Saxon – “Wheels of Steel”

dB HoF No. 146

Label: Carrere
Release date: May 5, 1980

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal wasn’t a movement. Until it was a movement. Early on, bands—mostly categorized as hard rock—merely created music the only way they knew how. They were heavy, hard and thunderous, but heavy metal they were not. Not yet at least. Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, UFO, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin weren’t terribly keen on being labeled something that they felt they were not. Nevertheless, metallic forces, large and small, started to impart a new vocabulary on the next generation of British riffmasters and loudness purveyors. It didn’t happen at once, but was gradually summoned and curated—informally and organically—over years, from the mid-’70s through the early ’80s.

One such band to take advantage of hard rock’s potency and punk’s aggression were British sensation Saxon. Formed out of two bands—the blues-rock based Son of a Bitch and the more progressive-minded Coast—in Yorkshire during the summer of 1977, Saxon hadn’t yet been labeled as heavy metal. British, yes. Definitively so. But the group were still finding common ground between guitarist Graham Oliver and bassist Steve Dawson’s blues proclivities and guitarist Paul Quinn and vocalist Biff Byford’s higher musical elevations. Drummer Pete Gill would land in the lineup in 1978, having previously done kit-time with Gary Glitter’s the Glitter Band. Together, as Saxon, the group gigged locally and rehearsed relentlessly. The Big Teasers from Barnsley, as they were known, mustered a demo’s worth of material for prospective record labels. Offers came in, one for a two-single deal with EMI progressive imprint Harvest, but Saxon weren’t terribly interested in singles. Like most bands worth their salt, they wanted an album deal. After a swing of luck, Saxon eventually inked a three-album contract with French label Carrere, who were eager to open a London-based post.

The group’s debut album, Saxon, hit stores in spring of 1979. Like Saxon, the label was relatively green. They had experience trafficking pop and disco music, but hard rock wasn’t in their wheelhouse. Needless to say, Saxon’s first offering bricked. Bummed out by poor sales performance, a high-profile management team that abandoned them in their most dire hour and a label pressuring for success, the members of Saxon regrouped, with fire in their eyes and hearts. Holed up in a farmhouse in nowheresville, Wales, the Brits wrote two career-defining, chart-smashing and hard rocking songs in “Wheels of Steel” and “747 (Strangers in the Night).” There were other songs written in that shabby farmhouse that would appear on the follow-up to Saxon, but none were as crucially important. By this point, the phrase “the New Wave of British Heavy Metal” had been officially posited, first in a review by journalist Geoff Barton and then as a chart name crafted by Soundhouse DJ and chart master Neal Kay. Meanwhile, BBC DJ Tommy Vance was also at the forefront of the movement, playing songs from (Beatles-like popular) Motörhead, Saxon, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang and more, to the delight of disenfranchised males across the U.K.

By the time Saxon issued their sophomore album, titled Wheels of Steel, heavy metal’s proverbial placeholders were ready for the deep, booming groove of “Wheels of Steel” and the soaring leads and catchy choruses of “747 (Strangers in the Night).” Wheels of Steel produced three singles, in fact, with the softer “Suzie Hold On” hitting as the third in the summer of 1980. But the singles weren’t entirely representative of Saxon’s power, aggression and intensity. Opener “Motorcycle Man” and album closer “Machine Gun,” with their quick licks and rousing tempos, were quickly used as a next-gen template by neophytes Metallica, as well as pre-glam Mötley Crüe and Dokken. “Stand Up and Be Counted” also found an audience in the younger set yearning for tough riffs and wicked refrains. While “Freeway Mad” is moored in boogie-woogie, its Side B peer “Street Fighting Gang” was a double-fist to the face of hard rock complacency. Certainly, with Byford’s leathered vocals dominating throughout, Wheels of Steel not only was the origin of Saxon’s success, it was the warning shot that Britain was ready to unleash a heavy metal attack unlike anything before it.

So, it’s with great pride and honor that we welcome Saxon’s first Hall of Fame entry with the indomitable, the timeless and certifiably heavy Wheels of Steel.

– Chris Dick

Got to get more Saxon? To read the entire seven-page story, with featurings interviews with all members on Wheels of Steel, purchase the print issue from our store, or digitally via our app for iPhone/iPad or Android.