Current track

Title

Artist

Current show


‘They were kind of gods’: How Saxon became Barnsley’s biggest export

Written by on 29/11/2020

Back in the late 1970s punk rock had reinvented the musical landscape and the world was hurtling towards the follow on new wave scene, so it took a brave band to try their luck with unfashionable heavy rock.

But Saxon not only achieved success – they went on to become Barnsley ’s most enduring musical export.

Punk had rewritten the rules and local band Son of a Bitch had a name which – more than four decades ago – possessed a shock factor which would have won approval from that camp.

Members Graham Oliver, from the Dearne Valley, and Steve Dawson merged with another group, including singer Biff Byford, and cemented the trademark Saxon sound – the change of name coming because Son of a Bitch was deemed too unpalatable by record company executives in an age when Wendy Craig sitcoms were regarded as edgy TV.

Their recording career started with the self-titled Saxon in 1979, featuring a distinctive logo which was to adorn countless school satchels in the years to follow, and was followed with a blistering string of follow-ups which catapulted the band to the top of the popular music agenda when the trendy choice might have been the electro pop of Gary Numan or Sheffield ’s Human League.

Previous life: Pete Gill pictured with the Glitter Band

Their rise to stardom has been chronicled alongside others on the rock scene by author Neil Anderson in his book Signing on for the Devil – The Rise of Steel City Rock and he puts the success down to the raw energy of the Saxon sound, which while having mass appeal among rock enthusiasts also attracted those with leanings towards the harsh punk vibe.

A slew of albums, some released only months apart, followed in the early 80s, producing enduring hits like Wheels of Steel and 747 Strangers in the Night.

That saw the band touring relentlessly, winning fans across the world and visiting too many countries to list, though Neil remembers Saxon never quite cracked the American market with the success of the other big South Yorkshire rock act of the era, Def Leppard, from Sheffield.

Their more polished and highly produced sound was perhaps more in tune with the tastes of a US fanbase, though Saxon did play there extensively.

Sign up for our What’s On newsletter

Get the latest What’s On news from YorkshireLive direct to your inbox with our newsletter.

We send out daily newsletters with the best news and features so you don’t miss a thing – enter your email address here to sign up.

 And download our YorkshireLive app  which is completely customisable so you can choose the news that matters to you!

Neil said Saxon’s dramatic early success was in contrast to Def Leppard, who took more time to hit the big time, but once they cracked the American market, they have been able to maintain a huge following.

He said: “Saxon were absolutely massive in the early 80s, they were kind of Gods and I was amazed how they slid from the limelight.

“Graham Oliver has said it happened too fast, they got too big too quickly.”

The distinctive Saxon logo, with an axe and the ‘S’ interwoven, was “on the back of every school bag”, he remembers.

Original Saxon drummer Pete Gill was already familiar with the music industry having played the 1960s cabaret circuit and then the Glitter Band in the early 70s, passing an unorthodox audition which saw him propelled straight on stage after one of the band’s two regular drummers fell ill.

“He really helped to mould the sound. I think he had been Sheffield’s only glam rock star in the 70s.”

Saxon’s early career had been forged in local working men’s clubs, which in that decade help mid-week rock nights to help fill their concert halls.

A record deal sealed their success and the first few years of their career saw a success few bands could rival.

As the 80s wore on, Saxon’s presence in the charts faltered, with the 90s grunge movement hitting all traditional rock bands, though the group endured, finding a new audience in eastern Europe, countries which had not been open to touring in the early band’s career.

Personnel changes had happened down the years, but the seismic shift came when founding members Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson left the band in the mid-90s.

That led to legal challenges and saw the formation of Oliver Dawson Saxon which continued to perform independently of Biff Byford’s band.

Both have continued to plough their own furrow, proving perhaps there was more than enough magic in the original line-up to satisfy two audiences and more than four decades later they are still able to test the stamina of their audiences’ ear-drums.

While Barnsley has never been the most prolific producer of pop stars, Biff Byford and his bandmates have proved the exception to the rule with a career which would have seen workers in many conventional industries long since retired.