You may have missed it, but Saxon have just released their 24th studio album, entitled Hell Fire And Damnation. Inevitably, it’s lead singer Biff Byford who is doing the tour of the media. MetalTalk’s Paul Hutchings caught up with the legendary singer in his home studio in Yorkshire on a cold and miserable January evening to find out a bit more about the album, reminisce about a certain South Wales show many years ago.
It was over four years ago that Biff Byford suddenly felt breathless whilst out walking and subsequently ended up with a heart bypass operation. Those years have passed quickly, with Saxon releasing the excellent Carpe Diem, two albums worth of covers, as well as Biff’s two albums with son Seb under the Heavy Water moniker.
It seems an appropriate time to check on Biff’s health. “I’m not too bad today,” he says. “I take it a day at a time. I’m pretty fit. I’m exercising now, doing a bit of yoga and a bit of bike riding when the weather permits. I’m getting some stamina up and trying to get there, really. I mean, you’ve got the adrenaline going for you live, and that’s always good.”
Having got the health check out of the way, I take us back to January 21st, 1983, when Saxon played St David’s Hall in Cardiff for the first time. I explain that I was in the front row for my first ever Heavy Metal concert. I show Biff my programme from that night and explain that there is a special affinity for me with Saxon, which has resulted in seeing them many times over the years.
“That was a good induction into the family at 12 years old,” Biff smiles. “St David’s was a fantastic gig that I remember well. We played it quite a few times in the early ’80s. They demolished it, didn’t they?” I explain that it is still there but closed until 2025 due to the Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) problems.
We move on to Hell Fire And Damnation. If you’ve heard the album, you’ll know that there is no sign of Saxon slowing down. Biff Byford is rightly proud of the album. “That new album is an absolute monster, mate. It’s definitely getting to places where other albums couldn’t get to. It’s a bit of a special album, this one. We’ve got Brian Tatler on board. I just asked him if he had any ideas, and they came up with two or three, so you know, it’s really added to the album.”
If you’ve heard the album, you’ll realise that, once again, there is plenty of history within the songs. As a friend said to me, this is like the entire GCSE history syllabus in 50 minutes. Where does Biff find the inspiration from? “Well, I’m quite well-read,” he says. “I read a lot, watch a lot of documentaries and do a lot of surfing and social media stuff.
“But I mean, if you look back to Wheels Of Steel, there’s quite a lot of historic things on there as well. So, it’s something we’ve always done. I think Saxon and Maiden are probably the first ones to start including a lot of history on the albums. We have been doing it for quite a long time.
“This album, I suppose, because some of the titles are quite historical, I think it probably focuses people’s minds on it a little bit more. But yeah, I find a lot of inspiration from historical things.”
When I was writing a review of the album, I reflected on the run of albums that Saxon has had and that they seem to be getting heavier each time. I ask Biff if there is any plan within their writing or if it evolves organically. “No, we didn’t plan anything, really,” he says. “It just came together like all our albums do. This one, something magical happened during the writing and recording.
“So, I think people have to listen to the albums on their own merits and not listen to what’s done before because there’s really no plot. You know, we don’t sit down and say, OK, let’s write an album like this. We just write some songs. We are songwriters. They all flow into me, and I sort of picked the ones that inspire me to go on and make them into songs.
“That’s what happens, and that’s what’s been happening since 1980. I think people are more focused now. We know who our audience are, and we know people love a certain style of music that we play. So that’s what we do, you know. It’s as simple as that, really.”
It’s evident if you follow Saxon and Biff Byford on social media that Biff is a regular user who has embraced the medium. What about the reviews? Does he read them? “Yeah, I’m on social media all the time. We’re really on it. I do read the reviews. I watched the Internet ones on YouTube to see what they say. It’s always great when people are doing great interviews, you know, or great reviews. And they’re saying the albums this, and the album is brilliant. So, it’s always good.
“But yeah, always keep abreast of what people say, especially the fans in the comments. We’ll read the comments and see what people think because it’s important to us. It’s not just the media; it’s working out well. And we’re happy and it. It’s been selling well. So, the whole company are happy.”
Having been around for 50 years in the music industry, I ask Biff about the change in the media. Today we have many more people like me, fans who are doing this on top of the day job. Does Biff find the current day more or less of a challenge for interviews?
“Back in the day, we did it on telephone, you know. If they wanted face-to-face, we used to fly in there. I used to do huge promotional tours, especially in Europe and the UK. I’d go to Edinburgh and Glasgow and down to London and on all these different radio stations. I was a lot busier than you know. I would go to America and do a long radio tour.
“We go to one office in LA, one office in Chicago, one office in New York and do a tonne of interviews from there. So, I think for me, now it’s a lot easier. I can just sit in the studio and talk to people across the world.”
One of the tracks on the album that caught my ear was Pirates Of The Airwaves. I think it links with tracks like And The Bands Played On. It’s a piece of history, a record of a time that’s gone, one which maybe youngsters today can’t really appreciate. “Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of a lot of interviews with America, and they don’t really have that pirate radio concept.
“I mean, they’ve had their FM radio for years and years and years. All that swinging ’60s, you know. I was 12 years old or something when it all started. The BBC wouldn’t play pop-rock music. You got the occasional Beatles, and it finished at ten in the evening or something.
“All my friends were into music, and we wanted to live it. So, we got these little transistor radios from Japan. We used to tune in. My brother and I would sit in the bedroom trying to tune into these stations. Around midnight, they would come through. They bounce off the ionosphere or wherever they came from, stations coming through on the static.
“Luxembourg was the main one in Yorkshire. Radio Caroline, you could get occasionally when the weather permitted. But it’s a great story, you know. And it was a massive revolution.”
We move on to reminiscing about Tommy Vance and The Friday Rock Show and the feeling of underdog that Heavy Metal fans often experience. “Well, I think the underdog thing is a big part of our career. It’s working class, underdog mentality, the way you’re brought up, and to hear yourself on the Friday Rock Show meant more to us than being in the charts. It was a big deal. We used to listen to it religiously.
“You had bands on there that you hadn’t heard of. I’ve got turned on to the bands. I heard a lot of new music because there were only a few newspapers really, like Sounds and NME and Melody Maker. It wasn’t until Kerrang! came along, you know, in the later ’80s.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will be aware and likely have a ticket to a stellar tour package coming to the UK in March when three of the elder statesmen of UK Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, Judas Priest, Saxon, and Uriah Heep will sweep across the land with several arena dates.
Surprisingly, Saxon have never toured with Uriah Hepp in a package. Biff explains more. “The last time we played with them was the 40th anniversary shows in Manchester and Hammersmith in London in 2022. We played with Krokus, who decided to retire. Heep stepped in, but that’s the last time we’ve played with them. But we haven’t done a long tour with them. Obviously, we’ve toured with Judas Priest a few times.”
I was at that Hammersmith show, and it was a hell of an evening. I remind Biff that it was about the fourth attempt to have it played. “It was, yeah. Because of Covid, it kept getting postponed. And, you know, 5000 people kept their tickets, which is amazing. They say that they had them for three years.”
Biff goes on to tell me a bit more about the tour. “Well, we’re in the middle. We got a little bit more than Uriah Heep, but not very long. I think we’ll all have just over an hour.”
So, how does Saxon pick a setlist for such a tour? “It’s all part of the Hell Fire Damnation World Tour,” Biff assures me. “So, the setlist will be new songs. Obviously, not all of them, but there will be five new songs in the set. We have to play the biggies like Princess Of The Night and Denim And Leather. So, we’ll probably put in a few deep cuts from the ’90s.
“But we can change at any time. We’re a live band. We don’t have anything running, no backup on computers or anything. So, if an audience, for instance, starts chanting, Wheels Of Steel, then we’ll probably play it. That’s unique to Saxon. I think I’m always changing the setlist, so we’ll see how it goes.
“Every show is unique. That’s how we treat every show. We don’t have choreography or anything. We’ll just rehearse the songs, rehearse the lighting. If there’s any special work with flames and smoke, then we make sure people don’t get incinerated and that’s it.”
Biff Byford has been in the business for a long time. Saxon dates back 49 years from 2024. Does he still get excited at the thought of touring, even at his age? “The adrenaline has always come there,” he says. “We’ve just come back from South America a few months ago, so that was fantastic. We all performed well. The adrenaline was flowing, and we had a great time.
“Everybody got Covid apart from me. I just got this horrendous Mexican flu, but that’s the price you’re paying really for touring. You pick up lots of viruses and things on the road.”
Does Biff still get that buzz like he did back at that first show of mine in 1983? “Yeah, I think sometimes more so, because you feel you feel more grateful to the audience for supporting you for so long. Shows are quite exciting now because you have a new album, you know, ’cause we’re not just doing a greatest hits tour. So, we have a new album, juices flow.
“People are interested, videos get a million hits, and people know the songs. So it’s all exciting, and new tours are always exciting. It’s great.”
One of the major changes in the last year for Saxon has been the departure of Paul Quinn and the arrival of Brian Tatler of Diamond Head. How has he fitted in, I wondered.
“Well, the audience loved him, and he did all the summer festivals apart from the first one we did in Greece. They went crazy for him. Him and Doug are going to be a great partnership. They’ve done some fantastic guitars on this new album. Paul did a couple of solos on there as well, but I think they’re gonna be a good partnership.
“Brian, we didn’t intend for him to write anything. It just happened by coincidence that we had to get the album finished for January to release it ready for March. So, I just asked him out of the blue. Have you got any ideas? He gave me the whole Hell Fire Damnation riff. That’s a killer.”
If you follow Saxon on social media, you’ll see them often relaxing on tour in various restaurants with a curry. Is Brian enjoying this? “No, he’s not really into the spice,” laughs Biff. “We’re working on him. He’s English Midlands meat and two veg. But we’ll get him into the curry. He has tried it. He’ll go, oh well, that’s a bit spicy, isn’t it? So yeah, we’ll get him there. It takes a while, you know.”
Following the UK tour, Saxon go out to the US with Uriah Heep before coming back to Europe. What else is planned for Saxon in 2024? “We’re coming back to festivals across Europe,” Biff says. “I think we’re doing one in the UK, which we can’t tell you about, and then we’ll probably be looking at putting on some more shows.
“We must go to Japan. The album’s doing well there, and you know, maybe Australia. The plan is to put a few more shows on in Europe and the UK, perhaps in November or December, and go to places where we haven’t been. But you know, I can’t really guarantee that. So, you know people really need to come and see us on the current tour.”