|Biff Byford - Saxon - Uber Rock Interview Exclusive|
|Written by Matt Phelps|
|Saturday, 05 March 2016 03:30|
Biff, first of all thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Secondly, we have this new nine album box set, 'Eagles & Dragons', to discuss. It starts with 'Solid Ball Of Rock' and ends with 'Into The Labyrinth' so to begin with I'm wondering what was the reasoning behind putting this set together now and why specifically these nine?
Well, the albums became free, the license became free last year and Demon Records already had two of the albums, 'Solid Ball Of Rock' and 'Forever Free', so they badly wanted the rest, as did quite a few other people. We didn't really license the albums for a vinyl deal, it's just a deal for the catalogue, but the idea came along that we should release a vinyl box set. I put the idea to them and they went for it. Also it's got some exclusive artwork which, again, was an idea I had to make it more collectible. So yeah, it won't be done again basically so this is a great piece of memorabilia and they're great albums. There's some absolute gems there.
There definitely is. 'Solid Ball Of Rock' is the first in the set and I think that was your first for Virgin at the time, wasn't it?
Yeah. They came to see me when I was living somewhere in Lincolnshire. It had all gone a little bit belly up with different members being sacked and people having a break from the band. So they came to us and said here's some money, do you want to write an album? So I said, yeah, let's do it. And that was where 'Solid Ball Of Rock' came from. It was a big album for us actually, a really big album. It was Virgin in Germany that signed us and they did a fantastic job.
I saw you in the year before that in 1990 on the 'Ten Years Of Denim & Leather Tour' at the Cornwall Coliseum. I didn't realise at the time but were you out of contract at that point?
On the tenth anniversary tour? We were, yeah. We were out of our EMI contract.
How did that feel at the time?
It didn't feel any different really (laughs).
It's just that me being about fifteen at the time my youthful naivety watching a big band in a big local venue, you see the band up there and just assume they have a big label behind them....
Well you always have the label behind you because your back catalogue sells massively. EMI are still there, they're Warner Brothers now, but they're still there selling the albums for us. So as long as they don't take your albums off the market you'll always have a company that's working on your catalogue. It's only the new stuff that is interesting for new companies. The older companies still have the earlier catalogue. For instance Demon are quite big players in the Saxon market now. EMI and Demon now own the majority of the albums. UDR have our last two albums.
The title track on 'Solid Ball...' is the only one that's not credited to you in regards to writing...
No, it was written by a friend of ours called Bram Tchaikovsky who used to be the guitarist in The Motors and he had this rockabilly song called 'Solid Ball Of Rock'. It's actually about Jerry Lee Lewis. He had two songs, that one and a ballad. I quite liked the ballad but he didn't think I sang it very well so he didn't give it us (laughs). It was probably a good thing because people don't really like us doing ballads. Anyway, me and Paul (Quinn) rearranged it basically from rockabilly to heavy rock. We did the same to that song as we did to 'Ride Like The Wind'. Transposed it all into a more rockier feel.
That album was definitely a return to the earlier sound and style of Saxon compared to that of 'Destiny'. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, it was a move back to a more heavy rock sound and there's some metal in there as always. Some mad stuff in there but, yeah, it was a great album and we had a great producer as well.
A couple of my favourite Saxon tunes are on that album, namely 'Requiem' and 'Baptism Of Fire'. I seem to remember at the time you said the latter was written about the fans experiencing Saxon for the first time.
(Laughs) Yeah, that's right. That baptism of fire being your first gig. We really enjoyed doing that album. 'Requiem'... Phil Lynott died around that time and I knew Phil so I just wanted to write something for all the musicians that had passed on. We played it a couple of weeks ago in Brighton, basically for Lemmy. We do play it now and again but we'll probably play it on festivals I would imagine. If there's a festival that Motörhead would've played we might drop it in.
You say 'Solid Ball Of Rock' was quite a big album for you, but the one that came after it, 'Forever Free', arrived during a more difficult time what with the way the music scene was changing in the early nineties. I saw you at the Plymouth Pavilions around '92 I think that was, a year or two before and the place would have been packed but it was nearly empty that night. How did you feel going through those times as a band?
It was a strange period that. It's a fickle business (laughs). I think you have to just take it all on the chin. You can play a gig fifty miles down the road and it can be sold out. I just think a lot of that is down to whether you're in the media, are the promoters spending money on letting people know you're there, did you play there recently, is there a rock audience in that town... I mean bands get put in the weirdest places. It's just one of them things really, that particular night may have just been a quieter night, a Monday or a Tuesday perhaps.
Whatever the reason I'd say that gig still stands as one of my favourites of all time because it was during the start of the grunge years where everybody just seemed to leave heavy metal en masse. I felt that the people who were left were the real people, the real fans.
They were the hardcore fans. The grunge thing, Nirvana, Pearl Jam... they're all great bands from a great movement but I suppose it just kicked everybody up the arse a little bit. But we'd sort of moved on by then, though. 'Forever Free' was a troubled album, though. The producer wasn't right and we made it in this big place in Vienna. The band wasn't really happy either. The Graham Oliver thing was getting really bad at that time and Nigel wasn't happy. It wasn't a great time for us. Although there are some great tracks on there, 'Forever Free' in particular is a great track.
I remember 'Hole In The Sky' was being put around a lot on different sampler promos that came with magazines around that time. Can you tell us a bit about that one?
Well, it was about the ozone layer, obviously. It was a bit of a song about the state of the planet but it wasn't my favourite track. I don't know why it was on so many of the samplers, we didn't have any choice in that. But 'Forever Free' was quite a big album in Germany so swings and roundabouts really. I just don't think in the U.K. at that time we were particularly happening. I think maybe 'Solid Ball Of Rock' was a bit of a glitch. Two songs on there, 'Solid Ball Of Rock' and 'Requiem' got tonnes of airplay and there was quite a nice video we shot as well so I think that propped us up a little bit in the U.K. But I don't think we were really happening then, we were just treading water. We'd play some bigger shows like Wolverhampton Civic and London, they were usually packed. So we ended up just doing two or three fairly alright things for us and the others like Plymouth would be added in to make it up to like a week or so. I think in the main cities we did alright but others not so much. I saw Motörhead do the same thing as well which was a bit sad but we got on and did it, though. We didn't piss and moan, we didn't start feeling sorry for ourselves. We just went on and did a fucking great show.
Yeah, at that Pavilions show I mentioned I think technically about a four thousand capacity venue and according to the box office person on the night only about four hundred tickets had been sold but everybody was just front and centre around the stage, it didn't matter about the empty space at the back. This was our night and we were all in it together.
(Laughs) Well if you get four or five hundred people that love the band and are really into it then it doesn't fucking matter. I've toured with some of the biggest bands in the world that closed off arenas. It just happens sometimes. I think in that period, '92 to maybe '94,'95, I think that was a really really bad time for British metal. I remember seeing Iron Maiden with Blaze in that period and they didn't have many people in either so I think people tend to forget about it. Just put it down to the rollercoaster ride.
I guess the end of that era was capped off with the third album in this box set, 'Dogs Of War', the last album with Graham Oliver.
Yeah, I mean 'Dogs Of War' is a great album and I think that was the start of our move back to a more heavier style. The album is a classic mixture of hard rock and heavy metal really. That's where we are and what we do. We cross that line of both those styles really, we're mad metallers but we're quite hard rockers as well. It's all rock 'n' roll to us. We play what we like, sometimes it's metal and sometimes it's not and that's how it is. We don't follow trends, we do what we do and we're unique. As are the other bands that are still left from the eighties, they're all unique as well.
'Unleash The Beast' was next; it was the first album with Doug Scarratt coming in to replace the departed Graham Oliver. How did his arrival change the dynamic of that band?
Well, the 'Dogs Of War' tour was the first tour Doug did with us. Graham didn't do that tour. They took Graham's guitar off the album, got some other guy to play it. I think maybe people think I did that but actually it was the record company who did it. They were a bit pissed off with him, I suppose. He's always wanted to release a version with him on, which I think if anybody gave a shit he could do. I don't have a problem with that. There's not much different anyway. But with Doug's arrival the musicianship changed. Graham's not really a technical player, Graham was more of a groove player at rhythm. He played solos obviously but his soloing was more smashing guitars and pyro going off, setting it on fire, you know the Hendrix thing. He was more famous for that, I think. So Paul Quinn was able to blossom out a bit more when Doug came in. Paul's more of a mad schizophrenic blues player, he's brilliant Paul. Doug is more of a stylised player and there's a ten year generation gap so he's a little bit more modern. Listening to people like Steve Vai and people like that whereas Paul is basically a Hendrix, Claptony chap but in his own style. But the album opened up musically for us, more dynamics. We were able to play a little bit more complicated riffs. That's not to take away from what Graham did but it just enabled us to go a little bit more muso.
I think that a lot of fans do accept that unquestionably, that there's really two eras of Saxon; the older groove-styled playing, the more modern sound with Doug.
I think you write songs for the ability of the people that are in the band. Don't forget that Nibs joined on 'Solid Ball Of Rock' and he's an absolutely brilliant musician. So the dynamics of the band changes, that's all I'm saying. Things like 'Terminal Velocity' and stuff hark back to more of an eighties style and the newer stuff like 'Unleash The Beast' is quite modern. The beginning riff is quite complex and I don't think we'd have written that in 1980. We were writing stuff like 'Heavy Metal Thunder' which is still on the edge, really fast and aggressive, so we wanted fast and aggressive still but with more musicianship and that's what we got.
You finished the millennium up with 'Metalhead' which is a really heavy album. Maybe your heaviest ever.
'Metalhead' was quite a dark album. It's about aliens and spiritualism and all that sort of stuff so we went quite dark on that. I liked doing it, though - it was great fun. There's a lot of Eastern scales in there which made it a lot of fun. That album really was Doug's first chance to be a main songwriter. A lot of people heard it and thought Fuck! Where did that come from? For a lot of European fans it's one of their favourite albums.
'Killing Ground' came out next and that's another that has a very intense sound to it.
It does, yeah. I think there's some great albums in this set and 'Killing Ground' is certainly one of them. I made a conscious decision to try and connect the lead songs of the albums and the titles to the name Saxon. I think we went away from that with 'Destiny' and 'Innocence Is No Excuse' and things and I wanted to get back to a 'Crusader', 'Power & The Glory' kinda thing. I wanted to get back to those days, the main song title and the album title and that's what we did basically. I pushed that through. So with 'Dogs Of War', 'Metalhead' and 'Killing Ground' the artwork matched the title and the title matches the name of the band so I did make a conscious effort to do that.
You talk about the artwork there and with the next album, 'Lionheart', I think that cover more than any other just sums up everything about Saxon.
Yeah, it's a great cover. I was looking up my coat of arms for the Byford name. I'd never done it before so I went to this company and we did it and it was an eagle holding a lion's foot which I thought was really cool. I was going to use that for the album cover but then I thought, nah, that's a bit too far. So me and Paul (Gregory) designed this heraldic symbol. I think of all those albums that's one of the fans favourites, 'Lionheart'.
I was going to say as much myself. As much as 'Killing Ground' and 'Metalhead' were still popular with plenty of European fans it was 'Lionheart', I think, that really started you on the road back to prominence in this country...
I think you're probably right. It is a great album and there's some great tracks on there. It's got the whole package. It's what me and Paul (Gregory, album cover artist) have been striving for, to connect the name of the band to the album cover. Even 'Battering Ram', our new album, is the same. Saxon 'Battering Ram' sounds cool, you know what I mean? We're still doing that.
When and how did you first start working with Paul Gregory?
On 'Crusader'. He did me a sketch of 'Crusader', it was his idea and I was like, yeah. One of our management people who lived in his area knew his work from some Lord Of The Rings stuff he was doing. They'd seen his work in exhibition and they thought he would be good for Saxon because of all that mythical, Saxony, Vikingy stuff, all that imagery fits with us massively.
'Inner Sanctum' arrived in 2007, there's a song on there called 'Let Me Feel Your Power' which is about festivals.
We're one of the very few bands that write about our audiences. We have no shame in that (laughs). We started on 'Heavy Metal Thunder' or maybe 'Denim & Leather' then we'd do it all the time. I think the fans should have their songs. It's a good album, 'Inner Sanctum'. It starts with 'State Of Grace' which is a great track. 'Atilla The Hun' is on there. I wanted to open the album with 'Atilla The Hun' but I was outvoted and they put in 'State Of Grace' instead which is a great song but it's a deep song. It's about building cathedrals and that, the eleventh century, so it's a bit hard work.
This may be a bit of a contentious question but here goes. You get a lot of respect in Europe with your high billings at Wacken for instance, also to an extent in this country with Bloodstock. BUT, and it's a big BUT, there is a bit of a common feeling among the fans that when it comes to Download you're maybe not shown the level of respect you should be for a band that has such strong links to the history of rock music at Donington Park... For example, a few years ago they had you way lower down the bill than a shitty joke band like Steel Panther.
(Smiles wryly) Well, the thing with festivals is that promoters look at the ticket sales that the band has done, particularly in London say, whether you've sold out at Brixton or something. Then they do the billing to match that basically. It's a bit odd and I'm not complaining but I remember we played there once and Cinderella were on above us. Now fair enough, I love Cinderella, they sold out Shepherd's Bush Empire but they just did one show. They didn't do an entire U.K. tour, you know what I mean? It's a little bit different when you play just one show because people will travel to see you. So I think we are the underdogs of Download but we always have been. I even think on Monsters of Rock we were the underdogs on the day, but I fucking like it. We were gonna call the band the Underdogs at one time (laughs).
I think most people would accept that anywhere else in the world. It just seems that Donington is always viewed with a little more reverence, the fact that it's often referred to as the spiritual home of heavy metal. I guess I, and many others, just think it's quite insulting to have a bunch of "comedians" placed higher than a band who are one of the cornerstones of the whole scene. Especially as I say with your history at the Park, playing the first ever Monsters of Rock, 'And The Bands Played On' etc.
I don't know. I mean this time we asked to do the tent. I said let us headline the tent because I don't want to go on the main stage at eleven o'clock. It was brilliant when we did and sixty thousand fans got out of their tents and came to see us, which at that time in the morning was great. But we can't put a full show on in thirty minutes, it's fucking ridiculous. I know Andy Copping well, he's a good mate so, yeah, he's put us on in the tent this year. What I wanted to do was three nights in the tent with a different setlist each night. That's what I wanted to do but it didn't happen... but it would've been cool. Ghost are going on before us in the tent and they're really happening at the moment. There's some great bands on in that tent this year, it's gonna be the place to be before Maiden go on. The tent's gonna be one of the happening gigs of the festival, I think. We made a good choice there.
The last album of this 'Eagles And Dragons' box set, then, is 'Into The Labyrinth'. It's home to what I would say is probably my favourite Saxon song alongside 'Crusader' and that is 'Battalions Of Steel'.
Yeah! That is a great track! I remember I went to see Children Of Bodom, drinking mates of ours, and I said we've just written a brilliant track, 'Battalions Of Steel'. Played them the demo and they went Oh Fuck! It's a great track and that's another song that could be about an audience, or about Roman legions which is what I actually sang it about. But people generally think it's about that audience but it's not. It's very ambiguous though. 'Battering Ram' is the same, it could mean all sorts of stuff.
We're out of time but I just want to squeeze the final question in. When will we see Saxon on the road again in the U.K.?
October I think. We'll be carrying on the 'Battering Ram' tour then.
Perfect. Well, thanks for your time today Biff, it's been a pleasure.
No problem, it's been great. Cheers.
Get more info at: https://www.facebook.com/saxon