SAXON – Denim And Leather, Power & The Glory, Crusader
July 12, 2018, a year ago
Essentially the albums that first introduced North America to Saxon, the trio of earlier works more the province of UK fans. Sure we knew classics from Strong Arm Of The Law and Wheels Of Steel, but really didn't get a chance to experience the band live until later. If you're going to reissue 3+ decades old material, better give the diehards (who will most likely be the lion's share of the buying public) something new/worthwhile. For the most part, BMG have accomplished that. Now housed in hard backed digi-pak, with slip-in envelope, many of these so-called bonuses have previously made the rounds, as part of the 2009 reissues.
Denim And Leather was our first chance to be part of the Saxon craze, in real time, simultaneously with our longhaired brethren on the opposite Atlantic shore. The title cut, which closes the original vinyl, is just one of several fan favorites in the running order. Its autobiographical bent has aged better than most, especially with the passage of history: "Where were you in '79, when the dam began to burst..." Gritty, tin-sounding riffs greet the opener, "Princess Of The Night", a melodic sing-along (about a steam locomotive, no less). Later, the augmented live rendition sees the guitars screaming. Along with yet another slice of band life (the 1980 Monsters Of Rock appearance), aka "And The Bands Played On" remains oft heard live anthems. The disc offers plenty of fast tracks, the band not yet starting to write with American radio in mind. Of the "lesser known" material, speedy, whistle augmented "Rough And Ready", "Never Surrender" and aggressive "Play It Loud" still see the odd concert appearance, albeit typically overseas. Ditto, the more laidback "Midnight Rider", detailing their initial US trek, the year before. Although I've probably since Biff Byford onstage at least once, every year for more than two decades, it's been ages since I listened to this disc, start to finish. Nearly forgotten about the tale of sexual ecstasy "Out Of Control" and proto-thrashing "Fire In The Sky” (showing the early Eighties preoccupation with the threat of nuclear war), the two weak links in an overall strong cannon.
Beyond the original configuration, there's a full set of lyrics, reproductions of vintage tour tickets/passes/adverts and some photos, as well as old pages from Kerrang. The assortment of live tracks (seven from the UK tour for Denim And Leather) begin with a raw, call & response run-through of "Bap Shoo Ap", a revved up ‘50s style number, from Donnington, in '80. The rest reprise their studio version cousins aired earlier, apart from the lethal drum workout called "Machine Gun". Sadly, a lot of Byford's comical banter was left on the cutting room floor.
By '83, the Brits were recording Power & The Glory in the USA (Axis Sound, in Atlanta). The production values were bigger and based on their status at the forefront of the NWOBHM, as well as heavy metal's burgeoning popularity, it went to #1 in some European charts, selling over a million copies, globally. Much of that was down to past legwork, as it doesn't have as strong material as the earlier trio of albums, or even its immediate predecessor. That said, there are still some perennial choices, including the rousing title track opener. Ever seen bassist Nibs Carter pinwheel his hair to that one? Amazed his head doesn't pop off, due to centripetal force! For a song called "Redline", the tune is pretty pedestrian. Returning to robust anthems, can see the genesis of forthcoming Crusader with this album's "Warrior", treading similar waters (so to speak). In retrospect (never thought about it, at the time) "Nightmare" seems a stab at the American radio market: boy laments girl, simple, fluffy construct and big sing-along chorus. Really more Dokken than Saxon. A cannonade of drums launches "This Town Knows How To Rock", built for the stage (as are the best Saxon numbers). A rare fade out, "Watching The Sky" is nothing spectacular. "Midas Touch" gets things going again, but the ode to the Apollo moon landing, aka "The Eagle Has Landed" (while not a fast, nor heavy song) is probably performed most often.
Here, the bonuses are real rarities, beginning with a pair of previously unreleased songs, recorded during the original album session. "Make 'Em Rock" (or is it "Make Her Rock") relates the effect loud music will have on an innocent school girl. Given the #MeToo movement and climate today, probably best left buried. While "Turn Out The Lights" doesn't enjoying the big, finalized production, had the potential to be a Saxon standard. About an old circus performer, not much in the way of lyrical development: "When they turned out the lights, he stood there and cried. When they turned out the lights, part of him died" and the song (fragment?) fades out with a guitar solo. Additionally, there are demos of four album tracks, the aforementioned "Turn Out The Lights" and, more importantly, an additional two "unknown" Saxon numbers: "Stand Up And Rock" and "Saturday Night". The former seems to be a scratch vocal take (where singer just says any old thing, or early ideas for the song). Are these words by the same man who penned the thoughtful "Dallas 1 pm", "747 (Strangers In The Night) or even "Eagle" off this record? Too much echo/delay on the out-of-sync voices on "Saturday Night". So no criminally underrated vinyl length casualties to unearth, but would have been interesting to get a little band insight (liner notes, or something). Alas, it's just photos of various picture sleeves. The curiosity factor raised my score by half a point.
Can't fault the voiceover and opening "Crusader", off the '84 disc of the same name. To this day, an instantly recognizable show stopper. Tongue firmly in cheek (but not enough to prevent Byford from dropping an f-bomb in the lyrics), "A Little Bit Of What You Fancy" seems destined for the USA, non-offensive and titillating possibility for radio (unless it references certain members starting to dabble in powdery substances). No secret about the target of a rather lightweight "Sailing To America" single. While it concerns the uncertainty of the Mayflower pilgrims, just as easily relates to the band itself. Quiet Riot had already scored their success with an English cover tune, so everyone in that era was attempting the same (as well as trying to get on newfangled MTV), thus a revved up "Set Me Free" (Sweet), rocking more than many of the originals. The forceful chorus, but otherwise tuneful "Just Let Me Rock" fares better than the omitted "rock" bonus from just a year before. This one remains an overseas concert staple. Snappy snare on a Scorpions-sounding title "Bad Boys (Like To Rock n Roll)", decent energy, but nothing more. Forget the "Do It All For You" ballad, yuck! "Rock City", while a fabled bar/venue in Nottingham, UK, the focus here is a mythical locale, even if the music sounds as if from the Sunset Strip. Closing with another nondescript slice of ‘80s "Run For Your Life", easy to see why those of us raised on the NWOBHM were converting to the exciting "new" music by the likes of Metallica, Mercyful Fate and/or Accept. In addition to demos of most of the album cuts, there's two (at the time) deemed unworthy: "Borderline", a short rocker which is infinitely better than all but the title track and "Helter Skelter" (not the Beatles tune). Both demonstrate, that at that point, Saxon had basically sold their souls for American success (which never came), no longer content to be a metal band, except for oldies. While the situation persisted for a few more albums, thankfully they righted the ship and became the elder statesmen they are today.
OK, if Strong Arm Of The Law And Wheels Of Steel are the pinnacle of the ratings system, let award this trio (extras included), in chronological order: 8.5, 7.5, 6.