Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Saxon - Wheels Of Steel

Saxon
Wheels Of Steel


Released 1980 on Carrere
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 22/01/2011ce


"Still fit to boogie
Still fit to boogie
Still fit to boogie, still fit to rock and roll...."

Yeah, okay - I know. I can't really be serious in lauding a Saxon record in these hallowed, discerning pages, and I'm probably risking any last once of musical credibility I still maintain by even mentioning the band's name. But I'm going to take that risk because, for me, Saxon's second album is a blistering, mega-satisfying record that transcends any reservations I have about their singer's cliche-ridden lyrical prowess and spandex leggings. And if it can do that for ME, it can do it for you too. So bear with me a while, even if just to disagree...

Saxon. Even the bloody name sucked, especially given the fabulous, far more controversial name with which they'd came into this world. How much cooler would they have been if they'd stayed Son Of A Bitch? I remember the hilarity that accompanied their first album cover: Biff Byford pictured as a marauding warrior, bloodied sabre in hand, beneath the naffest band logo in the history of graphic art: I mean, LOL or what? Surely they were never meant to be taken seriously with a name and image like that? And this was before their hard-as-owt, block-chinned lead vocalist decided that Olivia Newton John's intravenous trousers would enhance his stage presence. To cap it all, they were signed to a specialist Euro-disco imprint with some really heavy labelmates like Dollar and Clout. I mean...

Then there was the lyrics. Check this out: "Friday night/I feel alright/I get into my leathers and I get out my bike". I don't reckon Stephen Sondheim was losing any zeds when he heard that. That song, bearing the resplendent title of 'Stallions Of The Highway', set the pattern from which Biff has, to this day, hardly ever deviated: tired metal platitudes about choppers, cars, women, warriors and war, delivered in couplets that often dispose with the inconvenience of rhyme and resort to duplication when the inspiration runs low.

What about the music? Well, we're not talking anything remotely off-kilter there either. Two searingly loud guitars, a bass locked in the root note method, and a hell-to-the-wind set of drums with not a keyboard in sight. What was the point?

I'll tell you.

On their second album, Saxon are the BUSINESS. Somehow or other, every daft or predictable element of their make-up comes together to make an atomic blast of pure energy which, for me, decimates any critical faculties - and anything else - in sight. 'Wheels Of Steel' is killer riff after killer riff, captured within a raw and totally engrossing production that puts everything - especially the (often refreshingly off-tune) guitars - into the red, and sears with venom more potent than anything that punk could throw out this side of Discharge. When metal gets this good, this primal, this forceful, you can forget any reservations about image or lyrical content. This just hits home, hard and fast, without so much as a by your leave.

You want examples? Okay, exhibit A: the title track. You probably know it already, as it was a hit 45 (in a truncated version) back in the day. If you were anything like me you derided it openly, laughing out loud at its every-cliche-in-the-book sound as you pretended not to like it to your cool mates. Well, bollocks to cool. 'Wheels Of Steel' (the song) is metal at its best: stripped down to the most basic of all riffs (essentially the same as that of Rainbow's 'Light In The Black' and 10cc's 'Good Morning Judge', but played as full barre chords at a much slower tempo), repeated so many times without variation that it plagues the brain for a week after one listen, with only the brief, one-line chorus to break the chain. Check out that single-note bass line too! (Hipper bands like Loop or Faust are justly applauded for this sort of repetitive minimalism: too bad that the opposite is true for five denim-clad geezers from Barnsley...but that's life.) In the middle of it all is a jaw-dropping solo - from Paul Quinn, I think - that virtually rewrites the metal rule book by managing to sound lyrical and menacing at the same time, with a stunning wrong-note-in-the-right-place half way through. And Biff: what a star. That line "I'm burning solid rubber, I don't take no bull...SHIT" always makes me laugh out loud. Then, after a false ending, comes the real, no-messing end of the song. It just stops dead on one, quickly killed chord, with only the echo from Biff's final cry of "OOOH! YEAH!" breaking the black silence. I just love it.

Exhibit B: 'Motorcycle Man'. 'Autobahn'-esque stereo panning of motorbikes at the start, giving way to another belting riff, much faster this time, with one solo that starts from another key and another planet atop a truly hardcore punk backing (I'm thinking Discharge again), and an even finer second one over an awesome descending chord sequence more than a tad reminiscent of 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' - but so what, it sounds fabulous. And, as always, Biff croons (yes, croons) his vocal melody lines over, under, around and inside the riffs, ever confident, ever hellbent, ever commanding. Who cares what his pants look like?

Then there's '747 (Strangers In The Night)', another hit single, with the best riff on the whole album: no small feat here. This and 'See The Light Shining' are the most inventive tracks on 'Wheels Of Steel', where genuinely strong melodies are added to the metal melee without affecting the gut-busting impact one iota. I love the way '747' actually OPENS with a searing guitar solo (a moment of true inspiration, this) before Biff enters with his - actually quite erudite - tale of a near-miss air crash. Superb descending riff over the chorus too, even if that same chorus does gets repeated too many times for my liking. 'See The Light Shining' is the best track on the album; a real game of two halves with a manic, mental riff and a bass drum-driven careering chorus melody in the first half, giving Steve Dawson a rare opportunity to explore the fretboard of his Precision Bass. Then, without warning, the whole song collapses into a slower, totally different melody: a shocking and dramatic move that makes the song resonate in the memory long after it ends. Honestly, this really is great stuff.

What else? Well, 'Stand Up And Be Counted' - coming on like a heavy version of Wishbone Ash, with a sister riff to Motorhead's contemporaneous 'No Class' and every bit as uncompromising; 'Freeway Mad', with some amazing phased drums at the beginning, and another solo in a different key to the rest of the song - something of a Saxon trademark that always adds to their impact. I really dig those sirens behind the riff halfway through. Then there's 'Machine Gun' and 'Street Fighting Man', two relentlessly fast tracks that come in, kick you in the balls and walk out again before you've even felt the pain. 'Machine Gun' has an instrumental section at its centre that is as desperately heavy as anything I've ever heard, while 'Street Fighting Man' ends on a great android key change: another of several genuinely entertaining moments on one of the most fun albums I've ever had the pleasure to hear. And maybe that's the real key to Saxon: fun. At their best, as here, they thrill, rock, and amuse me, all at the same time.

And I must mention 'Suzie Hold On', the album's sole ballad, still mega-heavy without a hint of schmalz, sung with real feeling by the frustrated cabaret singer that is Peter Byford. It's the nearest thing to a clunker on the album, but never fear, it's no 'Beth' moment. Like the rest of 'Wheels Of Steel', it rocks, just like a band once called a Son of a Bitch should do.

Despite the sense of the ridiculous that has always pervaded Saxon, I've come to hold them in respect. Call it a guilty pleasure if you like, I don't care. There's something (or summat) brutally honest and direct about them and, on their early albums in particular, a truly uncompromising, searingly aggressive sound that makes them stand tall over all of the NWBHM bands with which they shared column inches in 'Sounds' at the turn of the 80's. 'Wheels Of Steel' was their apex: a real high-octane record with more out-and-out power than a fleet of Harleys. Hear it on a good system where those sledgehammer riffs and that amazing production can really batter your cranium, and man, I'm telling you, that's all she wrote.


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