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Saxon: Saxon - Album Of The Week Club review

Part rock, part prog, under-produced and released on a French disco label: it can only be Saxon's debut album

Saxon: Saxon
Saxon: Saxon

Rainbow Theme
Frozen Rainbow
Big Teaser
Judgement Day
Stallions of the Highway
Backs to the Wall
Still Fit to Boogie
Militia Guard

Released in ’79, ahead of the NWOBHM’s chasing pack, Saxon’s debut album was a hit-and-miss affair and failed to chart. Its tinny production didn’t help, and nor did the band’s somewhat muddled creative vision, as illustrated by the ponderous, prog-influenced opening one-two of Rainbow Theme and Frozen Rainbow.

The real Saxon was in two terrifically rowdy numbers – Stallions Of The Highway, the first of their many hell-for-leather biker anthems, and Backs To The Wall, which had singer Biff Byford sticking it to The Man. In these tracks were the signs of what was to come.

Would Biff ever be tempted to re-record it?

“I know technology has moved on, and we’re probably a better band now than we were back then. But, if we did it we’d be missing the point of what makes that album special to people. There’s a magic about it you couldn’t recreate. It might sound better with a [modern] production, but there’s more to making a good album that lasts in people’s minds than the production. 

"Our first four albums are special to the fans, and there’s no way we’d be arrogant enough to think we could improve on any of them."

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Background

The members of Saxon lived within 10 or 15 miles of each other in the Barnsley-Sheffield-Doncaster triangle when they started out in 1976, when they still traded under the deliberately provocative name Son Of A Bitch. All five – Byford, guitarists Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill – had plenty of miles on the clock in other bands, but this one was different.

In their early years, Son Of A Bitch/Saxon burned though gallons of petrol gigging up and down the country, riling venue owners by refusing to play covers of the day’s pop songs. They drove a battered American car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass, imported by a friend of theirs, partly because it looked cool and partly because it had a bench front seat and could fit everyone in comfortably. 

They played anywhere that would have them, with anyone who would have them: the Ian Gillan Band, Heavy Metal Kids, Woody Woodmansey’s U-Boat, Nutz. At one point they opened for The Clash

“It was only one gig, in a place called Belle Vue in Manchester," says Biff Byford. "I only remember it cos it was a really odd bill. People were spitting at us. That was showing their appreciation, so we obviously went down well. We did a festival with Joe Strummer years later and he fucking remembered it. I was really impressed. We were jamming 747 with an acoustic with him.”

Saxon didn’t see punk as an obstacle so much as an inspiration. They shared DNA: speed, rawness, a fuck-you attitude. Biff Byford was a street rat just like Johnny Rotten, only those streets happened to be in Barnsley rather than North London.

Like the punks, Saxon looked as if they’d stepped out of their own audience and on to the stage. They sounded like it too. Not for them the last-days-of-empire excess of mid-70s Led Zeppelin or the musical showboating of the prog crowd. The song titles said it all: Backs To the Wall, Still Fit To Boogie, Stallions Of The Highway

A deal with Queen’s former managers, Trident, got them a wage of £30 a week, which they spent on leather jackets, jeans and petrol. French disco label Carrere signed them for £50,000. For five working-class guys it was like winning the Lottery.

“They got lucky, didn’t they?” Byford says bluntly. “They found a stinking rock band and we sold a lot of records for them. They were in the right place at the right time with the right money.”

Other albums released in May 1979

  • Orchestral Favorites - Frank Zappa
  • Three Imaginary Boys - The Cure
  • The Undertones - The Undertones
  • Wave - Patti Smith Group
  • Do It Yourself - Ian Dury & The Blockheads
  • Lodger - David Bowie
  • Dynasty - Kiss
  • Where I Should Be - Peter Frampton
  • Discovery - Electric Light Orchestra
  • Flag - James Taylor
  • In the Skies - Peter Green
  • Monolith - Kansas
  • Rhapsodies - Rick Wakeman
  • Spectral Mornings - Steve Hackett
  • State of Shock - Ted Nugent

What they said...

"Although it’s a little rough ’n’ ready, it’s a classic. Given the band’s roots (the two halves more blues and prog respectively), roots that would to alluded to in later years, odd then that they took the Zeitgeist by the horns and this has a distinct punkish tinge to the classic metal. (Get Ready To Rock)

"The album was produced by John Verity (Argent) and is a very interesting listen for fans only familiar with later day Saxon. Opening with Rainbow Theme/Frozen Rainbow, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d put the wrong CD in the player as Saxon show a liking for a more, almost, prog rock sound, which is perfectly understandable when you consider these songs were written in the mid 70’s, while Big Teaser is almost glam rock in comparison." (Red Guitar Music)

"Saxon were simultaneously inexperienced (when it came to the recording studio) and long in the tooth (older than most NWOBHM peers, they'd been performing in clubs for nearly a decade), and here they came to grips, not only with their material, but also with the fact that their independent record company, Carrere, didn't really know how to capture a heavy metal sound on tape." (AllMusic)

What you said...

Neil Wilson: It's a good debut, that has a number of cracking tunes - Stallions Of The Highway, Judgement Day, Big Teaser and personal favourite, Backs To The Wall. It shows a young band with a lot to offer and their next album proved that, without any doubt!

Alexander Taylor: I bought the re-master recently, I think it's actually better now than it was given credit for. Stallions, Judgement Day, Big Teaser and maybe my all time Saxon fave - Frozen Rainbow - still sound fantastic. They still play Frozen Rainbow and Biff (unlike certain other singers) can still sing it. I d like to see Saxon ease off the "total metal" of recent albums and take a leaf out of this selection.

Jochen Scholl: The defining tracks are mentioned here already. In my opinion there weren't so many outstanding rock albums in 1979 , so this solid one was a highlight. It was time for the NWOBHM to come! And Saxon were in a good starting position after this one. A few more edges and a bit rougher production, and they would go on with four of the best hard rock albums ever in a row.

Mike Knoop: The right ingredients are all there, but the cake isn’t quite ready to come out of the oven. The classic lineup is in place but mixed into a muddy mishmash, there are plenty of songs about bikers and tough chicks and rock ‘n’ roll damnation but the riffs are missing the kerrang to come, the bad-ass logo is intact but the faux-Frazetta cover mutes its power (and glory). 

Backs To The Wall, Stallions Of The Highway, and Still Fit to Boogie have aged the best. Militia Guard sounds like it’s from another album, almost another band entirely. 

But say what you will about their debut; with their next album, Saxon kicked off one of the best three-album-runs in rock, and in less than two years no less. And while they weren’t as big as they could have been, they have a loyal die hard fan base that has rocked with them for 40 years and will keep on going as long as Saxon does.

Laurent Biehly: Good album but nowhere near a classic. Biff was a very melodic singer. The band has consistently released good albums including in the 80s when they tried to be more commercial (Innocence Is No Excuse is fantastic).

Bill Griffin: I didn't really find much to recommend here but thought I heard hints of good things to come and don't particularly like the first albums by many other NWOBHM acts either so I gave a listen to some of the latest album. It sounds better technically but I still have the same musical issues, primarily Biff's voice (generic) and the lyrics (cliched). I couldn't help but think of Spinal Tap while listening, like this was a parody.

Mark Fuller: Never really thought much of the album at the time, but in the last few years have listened to it and grown to appreciate it for what a great debut album it was. The band were still finding their sound and what they were about, and they fulfilled the potential shown. A must listen for all those who want to understand NWOBHM!

Michael Smith: I mean it's OK. It's nothing to write home about, considering we already had Priest doing this thing so much better, and Maiden would come along and blow us all away.

Not terrible but definitely showing its age, and not in a good way.

Roland Bearne: Saxon gives me joy! There, just had to get that out! I came in at Wheels of Steel and, as mentioned before, the three albums following this are one of the great triumvirates in rock. Here's the odd thing, I never went back and investigated this one, not in 40 odd years, so I came to it fresh! 

The whole stall is admirably set out, announcing themselves with pomp, magic and rainbows before getting down to business with the "not-many-words-to-learn-to-shout-along" Big Teaser and oh joy; right there is the Biff wolf-whistle! Socially unacceptable of course but from Biff, it's his signal to the troops to go Over The Top, his clarion call to the Saxon hoards. Marvellous. 

This is a darn good first album, Stallions is terrific, Backs To The Wall and Still Fit To Boogie are all muscle flexers for things to come. Paul Quinn at this point must be among the great Riff Gods, from this to the crunching likes of Thunderbolt and Metal Head, he keeps 'em coming. He and Derek Oliver's guitars intertwine superbly even at this early stage, with Quinn's easy vibrato and Oliver's Hendrix-inspired wah moments (just a hint of Wishbone Ash influence in there?) 

The guitars sound great underpinned with masterful minimalism by Steve Dawson's rumbling bass. It's a really good debut and I'll probably get the vinyl now too. "Is it loud enoof for ya?!!" Love 'em!

John Davidson: I was 16 when this came out and buying Sounds magazine every week with an almost religious fervour. I recall a review of this album by (presumably) Geoff Barton, that prompted me to buy it. I was always open to Prog as much as Heavy rock/ Metal, so its no surprise that I actually liked the opening tracks with their fantasy overtones as much as (if not more than) the metal boogie of the rest of the album. Listening again today I think they've aged better than the rest . 

Stallions Of The Highway is the only other song that still has some chops. The rest is working man's club level songwriting, played by a band that were capable of better.

Carl Black: Is there anything quite so good as an unexpected prog, rock'n'roll sandwich? This is what I got here. I prepared myself for a heavy rock, heavy metal experience with alcohol fuelled rebellion, leather, denim and motorcycles. So image my surprise when a prog rock mystical opus rang out as the first track. Rush would have been pleased. 

We get past the first song and we are where I thought we would be. Biker heaven and metal madness. Very un-PC, wolf whistles, but good fun. Standout track was Judgement Day. A hard rocker with a slight curve ball. Finishing off the album is another prog-tinged song. Good job I like to rock and prog. 

I've found that a few classic bands struggled a little with identity on their first album. Pictures Of Matchstick Men is unrecognisable from the Quo we know and love. Even Judas Priest where Led Zep wannabes on Rocka Rolla. I loved both sides of the Saxon coin. How different things could have been if they had gone done the prog route! Long live Saxon. Great album and band.

Hywel Jones: 1979 was the year I discovered NWOBHM. I was 11. Growing up in the UK, I listened every Friday night to Tommy Vance's Friday Night Rock Show where Saxon featured very often. Great Band. They became better with every album release over the next few years. In my opinion, the next three releases were Saxon's best, but this is still a great listen!

Russ Oliver: Decent offering for a first album. Many bands put out an epic debut and then struggle desperately to equal it. This album was a foundational one. Rainbow Theme introduced us to Byford’s powerful and beautiful vibrato. Frozen Rainbow gave a glimpse of Oliver and Quinn who’d soon be ripping the roof off! Saxon only got better as time passed. This was a nice first effort.

Steve Ballinger: It was a promising start, definite signs of what was to come, but not a classic for me. Had it on cassette and other albums got played more. As I’ve replaced old tapes with CD’s this one never got done. I prefer the subsequent releases much more and in The Eagle Has Landed they had one of the defining live albums of my youth.

Brian Carr: Anyone that peruses my music collection would know that I enjoy plenty of big dumb rock. But for some reason, to my ears Saxon was bigger and dumber than most (Manowar probably sits at the peak of that mountain). So imagine my surprise when I ran their debut album through my earbuds during the dog walk and heard Rainbow Theme/Frozen Rainbow. I’ve never listened to a full Saxon album, so maybe I was wrong!

Well, those thoughts came to a screeching halt with Big Teaser. There is the stuff I expected from Saxon. The chorus repeats the line 'She’s a Big Teaser' eight times. It feels like at least 30. From this point forward, it just sounds like something done in a garage (or, production-wise, a closet). 

The majority of the guitar work is mundane, there are drum fills that sound like he fell off the throne (before the title lyric to Stallions Of The Highway is one example) and two of the album’s eight songs have a shuffle section out of nowhere tacked on at the end. Even the album cover looks like something a high school student drew on his notebook or jean jacket.

On the positive side, there were a couple of decent guitar moments, and the background vocals were a nice surprise throughout. My apologies to the Saxon fans out there - I know the band is revered by many metal fans. I like them much more than the punk rock that was big at the time, but Saxon just doesn’t do it for me.

Final Score: 6.61 ⁄10 (190 votes cast, with a total score of 1257)

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