Classic Rock

Biff Byford

- Interview: Paul Elliott

He might have spent his life working as a coal miner. Instead he formed Saxon, one of Britain’s great heavy metal bands. Read his rags-to-riches story in the Classic Rock Interview

Had he not been tall, he might have spent his life working as a coal miner in Yorkshire. Instead he formed Saxon, one of Britain’s great heavy metal bands, with whom he recorded some classic albums, toured the world, and got laid more times than you could fit notches on a pick handle.

On a sunny day in London, Biff Byford sits in the restaurant of the Sanctum hotel in Soho, leans back in his chair and smiles at the thought of getting his first tattoo at the age of sixty-eight. The Saxon singer is looking ahead to his band’s 40th anniversar­y tour, which includes a date on October 19 at London’s Eventim Apollo – the old joint famously known in years gone by as the Hammersmit­h Odeon. The scene of so many legendary rock’n’roll shows, this was where Saxon performed time and again in the 80s as young men in their pomp. And as Byford says now: “If we sell it out this time, I think I’ll go for it. I’ve met a lot of fans with tattoos, and I’ve seen some crazy stuff – women, in particular, with the Saxon eagle on their backs. So maybe I’ll have something small on my arm – but only if that show is sold out.”

Byford has aged well. While the long hair is now streaked with grey, the face lined, he’s in good shape, as is the band he has led for all these years. In the course of Saxon’s long career there have been good times and bad – and in Byford’s personal life, his greatest challenges.

He was born Peter Rodney Byford on January 15, 1951 in Honley, a village in Yorkshire. In his childhood he experience­d two deeply traumatic events – the death of his mother when he was 11, and later, a serious injury to his father in an industrial accident. After Biff had done years of hard graft as a carpenter, labourer and engine

stoker, music gave him a way out, and in 1977, aged 26, he formed the band Son Of A Bitch that later became Saxon.

In the early 80s, as stars of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Saxon rose alongside Iron Maiden and Def Leppard as one of the great bands of the era. A trio of classic, head-banging albums – Wheels Of Steel, Strong Arm Of The Law and Denim And Leather – influenced a generation of rock acts that followed, among them Metallica and Mötley Crüe. At the end of that decade, a shift to a more commercial sound dented Saxon’s popularity, but in the 90s a return to balls-out heavy metal turned their fortunes around. Since then, as Byford states proudly, “the band’s profile has gone higher with every album”.

But he nearly didn’t make it this far; in 2005 he and his family were lucky to escape a fire that destroyed their house in France. But this workingcla­ss hero is still belting it out on stage and still flying the flag for classic British heavy metal. Biff Byford is a survivor, and this is his story…

The moment when rock’n’roll became central to your life – when did that happen? As a teenager, in the mid-sixties, I liked The Beatles. The songs were so catchy. But the Stones’ music was sexier. One of the first things I learned to play on guitar was Paint It, Black.

When did you realise you could sing? I was just a kid. I used to go to Sunday school at the chapel, and because it was Methodist there was a lot of singing involved. My mum was a musician and played the church organ. I think my early interest in music came from her.

As a young boy were you happy? My family was quite poor. We didn’t have


a car. My uncle owed a textile mill and he had a car. But it was a very happy childhood. We lived in a village. It was all very innocent.

After the innocence and happiness of those early years, your mother died when you were just eleven years old. How did you cope with such a loss at so young an age? At that time, especially where we lived, it was still a bit Victorian; you weren’t allowed to show grief. I used to cry under the sheets. Or I was told to shut up. Bottling grief is not good for you. But we all muddled through. And then a few years later my dad had an accident at work – a piece of machinery ripped his arm off. So I had to spend a lot of time looking after him.

How did all of this shape your personalit­y? In situations like that you can either break down completely or you can say to yourself: “Right, I’m going to deal with this the best way I can” and move forward. But I wrote songs about my mum, and I still do, even though I don’t put them on record.

As a young man growing up in a mining community, did you feel you were destined for a life of hard labour? Most lads felt like that. And I did my training undergroun­d. But at the local mine the coal face was only three feet high. Luckily I was too tall for that kind of work. So they gave me a job stoking the steam engines, which was perfect for me – being surrounded by that industrial sound.

The sound of heavy metal. Ha ha. It was the start of something wonderful!

Before you became a singer, you played bass in a group named after a famous industrial­ist, the Iron Mad Wilkinson Band. That was a big drug band. But I was naïve then. The guitarist would be tripping and going on and on and on… “Fucking hell, how long is this song going to be?” But obviously he had visions that nobody else had.

Did you believe that the Iron Mad Wilkinson Band could be successful? You think all your bands are going to go somewhere if you’re writing your own songs, and I always had ideas and melodies in my head. The turning point for me was getting together with [future Saxon guitarist] Paul Quinn in a band called Coast. Some of the songs we wrote for Coast ended up on the first Saxon album.

Which bands would you say had the biggest influence on you? The early seventies was a great era for rock music. I saw Led Zeppelin at the Bath Festival in 1970, with Jimmy Page playing his guitar with the violin bow. That was amazing. There were so many bands I loved – Nazareth, Status Quo, Wishbone Ash, the Sensationa­l Alex Harvey Band – and they all influenced me. Not just the music, but also the stagecraft.

You were still young, in your teens, when you got your girlfriend Linda pregnant and you decided to get married. That’s what you did back then. We had three children, but the marriage failed. I was trying to work and pay the mortgage, but the music always got in the way, and I couldn’t sacrifice it. So she left me and took the kids with her. It was terrible at the time, but now the kids are grown up we all get together a couple of times a year.

Looking back, do you think losing your mother had some effect on your relationsh­ips with women? I’ve had some great relationsh­ips over the years.

“As a young lad my initiation to sex was pretty strange – a threesome with

two older women.”

But I think because my mum died I do need female companions­hip a lot. And as a young lad my initiation to sex was pretty strange – a threesome with two older women.

A classic male fantasy. Yeah, but it was pretty fucking frightenin­g at the time!

In 1977, you and Paul Quinn formed a new band, Son Of A Bitch, with guitarist Graham Oliver, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer John Walker. What do you remember most from those days? It was a struggle. My dad had ended up in sheltered accommodat­ion, so I asked him if I could sell the family house to raise money for band equipment, and he said: “Yeah, do it.” So he was pretty cool. I sold the house and lived with a roadie, but most of the time we were out gigging. We’d play in some rough places, Sunderland Boilermake­rs and all these Working Men’s Clubs. Friday and Saturday nights were lively. We saw some big fights in between the bingo and the band. It wasn’t glamorous. We’d do the gig and then we’d all sleep in the van.

Presumably this was the van that was emblazoned with the name of its previous owner: ‘Sid Cummings, Tripe Dealer’. The tripe van, yeah. You couldn’t make it up. We painted over the name in matt black, but the paint kept wearing off. In Yorkshire, ‘tripe’ also means ‘rubbish’. It was character-building. A lot of bands don’t say these things about their past, they only talk about the cool stuff. I think you have to tell it like it is. People like that.

Son Of A Bitch played with a few punk bands in 1977. We opened for The Clash in Manchester. Their fans were spitting at us. It wasn’t nice. But they spat at The Clash as well. That’s just how it was with punk audiences.

By 1979, the band had a new drummer, Pete Gill, and had changed their name to Saxon. This was also the year when the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was born. We were ahead of the game. The punk era was ending, you had the new romantic thing going on, and then the new heavy rock thing came in. The timing was perfect for us.

Saxon’s debut album, Saxon, was released in May ’79. How do you assess that album now? Some of it was a bit dated – the proggy songs like Militia Guard and Frozen Rainbow that Paul and me wrote for Coast. But the harder stuff, Backs To The Wall and Stallions Of The Highway, had the attitude of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. In those songs you can hear where we were going.

“Opening for Motörhead was our first big tour, and an absolutely seismic change for Saxon. We had to work really hard to win over their audience.”

Saxon ended that year with a UK tour opening for Motörhead. It was our first big tour, and an absolutely seismic change for Saxon. We had to work really hard to win over their audience, but our music was similar – it went right for the body. We even had the same kind of gear – the leather jackets and bullet belts. And that tour was the beginning of a long friendship between the two bands. They liked us because we weren’t pretentiou­s. And Lemmy was great to us. He was a bit of a lad with the girls and the drugs and the Jack Daniel’s, a bit out of control, but we loved him.

Then in 1980 Saxon delivered one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time – Wheels Of Steel. We wrote the songs at this little studio in Wales, owned by vegans who lived in teepees. Mountain Studios, it was called. There was nothing for us to do up there but write, eat, drink and sleep. So we worked fast.

“The Wheels Of Steel album was a statement:

‘This is Saxon, this is what we do.’”

Would you say that was the album that defined the band’s entire career? Oh yeah. It was a statement: “This is Saxon, this is what we do.” There’s different stuff on the album. Motorcycle Man is son of Stallions Of The Highway. With the song Wheels Of Steel we paid homage to AC/DC, but with a more British feel. And 747 (Strangers In The Night) is classic melodic rock with heavy overtones. But all of it ties together because it sounds so raw and in-your-face.

That album hit Number Five in the UK, and in the wake of that success, on August 16, 1980, Saxon played to 60,000 people at the first Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park. Did playing that show feel like a victory? It did. We’d done two tours for Wheels Of Steel, the first in biggish clubs, and then, after the album went fucking nuclear, we went round again doing city halls. We must have done sixty shows before Donington, so we were really well known by then. We walked on stage to a heroes’ welcome. When you think about that moment does it give you chills? A little bit, yeah. I certainly had chills at the time. And after we did our thirty minutes of mayhem, with the reaction we got, it felt great.

Rainbow headlined that event, but only a few months earlier Saxon had been kicked off a Rainbow tour. It was rumoured that Ritchie Blackmore, Rainbow’s guitarist and leader, felt that Saxon were going down too well with their audiences. What’s the truth? It’s true that we’d had a bit of a run-in with Ritchie. We did two shows with Rainbow and went down great. But when we got to the gates at Wembley Arena, this guy came out and said: “Ritchie don’t want you. We’ve got someone else.” We did tour with Rainbow again later in America, but we didn’t get on with Ritchie. I don’t know why.

In September 1980, just four months after Wheels Of Steel was released, you delivered another classic album, Strong Arm Of The Law. We did that from scratch too. Wrote it in a big barn in the country, just playing loud. That was another big album for us. And it had our first ‘audience song’ – Heavy Metal Thunder.

In the words to that song – ‘Fill your heads with heavy metal thunder’ – you spoke directly to that audience. And you continued in that vein on the next album, Denim And Leather, with a song about that day at Donington, And The Bands Played On, and the title track celebratin­g the spirit of the NWOBHM and relating to the lives of millions of metal fans. Why was it important to you to make that connection? And The Bands Played On is a simple song, and it came to me because I totally understand that people at festivals want to be entertaine­d. They want songs they can sing to. It was the same with Denim And Leather. A lot of bands don’t write about the audience. Maybe they think it’s a bit cheesy. But for me it’s what bands are all about – the audience!

Was it always you alone who wrote the lyrics? No. Steve Dawson and me used to write a lot together. But Steve would have the same idea for every song: ‘Stand up and fight!’ And in the end, just to take the piss, I actually wrote a song called Stand Up And Fight on the Sacrifice album [released in 2013, long after Dawson left the band]. I should have subtitled it ‘A Song For Steve’.

By 1982, Saxon were so popular that you had Ozzy Osbourne, a legendary figure, opening for you on a European tour. Did that feel odd to you? It was very weird, but we were playing to ten thousand people a night in Europe. At the first show, Ozzy turned up in a dress with a handbag and a chicken in it.

What, a live chicken? I think it was a dummy, but I can’t be sure. It was fucking funny, but we didn’t really know him, so we didn’t quite know how to take it: was he a cross-dresser and we should keep quiet about it, or was it just a joke? But Ozzy was great, and his band, with Randy Rhoads, was fantastic.

You returned to Donington that year, higher on the bill, but again you had a beef with the headline act – this time, Status Quo. What really happened? I don’t know if it was Quo’s crew, but somebody messed around with our sound, and this one guy jumped out of the lighting truss when we were playing – fell into the guitars at the side of the stage and knocked them out of tune. It was disrespect­ful. We tried to do a great show, and we did, but the end for me was tainted.

Walking off, were you gutted? Upset, emotional, crying. We’d been shafted.

Earlier in 1982 you played your first gigs in LA, at the Whisky A Go Go, where your support act was a young band by the name of Metallica. Those guys worshipped Saxon. What did you make of them? They were great – and really fucking fast! One night we had Metallica supporting, the other night it was Ratt, and it was a Who’s Who of LA bands coming to see us. I remember [Mötley Crüe bassist] Nikki Sixx telling me he was a big Saxon fan. There’s a lot of Saxon riffs in Mötley Crüe’s music, but that’s cool.

You once said that when you toured America opening for the Crüe in 1984, you all had so many women that you were literally shagged out at the end of it. It was a crazy time, lots of debauchery. The Crüe were huge then. They were on MTV every three minutes. All the shows were sold out. For the girls, we were like the overflow band. You know how American girls love an English accent. We had a lot of fun. But after a while it got so exhausting that you were trying not to pull! It was like that everywhere in the eighties.

Presumably, as a rock star in that era, you tried cocaine? A couple of times, but it didn’t really get me off, to tell you the truth. I tried LSD back in the day, and I used to smoke weed with Paul Quinn. But I didn’t like the music I was writing on dope, it was a bit fucking laid-back. You weren’t going to write Heavy Metal Thunder on weed. You’re more likely to write a twelve-minute version of Denim And Leather.

And you’re not going to write Stand Up And Fight after a few joints. No, more like Sit Down And Smoke, ha ha.

It was also in 1984 that the film This Is Spinal Tap arrived in cinemas. It’s well known that actor Harry Shearer went on a tour with Saxon to research his role as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls, and based his stage persona on Steve Dawson. I thought the film was great. We went to a screening with a load of other bands, and some of them walked out. I’m not going to tell you which ones. Some of them are my friends. As we watched it, I could tell straight away that the bass player was Dawson. But for me, Tap was too American. I liked Bad News better. It was that totally British thing, and they absolutely nailed it. “I’m not getting back in the van until you say we’re heavy metal!” There’s more of every British band from the 80s in Bad News. I try to watch it at least twice a year, it’s so fucking brilliant.

Steve Dawson was such a character. The fans loved him. Why was he fired in 1986? Steve was a casualty of working too hard. Him and me were close in the early days. We ran the band, basically. But he became difficult – always complainin­g to the record company and management, getting their backs up. So we threw him under the bus, basically. I was sad when Steve went. I still regret it, actually. Although Nibbs [Carter, Saxon’s bassist since 1988] is fantastica­lly brilliant and I write all the songs with him, I still regret the fact that Dawson didn’t carry on a bit longer, until he wanted to go.

His exit was a symbol of Saxon’s decline in the late eighties, when the music went soft and many fans deserted the band. What went wrong? We tried different styles, more musical, but we lost the attitude. And maybe as songwriter­s we dried up a bit. I think [1988 album] Destiny was the lowest ebb. We did Ride Like The Wind, the Christophe­r Cross song, because we didn’t have any good songs of our own.

After the slump, which album marked the return of the real Saxon? Without a doubt it was Solid Ball Of Rock [1990]. I took control of the band on that album. I said: “Let’s get back to where we came from – rock music, in your face.” And it worked.

After 1994’s Dogs Of War album, guitarist Graham Oliver, another founding member, left the band. He and Steve Dawson now have a low-key rival band, Oliver/Dawson Saxon. Is there bad blood between you and them? I could do a gig with Steve. But with Graham it went too far. That door is

shut. Let’s leave it at that.

Since 1996, the Saxon line-up – you, Paul Quinn, Nibbs Carter, drummer Nigel Glockler and guitarist Doug Scarratt – has remained unchanged, except for a brief period without Glockler. Which are the best records you’ve made in these years? They’re all pretty good. Metalhead was very heavy and dark. Lionheart was very British, and loved by a lot of people. And I think the last three – Sacrifice, Battering Ram, Thunderbol­t – are right up there with our best. In the last five years we’ve really been on

a roll.

“At the first show [with Ozzy supporting], Ozzy turned up in a dress with a handbag and a chicken in it.”

Have you ever felt that you personally were done with this band? No, not really. I think around Destiny I could have binned it, could have gone out with a whimper. But I always wanted to go out with a bang. Actually, I’m going to have a bit of a break soon – I’m finishing my solo album. But we’ve already started writing the next Saxon album, which will come out in 2021.

“Age has never bothered me. I’m always looking forward to the next album, the next tour. That’s just how I am. The only thing that will stop you is illness.”

This year you’re celebratin­g forty years of Saxon, and also twenty-five years of your marriage to Sue, your third wife. They always say you should marry your second wife first – or in my case your third wife first [laughs]. My second marriage wasn’t so harmonious, and we didn’t have any children. But my wife now, she really understand­s me, and we have four great kids.

Having turned sixty-eight this year, how does that feel? A bit surreal. But age has never bothered me, and I know a lot of people who have the same attitude – Ian Gillan, Robert Plant. I’m always looking forward to the next album. The next tour. That’s just how I am. The only thing that will stop you is illness. Last year I had a test for skin cancer and had something taken off my forehead. But I’m okay now – touch wood.

You had a close call in 2005 when your home in France burned down. Yeah, that was really close. The fire started in the attic, and it was a timber-framed house, so it burns really fiercely. Luckily I got the family out, and they didn’t see the house burn down. I did, and it was very sad. What hurt was the things we lost in the fire – photograph­s of the kids, a lot of personal things. But out of that came something good. We ended up moving to a chateau with sixty acres of land. The kids have happy memories of that house, not the place that burned down.

You’ve said how your father helped you when you were a struggling musician. Did he live to see you become famous? He did. He came to some of the big gigs, Hammersmit­h and Sheffield City Hall. He developed cancer and died quite quick, but I’m glad he saw me make it after what he’d done for me.

When you look back on your life, what are you most proud of ? I’m proud of my children, from both marriages. And I’m proud of what the band has achieved. As Lemmy used to say to me, it’s hard for a rock band to stay relevant. And I remember back in the nineties, when Motörhead had a serious down period, we would play clubs with them in Germany to maybe three hundred people. It was really sad. But Motörhead kept going and so did we. So I’m proud that after forty years we’re still writing great songs that people want to hear.

Is that what you would want to be remembered most for – the songs? Yeah, just writing great melodies and lyrics. I think of myself as a down-to-earth street poet, really. And if I’ve written some lyrics that move people, that’s what it’s all about for me.

The Eagle Has Landed 40 (Live) is out now. Saxon tour the U K in October.

 ??  ?? Biff backstage at the first Monsters Of Rock festival in 1980.
Biff backstage at the first Monsters Of Rock festival in 1980.
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 ??  ?? Saxon in 1982: (l-r) Paul Quinn,
Nigel Glockler, Biff Byford, Graham Oliver, Steve Dawson.
Saxon in 1982: (l-r) Paul Quinn, Nigel Glockler, Biff Byford, Graham Oliver, Steve Dawson.
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 ??  ?? Biff and Lemmy, who after
first touring together, in ’79, became great friends.
Biff and Lemmy, who after first touring together, in ’79, became great friends.
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 ??  ?? And the band played on: Saxon on stage (and backstage, above right) at
Castle Donington, August 21, 1982.
And the band played on: Saxon on stage (and backstage, above right) at Castle Donington, August 21, 1982.
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 ??  ?? Biff and Steve Dawson (and, below left, Graham Oliver) at Chicagofes­t, August 10, 1983.
Biff and Steve Dawson (and, below left, Graham Oliver) at Chicagofes­t, August 10, 1983.
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 ??  ?? Saxon today: (l-r) Nibbs Carter, Paul Quinn, Biff, Doug Scarratt, Nigel Glockler. Doug Scarrat, Biff Byford and
Paul Quinn with Saxon at Le Bataclan in Paris, May 12, 2011.
Saxon today: (l-r) Nibbs Carter, Paul Quinn, Biff, Doug Scarratt, Nigel Glockler. Doug Scarrat, Biff Byford and Paul Quinn with Saxon at Le Bataclan in Paris, May 12, 2011.
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