An Interview with Steve Dawson from Saxon
The musical movement known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which kicked off in the late ‘70s, is one which never really managed to cross the pond and make a major impact in America, but a few bands in the bunch did make a bit of headway here. Certainly, that list starts with Def Leppard, with Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Motorhead also hovering near the top of the pack, but one which often gets lost in the shuffle – even though they developed a considerable following in various pockets of the country – is Saxon.
While Saxon’s era of Stateside success basically consists of the four albums they released between 1983 and 1986 – Power & the Glory, Crusader, Innocence is No Excuse, and Rock the Nations – you’d have a good chance of finding yourself trading fisticuffs if you suggested to a British fan that any one of those albums should be deemed one of the band’s best. (Their three most successful albums in the UK all came out prior to the four that proved popular in the US.)
Thankfully, you can now enjoy a fuller exploration of Saxon’s glory days and figure out your own favorites, thanks to the release of a new box set: Saxon: The Complete Albums 1979-1988. We had an opportunity to chat with Steve Dawson, a founding member of the band and their bassist through the majority of the albums in the set, and he talked us through Saxon’s birth, success, and creative struggles, their influence on Spinal Tap, and his exit from the band, along with a look into his life in the wake of his departure.
Rhino: Before discussing Saxon at length, we should probably talk briefly about the band’s original name, which was Son of a Bitch.
Steve Dawson: [Laughs.] That’s right, yeah! Well, first of all, the band was called S.O.B., but when Biff and Paul joined Graham and myself, we decided to go for it. [Laughs.] It was sort of at the time of punk in England, so you could get away with it then!
Rhino: So what’s the secret origin of Saxon? How did the band first come together?
SD: Well, what happened was, Graham and myself was in a band called Blue Condition, which was (named after) a Cream song that Ginger Baker sang, and Biff and Paul was in a band called Coast. Well, as coincidence happened, the drummer in Biff and Paul’s band quit, and the singer in our band quit, all at the same time. So I’d been to see Coast a few times, and Biff was singing and playing the bass, and I thought he’d got a cool voice, so I rang him and said, “Do you fancy getting together with me and Graham? And you can be the singer.” He said, “Yeah, I’m interested, but if I join, Paul’s got to join at the same time.” So basically that’s what happened…and that was the beginning of Saxon! Although, as I say, we were called S.O.B. at the time.
Rhino: How quickly did the members of the two bands mesh creatively?
SD: Straight away. The first thing we did, we didn’t actually rehearse. Graham and me had got a gig booked in a bar in Rotherham one Saturday dinnertime, so we used that as a rehearsal. [Laughs.] We needed the money! So basically we got up and jammed. The place was full of people, and we went down really well. And we also had a show that evening as well, so basically we just got together without rehearsing or anything and just got it together straightaway.
Rhino: When the time came to work on an album, did both camps have songs that they brought to the table, or did you just write fresh material together?
SD: Well, each band had its own songs, ‘cause both bands were writing original songs. We were never in cover bands. So we adapted some of our songs with Biff’s and Paul’s influence, and then Graham and meself influenced their songs. We also wrote some original compositions together as well for the first album. But that took a long time. I mean, from that very first meeting of bands and getting together to making an album, it took seven years! And we did the usual band thing in a van, just playing any show we could get. The money wasn’t really important, apart from, y’know, as long as we got something to eat and pay for petrol for the vehicle.
And we just went up and down and all over, and because we only played original music, not all the venues liked us. [Laughs.] So we’d get to some bar that wanted, like, “Yellow River” or something like that, some pop tune, and we’d just get chucked out after two songs. But because we got a reputation with a few people in every town, it sort of slowly built a following, you know what I mean? It’s, like, seven years is a long time if you play every night, so you’re playing, like, three towns that are close together in, say, 10 gigs, and out of those 10 gigs, you might get 50 people who like you. So gradually 50 becomes a hundred, and then 200, and… [Trails off.]
In some towns, we were selling big shows out before we were even signed. Because the music that was popular at that time was punk music, and the rock fans wanted to hear a new rock band, and there weren’t any. That’s how the New Wave of British Heavy Metal got started: because it was an alternative take on punk. ‘Cause, I mean, in the early albums, it was a mixture of heavy rock and punk, really. You can’t be un-influenced by what you’re hearing on the radio all the time. And let’s face it: the Sex Pistols are quite a heavy band! So that sort of influenced us a bit. And the Clash, and stuff like that. In fact, we supported the Clash at one gig!
Rhino: Oh, really?
SD: Yeah! We played in Manchester.
Rhino: That’s a double bill you wouldn’t expect.
SD: All I can remember is me being covered in spit. [Laughs.] I learned to keep your mouth shut while you’re playing at that gig!
Rhino: Saxon released their self-titled debut in 1979. When you listen back to that first album, do you think the band successfully captured their live sound, or do you think you were too experienced in the studio to manage that?
SD: Well, what happened was that we’d made a lot of demos with a guy called John Verity, who produced the first album, and we’d gotten signed up on the strength of those demos. So we went into a studio in north London and made a record, but when we made the record, we took the rawness out of the songs, if you know what I mean. We made it too good a record! So when we presented it to the record company, they didn’t like it. They rejected it. They said, “That’s not what we signed up! We wanted something raw!”
So what we did was we went back into the studio with the original demos and added to them, so it made the sounds better, and put extra instruments on, replaced guitars or bass, stuff like that. So basically the first album is demos that’ve been worked on. I mean, we were mortified that we’d spent all this time in the studio making, like, a Boston record! [Laughs.] Harmonies, keyboards, you name it…and they told us it were crap! But looking back, it was good for us. It was a good learning curve.
Rhino: Were there any songs from the record that you felt like you “rescued” by virtue of playing them live, turning them into audience favorites in a way that the studio versions never would’ve?
SD: Well, “Stallions of the Highway” has always been a favorite. “Militia Guard,” that’s another. I mean, obviously, some tracks go down better than others live, so the more sort of rockin’ songs worked better live.
Rhino: Was “Big Teaser” always called “Big Teaser,” or did it have to be toned down from “Prick Teaser”?
SD: [Laughs.] You’re right! I don’t know if you’re familiar with a band called Heavy Metal Kids, but we did a support to them, and “Big Teaser” was sort of influenced by that band. It wasn’t until fairly recently that somebody pointed out that the Beatles had a song with the line “big teaser” in it (“Day Tripper”). That didn’t have anything to do with it. It just came from the fact that we were just five red-blooded young men!
Rhino: The Saxon album was produced by John Verity. Presumably at least some, if not all, of the guys in the band knew that he’d been a member of Argent.
SD: Yeah, well, Paul and Bif did: they’d been in the John Verity Band! [Laughs.] But when he left to go join with Argent, they concentrated on their own band. That’s how we got in with Trident Management, who were the managers of Argent and also Queen. So they ended up managing Saxon for a year, for that first album.
Rhino: Not to dismiss the debut, but the second album, Wheels of Steel, is generally considered to be the first must-hear Saxon album. Do you feel the same way?
SD: Well, I think it has to be, really, because it’s the most successful, even to this day. It’s the one that paid the bills. And it’s amazing, really, after all this time, that a handful of tracks still go round and round all the time. But when we were making it, we were in a frame of mind… [Hesitates.] When the first album didn’t do very well, the managers – Trident – dropped the band. Basically, they spent all our money, and we were broke after the first album! So we were in the frame of mind of “fuck you, we’re going to be successful, no matter what!” [Laughs.]
So we were just in the right frame of mind and in the right era that we wrote those songs together as a unit, and we were just lucky to put that package together with another stroke of luck, which was going out on Motorhead’s Bomber tour, and... it all just worked. And when we released (the single) “Wheels of Steel,” we then managed to get on a show here in the UK called Top of the Pops. That show – it aired on a Thursday – was seen by millions of people, and it just transformed us overnight. We just started on that next rung of the ladder to success. And when we released “747,” that went right into the top 10. So that basically was the start of our success, Wheels of Steel.
Rhino: How surreal was it to be on Top of the Pops?
SD: Well, when you’re a kid… You know, that was the only show that you could watch music on in the UK, so I’d been watching the Beatles, the Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, the Who, all those massive bands. And then somebody tells you that you’re going on…? I think I was drunk for a week before I went on, I were that nervous. And that was when my mum finally stopped telling me to get a proper job: when it came to 7:30 on that Thursday evening and I was on the TV! [Laughs.] So it was a life changing experience.
Rhino: Pete Hinton worked with Saxon on producing Wheels of Steels. Did you feel like he had a better handle on the band’s sound, or did the band just have a better handle on their own sound by then?
SD: Well, we had an engineer as well. We did it in the Who’s studio – Ramport Studio – and the resident engineer there was called Will Reid Dick. Strange name. [Laughs.] But, basically, it was a combination of Pete Hinton and us and a good engineer that sort of created that sound. I mean, as an album… A lot of bands feel this same way, but we were never satisfied with the sound. But all the people liked the sound, so… [Trails off.] But, yeah, in answer to your question, it was just the combination of Pete and the band and the engineer. No one was a big-time Rick Rubin type person who told everybody what to do. We just sort of got through it ourselves.
Rhino: Saxon is generally referred to as being part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Not that you didn’t fit in, but how did it feel to suddenly find yourselves lumped into a movement?
SD: Well, basically, before we were writing Wheels of Steel, there wasn’t, like, an underground movement. In the British press, they coined the phrase “the New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” and that sort of stuck, but we didn’t attach ourselves to it. It attached itself to us. Because there was Iron Maiden and, at the time, Def Leppard, although now they sort of shun away from the heavy metal…but at the time they were happy to be a part of it, if you know what I mean. [Laughs.] But there was lots of bands, like Angel Witch, Vardis, Samson…loads and loads of bands that were attributed with the name “New Wave of British Heavy Metal.” But of the slate, only a few of them went on to have lasting success.
Rhino: Who did you view as your musical peers at the time?
SD: Well, basically, older musicians like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Free… None of the bands that was happening at the same time as us. [Laughs.] None of them! Because let’s face it: all of us were sort of learning our trade, so you couldn’t really say “Iron Maiden.” You’re looking at Iron Maiden now as a global band, but then they were just another band like us. When we got the slot with Motorhead, we looked up to them ‘cause they had a lot more success. And we looked up to bands like UFO. But nobody who was coming up at the same time. All the bands were looked up to were from before us.
Rhino: Saxon’s next album was Strong Arm of the Law, which only had one single released: the title track.
SD: That’s right, yeah. But it’s amazing, really, when you think about it: we made two records in one year. That was through greedy management. [Laughs.] I mean, if we’d made Wheels of Steel last year and it’d had the same success, we would still be on tour in five years’ time! It’s done different now, but then… I mean, because it was new to us to make records, we were like eager beavers. We’d’ve made 10 in one year if we could’ve done. We just loved doing it! If you’ve waited 10 years for something and it finally happens, you just want to keep doing it. We were, like, “We’re doing it! We’re in the studio and making records!” It’s only later in your career when you sort of put barriers up about working this way or that way. What I’m trying to say is that, in those times, it was really a laugh and enjoyable.
Rhino: You actually used the term “heavy metal” in the title of one of the album’s songs.
SD: Yeah, “Heavy Metal Thunder”! We knew that from the Steppenwolf song. We didn’t really know what it meant, but we thought, “That sounds cool. We’ll put that in.” [Laughs.] I think that’s a common thing with a lot of bands. Everyone borrows from here and there. As long as you don’t go too crazy with it, nobody cares.
Rhino: Many view Wheels of Steels, Strong Arm of the Law, and Denim and Leather as a metal trilogy of sorts, Saxon’s definitive era.
SD: Yes, and I agree. I mean, I’m proud of some of the songs that came later, but I think that’s right. That was our time.
Rhino: Not only was Denim and Leather well-received by both critics and fans, it also contains the band’s highest-charting single in the UK: “And the Bands Played On.”
SD: That’s right. In fact, the story behind “And the Bands Played On” – I don’t mean the subject matter, I mean the actual recording of it – we got something like a three-day slot where we were going from one tour to another, and the record company said, “We want another single like ‘747.’ Can you write one in three days?” [Laughs.] So we said, “We’ll give it a go!” So we went into Basin Street Studios and we cut two tracks. One was “And the Bands Played On,” and the other was “Never Surrender.” We did ‘em both in three days. Wrote them and recorded them.
Rhino: That’s not bad to knock out two top-20 singles in three days.
SD: No, but when you think about it, the Beatles would write an album and record it in an afternoon, wouldn’t they? So, really, if you’ve got a good unit and everybody’s being creative, it’s easy to write a tune. It’s luck if it’s successful. And they both were.
Rhino: Do you think The Eagle is Landed is a good representation of Saxon’s live sound during that era?
SD: Well, as far as technical stuff will let you do it, yes. But you’re never gonna get a true live sound because if you’re in a big room with a giant P.A. and a massive back line, that can never, ever be reproduced on a record. You can come close, but…when a rock band plays, it’s rare, I suppose, that there’s never any mistakes. Or Bif might forget words. So it has to be a bit of not-quite-live added after, if you know what I’m trying to say. It’s not cheating. It’s a live thing. But, you know, if for instance Paul broke his guitar string in the middle of one of his solos, you can’t leave it on, so you have to re-do it. But, yeah, it’s a good representation of our sound at the time, and it’s a good representation of the songs.
Rhino: How do you look back at Power and the Glory as an album?
SD: Well, I always thought that was one of our best albums, because it was great to do it. We did it in Atlanta with Axis Studios with a guy called Jeff Glixman, and Jeff was great to work with, because he was sort of a pretty easy-going type, but he knew how to keep the band happy. So we’d go into the studio, and…he was a keyboard player and he’d have his Hammond organ, and he’d just say, “C’mon, let’s go jam some songs!” So we’d be there jamming some songs, and then he’d get off the keyboard, run into the control room, and say, “Right, we’re gonna do a take now!” It sort of takes the pressure off, because it’s not a natural thing to make a record, you know? You’re playing in separate areas. The drummer might be in one room, and I might be in another room, but everyone’s listening to each other on headphones. So it’s hard. But Jeff got a good vibe out of us. But I could never understand why the critics didn’t like it, to be honest. It didn’t get really great reviews. But I like it. “Watching the Skies” is one of me favorites. And the actual title track, “Power and the Glory,” is brilliant to play live, absolutely. One of the best things ever.
Rhino: Power and the Glory was also the first album for the band after Pete Gill left, with Nigel Glockler replacing him behind the drum kit.
SD: That’s right. Two great drummers, but with different styles. It’s hard to say with hindsight, but I think that if Pete would’ve drummed on Power and the Glory, it might’ve had a bit more of a harder edge. But we’ll never know. Nigel… I’m not knocking Nigel, he’s just a different drummer than Pete.
Rhino: It was also right around this period when the name “Spinal Tap” first began to gain prominence.
SD: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right!
Rhino: Harry Shearer has freely acknowledged the debt that Derek Smalls owes to you. So did he just come to see the band play, or did he actually go on tour with Saxon?
SD: He came on tour with us! But how it went down was… You know, you’d get journalists coming on tour with you all the time. “Oh, is it okay if so and so from Kerrang! or Melody Maker or Sounds come with you for a couple of days? They’re gonna do a live review, blah blah blah…” “Yeah, come on!” So we didn’t know Harry Shearer for the fame he’s got now. He was just another journalist. “This guy wants to come and hang out with you for three days. Is it okay if he travels around with you?” We said, “Yeah, no problem!” So what happened was, after the concert, we’d just be hanging about in the bar, talking, and he just got us to talk about things that happened on the road. We didn’t know he was making Spinal Tap. We just thought he was a journalist. So he took the funny side of things and turned them into a film.
And I can remember, we were on tour with Iron Maiden in America, and we went to see Spinal Tap in the theater! [Laughs.] I mean, obviously, Harry Shearer had been with us, but then there was a time period between then and when the film came out, so we’d forgotten about us, and we didn’t relate any of the gags to us, really. But two of the members of Iron Maiden, halfway through, got up and walked out in disgust! But we were all there, laughing our balls off, because we thought it was funny! Because let’s face it: it is quite pantomime and funny, heavy metal music. That’s not taking anything away from the serious side of songwriting or the fans, but…if you analyze it, it is quite odd.
I mean, I can remember a funny story, where we were working in the studio in London, and I decided to nip out to get some air. And I’ve got me black leather biker jacket on, I’ve got a big mustache, skin-tight red jeans and boots…and I didn’t understand why all these guys kept whistling at me! [Laughs.] And shouting “faggot” and stuff like that. But that’s where we bought our clothes: the S&M shops in London, the porno shops. Because that’s the only place you could buy studs and leather belts and all that stuff! But it didn’t come across to us. We just liked leather jackets. There was no gay sexual stuff in it at all. That were other people who mentioned that later on. And when you look back, you think, “Oh, yeah!” And pulling gigs because the ham won’t fit on the bread…I mean, that happened all the time!
Rhino: It’s hard to believe that neither Shearer nor anyone from the movie studio let anyone from Saxon know that This is Spinal Tap was coming out, especially given that he’d actually gone on tour with the band.
SD: Nope. And we didn’t pick up on it right away, because Harry doesn’t look like Derek Smalls in real life. He was just a short-haired weedy guy. [Laughs.]
Rhino: And none of the moments in the film made you think, “Hey, that’s just like us”?
SD: Not really, no. We just watched it and looked at it as a funny film. I mean, okay, you could draw the comparisons in the way Derek Smalls played the bass, which is very similar to me. In fact, he said that was one of the key things that he got: the way I played with one hand up in the air all the time. [Laughs.] Just because playing rock bass, a lot of the time… You’re more or less like a drummer: you just keep things going. You’re not really up and down the neck all the time. You’re, like, pumping an A or an E or something. So just out of the fact that I’m only playing with one hand, I might as well do something with the other one!
That’s how that pointing thing got going: because I realized if you’re pointing at somebody in the audience… I mean, I’ve been in the audience at the Sheffield City Hall, and for some reason, if the guy in the band is looking into the audience, you always think he’s looking at you. He’s not, really. He’s looking at two or three thousand people! But I found if I picked on one guy and pointed at him, it liked to have made his day, if you know what I mean, and he went fucking crazy! So I thought, “Oh, this is all right!” So I just pointed at everybody, and they all went mad. They loved it! So that’s, like, a bit of a pantomime moment – or a Spinal Tap moment, if you will – but it was totally done out of just enjoying meself.
Rhino: So you weren’t guilty of trying to smuggle a cucumber through security, were you?
SD: Well, that cucumber… [Starts to laugh.] There is a famous photo. A guy from Sounds, a music paper in England, said, “We want to do a feature of the band, and we want to take some pictures of you walking about in London.” So we all thought, “Oh, if they’re gonna be taking some pictures of us, we’d better get into our stage gear!” So I had those stripey trousers on, and we were there in full spandex and leather, walking around London, and we just happened to go by a shop that sold vegetables. And I noticed this cucumber, so I picked it up and put it in the, uh, usual pose – sticking out – and that was on part of the feature! We told that story to Harry, and I think he just altered it slightly about being down his trousers.
Rhino: As far as Crusader goes, it was the first of the band’s albums to feature a cover song: Sweet’s “Set Me Free.” It wasn’t a single, though, so it doesn’t seem like it was – as some may have theorized – an effort to score Stateside success a la the way Quiet Riot pulled hits with their versions of Slade songs.
SD: No, Sweet had been a pop band, like with T. Rex and Mud and Gary Glitter and their era, but they always had rockier songs on their B-sides, and we used to play that one during soundchecks…and then we recorded it for a laugh, and they put it out! We didn’t really even record it with an intention of it coming out. It’s funny you mention Crusader, though, because I’ve just seen that Dave Grohl movie, Sound City. We recorded Crusader at Sound City…on that desk! In fact, in that film, they show the cover of Crusader! It doesn’t mention us, but the actual producer of that film rang me up when they started to make it, ‘cause he wanted to know if I had any photographs of while we were there. Unfortunately, that’s probably one of the only places I haven’t got a photograph of! But there were quite a few other distractions in L.A. at that time. [Laughs.] I might not even have been able to work a camera at that moment!
Rhino: So what was your following like in the States? You obviously saw more chart action in the UK, but did you still have a pretty decent fanbase in the US?
SD: Well, we did great down the west coast and into Texas. And New York was quite popular for us, as were the Denver and Chicago areas. We could do10,000 people down the west coast and into, like, San Antonio and all those places. In fact, the biggest place we ever played in the States was in San Antonio: it was 18,000 seats and we sold ‘em out. But then we’d go over to the east coast and play a club for, like, 300 people. You’ve just got to keep going in America. Compared to England, you know, it’s a massive area, a massive country. Unless you get some sort of big radio action…
I mean, how it all got started was that we did this song called “This Town Rocks.” It was a throwaway song with just a good gesture, but it went on the album, and a radio station picked it up and put us on what they call “heavy rotation,” which I think was every 20 minutes. [Laughs.] So we had a “breakout,” as they call it in America, and that’s what set it off on the west coast. But it never transferred over to the east in such a big way. But we had a few political things with our record company, which meant that we swapped distribution from CBS to… I can’t remember who we swapped to! But it came at a critical period where if that hadn’t happened…
We sort of lost the momentum, if you know what I mean. I’m not familiar with how the record world works in America now, but then there was a lot of favors done to get you success. And somebody like CBS, if they wanted to break you big, it was just a matter of money…as in the promotional machine, and getting you on the right tours. So instead of being on, like, Scorpions tours and co-headlining with Iron Maiden, we ended up on tours like Cheap Trick and Triumph and Aldo Nova, which really weren’t our audience. We went down brilliant every night, they weren’t a rock audience…although, really, all audiences in America. It’s just different types. So we sort of missed the boat, and I think Iron Maiden sort of just grabbed all the energy and promotion and really put us into second place. Of course, back then, Def Leppard come along, and they had a lot of success, so…we were just sort of missing the boat slightly, if you know what I mean. Although we did keep going to America and doing well, we never really went coast to coast.
Rhino: Not to send this interview down the rabbit hole of name-calling, but given the way you’ve mentioned their name, I have to imagine that watching Def Leppard climb the charts had to at least result in a moment or two where you went, “Really? Really…? Those guys?”
SD: Well, Def Leppard come from more or less 10 miles from where I live now. They were very sort of young kids who were learning how to play their instruments when I first went to see them in a club. It was just a little small club, and they were just playing Thin Lizzy covers. And then they made their own record label, didn’t they – Bludgeon Riffola – and released an EP on that, and then…I think (their manager) Peter Mensch realized that they were five young, good-looking kids, and he paired them with Mutt Lange, and, y’know, that was it. It was just…manufactured metal. I mean, don’t get me wrong, good luck to anyone who can make a living in this industry. But there is quite a bit of luck, I think, involved in their story…and I think they’ve admitted it themselves.
Rhino: Your last stand as a proper member of Saxon was Innocence is No Excuse.
SD: That’s right, yeah. And it’s a funny thing, that, really, because – talking of Def Leppard – that’s where, for sort of dyed-in-the-wool heavy metal fans, we went wrong. Because our manager was jealous of Def Leppard because of the money, so he sort of talked us into going down that road, production-wise. Because it’s the production that makes the songs sound different on that record. It’s got that, like, Def Leppard production. It’s got loads of vocal harmonies and keyboards and big snare drums and stuff like that. The producer was a guy called Simon Hanhart, and it was his first really big record. And it was also the first time that, basically, the writing of the songs were split up into individual credits. On all previous records, no matter who wrote the songs, they were always credited to the band, because that was the way we agreed to do it. ‘Cause, obviously, some guys come up with more ideas than others, and then again some guy might not have an idea for two years and then just come up with a world-beater. That’s how it works. So we just thought, “We’ll just credit everything to everybody.” And it worked up to a certain period.
But then, towards the end of me in that band, there wasn’t really that…camaraderie, shall we say. It was guys going on holiday all the time, and I’m stuck at home writing all these songs, so I thought, “Well, I think I deserve to have ‘em credited to me!” So me and Bif Byford more or less wrote the lion’s share of the songs on Innocence is No Excuse, and…that really was probably the nail in the coffin for me. Why, I don’t know. But I’m really proud of some of the songs on that album. I mean, “Broken Hero” is probably my finest hour as a songwriter. And “Back on the Streets” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Gypsy” and Devil Rides Out” all were songs that me and Bif wrote. I dunno, it’s just… Without going into a down, it’s just one of those things that happens in bands. I mean, I’ve just watched that film Beware of Mr. Baker, and that just sort of sums up what happens in bands. It just happens. So I’m extremely proud of Innocence is No Excuse, but…I think it could’ve been a lot harder. Because I think the production is just watered down for the US. And also it’s a fucking crap cover. [Laughs.] A fucking bimbo with an apple. I mean, do me a favor…
Rhino: Of course, the fact that it ended up being Saxon’s highest charting album in the US probably only served to make your manager go, “Ha! Told ya!”
SD: Oh, yeah! ‘Cause that was the idea, to sort of crack America. But…I mean, you’re an American, and I’m from England, but it seems to me that if you just be yourself, that’s what America likes. I mean, look at Iron Maiden: they’ve never changed their sound one bit from the first to the last, and they’re a massive band. There’s a lot of bands from the UK who tried to crack America by trying to be American, and they failed. So in answer to that question, I’m proud of that album, and it’s got some great songs, but it just didn’t quite do it in the States, which is where it was aimed at.
Rhino: When the time came for your departure from Saxon, was that a mutual decision, or was it, uh, a decision that was made for you?
SD: Well, I’ll tell you the story. We’d done a world tour, we came home, and we were going out on two weeks’ holiday before we started writing some more songs for another album. I’d sort of been in dispute with the band over the producer, Gary Lyons, and he was sort of…washed up. In the business, it was well known that his ears had gone, and I thought, “There’s no way I’m having a fucking deaf producer on our next album!” I thought, “That’s being Spinal Tap for real!” “Oh, we got this great producer, he’s done the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple… Yeah, there’s just one catch, man.” “What’s that?” “He’s fucking deaf!” [Laughs.] I wanted Dieter Dierks to do it, who’d done the Scorpions’ Love at First Sting, but it didn’t work out.
Anyway, I’m home for two days, I get a phone call: “Can you come to London? Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. Can you be there for one o’clock tomorrow?” I said, “Yeah, no problem! I’ll ring Graham, and we’ll come down together.” He says, “Oh, no, we just want you to come down on your own!” So it was sort of an ego boost: I thought, “Oh, yeah, they want to talk about the producer! I might be getting somewhere!” So I get in me car, drive to London, I go into the coffee shop at Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, High Street, and a guy called Dave Coxon, who was one of our managers, and the other manager, Nigel Thomas, sat there. They order me a coffee, we start talking about albums and producers, and then Nigel Thomas just said, “Uh, there’s something more important that we should be talking about.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he says, “Your future in the band.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You haven’t got one. We’re firing you.” And that were it! That was the end of the story. I was just history in that one moment.
But I was sort of sad and relieved in one hit, if you can understand that. I went straight into recording with a guitarist who Phil Lynott had been working with just before he died, and we started making music. Everything was going great, I’d really been enjoying myself, and then all of a sudden the money stops and you end up in court. It all just sort of fizzled out then. I was just getting back to being a well-known musician, but I was broke! [Laughs.] Which is sort of a familiar story. So I just sort of bummed around a bit, and then after about two years, I just quit the music business. When it got to the point where the guys were turning up to take the house away and all me furniture, I just thought, “I’ve got to do something with real people instead of time-wasters.” So I just gave the music business up, really, and I became a stripper.
Not a stripper as in taking my clothes off. [Laughs.] Removing paint from objects! It’s still been a bit like Spinal Tap, though, because as I’m kind of a famous person, I used to get people coming asking for advice all the time. “How do you make it big in the music business? How do you do this? How do you do that?” And there was this guy who got an antique shop near where I lived, and he was from Liverpool, and he was a songwriter. Well, he wanted to be a songwriter. So he came ‘round, knocking on my door all the time with songs. “I’ve just wrote this song!” But the song would be like a bible! It’d be about two inches’ thick of lyrics! So I was telling him, “Look, forget all that lyrics stuff. Just get a cigarette packet, and you want a good chorus, and not much else. You don’t need all these lyrics.” It was like Bob Dylan times a hundred!
Anyway, this guy was living in this house, and he came up one day and said, “Right, I’m going to build a fish and chips shop on the side of my home!” [Laughs.] ‘Cause he lived next door to a factory, and he thought, “All these guys want something to eat, so I’m going to make this fish and chips shop!” And I just said, “Oh, yeah, okay.” But then I drove past his house one day, and there was all these guys building this fish and chips shop! So he come by one day, and he said, “Do you want my antique shop? ‘Cause I’m making that much money with fish and chips that I can’t have the antique shop anymore.” I said, “Okay!” He says, “Just sell the stuff and pay me when it’s sold.” But part of the business was stripping furniture, getting paint off it.
So I had the shop for a bit, and because I live in a place that’s surrounded by fields, I decided to do it at home. I was just making a fortune! Finally, the bank manager got me in one day, ‘cause I were paying all this cash into the bank, and he thought I were selling drugs! [Laughs.] So that went from there to people saying, “Can you make me a table to go with these chairs that you’ve just taken the paint off?” It just went from nothing to massive in about 12 months, and I ended up having a massive factory with, like, 50 men in it, and having a good time! I bought two brand new Jaguars and just discovered that you can still have a good time even if you’re not in a rock band! In fact, I found out that there’s more people who take drugs and stuff like that are not in the music business. You know, in the successful business world, all that hedonism – cocaine and everything – there’s more in that side of the world than rock music!
So all this is going very well, and then I get a phone call…and it’s Graham! And I’d forgotten about Graham Oliver and the rest of ‘em. They were just not on my mind. So I said, “Graham who?” And he says, “Graham Oliver!” I said, “What do you want?” Being a bit hostile. And he said, “Well, uh, I’ve got some money for you, if you want it.” So straight away I’m interested. [Laughs.] And he said, “Well, are you interested in a band with me and Pete Gill and a singer called Ted Bullet?” Ted had been in a German band called Thunderhead, and he’s a brilliant singer. So it all started there. We went back to the name Son of a Bitch and made an album called Victim You.
But more or less from the first moment that I got back involved with Graham… Within a few weeks, I’d gotten a solicitor’s letter in the box, and that more or less went on for a long time, so we ended up in the High Court in London and settled it, and…you can say it went downhill from there. [Laughs.] Subsequently, the furniture business… I had a partner, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we’ve since split, and then four years ago I quit the furniture, so I’m back to full time music now…and luckily, because I wrote some successful songs, I can survive! Sometimes it’s a bother, sometimes it’s not. I mean, sometimes if you’re not working with a band you can start drinking quite heavily. What I’m saying is, thank God for Wheels of Steel! [Laughs.]
Rhino: In regards to Destiny – and I’ll ask this question in a diplomatic manner, since you’re not actually on the album, but it is part of this box set – if you had still been in the band, do you think Saxon would’ve covered Christopher Cross?
SD: Uh, well, I would’ve objected to it, for a start, because I wouldn’t have thought of doing that song. It’s not… Christopher Cross just ain’t on my radio waves at all. That sort of music is just for being in the lift or being in the supermarket. It’s musical spew. Do you know what I’m saying? [Laughs.] But…I have got some songwriting credits on that album.
Rhino: Do you? Maybe so. But they’re not mentioned on Wikipedia or the All Music Guide.
SD: Well, you’re probably right. I know there were some songs I had a hand in writing that was on some album that came after I left.
Rhino: Oh, on Rock the Nations, you’re credited with co-writer…
SD: “Northern Lady” was it.
Rhino: Um...no, actually, “Running Hot.”
SD: Yeah, that’s right. So, I mean, I just think if I’d been in the band…and this is probably why I’m not in the band! [Laughs.] I would’ve objected to working with that producer, because to my mind, producers can ruin bands quite easily by bullying the musicians. Because let’s face it: if there’s no band, there’s no producer. But when the producer comes in, if he’s, like, a big-time Charlie, the band seems to be the least important part of the production. You get producers who are, like, if the guitarist can’t get the solo, “Oh, we’ll get somebody who can!” If the drummer can’t keep time? “We’ll use a drum machine!”
Rock music is not supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to be a bit rough ‘round the edges. And my outlook is that you’ve got to get the performance out of the band. And that’s what you’re trying to get down on tape or ProTools or whatever you’re using. That’s what you’re trying for. You’re not trying to pick on people and make them go into their shell. Because as soon as somebody starts pulling you off after one or two takes, you start to go into your shell. You’re, like, “Well, rather than play to my best ability and be on the edge and be a bit dangerous…” So you go safe, you just get through it with no mistakes, but what you get is just a flat performance. A machine might as well have played it, because that’s how you’ve played: like a machine.
To be in perfect time, all the time, is not really possible if you’re playing music that’s a bit wild. Now, maybe if you’re playing Christopher Cross…or REO Speedwagon! Let’s get them in there, they’re crap! [Laughs.] You know, you can play that sort of laid-back kind of thing, but if you’re supposed to be a heavy-metal rock band your mum’s scared of, then you should be going for it! I mean, I take my hat off to Motorhead and Lemmy. Them guys just go for it every time. What I’m saying is that the producer’s job is to get the band down. If he has to work a bit harder, then he has to. So in answer to your question, if I hadn’t been kicked out after Innocence, I’d definitely have been chucked out by that one! I might be coming across as an awkward guy, but I’m not. I just want what’s right…and you’ve got to stand up for your beliefs, haven’t you?
Rhino: Lastly, if you had to pick one album from your time with the band as the Saxon album, which one would it be?
SD: Well, it’s got to be Wheels of Steel, for a number of reasons: 1) it was utterly and totally enjoyable to make; 2) it was successful, and that’s what we wanted as a band; and 3), it pays my mortgage. [Laughs.] Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of all the others. But if I’ve got to pick one, it’s got to be Wheels of Steels…and if you asked all the members of the band, I’d be very surprised if they said any different. Because the band was a true band then. Everyone was having a laugh. If somebody came into the studio and knocked one guy down, they’d have to knock all the other four as well. We used to have a motto: “You kick us down, we get up again and kick you back.” We were like the Musketeers: all for one, and one for all!