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The Eagle Still Flies High and Free - Tribute to Saxon

The Eagle Still Flies High and Free - Tribute to Saxon

by Luxi Lahtinen

Saxon. This British heavy metal band, formed in 1978, was one of the most important bands in the vanguard of those who were included in the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" movement along with bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, of course! However, they never enjoyed the same bright limelight as the aforementioned greats, but despite the fact that they continued pushing their own unique brand of metal to crowds worldwide, 100% believing in what they were doing, releasing some now-iconic albums like Wheels of Steel (1980), Strong Arm of the Law (1980), Power and the Glory (1983), Crusader (1984), among so many others.

We, the merciful armored knights at the shiny ivory tower of The Metal Crypt thought that these gentlemen deserved a bit more recognition as far as their lifetime achievements are concerned so we invited a bunch of musicians to celebrate the power and glory of the mighty Saxon with their thoughts...

All interviews conducted by Luxi Lahtinen

What has Saxon taught you that made you the musician you are today?

Chris Logue (SAVAGE GRACE): Since I first heard Saxon's Wheels of Steel album in 1981, they have been my favorite metal band. They had everything; speed, vocals, power, melodies, harmonies, great songs, excellent drums and bass, and searing, interesting guitars. I have always striven to create excellent powerful songs that would stand the test of time like Saxon has. They also taught me to persevere as they have to this day. Motörhead and Saxon never quit, even under extreme adversity.

Lee Payne (CLOVEN HOOF): As a musician, my skills had already been honed long before Saxon came to the fore, so they were not an overriding influence in my musical development. However, while supporting them on tour, I learned a lot from them on a personal level about coping with the music business. They were wonderful, down-to-earth people, and I really liked them a lot.

Biff told me that he started out playing bass, which I did not know before. He said that if you believe in what you are doing and really love the music you produce, you should never give up. Write for yourself and to hell with the critics and fools who are negative. I always remembered his words and agreed with their sentiment 100%.

Graham Oliver is a real gentleman and a wonderful human being. We played a festival in France with Oliver Dawson's Saxon, and he greeted us offstage before we got to the dressing room. He said that he was listening downstairs in the kitchen, and he heard us playing. "Bloody hell, these are good," he said, then he ran up to watch us from the side of the stage. "Oh bugger, they all run about, and one has a white flying vee, and they are sounding epic! We had better be on top form after this lot!" he added. How many musicians would admit that? He made us feel very proud as we had respected Saxon for years. Because of him, I always show the utmost respect to support bands and wish them well. Kindness costs nothing, and metal bands should always act like brothers to each other. After all, it is us against the world!

John Gallagher (RAVEN): When they were Son of a Bitch, they were playing the same working man's clubs in the Northeast of England that we were so, to see them break through was incredibly inspiring to us! Otherwise, we share a lot of the same traits; give 100% effort and enjoy yourself onstage!!

Ricard (PROSCRITO): Ave, Luxi. Well, certainly not constancy in terms of recording and issuing even two (classic) albums the same year, hah. Truth be told, I might sound jaded on this compared with the remaining guests, but I'd never been a Saxon fan as much as with Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead or W.A.S.P., so I'd be lying if I sung their praises on a subjective level, but one thing is for sure; the band still plays on and both perseverance and their own sense of always-been-there is unmatched, and most bands, not only of their era, should take note of it.

King Fowley (DECEASED): A simple song is great when it has hooks and a good chorus.

Matt Ries (TRAVELER): In the very early days of discovering them, my friend and I would jam Denim and Leather on repeat for days. We would play that solo backing riff and trade horrible solos for hours. So, they definitely had a huge impression on me at a young age to just have fun with jamming and improvising.

Mina Walkure (BRONZE): Perseverance! Love for what you do and staying true to yourself.

We're talking about a band that has been releasing good albums (with higher or lower grades in some cases) over their whole career. No major drama, controversy, or publicity stunts, just caring about the music delivered. Saxon is a band that has been getting better and better, adapting to new times without selling their souls. Staying "fresh" while carrying the banner of traditional heavy metal very high. That's merit!!

Jan Bünning (PARAGON): I played in a Saxon tribute band called Wheels of Steel for a while. We put a lot of focus on having good backing vocals and so I learned a lot about singing good harmony vocals for my own band Paragon. Also, I found out that Saxon are very straight songwriters and it's not necessary to play a lot of riffs to write an interesting song.

Jack MacMichael (HEAVY SENTENCE): I'd like to start by saying that anyone who doesn't like Saxon needs their head checked.

If Saxon has taught me one thing, it's that there is merit in simple straightforward songwriting. Some of their best songs are based around two or three extremely direct and uncomplicated riffs. They never needed to overblow it to write a stone-cold classic.

Niklas Isfeldt (DREAM EVIL): Never surrender. 😊

Why do you think Saxon never achieved the same success and status as let's say, Maiden or Priest, even though they were among the first to cement the well-known term, NWOBHM?

Chris Logue (SAVAGE GRACE): That afternoon in 1981 when my bass player Brian East played me Wheels of Steel for the first time, I was blown away by "Motorcycle Man." "I love these guys," I said to Brian. Then I turned over the album cover and saw their band photo and I said to Brian, "These guys will NEVER make it, especially in the USA." Like it or not, IMAGE is a huge factor in the success of any band in any kind of pop music, especially metal.

Growing up in and helping to form the Los Angeles metal scene, I cannot convey how IMPORTANT image was and is in metal. "These guys would not even be able to get a gig at Gazzaris," I quipped to Brian. Gazzaris was one of the main clubs on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, along with the Whiskey, The Troubadour and The Starwood. Bill Gazzari used to say on his radio ads, "If a band does not look good, they don't get on my stage. Only foxy guys get on my stage." He did not say, "If a band does not SOUND GOOD..." I knew in 1981 Saxon would have a very hard road in metal.

I saw Saxon for the first time in 1982 at The Whiskey two nights in a row, Ratt opened the first night and Metallica the second night. I was right up against the stage both nights and my brand-new white leather jacket was totally incinerated by the heat of the head-banging crowd. My brave girlfriend was almost crushed to the point of collapsing.

Even on that small stage Saxon projected tremendous power. There was something truly magical about them.

I saw them a year later twice. First at the San Bernardino Swing auditorium opening for Maiden on the "Powerslave" tour. They blew Maiden off BADLY. I thought to myself Maiden must have been crazy to put Saxon in front of them. Then I saw them the next night at Long Beach arena and Saxon blew Maiden away AGAIN in front of fourteen thousand people.

I thought to myself that if everyone could just see Saxon LIVE, they would become fans. And Saxon did tour the USA quite a bit in the next few years, but they NEVER connected to the USA market. And after Dawson and Oliver left Saxons, their song writing took a mortal blow that they would never recover from.

Lee Payne (CLOVEN HOOF): It is a complete mystery to me really, they are easily on a par with those greats. Maybe they just did not get the high-powered management behind them.

John Gallagher (RAVEN): The same reason a few bands didn't; bad management/record company issues. Saxon were on a second-string label called Carerre and it hurt them. However, status and success aren't all about the mighty dollar and Saxon certainly made their mark.

Ricard (PROSCRITO): I don't think they were as relevant as those two, as simple as that. What Iron Maiden achieved with their self-titled debut in 1980 needed two Saxon LPs in return. I might be half joking, though. However, unless we trim out the fat off British Steel, it doesn't hold a candle to Wheels of Steel ("The Rage" and "Rapid Fire" are the guilty ones tipping the scale for me, for they trample everything in their sight), so, while I think Saxon were not as important as those two, I can state without fear they were heaps above the average NWOBHM underdog with bald singer and shiny, recently sewn patches. Everyone and his mother sing their praises after the respective reunion gig for Keep It True and similar fests. Sure thing, I worship Holocaust's album since I was a teen, I wear Aragorn's guitar tone on my sleeves and Blitzkrieg's 7" EP, Tank, Satan, Cloven Hoof, Trespass, Angel Witch, hell, also almost all the tracks compiled by Lars on that classic '82 Revisited have been crucial for my formative years. But no way they're able to compete against a solid name of rock like Saxon.

King Fowley (DECEASED): I think the first two records, while good, weren't great and by the time they got to Strong Arm... or Denim and Leather they got big-time status in Europe while in America they were an opening band in the big arenas for years.

Matt Ries (TRAVELER): I'm sure there are some people out there that would have more insight on this instead of speculating. Could've been management? They're obviously legends, but man, the late '70s and early '80s were pretty insane for music. Real stiff competition out there. But I believe they're much more appreciated now than ever.

Mina Walkure (BRONZE): Marketing? Money invested? As it is with everything in life. I love Maiden and Priest with all my heart and both bands deserve the status they have, leading the heavy metal world. But, of course, we can't ignore that they had a strong marketing strategy and a product that was way beyond music: aesthetic, merchandise design, strong charismatic lineups...

If we think of those NWOBHM years, the first image that comes to mind is Iron Maiden wearing colorful spandex and crazy tight t-shirt patterns, and still looking like a bunch of dudes you didn't want to mess around with.

Judas Priest abandoned their hippie-bohemian attires to embrace the leather and studs that are the essential core of heavy metal aesthetics.

Saxon, well, Biff had some cool outfits, but the rest of the band did not match his charisma. Of course, the first albums didn't do justice to the power of the band in terms of sound production. The biggest difference is that Biff didn't abandon the ship during the '90s unlike Bruce or Rob, who went on their own doing something very, VERY different from traditional heavy metal. That for me, as I was mentioning before around the perseverance topic, is part of their success and title as heavy metal royalty.

At this point of life, Maiden and Priest are huge businesses based on that product they've been growing through the years, and less about the music. I can't bother with the most recent Maiden albums. And Judas Priest has been a bit better with Firepower, but that's it. They can't compete with themselves from the past. Saxon, however, has achieved solid status based on top performances, a non-stop releasing schedule, and never letting new music be second place. Each album that they put out is an album that people can enjoy from start to finish. Besides that, Maiden are now very old and are not performing at the top of their game. Very understandable. Priest had a very bad era with Halford sounding far from good and are now back to good performances.

Tell me when has Saxon been out of shape on live shows??? It is one of the strongest and tightest veteran bands out there! I don't think it's fair to measure. They could be richer, if you want to measure success on those terms. But I would consider that having the numbers they have, the positive points in a balance, they're a solid ball of rock. Pun very much intended.

Jan Bünning (PARAGON): First, the music business is not fair; otherwise the biggest Heavy Metal Band would be Judas Priest, in my opinion, and not Iron Maiden or Metallica. I guess the latter both had better managers and marketing, especially Maiden with all their merchandise, big stage show, etc. Most people not only like music but also want to get entertained, so they are blinded by a big show and do not realize that the music is maybe not as good as that of another band. I was never a big fan of show bands, music is always first. Saxon put on really basic shows and maybe they also sometimes were at the wrong place at the wrong time. But who really knows?

Jack MacMichael (HEAVY SENTENCE): Probably due to their flirtations with a more commercial sound during the mid to late '80s that led to them to do some distinctly un-Saxon things, "Party 'til You Puke" off Rock the Nations being one of the most egregious examples. What an absolute shocker. But are still plenty of excellent tracks from that era, "Battle Cry" off the same album is an amazing proper heavy metal tune.

I suppose going in a more US radio-friendly direction, which was firmly cemented on Crusader, probably alienated a lot of their fans who'd been following them since the beginning. Saxon were just a bit too gritty and tough to ever pull that off. They're from Barnsley, so poodle hair and syrupy vocal harmony choruses aren't going to be convincing. The Spinal Tap association probably didn't help either.

Niklas Isfeldt (DREAM EVIL): I think that in the beginning they were more rock 'n' roll-orientated than, for example, Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. Saxon's music was more hard rock than heavy metal and their live shows were not as extravagant.

What are your two favorite Saxon albums from their entire recording roster and why?

Chris Logue (SAVAGE GRACE): Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law are my favorite albums. These two albums contain incredible, catchy, tightly constructed songs with excellent musicianship and powerful hard-hitting, stripped-down production provided by eccentric punk producer Will Reid Dick.

Stand out songs for me are "Motorcycle Man," "Wheels of Steel," "Strangers in the Night," "Suzie Hold On," "Strong Arm of the Law" and "Sixth Form Girls." These raw and gritty songs were born out of the angst and frustration of living in a very bleak Northern England in the late '70s. But somehow there is a hope and brightness that weaves through these songs, especially on tracks like "Suzie Hold On" and "Sixth Form Girls," one of Saxon's most underrated songs.

Lee Payne (CLOVEN HOOF): Strong Arm of the Law because it is pure no holds-barred New Wave of British Heavy Metal at its finest. And for me Denim and Leather. Every song is great and "Never Surrender" makes me think of Biff's advice to me, never give up and keep fighting for what you believe in.

John Gallagher (RAVEN): Even though they continue to make KILLER albums, I have to go with the deadly duo of Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law because they sum up that era perfectly!!!

Ricard (PROSCRITO): The Eagle Has Landed for compiling the stellar tracks of that era played in the right settings, one of the most classic live albums I know of and truly a must among any self-loving metalhead's shelves. If we're to settle for studio albums, it's obvious that I must choose Power and the Glory because the Eagle... duly lands there, and it's always been my favorite overall. But I'm a sucker for embryonic debuts with one foot firmly in the seventies, still sounding like they were recorded under the influence, i.e., Manilla Road's Invasion (their best in my book), so I also love the self-titled debut. To be fair, Denim and Leather got more listens. Countless nights under the influence at a friend's, choosing that one from among the very few good-to-excellent records he owned. Bonus points because "Princess of the Night" was my very first exposure to Saxon as a kid, opening one of the cheapest heavy metal compilations ever put into circulation which I got as a gift for Christmas. Fukk, I know some don't deem them canon, but even Crusader and Innocence... are also pretty much dear to me.

King Fowley (DECEASED): Strong Arm... is my fave. Just love the songs, the aggression on some of it and the choruses. Power and the Glory is my other. It has some great jams and some great stuff including Saxon's finest anthem the title track.

Matt Ries (TRAVELER): Denim and Leather because of how it shaped me as a musician at a young age. It's also just one of those top of the heap albums and Crusader because I just like how different it is from the rest. Taking a big liking to those poppier songs.

Mina Walkure (BRONZE): Hard to choose!! On one hand, I'm very attached to their '80s material. Who isn't? But the last decades have seen a constant offering of good albums. Strong Arm of the Law with that cheeky vibe they delivered in that era. Very fun album with some easier songs to sing alone, but some memorable lyric work that adds another layer of credibility.

Sacrifice, with amazing energy. It's a very powerful album that makes you headbang all the way through, with a great production. A perfect blend of tradition and living in the current day! The songs are well picked, and it's fun to see them experimenting with unusual instruments or ideas for what we knew about Saxon so far.

Jan Bünning (PARAGON): Strong Arm of the Law because that was the first Saxon album I ever heard. Also, it has some of my favorites to play live, like "Dallas 1 p.m."

Second would be Thunderbolt, which is a perfect example of how a heavy metal record should sound these days.

Jack MacMichael (HEAVY SENTENCE): Strong Arm of the Law. Why? Because it's probably the most Saxon of all Saxon albums. Eight tracks in less than 40 minutes, wall-to-wall brilliant riffs and it opens and closes with two of my favorite Saxon tracks of all time. It's perfect. Clearly can't be beaten.

Second place goes to Power and the Glory. It's an overlooked album. The title track alone is worth the price of admission. I also particularly like the lyrical fixation on science fiction and space on both "Watching the Skies" and "The Eagle Has Landed." They must have been watching some good films when they were making this record. It remains a mystery to me why they don't play "This Town Rocks" at every single gig.

Niklas Isfeldt (DREAM EVIL): Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather.

Saxon have been hugely creative in their later period of their career, recording 13 studio albums since 2000. Which 2000-released album out of them all has made the hugest impact on you?

Chris Logue (SAVAGE GRACE): Saxon died for me when Oliver and Dawson left. Graham Oliver was really the main songwriter of the band. His ideas were so fresh and unique that they could never be duplicated or replaced. His riffs on Strong Arm of the Law were so simple but so powerful and unique that they gave Saxon their signature sound.

Dawson was a very powerful bass player who gave Saxon their very pushy, driving feel. He was not a virtuoso bass player or wannabe guitarist like Steve Harris, but he was a TRUE bass player who gave the band a very solid and driving bottom.

Lee Payne (CLOVEN HOOF): On this, the best of Saxon's late-period albums is Lionheart, where they found a perfect balance between the old and the new. Great melodies and the whole album is very catchy. I love this band... Cloven Hoof salutes them!

John Gallagher (RAVEN): That would be Thunderbolt as we opened for them on that tour and we got to hear those songs every night!!!

Ricard (PROSCRITO): Ah, man, you got me with this one. I don't know half of them, so I might be missing out on a lot. All I can say is that both Killing Ground and Lionheart are great heavy metal albums that hark me back to easier times, browsing through metal mags for hours and staring amazed at record covers and band photos. Then it must be Carpe Diem. I really enjoyed this one when it came out. If you don't get the chills listening to "The Pilgrimage," just leave the hall. Thanks for the invitation once again and stand up to be counted!

King Fowley (DECEASED): I recently was asked to do a history of Saxon podcast where I listened to every Saxon record from the beginning until the current one and while a lot of folks dig the "later Saxon" and at times some of it is really good. I don't really have a record from these times that stands out to me as best or better than the others. I'm stuck in my Saxon of the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth released albums most.

Matt Ries (TRAVELER): Well, this is embarrassing, but I haven't listened to them. I've heard some great songs come out through those years, though. I'm just glad they're still around!

Mina Walkure (BRONZE): Lionheart is a great album and starts like a bulldozer! Great songs, and that album may have some of Biff's best performances. "To Live by the Sword" could be a fantastic song to show someone when they ask, "How would you define heavy metal?" This album keeps bringing that epic side of Saxon that it's my favorite of them.

While other bands were "lost" during those years, Saxon maintained their essence even while embracing the current times. That's one of the biggest things about the band: they never sound out of date! They don't try to revive the past, sounding fresh but not forgetting their roots.

Jan Bünning (PARAGON): Thunderbolt (please see question 3 also!). Perfect heavy metal album with good songs from front to back, a perfect modern but basic sound and passionate performance from all musicians in the band.

Jack MacMichael (HEAVY SENTENCE): They certainly have been busy in the 21st century and have released some really great albums in more recent years. I'd have to pick Killing Ground from 2001 as this was some of my earliest exposure to Saxon. You might remember those massive double DVD compilations that labels like Nuclear Blast and SPV used to release back then. I borrowed one of those compilations from a friend, and among all the wet power metal was Killing Ground. I was mesmerized. The rest of the album is great, too. They do a very good job of combining the heavy riff-driven songs with melodic choruses on that record. It's heavy and memorable. It does get overlooked quite often due to an accident of birth; 2001 wasn't exactly a great year for classic heavy metal, but I would urge anyone who has not heard it to give it a go. It's proper Saxon.

Niklas Isfeldt (DREAM EVIL): Lionheart, because Dream Evil got the opportunity to be the opening act for Saxon on the "Lionheart" tour and the guys in Saxon were really nice to us. ❤️

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