Some years ago this writer found himself ensconced in the hallowed confines of London’s legendary Abbey Road studios, listening to an engineer remix several early Saxon albums. The original reel-to-reel tapes were there in all their (power and) glory, housed in those giant circular silver biscuit tins they utilised before ProTools came along and ruined everything.
Upon opening the tin that contained the tape for 1980’s Strong Arm Of The Law, something magical happened. Out dropped a sheet of paper with the original lyrics for the album’s standout track, Dallas 1pm, written on it. If you’ve ever seen such a thing, you’ll know they’re usually full of incomprehensible spidery writing and multiple crossings-out. But not this one. Saxon’s tempestuous tale of the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy was presented in the manner of a gold-star A-Level essay. Immaculately rendered via an old-fashioned typewriter, no spelling mistakes, centred on a sheet of A4 paper. That this was the painstaking work of Peter Rodney ‘Biff’ Byford, I had no doubt. Away from his big teasin’ bluster the Saxon frontman has always had a studious, not to say meticulous, approach to the art of heavy metal. A never-surrender attention to detail has always been the hallmark of Saxon’s career, even through the dark days, doom-mongering and downtimes.
Talking of which… The Solid Book Of Rock could quite easily be retitled Saxon: The Wilderness Years, when they were more under the radar than flight Scandinavian 101 (ref. 747 (Strangers In The Night)). But first the detail. This set comprises 14 discs altogether, including all nine of Saxon’s studio albums from 1991 to 2009. There are eight rare-ish tracks and two bonus CDs: Classics Re-recorded, which came with the initial pressings of 2001 album Killing Ground, and Lionheart – Rough Studio Mix, originally issued on the 2006 limited edition of the album of the same name. The collection is rounded off by three DVDs and a glossy 12” x 12” booklet. So far, so lavish.
But here’s the nitty-gritty. When the record this collection is named after (almost) came out in ’91, Saxon were pretty much dead in the water; Solid Ball Of Rock was released the same year as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam’s Ten, and to say that no one noticed is an understatement. I was working on Kerrang! magazine at the time and, blinded by this new phenomenon dubbed ‘grunge’, Biff and co. seemed a laughable anachronism. At this period of monumental change, who in Satan’s name would have the audacity to write a song called Bavarian Beaver? Er, that’d be Saxon.