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What happened when Saxon underwent reality TV's most surprising makeover

Biff Byford, post-makeover
Biff Byford at Wacken 2007, post-makeover (Image credit: Ullstein Bild / Getty Images)

It can’t have escaped your notice that makeover shows are still all the rage on TV. Whether it's people turning dilapidated sheds into luxury palaces on George Clarke's Amazing Spaces, or drastic dental work and fearsome facelifts on 10 Years Younger, re-make/re-model is much more than the opening track on the debut album by Roxy Music

It was only a matter of time before someone attempted the near-impossible: to reinvent the career of a grizzled old heavy metal band. Nevertheless, in 2006 Classic Rock was surprised to receive a phone call from Ten Alps, a TV production company founded by Bob Geldof.

“We’re filming a series of shows with Harvey Goldsmith and we’d like to ask your advice,” they said. “Because Harvey wants to try and make Saxon trendy again.” The fact that Saxon had never been remotely trendy, not even once during their decades-long career, meant this was going to be an uphill task from day one.

Goldsmith, in case you don’t know, is a veteran concert promoter and showbiz entrepreneur most famous for staging Live Aid and Live 8. His TV series, Get Your Act Together With Harvey Goldsmith, began on March 27 2007 at 9pm on Channel 4. There were six episodes in total, each focusing on a different entertainment business in desperate need of a boost. 

The one dedicated to Saxon was broadcast on April 10, and Goldsmith and Biff Byford, Saxon’s irascible singer, most definitely did not see eye to eye. We spoke to the pair separately. 

First, we asked Goldsmith what he saw as his biggest problem with regard to the ‘upgrading’ of Saxon. “I was given a list of acts to choose from and when I saw Saxon’s name I couldn’t quite understand what had happened to them. To me they were stuck in the past. They hadn’t moved with the times.” 

Goldsmith made an initial recce, flying out to Jerez, Spain, where Saxon were appearing at a rock festival. “They came on stage and knocked everyone dead. I’d never seen them live before and I just thought, what a great band. The question was how to get them back in favour in the UK. Because in places like Germany and South America they still do really, really well.” 

Byford, however, had a different view of events. “The story goes that Harvey had a list of potential bands but we’ve been told something different. Apparently one of the executives at Channel 4 used to be in Saxon’s Militia Guard fan club, and he specifically requested us to do the show.” 

Did it take long to decide to go ahead with it? 

“A couple of weeks. We didn’t do it lightly, because a lot of it is taking the piss, isn’t it? We had a lot of credibility issues. But our attitude really was: fuck it, let’s go for it. Because we do need to get a higher profile in the UK. And if we didn’t grasp the nettle then somebody else would have.” 

With regard to Goldsmith’s opinion of Saxon’s performance in Spain, Byford said: “Harvey’s only criticism, which was bizarre, was that we were a bit friendly with the crowd. Ha! I thought that was the whole point. We don’t want to be unapproachable rock gods like Bon Jovi. The rapport we have with the audience is important to us. But Harvey didn’t get it.” 

The scene was set for a rollercoaster few months. A film crew followed Saxon around as they recorded a new album; played a secret gig; attended the Classic Rock awards; worked with trendy producers Mark Wallis and David Ruffy; tried to establish the world air-guitar-playing record at Sheffield Wednesday FC; and played a triumphant ‘homecoming’ gig at Sheffield City Hall. (Even though they actually hail from nearby Barnsley.) 

Goldsmith: “It was hard work. Saxon looked old-fashioned. Their stage set was non-existent at the Spanish festival, whereas everybody else had logos, big backdrops and God knows what else. So I felt they were going through the motions a little bit. It’s not that they weren’t taking it seriously, they just didn’t seem to think they had to go balls-out every time they performed. And I think that’s seriously important.”

Byford: “Harvey thought the reason we weren’t big enough in the UK was that we weren’t hungry. That we were lazy. Too comfortable. Which to me was a total fucking insult.” 

Goldsmith: “Saxon have never really had a strong manager. Their current manager, Thomas Jensen [who parted ways with the band in 2016] is a good booker in Germany but beyond that he has a hard time seeing where Saxon can go and what they can do. And he has real difficulties in trying to decide what to do with them in the UK. Saxon should be as big as Iron Maiden and Def Leppard.” 

For the record, this writer agrees. Saxon’s back catalogue is full of all-time great heavy metal anthems such as Dallas 1pm, Strong Arm Of The Law and Denim & Leather. And their 1980 album, Wheels Of Steel, should certainly be as revered as Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast or Leppard’s Hysteria. Lest we forget, Wheels… was a top five album in Britain. But Saxon never quite managed to scale those heights again (not even when they, er, released a version of Christopher Cross’s Ride Like The Wind as a single in 1988). 

It didn’t take long for the aggravation between Goldsmith and Byford to erupt. While Saxon were recording their new album The Inner Sanctum in Boston, Lincolnshire, a secret gig was arranged in a small club in nearby Lincoln. Goldsmith: “The entire crowd went nuclear. It was quite a surprise and we caught it all on film. What we discovered was that this whole new audience just loved Saxon. They thought they were fantastic.” 

Byford: “We went on stage, started with Witchfinder General from our Lionheart album, and the crowd went nuts. Harvey told us: ‘That’s the audience you need.’ And we said: ‘Fuck off, that’s our usual audience, it’s just that there’s a few younger kids in than usual.’ I don’t think Harvey or the TV people quite grasped what the heavy metal genre is all about.” 

Byford also questioned the extent of Goldsmith’s involvement in the show: “He’ll probably hate me for saying this, but Harvey only comes in occasionally. Most of the work is done by the TV company and people from his office. Harvey just pops in with the film crew now and then, makes a few barbed comments and people are supposed to react to him.” 

Byford’s hackles were raised still further when Goldsmith tried to get involved in the songwriting process. “Harvey listened to some of our new songs and he was giving us his opinion. We said: ‘Actually, we’re not that interested in your opinion. We’re the songwriters here. Have you ever written a song? Have you ever had a hit single? Have you ever sold a million albums? We’re the experts, so leave it to us.’”

Goldsmith: “I listened to some of the tracks Saxon were doing. I felt they were a bit pedestrian. The first thing I said to them was that they should pick out a song and get some current producers to look at it and work with them. But Biff is quite resistant to change. The rest of the band members are quite strange, because it’s hard to get an opinion out of them. They tend to defer to Biff on everything.” 

Byford: “When Harvey listened to I’ve Got To Rock (To Stay Alive) [which was later released as a single, with Lemmy and Angry Anderson guesting on vocals] he said: ‘I’ve heard it all before.’ And we said: ‘Yeah, we wrote a lot of it, Harv. That’s why you’ve heard it before.’ You can’t forget about your past. We’re about tradition, being loyal to our fans and not letting them down. That’s what it’s all about.” 

Eventually, after much banging of heads, a track called If I Was You (which Biff had written about the evils of gun culture) was chosen to be released as a single. It was remixed by the aforementioned Mark Wallis and David Ruffy, who have worked with Razorlight, The Stranglers and U2. Saxon’s reinvention had begun. Sort of. 

Goldsmith: “Biff was very reluctant at first but then he found out that he liked these guys.”

Byford: “It was really fun working with Mark and David; they did great. Still, I’ve got mixed feelings about the single. But they didn’t mess about with it too much and most people seem to like it. We also recorded a version of If I Was You with our usual producer, Charlie Bauerfeind. We put out both so people could make a choice. They’re available on download. We don’t know how many they’ve sold yet, because they’re on so many different platforms.” 

Saxon gained a (temporary) new logo for the single, much to the annoyance of hard-core fans. The band were also sent to get new haircuts. Drummer Nigel Glockler opted for a radical short coiffure. However Byford only had an inch off his barnet, together with “a bit of layering”. The old stick in the mud. 

Goldsmith: “The fact is, all bands reinvent themselves. I’ve been working with The Who since 1969 and they reinvent themselves every time they go out. They don’t do that much – it’s just a tweak here and there. But they get a new audience every time. So why can’t Saxon do it? They could. And they might.” 

A publicity company – Mark Borkowski PR – was brought in to help raise Saxon’s profile. It was decided to stage a stunt during half time at a football match between Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland. With Saxon playing If I Was You in the centre of the pitch, the idea was to get thousands of people in the crowd playing air guitar along with the song – with a view to getting the occasion into the Guinness Book Of Records. It all went horribly wrong. Wednesday were 2-0 down at half time and the disgruntled home fans were in no mood for faux rock’n’roll shenanigans. 

Byford: “Harvey’s spin on it was that it was a failure. But I think that’s what the TV people wanted. We went out there and all the Sunderland supporters were chanting: ‘Who the fuck are you?’ We got plenty of publicity but it was probably the worst three minutes of my fucking life out there.”

Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn play to the crowd during the bands Guinness World Record attempt for playing air guitar at Hillsborough Stadium

Saxon's Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn play to the crowd during the band's Guinness World Record attempt for playing air guitar at Hillsborough Stadium (Image credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Goldsmith: “With this whole TV series I’m doing, everybody is very suspicious and sceptical because they’ve seen so many people get destroyed on reality shows. I didn’t want to see Saxon destroyed. I wanted to see success. I wanted to get them in the record books. But Biff was embarrassed. He shouldn’t have been. He should’ve risen to the occasion.”

Saxon’s make-over climaxed with a ‘homecoming concert at Sheffield City Hall on January 26 2007. Classic Rock was there and it really was a fabulous show – a scintillating greatest hits set complete with Saxon’s legendary eagle dangling at the back of the stage, like a cross between the Angel Of The North and a giant foil-wrapped budgie. But before the gig began, Byford and Goldsmith were again at loggerheads. 

Byford: “Harvey came into the dressing room and said: ‘I’d just like to say that you did a crap job at Sheffield Wednesday. You didn’t try hard enough.’ I was furious. I said: ‘It was your idea. you made us do it, you fucking wanker.’ All the band stormed out of the dressing room. I told the TV people I wouldn’t talk to Harvey again until he apologised. Eventually he came in and said sorry. He must have been cringing. But he did it, and that was fair enough.” 

Did Byford have any regrets about getting involved in Goldsmith’s TV programme? “Yes and no," he said. "It’s going to be seen around the world. It’s going to New Zealand, Australia, Canada… America’s already taken it, so it’s a massive thing. It’ll definitely help raise Saxon’s profile. I think it’ll be absolute purgatory for me to watch, though.

“The best thing we can hope for is that the band come across as a bunch of mentalists who can’t stop fucking doing it. And that would be great. I don’t want to be seen as some highbrow person who wants to change the world. We should just be what we are: a great British heavy metal band. All we want is for people to know that we’re still here. I’m not really bothered as long as we get across the point that the new album’s great, it’s in the shops and we’re touring. 

“But,” Byford added, “I think they’ll probably paint Harvey as a fucking hero… and I’ll come across as some bigoted, loudmouthed bastard.” 

The final word went to Goldsmith. We asked him: do you think Saxon will seize the opportunity you have given them to renew their career, or will they go back to their old ways? 

“Um… well…” He considered for a few seconds. “To tell you the truth, they’ll probably go back to their old ways.”

The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 105, in March 2007.

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.