24th May 2017
“Saxon are fearless – we do what we want!”: an epic interview with Biff Byford
They tore up the stage at our first fair – and now Saxon are headlining Ramblin’ Man’s opening night. Biff Byford tells Paul Elliott what suprises they’ve got up their sleeves…
One of the highlights of the first Ramblin’ Man Fair in 2015 was the performance from Saxon – a truly barnstorming set from the Barnsley Big Teasers, in which singer Biff Byford decided to rip up their setlist and let the fans shout out for the songs they wanted to hear.
Will that happen again when Saxon return to Mote Park to headline our first Friday At The Fair on July 28? There’s only one way to find out – ask the man himself.
Here, Biff tells us about the band’s plans for Ramblin’ Man 2017 and much more: the art of playing at a festival; the art of writing a heavy metal anthem; the key to Saxon’s renaissance in recent years; and the making of the band’s new album, which may, excitingly, contain a song about a wizard…
So then, Biff – what can we expect from Saxon at this year’s Ramblin’ Man?
It’s going to be great! We’re doing a special set and we’re bringing a big stage set as well.
You’ve told us that the set might be based on the band’s classic 1982 live album The Eagle Has Landed…
Yeah, we might do that. We’ve never done it before and it was one of our biggest albums – one of the big live albums of that time. The Eagle Has Landed came out at the peak of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, and it really was a great album.
So that means we’ll hear Motorcycle Man, 747 (Strangers In The Night), Princess Of The Dawn, Strong Arm Of The Law, Heavy Metal Thunder, Wheels Of Steel…
Oh, there are so many killer tracks on that album. And to be honest, we play those songs most of the time anyway. But if we do the whole album there are a few songs that we’ll have to rehearse again, like Machine Gun. We’ll see, eh?
In all the years since Wheels Of Steel was released in 1980, have you ever done a gig without playing it?
Yeah, we did one the other day, actually. We ran out of time (laughs), so we didn’t do Wheels Of Steel and Denim And Leather. It was on the Wacken cruise. We did two shows, an hour and a half each, and we ran out of time on both of them. We’ve got a lot of songs, mate! We did 18 songs each night, in a totally different set.
Were the fans gutted that you didn’t play those two songs?
I don’t think they noticed – they were all drunk! You know how it is when you’re on a cruise. Actually, I think we played Wheels of Steel in the second set, but I can’t clearly remember – I was drunk as well! You can let yourself go on a cruise. Nibbs (Carter, Saxon bassist) was drinking the boat dry.
You mentioned Denim And Leather. It’s one of the all-time great heavy metal anthems…
It’s an anthem for rock and metal fans. We wrote it for the fans back in the day, and I think it’s still relevant. When we play it now, I see a lot of young kids down the front, all wearing denim and leather. It’s a song for the people, a thank you song. When we recorded it in ’81 we got fans down to the studio to sing on the chorus. And wherever we play it, anywhere in the world, Denim And Leather is the one that people love. Although there are only three notes in it, they’re three of the most famous Saxon notes ever. The song is a hundred times bigger than the band.
And this was one of the songs that people were shouting out for when you played at the first Ramblin’ Man.
When I ripped up the setlist, yeah. That happens occasionally. It’s not something that’s planned, but if we get a lot of people shouting for songs we go, alright then. I like to keep things spontaneous, much to the band’s chagrin. If the guys see me ripping up the setlist I can see them going, oh, fucking hell, here he goes again! But you know, these guys, they’re fearless. Most bands wouldn’t entertain the idea, but we do. We’re a live band. We can pretty much do what we want.
Is there an art to playing at a festival as opposed to a regular gig?
I think so. When you’re playing festivals, they’re not all your fans. Some people are there for the event, especially if the sun’s shining. People all know the big hits, but not everybody knows one off the first album, like a Frozen Rainbow or a Stallions Of The Highway. At festival you’ve got a big block of people, they want to enjoy themselves, and they don’t want to sit though songs they don’t know. The thing with a festival is to make in entertaining. You have to give the people what they want. The secret of a festival is to keep it fun.
What did you make of Ramblin’ Man the first time around?
It’s not the biggest festival but it’s one of the best. The location is beautiful and the atmosphere is fantastic.
You also came to Ramblin’ Man last year to see your son Seb’s band Naked Six play on The Rising Stage.
That was great. They’re not a metal band, more like 21st Century rock, a mixture of different styles. Seb is a singer/guitarist, a bit like me when I started out singing and playing bass, before I stopped playing bass to concentrate on ripping up setlists!
This year, for Friday At The Fair, Saxon top a bill that also features Y&T, Last In Line and The Graham Bonnet Band. Are there some old friends of yours there?
I’ve known a lot of those guys for years. We toured with Y&T a few times back in the 80s. They’re a good, solid rock band. Last In Line supported us in Europe last year on the Battering Ram tour. Again, a good band, and I like the new songs they’re doing as well as the old Dio stuff they play. And Graham Bonnet is someone I met back in the days when he was in Rainbow. I wouldn’t call him a mate, but I do remember hanging out with him at Donington in 1980.
That was the very first Monsters Of Rock festival, when Rainbow headlined, and Saxon were the up-and-coming band alongside big hitters such as Judas Priest and Scorpions.
We were the underdogs. I don’t think any of the other bands had really heard of us, but the Wheels Of Steel album was flying up the charts, so the audience knew us, and it was a bit of a triumph for that generation of fans. Obviously Priest and Rainbow and Scorpions had been around quite a bit longer than we had. I suppose we were the band of the new generation, like Iron Maiden were. That was our moment, and it was a great day for us.
What did you make of Rainbow with Graham Bonnet?
He’s a great singer, although my favourite era of Rainbow was when they had Ronnie James Dio – the original Rainbow. They’d gone a bit more commercial when Graham was singing with them, but Since You Been Gone is such a great track.
It’s seven years now since Ronnie James Dio died. Did you know him well?
Yeah, I liked Ronnie. I met him for the first time when he was with Black Sabbath. We toured America with Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, the Black & Blue tour. Ronnie had such an amazing, distinctive voice, and he was a funny guy as well. He could tell a good story – mostly about Ritchie Blackmore (laughs).
As an old-school Sabbath fan, did you like the albums that Ronnie made with the band?
Oh, Heaven And Hell was great, and Mob Rules. I loved the original Sabbath with Ozzy, but Ronnie took the band somewhere else, to a different place, and I liked it.
What did you learn from watching Dio on stage when you toured with Sabbath?
I think the great frontmen – not that I’m calling myself great – but the great ones all have a rapport with the audience and the audience relate to their style. Whether it’s Ronnie or David Lee Roth or Rob Halford or myself, we all have a way with the audience that people like. It’s a natural thing that you learn over the years.
When you look back over Saxon’s long career, there have been good times and bad. You’ve admitted that in the late 80s the band lost direction with lightweight albums such as Innocence Is No Excuse and Destiny. What was it that got you back on track?
The turning point for the band was in 1991 when we released Solid Ball Of Rock – definitely. We were playing big gigs around Europe on that tour and it was a big-selling album. After that we started making albums like Unleash The Beast and Metalhead. The music was getting a bit darker, which brought a lot of younger fans to us. Whether we worked it out by accident of design, we took some good steps in the 90s and set us up for now.
What are the best albums of Saxon’s recent years?
I like Lionheart. We seemed to capture something special on that album. And the last two, Sacrifice and Battering Ram, it’s been great to play those songs. They’re a mixture of the harder edge and the rock’n’roll, which is really where we’re at now. We’re not all heavy metal and we’re not all rock’n’roll. We have that ability to switch between the two. It’s a good place to be.
You’re currently recording a new album, and you’ve said that it will feature a song about a wizard…
I’m still writing that song. It’s about Merlin. It’s bloody difficult, actually, writing picture lyrics. You’ve got to get them just right, because they can get corny. But that song is coming along. In fact we’ve recorded seven tracks already. We’re going to do three more tracks and one of them is the wizard song. I’ve got half of it down, but I like to keep an open door until we actually mix the album. Sometimes we write songs right at the last minute when we’re finishing an album. The boys can come up with riffs just when they’re jamming in the studio, or fiddling about with an acoustic guitar in the corner, and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a great riff, let’s write a song around it.’ We’re pretty open with the songwriting. In the past I have thrown all the songs in the bin and started again. Honestly I have. But I like to be on the edge.
Do you have a title for the wizard song?
Yeah, it’s called A Wizard’s Song (laughs). Well, it could be. That’s my working title. Or, A Wizard’s Tale. We’ve had a song called Avalon, so I’ve been there before with the Lady In The Lake thing. Then again the song might fail miserably and never surface. Like I say, there’s nothing carved in stone.
Saxon’s drummer Nigel Glockler suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2014, but has since returned to the band. Is he back to full power now?
Yeah, he’s doing great and playing great. I keep an eye on him back there. I keep checking if he’s doing all right – and he’s still hammering those double bass drums, that’s for sure. Nigel is an animal, and always has been – an exciting, full-on drummer who really pushes the band.
Your voice has never failed you – do you look after it?
Not really! I try to rest before the gigs. We just did a long tour with UFO in America, and it does get a bit tiring. I have to be careful to keep away from the colds and the viruses, that’s the problem. Other people’s diseases!
It’s now 40 years since Saxon formed. How long can the band continue?
We’ll see. How long’s a piece of string? We always gauge ourselves against the Rolling Stones, they’re still going, and Deep Purple, they’ve been going a lot longer than we have, so let’s see how it goes.
And a final word on what Saxon are bringing to Ramblin’ Man this time?
We’re really looking forward to it. Whenever we play, I like to make it feel like a gathering of people, where we’re all together and we all appreciate each other. I think that’s one of the great things about festivals. So we’ll make it special. And I’ll get them all shouting.
Saxon headline the Planet Rock Main Stage at Ramblin’ Man on Friday July 28. Buy your tickets to see them here