Biff Byford's School Of Hard Knocks: leave your preconceptions behind

Saxon singer Biff Byford shows light and shade on debut solo record School Of Hard Knocks

Biff Byford: School Of Hard Knocks:
(Image: © Silver Lining Music)

You can trust Louder Our experienced team has worked for some of the biggest brands in music. From testing headphones to reviewing albums, our experts aim to create reviews you can trust. Find out more about how we review.

Two songs into Biff Byford’s first solo album, you’d be hard-pushed to find a reason why he decided to go solo and leave Saxon at home for a while when he set out to make School Of Hard Knocks

Opener Welcome To The Show echoes occasional Saxon set openers like This Town Rocks and Everybody Up, while the title track lifts the riff from Wheels Of Steel pretty much wholesale to underpin a (very well-spun) tale of Biff’s rise from the rough and tumble streets of Barnsley. Which, standing on the corner of a grainy northern town doing your best to keep your head down, is where it’s probably best to leave most of your preconceptions behind. 

By the time we arrive at the spoken-word Inquisitor, we’ve left the flinty streets of the North and travelled to the arid planes of Spain, and its bloody history viewed through a glass darkly as Byford recounts the torturous work of men set to spread the cardinal’s words through murderous deeds, set against a flamenco guitar. It’s like an especially wired Tom Waits, if Tom Waits had come from Yorkshire. 

Better still (and possible album highlight) is the expansive The Pit And The Pendulum, seven-plus minutes of prog metal, as harried and bombastic as Helloween when they weren’t afraid to go off at tangents, with hints of early Iron Maiden and Byford shouting from the rooftops.

We then go crashing into the heavy metal thunder of Worlds Collide, which does sound almost exactly like the moon hitting the Earth at a clip. That Biff is nearing 70 and recovering from a heart operation seems like a distant memory as the Barnsley bomber sets his feet very far apart, throws back his head and barks at the moon. 

There’s a languid and lilting cover of Scarborough Fair, but it’s his lovely take on Wishbone Ash’s Throw Down The Sword that really turns the head. “The reason I did that was because it was the first song I ever heard that was anything to do with history in the sense of battles and war,” says Byford. Which, for better or worse, means that Wishbone Ash have a lot to answer for. 

We even get to pause for a moment and enjoy a thrumming ballad in the shape of Me And You, but, reassuringly, you’ll feel like you’ve been hit by a stampeding herd of cattle after the thunderous one-two of the raucous Pedal To The Metal and the fast-beating (no, really) Hearts Of Steel. Not the complete sea change that solo work sometimes brings, but Byford’s universe is still expanding even at the dying of the day.

Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.