Call To Arms ~ All Hail the Godfathers of Viking Rock!
Militia Guard Music
Words: TK Smith
My first experience with Saxon was when they joined the Iron Maiden US tour in 1983. The US shows were exceptional with Fastway opening, Saxon in support and Iron Maiden headlining. All three bands were at their personal best. Fastway was out promoting their stunning debut, Saxon had just released their fifth record Power & the Glory and the mighty Maiden had Piece of Mind. I was doing rigging and backline when Dave Murray and Bruce Dickinson wanted to run out to the hobby shop and get a fleet of remote controlled cars. After the stage was set and before gates, we would race the cars between the buses (I think we had four buses on that tour). Saxon, the fun-loving lot from Yorkshire, had a few radio cars of their own and the game was on! They were very competitive both on and off the stage. Anyone who saw the ’83 tour saw something very special indeed.
Saxon official formed in 1976 after playing under the name Son of a Bitch. They were biker rock ‘n’ roll at a brisk pace. As the tide turned more metal they established themselves in the forefront of the New Wave of British Metal. From 1980-87 they had numerous singles on the European charts becoming one of Europe’s biggest selling metal bands. In Japan their single “Motorcycle Man” stayed in the charts for five months. The classic line up with singer Biff Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver, mustached bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill cranked out a number of career-defining albums including Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law, Denim and Leather, Power & the Glory, and Crusader. Through the years music has changed form a number of times but Saxon has remained true to their roots. The metal resurgence post-millennium has seen the band restored to their rightful thrown and writing albums that stand among their greats including Lionheart, The Inner Sanctum, Into the Labyrinth and now Call to Arms.
When asked about their secret to a stunning 35-year success streak, Biff Byford told us, “It’s the medieval warrior in us. We just keep charging up that hill. It’s been great to see metal music return with such passion. So many younger bands hail us as an influence. Many of them are from Scandinavia and a lot of them play with us when we tour there.” Saxon recently headlined the Rock stage at the Sweden Rock festival where they filmed their entire set for future release on DVD. Saxon are also the subject of a superb documentary titled Heavy Metal Thunder that follows the band through their illustrious career, the good times and the bad and all the humor (and tears) in-between. “We are amazed that we’ve gone on this long,” says Byford. “It been a fantastic journey and being able to headline these festivals all over northern Europe has been amazing.” Saxon has not only played Sweden Rock but headlined Wacken, Germany’s premier metal festival. “We love festivals because they are a very mixed bill,” continues Biff. “A couple years a go we saw Ted Nugent who we hadn’t seen in years.”
After some years of being away Saxon are finally bringing their show back to America. “It’s the first time we’ve been to America on a proper album tour in quite a long times,” says Byford. “America is usually stuck in there on the year after a record release due to timing. But we’re quite excited as Call to Arms comes out in America on the 23rd of September (2011). The whole tour revolves around its release. We’ve done a lot of touring in different countries the last couple of years. We did Australia for the first time, been to Japan twice and lots of shows in Europe. Things are happening for us all around the world. It’s a great time for Saxon now.”
With the advent of the internet, fans can go online and watch old Saxon clips with the stroke of a key. Says Byford, “Eighties music is popular again around the world. A lot of younger fans want to know about us and are buying our albums. They are a big part of our resurgence. We have fans in America that have been with us for years and never left, but now we have younger fans checking us out, wearing denim and leather, wearing patches. The early-to-mid eighties were probably our biggest point. Touring with Fastway, Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe, Motörhead, Accept, Judas Priest, Scorpions - it was a special time for our music. We still have people coming up to us and listing all the places they saw us play. People that were there witnessed something very special.”
Last year, when the band sat down to write the new record Byford was stuck with an idea. “I had the concept of doing a song about the Viking invasion of England. Paul Quinn (guitarist) had the beginning riff and we had the verse riff all floating around. It was Doug (Scarratt, 2nd guitar) that suggested putting it together to form what is now ‘Hammer of the Gods’ the first song on the new album. I hadn’t finished the lyrics when we started recording so I worked them out in the studio. It’s classic Saxon really, we didn’t over produce it and we played it live in the studio. Tons of volume, tons of aggression, just letting everybody go at full speed. We kept each song to only a few takes. Just working on our performance and capturing the passion in each song the best we could.”
Working with producer Toby Jepson (Little Angels, Gun), a good friend of the band, was an added plus. “I’ve known Toby for ages,” laughs Byford, “we can arguer quite easily. He was great to work with as he would concentrate on the performance aspect of the recording - especially Nigel (Glockler) on the kit. He wanted Nigel’s drum tap to be the same from the beginning to the end of the album - no Pro Tools additions. I concentrated on the song arrangements and how we played through them - it was a good partnership.” Byford admits to being a last minute lyric writer. “I’m not one of these guys that has to have it all in place before we record. I concentrate on the arrangements, write a chorus, maybe a verse than go back to the arrangement before writing the second. Sometimes I’m writing lyrics while I’m singing them - changing them on the spot. There is a danger to that, as I have regretted not putting in certain lines.”
The band revisit their first rise to fame with the track “Back in 79” which boasts the best chorus on the record. Says Biff, “I wanted it to be a ‘Denim and Leather’ revisited sort of thing. That big anthem with fans singing with us - taking the old and new fans back where we started. One of the lines in the song goes, “it doesn’t matter if your young or old…raise your hands’. I had the idea of calling in a bunch of fans to sing the chorus. The night before we went in the studio to cut the track we put an invite out over the internet, the next day 200 people turned up and we had a big party. When they were all good and drunk, we packed them into the studio and got ‘em singing. A lot of young bands turned up with singers that could really sing so it worked out real well.”
Current Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey joins the band on a couple tracks. “We met Don when we were queing for our American visas in London. We had to go early in the morning and Don was in line with us. I was telling him how we’d just written a song called ‘Mists of Avalon’, and asked if he would play on it. He’s always loved our band so he was keen to do it. We also gave him ‘When Doomsday Comes’ a song we’d written for the Hybrid Theory soundtrack. That’s another story. Toby knew the movie’s producer and I knew one of the actors. The producer came down to the studio, listened to the whole album and picked up on ‘Doomsday’. He wanted us to write a new track as well so we wrote ‘No Rest for the Wicked’. Other songs like ‘Afterburner’ and ‘Chasing the Bullet’ were more in the Wheels of Steel mode - more AC/DC-ish like our early stuff.”
“Call to Arms’ was one of the first songs we wrote for the new album,” continues Byford. “It’s based on a simple guitar riff. I’d just read a book of letters by survivors of the first World War. Letters the soldiers had written to their loved ones while in the trenches. Some British ones, American ones, French ones. It was quite moving. That’s what inspired me to write the lyrics for the song. My dad was in the war and worked on artillery. He didn’t really tell me much about it but, because he came home early, I knew he’d been wounded. The song is really a soldier’s tale - being away from home. It’s no different being in World War I than fighting in Afghanistan. It’s still a dangerous place.”
Saxon is proud of what they accomplished with Call to Arms. It adds to their legacy with a modern spin. “It’s a bit of a different approach,” says Byford. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll, a bit of thrash and the blues all in one. It says, ‘we’re back and ready to fight for another round’.”
All photos by Kai Swillus form the Saxon website. Special thanks to Biff Byford and Chip Ruggieri of ChipsterPR.