Never Surrender: More than 4 decades on, metal act Saxon is still running on Hell, Fire & Chaos

The pioneering metal band will play San Antonio’s Tobin Center on Thursday, May 30, with Uriah Heep.

click to enlarge British heavy metal band is beloved in San Antonio thanks early radio airplay by KISS-FM DJ Joe Anthony. - Ned Waksman
Ned Waksman
British heavy metal band is beloved in San Antonio thanks early radio airplay by KISS-FM DJ Joe Anthony.
For those of a certain generation who like their music hard and heavy, the new wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM, represents a special era.

The late ’70s and early ’80s surge in UK-based upstart metal acts leaned heavily into instrumental virtuosity, hooks, riffs and biker-influenced attire such as denim vests and leather.

Chief among the acts emerging from this scene are bands including Tygers of Pan Tang, Samson and Girlschool along with better-known standard-bearers such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Saxon.

Fast-forward four-and-a-half decades later, and Saxon is still throwing the red meat of hard rock to the masses. Scheduled to play San Antonio’s Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, May 30, with Uriah Heep, the quintet is touring behind Hell, Fire and Damnation, its 24th studio outing.

For vocalist Peter “Biff” Byford — who produced the 10-track effort with Judas Priest touring guitarist Andy Sneap — the recording evolved into an inadvertent concept album.

“[The record] goes into a little bit of a good versus evil type theme,” Byford said in an early April interview. “I think that Hell, Fire & Damnation is about good and evil battling through the ages with religious overtones there. It initially wasn’t a concept. We just wrote a bunch of songs and put them all together, and that’s sort of how it turned out, really. It wasn’t until we’d written everything that I got the idea that maybe we were onto a good thing here and this album was going to be great.”

While the lazy music fan might be quick to dismiss metal acts as writing solely about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, Saxon’s subject matter often has a more literary take, albeit with soaring guitar solos and a pounding backbeat. Not unlike brethren in Iron Maiden, the group has made history, and the occult and science fiction serve as fodder for its newest set of songs.

The results range from Marie Antoinette’s fate (the anthemic “Madame Guillotine”) and the unfortunate wretches accused of supernatural wrongdoing (the double-time “Witches of Salem”) to powerful Mongol emperors (an epic “Kubla Khan and the Merchant of Venice”) and Area 52-fueled conspiracy theories (the groove-driven “There’s Something in Roswell”).

Quickly banged out last October, Hell, Fire & Damnation is infused with a spontaneous spirit driven by the need to have it available for purchase before the band hit the European leg of a tour opening for Judas Priest.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to make it and finish it, but I think that added to the excitement of the album, because everybody worked really hard and were really pushing it,” Byford said. “Andy Sneap, the producer, was working in America with Judas Priest at the time, so I had to do quite a bit of the recording of the guitars and things myself. It was an exciting album — a kind of wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of moment. Vocally, I spent quite a bit of time working on melodies and lyrics to make it a bit more interesting than your average rock and roll lyrics. Singing on this album was also a nice moment — my son was engineering at the time for me, so that was a good thing.”

Long known as an exciting live band dating back to Saxon’s early days opening for Motörhead, Byford acknowledges the importance of his loyal fan base. So much so that the group is inviting devotees to help craft this tour’s setlist via social media.

“We’re promoting Hell, Fire & Damnation, so it’s going to be four or five songs from that album,” Byford explained. “I’m going to do a Facebook post asking people what they want us to play. There are 16 songs, including five songs off the new album, and let’s see what people say. Let’s get people involved in the tour. Every show we do is totally different. We’re a great live band, and we don’t have a lot of things running behind the scenes. If an audience wants us to play a certain song and if we know it, we’ll play it. Those are the sort of live shows we run.”

Saxon might be classified as a heavy metal act, but its roots date back to the late ’70s UK punk scene, when the band was named S.O.B. and shared bills with The Clash. In pre-Saxon life, Byford started as a singing bass player for a blues-rock band before enjoying a brief stint playing flute for obscure British psychedelic outfit Jumble Lane.

But it would be the NWOBHM scene that provided the springboard for Byford and his crew to achieve international fame, a highlight of which was a U.S. tour supporting 1983’s Power & the Glory and opening for Iron Maiden in the States.

Byford remembers that era fondly.

“It was quite an exciting time, you know,” he said. “Because [Iron] Maiden, Saxon and Def Leppard were new bands on the scene. We were labeled different than other bands like Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash, who were great bands but were not of a new generation of bands. We picked up a whole new generation of people — mostly schoolkids really — 14- and 15-year-olds.

“And a lot of punks were disillusioned with that scene and came to Motörhead actually. Our first tour was with Motörhead, and their audience took us in and we became popular because of those tours. We had a great album and great tours. Everything was in the right place at the right time. The planets aligned, and that’s what the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was. That movement swept around the planet, really.”

For now, Saxon’s immediate future involves plenty of American touring before a summer return to the UK to headline festivals and hit the road with Priest again.

When asked about the band’s longevity, Byford points to Saxon’s blue-collar background and the mantra its members adopted from a song featured on 1981’s seminal album Denim and Leather.

“We wrote a song called ‘Never Surrender,’” Byford said of the tune that also lent its name to his 2007 memoir. “It seems to be our motto and people like it.”

Subscribe to SA Current newsletters.

Follow us: Apple News | Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter| Or sign up for our RSS Feed


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.