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Saxon was one of the early leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, alongside Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, even outdistancing them at the onset, only to see their career slide into comparative obscurity within a few years due to a series of bad decisions and bad breaks. Internal strife also severely stunted the band's momentum toward the end of the '80s, yet Saxon somehow persevered, recording and performing consistently into the 21st century, and ultimately attaining a semblance of second-tier respectability from the loyal heavy metal community, particularly in mainland Europe.
Saxon was formed from the fusion of two bands, in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in 1977 by vocalist Peter "Biff" Byford, guitarists Graham Oliver, and Paul Quinn, bassist Steve Dawson, and drummer Pete Gill -- all of whom had been playing professionally or semi-professionally since as early as 1970. Initially calling themselves Son of a Bitch, they eventually settled on the subtler Saxon moniker, but, like many aspiring British heavy metal bands of the day, the quintet found it extremely difficult to obtain a record deal in post-punk England, finally signing with the French Carrere Records. Saxon's resulting, eponymous debut of 1979 was marred by a lightweight production job, but the seasoned band still managed to build a strong following by touring Britain inexorably, supporting everyone from Motörhead to Nazareth. The band would then capitalize on this exposure with its watershed sophomore effort, 1980's Wheels of Steel, which boasted a much more suitable, heavier, metallic production that finally did new songs (and future standards) like "Motorcycle Man," "747 (Strangers in the Night)," and the title track proper justice. The album was immediately heralded as a N.W.O.B.H.M. classic by fans and critics alike, and the band were apparently on their way. Saxon went on to release two more virtually flawless albums in 1980's Strong Arm of the Law and 1981's Denim and Leather, touring relentlessly across Britain and Europe, where Ozzy Osbourne's rising Blizzard of Ozz opened for them! Not even the group's lack of success in the all-important U.S. market (where Carrere's distribution and promotional limitations were becoming fully exposed) and the loss of founding drummer Pete Gill (replaced by Nigel Glockler, Gill would go on to play in Motörhead) seemed capable of slowing Saxon's forward momentum, and a live album, The Eagle Has Landed, was recorded in 1982 to celebrate their hot streak.
Then a strange thing happened: Saxon became cold as ice. A series of admittedly less inspired, at times repetitive albums followed in 1983's Power and the Glory and 1984's Crusader, and the band's already tenuous relationship with Carrere Records completely deteriorated over the label's inability to expand Saxon's popularity, even as fellow N.W.O.B.H.M. survivors Iron Maiden and Def Leppard convincingly conquered the States. Drastic action was required and so Saxon signed a new deal with all powerful EMI and stepped up their game for 1985's Innocence Is No Excuse, which arguably boasted the group's strongest, most versatile song set in years, but not quite enough to break the band big, while simultaneously upsetting some die-hard fans with its slick production values (not to mention the band's visual makeover, including a fancy new wardrobe, poofy perms, and lots of peroxide). The fallout of yet another commercial failure resulted in the departure of founding bassist and key songwriter Steve Dawson, and though Saxon quickly replaced him with unknown Paul Johnson, the following year's scrappy back-to-basics attempt, Rock the Nations, was a total snooze-fest. Saxon would limp their way through the rest of the decade, gradually corroding what was left of their British and European fan base and recording a pathetic pop metal album in 1988's Destiny (which featured short-lived new drummer Nigel Durham and a Christopher Cross cover!) in a desperate but futile attempt to connect with American fans. By the time they feigned a return to more aggressive heavy metal terrain in 1990, via their tenth studio album, Solid Ball of Rock (where Glockler made his return and bassist Nibbs Carter his debut), Saxon had become inconsequential at best, musical dinosaurs at worst.
And then, having reached the lowest low, the members of Saxon once again proceeded to trump all expectations and stump their detractors by refusing to go quietly into the night. In fact, the extinction of the glam metal aristocracy at the hands of the grunge proletariat helped convince Saxon to drop any pretense of making it in America and return to their British metal roots. This simple realization resulted in some of the band's strongest and heaviest material in ages, beginning with 1992's revelatory Forever Free, growing stronger with 1995's excellent Dogs of War (after which guitarist Graham Oliver tendered his resignation), and then wavering only slightly in quality -- but not in heavy metal thunder -- over albums like 1997's Unleash the Beast (introducing new guitarist Doug Scarratt), and 1999's Metalhead, and 2001's Killing Ground (the last two recorded with German drummer Fritz Randow). The band even managed to land a new U.S. record deal with CMC International for the latter releases, and this also opened the door for Saxon's first American tour -- albeit in modest-sized venues -- in almost a decade.
Meanwhile, back home in England, Saxon had successfully reconnected with their aging supporters, while surprisingly growing from strength to strength in continental European countries, where they were now able to tour extensively and command huge paychecks for one-off summer festival performances. A steady flow of studio albums, including 2004's Lionheart (featuring Teutonic journeyman drummer Jorg Michael), 2007's The Inner Sanctum (which saw Glockler's return for a third go round), and 1999's Into the Labyrinth, only fed into this quiet career resurgence, but this period was not without its challenges and controversies. First there was a legal battle over the band's very name to contend with, when, after reconvening in 1994 to record an album under the original moniker, Son of a Bitch, former founding members Graham Oliver, Steve Dawson, and Pete Gill proceeded to start touring with a competing version of Saxon. The matter eventually went to the courts and the rebel outfit was ordered to bill themselves as Oliver/Dawson Saxon (Gill had departed by then) moving forward, which they continue doing unto the present day. Meanwhile, the "official" version of Saxon led by Biff Byford, Paul Quinn, et al, decided to risk some of their recovered metal credibility by pairing with reality TV producer Harvey Goldsmith for a show named Get Your Act Together. Its goal was to reintroduce the veteran group to a wider mainstream audience by way of a made-to-order single entitled "If I Was You," but the experiment did not fulfill the TV show's purpose, perhaps for the better. The next few years saw Saxon wresting even greater control over their own operation, and 2011 saw the independent release, not only of the band's 19th studio album, Call to Arms, but also a self-produced, career-spanning documentary, Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie. The band's muscular and driving 20th album, Sacrifice, arrived in 2013, followed in 2015 by the like-minded Battering Ram. In 2016, the group headed back into the studio with producer Andy Sneap -- who had previously worked on Battering Ram. The band's 22nd album, Thunderbolt, was issued in early 2018 and featured the Lemmy tribute "They Played Rock and Roll." ~ Eduardo Rivadavia
- Barnsley, England
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