And Biff Played On

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On this day (January 15, 2009), Saxon’s Biff Byford turned 58 and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal icon dismisses it as just another day. Yet it is another day in an illustrious 30-year career as front man for one of the most pure, consistent, and too often underappreciated (at least on these shores) heavy metal bands of all time. On this day, he can once again speak proudly of the release of an outstanding album, Into the Labyrinth, one that combines heavy metal thunder, sleazy electric blues, and triumphant hard rock. At the center of it all is a sound that is distinctly Saxon. There is no secret formula at work here. Members Byford, Doug Scarratt (guitar), Paul Quinn (guitar), Nibbs Carter (bass, keys), and Nigel Glockler (drums) stick to a fundamental songwriting approach on Into the Labyrinth, one comprised of great riffs, memorable choruses, and a rock solid rhythm section, as has been the case with pretty much every Saxon album. It matters not if the style is an epic one (e.g. “Battalions of Steel” and “Valley of the Kings”), an unapologetically heavy one (“Demon Sweeny Todd”), or a bluesy one (“Slow Lane Blues”). As Byford discusses below, it is about remembering your roots, yet always looking to the future, and never forgetting the basics.

You have to do interviews on your birthday?

Biff Byford: Well, you know, it’s work; so whatever [laughs]. It’s a job.

I find it quite appropriate that we’re talking here in the year of the 30th anniversary of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

BB: It’s 30 years for that and it’s been 30 years since our first album came out. I don’t think anybody is really celebrating it. There are a lot of people interested in it. There are quite a lot of English magazines covering it. I don’t think it really connects too much with the new album, but with Saxon certainly.

Maybe it is more of an event for the old timers. I still remember buying Crusader on vinyl at K-Mart.

BB: There is nothing wrong with the tradition; that’s what it’s all about, I mean with the bands and the back catalogue and where it came from and what it was like. I think a lot of the interviews I’m doing it’s only part of the thing we’re doing. Because we were around at that time, it’s a really big deal. It’s really more about who has been around for 30 years.

I think more important for bands like Saxon is that all these years later you’ve remained consistent and even raised your game.

BB: I was talking to Bruce Dickinson a couple of days ago about it and obviously they were there and are still around. We pretty much take it as it comes. I don’t think you can forget your past. You’ve got to have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. That’s the only way you can really survive for this long.

It is evident on the new album that if you go back and consider the roots of heavy metal, in its purest form, it has always been based on rock and blues, just sped up and amplified. You can hear it especially on a song like “Slow Lane Blues” or “Crime of Passion.”

BB: I started out as a bass player and I think our roots are in the more blues side of rock and roll. We’ve just developed that a little bit more psycho really. I think blues music is instrumental to it; it’s just a heavier form of it. We try not to write too many songs that are just 12-bar, but sometimes it works fantastically.

Into the Labyrinth is a very effective mix of blues rock, hard rock, and heavy metal.

BB: We tried to blur the edges between. We don’t like writing the same 10 songs every time. We like to play things like “Slow Lane Blues,” but we also like to play things like “Demon Sweeny Todd.” On the face of it, they’re very different, but you can blur the two together so that there is some connection.

Do you think you could have done an acoustic slide version of one of your songs – like you did with “Coming Home” on this album – in 1983 and have it go over well?

BB: I don’t think so, no. It was my idea to put that on there. Basically, it was recorded in my studio in my house in France. I just thought it was cool, just one take. I just thought I’d put it on the end and see what people thought. Some people think it’s pretty cool and others are like “why did you put that on there?” But nevertheless, it’s our album and we can put on what we like. I just think that it’s part of our early, early influences. We would listen to all the Zeppelin stuff, which put us into the John Lee Hooker stuff or the Howlin’ Wolf stuff. It lets me sing in my natural voice, which I don’t get to do very much. More people like it than don’t.

You’ve always had an appreciation for AC/DC and that sound too is present in some of the Saxon material, although I never really thought about it until recently. You can hear it on “Live to Rock,” but you can also hear it on classics like “Wheels of Steel” and “Strong Arm of the Law.”

BB: If you listen to Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law or one of those early albums, you can tell I was into AC/DC during 1976 and 1977, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and the like, and I like that simplistic style of great guitar riff, good vocal, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and it influenced us quite a lot in our songwriting. I think on “Live to Rock,” which is very edgy, I’m not going to deny that influence, but it’s also very “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who as well. It’s very “Wheels of Steel” too. It’s in that sound that we’ve been playing now for 30 years. AC/DC has been playing for 40 years and it’s a style of music that I love.

It’s about a driving bass line, a great riff, and a catchy chorus; those are the songs that people remember far more than anything compositionally complicated.

BB: Well, there are a million ways you can play it and it’s all about where the guitar riff happens, the downbeat of the guitar riff where the snare drum hits. That’s what it’s all about. You can spend as much time working that out as you can writing a song like “Battalions of Steel.”

You actually performed with AC/DC back in the day.

BB: Yeah, we did some show in the States on the Back in Black tour. That was great. I know Brian [Johnson] quite well and I know Malcolm [Young], he used to come to see us quite a lot. So yeah, we were quite good buddies back then. Their favorite Saxon song is “747 (Strangers in the Night).” So it just goes round and round really. The thing with AC/DC is that they can do an album with eight years in between; they’re obviously much richer than we are [laughs]. We have to release one every one or two years. The thing is we’re not members of the platinum club. The biggest selling album we had in America was The Power and the Glory and that sold about 500,000. It’s easy to forget that we were never a million-selling act in America. There are a lot of fans in America that may think it was like that.

Do you think newer, younger fans of heavy metal that haven’t been exposed to the early stuff maybe don’t realize the basics of what it takes to make a great heavy metal song?

BB: I think that in Europe there is such a young fan base now, as well as our old fans, that are really taking interest in all that stuff. They want to know what’s happening, how it was written, what it was like playing Donnington, and all of that. I don’t really know if that same thing is happening in the States. Since we made friends with Metallica – we’d been talking for quite a long time since last year – Lars has helped us out quite a lot actually, saying that we influenced them a lot, and I think that brings a lot of young fans to the web site as well. So that’s cool.

If you had to recommend one definitive Saxon album to a member of this new generation of fans, what would it be?

BB: It’s difficult because we span three decades. I would think maybe the definitive one from the 80s for me would be Denim and Leather. In some respects it’s a bit like Into the Labyrinth. It’s got two distinct styles, one is more rock and roll, but the other is more based on metal. At that time we were just trying to write great songs in the rock and roll genre. Sometimes they’d be really heavy, but other times they were not. I think that album shows our most creative time in the 80s. If you ask me tomorrow I might have a different answer [laughs]. In the 90s the album that changed a lot of things for us was Solid Ball of Rock. I don’t know how it went over in the States, but at the time that was quite a big album in Europe. Also Metalhead was quite a big change for us because we had never really played those dark metal riffs.

There certainly does seem to be more interest in Saxon overall than has been the case the last several years. To what do you attribute the higher profile?

BB: Our profile and our popularity has gone up in the UK in the last year, a lot higher. I think that influences everything around the world. I think the English magazines are still considered to be at the forefront. I just think that there is a lot of interest in the UK and that translates to America as well. I don’t know why it’s happening now. Maybe it’s just that we’ve been making records for 30 years and somebody, somewhere just says “Jesus, these guys are fantastic.” I mean, we’ve had some reviews just lately in the English press and one of them said “One of the greatest heavy metal bands ever to come out of Britain.” We’ve never heard that before

A lot of Saxon fans in the States have been disappointed with the band’s lack of touring. I have to assume that because of the more trend-driven culture here that it’s just not been financially feasible for you.

BB: You have to have a promoter that will make it work. If you haven’t got a history of doing business every year, then things just slip. Music unfortunately is a huge political thing as well. I think there is a lot more interest now in America with Saxon, especially with the new album, than there has been for many, many years. We’re definitely going to try to get something together this year. A package would be good; that would be a better way to do it.

AC/DC should have taken you out on the Black Ice tour then.

BB: [Laughs] Yeah, just a minute while I call Angus to make sure.


  1. Commented by: Marty Walker

    I can assure you there are thousands of fans here in the States Biff, wondering why Saxon never made it big here. You’ve got three big Outdoor Festivals to show Americans what the Fuck Saxon is about. Bring your eagle, bring your attitude and you will once again show the Americans how to do Heavy Metal done right. I’ve loved Saxon for 30 years now and I can honestly say this is my favorite band ever. Biff, try to come more to America. Put together a great group package, not some dumb assed bands and you. Co headlne with Motorhead and someone else. This will bring out more fans and you will kick Motorheads ass too nightly haha.

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