To Download 2016: Saxon

Saxon's Biff Byford
(Image credit: Didier Messens\/Redferns)

In the run up to this year’s Download, we’re quizzing the biggest and best bands on the bill.

Saxon headline the Maverick Stage on June 12, so we quizzed vocalist Biff Byford on his memories of the band’s first-ever Donington appearance and what to expect next week…

Saxon were the first British band to play a rock festival at Donington Park: what do you remember of the 1980 Monsters Of Rock event?
“I’ve never thought about that actually! We really had no idea what the festival was going to be – I knew Donington Park as a bike racing track – and we had no idea what to expect. But it was such a great day, with us and Priest and Rainbow. I remember we walked out on stage and got a huge roar, like a football match, and it was such a euphoric moment for the band.”

You pulled a huge crowd at your last Download appearance, in 2012, and received rave reviews from a lot of metalheads who’d never seen the band before: presumably that’s part of the attraction of playing festivals?
“Yeah, we played at noon, and it was incredible day: we just went on and ripped it up. It was great playing the main stage, but this year we specifically asked to played one of the tents, so it can feel more like our own show. . Our stage has a great line-up and we finish about ten minutes before Maiden start on the main stage, so that’ll give people plenty of time to dash over to see them. But yeah, it’s always nice to be appreciated and if we can convert some new people into fans that’s great.”

The programme for the very first Monsters Of Rock festival in 1980

The programme for the very first Monsters Of Rock festival in 1980

Both emerging during the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), Saxon and Maiden go way back: do you keep in contact at all?
“I tend to see Bruce [Dickinson] most, bumping into him at radio stations and things like that, although I haven’t seen him since his illness. They’re a great band, and I’ve a lot of respect for them. Along with Def Leppard, who’re doing their own thing, Maiden and ourselves are probably the two best known bands from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and it’s great that we’re both still headlining bands – albeit on different stages – all these years on.”

With such a wealth of material at your disposal, how the hell do you start putting together a setlist for a gig like Download?
“It’s pretty impossible, because we haven’t got the two hours that we’d usually have, but I’ll just have to keep my mouth shut and try to cram them all in! We’ll probably play two songs from the new album Battering Ram, the title track for sure, and plenty of the ‘hits’. We’re bringing the eagle too, so it’ll be a big production. It’s going to be a special evening for Saxon.”

The day after Download, you’ll be teaming up with Motörhead’s Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee to pay tribute to Lemmy at the Golden Gods ceremony: that’s going to be an emotional night…
“It’s probably going to be more nerve-wracking than the Donington gig! We were the last band to play with Motörhead obviously, and we were good friends with them, so we’re delighted to honour them. They helped us a lot in our early years – our first tour on Wheels Of Steel was with them – and we’ve been connected to them throughout our career: Lemmy has got onstage and sang 747 and Motorcycle Man with us, and songs like that and Heavy Metal Thunder were heavily influenced by songs like Ace of Spades and Overkill. We’ll do 10 minutes of Saxon material and then ram into the Motörhead stuff. I was actually going to play bass and sing, but I think I’d have to practice too much, and I don’t want to be worrying if it’s good enough or not.”

It’s a mammoth 40 years since you began in the music business: do you think Saxon get the respect they deserve… or is that something you couldn’t give a fuck about?
“Well, we tend to consider the starting point as the first album, so we’re thinking of 2019 as the anniversary. Maybe that’d be a good time for the farewell tour…I don’t know. But yeah, I think we get a lot of respect now, I think the credibility of the band is quite high. We’ve worked hard, particularly in the last 10 years, playing festivals all over the world and trying to keep the songwriting at a high level, and I think we’re appreciated. We’re not a nostalgia band, we’re not scared to put out new albums - unlike some bands who ‘Well, we sold five million albums in the ‘80s and we won’t now, so why bother?’ – and I think we still have a relevance. It’s still about the songs and the fans and the whole spectacle of rock ‘n’ roll. We like taking the music to the people, and thankfully people are still listening.”

Download takes place at Donington Park on June 10-12. For more information, visit the festival’s official site.

Saxon and Motorhead men join forces in A Salute To Lemmy at the Golden Gods

The 10 best Saxon anthems chosen by Biff Byford

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.