It’s said Saxons have been in Brighton for at least 1400 years. These days however, sightings of them are thin on the ground. The last one was discovered a while back. The year was 1985 and he was found under Stafford Road, buried along with an iron knife and a bronze belt buckle.
With a combined age just shy of 300, Saxon – or as many would have them known, the mighty Saxon – may not be quite as old, but seeing them around these parts is equally rare. Few can remember the last time the Yorkshire heavy metal warriors played Brighton, but it’s been quite a few years. History has it, it was when they supported Motorhead at the Dome, or was it the Corn Exchange?
January 2016 saw Saxon make a triumphant return to Brighton, well Hove actually, when they played a sold out gig at The Old Market. Now as frontman Biff Byford remarked, Brighton isn’t really a heavy metal town and whenever anyone brought up the idea of their playing here they were told no one would come and see them.
The gig was unusual in other ways too. It was intended to be a warm up show for a month long European tour where Saxon were going to be Motorhead’s special guests. Lemmy’s untimely death, put paid to both his band and that tour, so instead of this being the first gig of Saxon’s 2016 calendar, it ended up as Biff wryly put it, the “only date of the tour.”
For two of the band, it was also a homecoming show. Drummer Nigel Glockler was actually born in Hove and until last month lived around the corner from the venue, and the band’s new boy – guitarist Doug Scarratt whose been a member for just 20 years – still lives in Hove.
Despite it being on their doorstep, Nigel had never set foot in The Old Market before and Doug had only been once, but not for the first time, the venue proved it’s one of the best places to watch live music in Brighton. It’s baffling why it’s not more frequently used as its location (a few minutes walk from the Clock Tower), its set-up (it has its own bar) and its size (it holds 500 and has a big stage) means it’s superior to almost all other Brighton music venues. Saxon clearly loved playing there, with Biff singing its praises not once, but twice.
Having hosted the likes of Hawkwind and Uriah Heep in the past eighteen months, the venue does have previous with heritage acts. Of course, like them, Saxon can trace their ancestry back a good few decades, in fact, 2016 marks the band’s 40th anniversary and not surprisingly the crowd were predominantly sexagenerians with a scattering of quinquagenarians for good measure.
Those waiting in the drizzle for the doors to open got to witness a very un-rock n roll sight, when guitarist Doug Scarratt was dropped off at the front of the venue in a taxi. For Saxon, who are said to have been the principal inspiration for the movie Spinal Tap, it was just an example of quite how down to earth they are. Even Biff’s son provided the support as his band, Naked Six, played only their second ever gig.
A large Saxon banner – one of rock’s most enduring logos – covered the back wall, but it itself was almost obliterated by the sheer size of Nigel Glockler’s drum kit. It was so big and so full of toms and cymbals, you only knew he was behind it because of the noise he was making.
Sonically, it’s hard to distinguish one Saxon song from another. They have a formula that they rarely deviate from. They may sound different from record to record, but onstage a song from 1983 sounds pretty much the same as one from 2015. But hey, this ain’t a band striving to roll with the changes, this is deja vu all over again. And, in truth, it’s probably the main reason why they’re still pulling in the crowds after all these years.
They’re clearly doing something right. Their latest record – their 21st studio album – has been their biggest seller since 1997 and listening to it there’s no denying they’re sounding better than ever.
Whilst I think the sound at The Old Market fell short of the record – it was a little too tinny for me – you couldn’t fault Biff’s throaty vocals or the twin guitars of Quinn and Scarratt. And, compared to some of their contemporaries, neither could you ridicule them for the way they look. Yes, three of them still have hair that belongs in the 80s, but to their credit they avoid dressing like rock gods.
There’s something honest about Saxon. There’s no pretence about what they do and with the exception of a few vertical smoke machines, they don’t resort to theatrics. It’s what’s made them such an everlasting force in rock, counting none other than Lady Gaga among their legion of fans.
Saxon of course has always been Biff’s band and he’s front and centre of attention. Dressed in a military coat and trainers combo with his long hair now almost white, he cuts an arresting figure. That said, add a touch of eyeliner, a bit of lippy and some and rouge and he’d be a perfect drag queen.
Fortunately, apart from spreading his arms, he resists any Spinal Tap mannerisms and concentrates on belting out one song after another and interacting with the audience. He and the band are clearly enjoying themselves in such an intimate room, quite different from the huge metal festivals that make up much of their touring itinerary these days.
As Lemmy was a close friend of Biff’s for over 36 years, it’s no surprise he gets a good few mentions along the way. One number in the 20-song set is dedicated to him, ‘Requiem (We Will Remember)’ Although written a few years ago, about the passing of Phil Lynott, it’s a fitting tribute to Lemmy.
With a back catalogue stretching back to the days of the first Star Wars movie and the launch of Concorde, they must have had their work cut out to decide what to include. For me, two of their newest were the standouts and both just happened to be the title tracks of the band’s last two albums. ‘Battering Ram’ does just what it says in the lyrics: “Prepare yourself for what’s to come, these walls will resonate tonight to the sound of screaming hordes, the decibels will rise above through this concert hall.” Pounding the senses, it’s the perfect show opener and along with ‘Sacrifice’ by far their best song.
Some of the more subtle nuances of the recorded versions (yes there are subtleties in Saxon’s songs) are lost when played live, especially the drum sound. On stage, every track takes the same pulverising approach. It clearly did the trick for the fans, who were raising horns throughout. “I like this venue, we might come back again!” bellowed Biff. Let’s hope they do.
As someone recently extolled “These old bastards still got it!” Yes, they might not be breaking new ground, but on this evidence there’s plenty of life still left in them. And an audience in Brighton who still want to be rocked!