Sure, Saxon‘s 1979 self-titled debut album is good. But their second album, 1980’s Wheels of Steel, is really, really good. NWOBHM-defining good. Decibel Hall of Fame good. Like, every-song-is-excellent good. So ranking them from worst to best is basically like ranking them from least-ruling to most-ruling, but, sure, we can do that. Our own Chris Dick inducted the album into our Hall of Fame in our February 2017 issue, which you can purchase here; let’s spend a bit more time with this classic album now as we look at each song in a bit more detail.
9. Machine Gun
Solid NWOBHM closer here, the band picking up the tempo at the finish line, laying down another great boogie riff (the album’s full of them), songwriting finesse, a general sense that this music can and will help many a punter get through another rough early-’80s day at high school. And years later, this song, and album, are still part of the fuel that keeps many of us going through the day, this chorus screaming energy, the closing minute and a half of the song as wonderfully chaotic as life itself.
8. See the Light Shining
A classic early Saxon anthem here, one of those songs where you’re sure there’s a verse but you mainly remember the chorus, and the band also do not hesitate to hammer that chorus into your head for, sure, maybe a minute, a minute and a half, longer than they need to, but when the song makes you feel this good to be alive, who’s complaining? Plus, that rowdy mid-song groove is just untouchable.
7. Freeway Mad
Quick and dirty rocker here at the midpoint of Wheels of Steel, “Freeway Mad” getting brisk and economic, the 2:41 flying past like a great NWOBHM b-side, the band once again heading out to the highway lyrically, the guitar work once again totally killing it with lick after lick of NWOBHM boogie, the vocals up there with some of the best of the era.
6. Street Fighting Gang
Love how the band throws in this speedy rocker as the final stretch approaches, those quick guitar breaks signalling that this album is going to be pure adrenaline from beginning to end. Although this song almost races past too fast to have a huge impact, the band still kills it here, the players raging at a very fast pace, laying down another memorable chorus and flashy, classy guitar work for miles.
5. Suzie Hold On
And, suddenly, as we near album’s end, a burst of melodicism and commerciality that confuses and astounds a bit, but it’s pretty hard to not get caught up in the songwriting here, the smart way the band has constructed the lyrics in this, what should have been a radio smash hit but instead was a minor success for the band as a single. Kinda smells of “label needs a single” but also kinda smells great.
4. Wheels of Steel
The title track of this great album totally lays down the Saxon law with its “Cat Scratch Fever”ian main riff and NWOBHM power. Love the mid-tempo stomp of this one, and the vocal delivery is tough and confident, even if the song does threaten to wear out its welcome a bit. Still, another classic tune on an album that is almost incapable of delivering a song that doesn’t also fit in that category.
3. Stand Up and Be Counted
That boogie-rockin’ opening riff kills it here on the album’s second track, filtering Thin Lizzy through the NWOBHM in a way that is literally and scientifically impossible to not tap your foot along to and love as if it’s one of your own children. I’m barely even sure if this song has verses, because that riff just dominates all, and the chorus is awesome too. Just a solid, perfect little example of fast-rocking Saxon at their peak.
2. 747 (Strangers in the Night)
Always loved that woah-start-now! opening, but that’s just the beginning of what’s to love about this classic Saxon tune. The lyrics here are evocative in a way not often found in NWOBHM bands, taking a seemingly absurd topic (can we just get a round of applause to Saxon for not always talking about rocking and girls?) and spinning a totally cool yarn around it, with hard-rocking verses and more melodic, chilling choruses, the band, really, perfecting a formula here that lots of hair bands to come would emulate.
1. Motorcycle Man
A rocking, righteous way to start off this album, “Motorcycle Man” is nothing short of a NWOBHM anthem, that lead riff absolutely crushing it, the vocal line in the chorus regal and stately without being ridiculous, which is precisely where Saxon do their finest work. This song is not only one of Saxon’s finest about modes of transport (and there’s been a lot of songs about that from this band), it’s a classic biker song, it’s a classic metal song, it’s a classic album opener… it’s just a classic.