Thirty five years ago, Peter “Biff” Byford was there at the formation of the band Son Of A Bitch, soon to become Saxon, and soon after that to become one of the most enduring and admired of all British heavy metal bands, right up there with the likes of Iron Maiden and Motorhead. I was lucky enough to get an audience with Biff at the tail end of 2010, at the Hard Rock hell festival in Prestatyn, and with the release of the bands 19 th studio album, “Call To Arms”, out next month it seemed the right tie to share the fruits of the interview.
One word that accurately described Biff Byford is ‘solid’. He sits on a plastic chair, going through the motions of interview after interview, friendly but always with a look that says he is not someone to be fucked with. Mind you, he’s so respected within the rock world that it’s unlikely he gets treated with anything other than polite reverence from journalists and fans alike. Saxon are at the top of the bill this weekend, and deservedly so, having also played the inaugural Hard Rock Hell weekend in 2007 with Twisted Sister.
Although I have a million questions burning in my brain, I introduce myself by telling him that Saxon were the first band I ever saw. “We get that quite a bit,” he says with a smile. Rather than delve into band stuff, I decide to get personal, saying that it’s always bugged me that some people pronounce his last name “Bifford”, and some “Bye-ford”, and that it really would be nice to get it right. “Bye-ford” he confirms, probably wondering who this joker is and wondering what mental hospital I’ve escaped from. I ask where the “Biff” part came from, as it was something not covered in his otherwise excellent autobiography, ‘Never Surrednder‘. “ My brother was called Biff at school“ he says. “It just sounds good, I suppose. Maybe he was a big hitter."
Although these days a pretty hard assed metal band (although still with great melody), Saxon had a few hits in the 80’s, a period which saw them join many other bands in ‘glamming up’ a bit. I ask Biff if this ever bothered him. “We didn't really have a problem with it,” he says with a shrug. “We just rolled with it. Everybody was doing that in the 80's, I think it was more to get laid." So did it work? "Yeah! Girls liked blokes who looked more like girls for some reason... maybe it's the lesbian aspect, I don't know, but you get a bit of hairspray and a bit of make up and you get laid more often."
I point out that his voice sees to be just as strong and clear as it was back then, and ask if he ever did anything in particular to keep it that way. "I didn't take drugs in the Eighties, in that big period where they were freely available (Note: Biff has never taken drugs at any other time either). I didn't drink a lot - that was really important, It was more sex I was into - I used to go off with a few groupies and that was my thing, I didn't need anything else."
We touch on the aforementioned autobiography, and I ask what it was made him decide that it was the right time to write it. "It's a bit like the new DVD (the ‘Heavy Metal Thunder‘ documentary), I think it puts a full stop on some things that needed to be told. That whole history of Saxon, because the management were very secretive, has never been told, so I think it had to be told, really."
Part of that history is the emergence of former (and founder) members Steve Dawson and Graham Oliver as ‘Oliver/Dawson Saxon’, a moniker they adopted in 2000 after a few years as Son Of A Bitch. Legal actions were taken, unsurprisingly. “Well, we stopped it because they were calling themselves Saxon,” Biff explains when I ask him for details. “So we got an injunction against that, and they asked us if they could call themselves Oliver/Dawson Saxon and we said Well, if the Oliver/Dawson is as big as the Saxon then fair enough (it never fuckin' is, obviously). They have to make a living, I don't see why we should mash them into the ground for talking - I'm not into that. I just think it's a bit unfair to leave the band in 1986 and then come back in, what, 2001 expecting to use the name."
I ask Biff how he feels about Saxon’s current sound, which to me is the heaviest they’ve ever been. ? "We've always been heavy - we even wrote a song called 'Heavy Metal Thunder",” he exclaims. “I mean, how much heavier can you get? 'Motorcycle Man', 'To Hell And Back Again'... a lot of those songs were full on heavy metal. We've always tried to tread a line between heavy songs and more commercial songs, and that's what we still do now. We went away from that a bit, went a bit commercial, and now we're back to where our hearts really are. We really love the darker side of our music, we love doing the anthemic things that thousands of people can sing." Indeed, I point out that it’s quite a feat to still be going strong after all this time. “Being around so long is a great achievement,” he agrees. “Being alive so long is a great achievement! I just think the quality of music is still high. If were just writing a few funky rock songs and living on the strength of our back catalogue it would be sad, although our back catalogue is massively strong. We still love writing and making great music."
It seems that Saxon are still proud to be flying the flag for British Metal, standing up and being counted time and time again. "I think we stand for never surrendering,” sums up Biff. “We stand for a style of music that we helped create, and we're still playing it. We've had a hard time in the Nineties, everyone did. It was all 'Dinosaur' this, and we just said fuck you! Our fans stayed loyal and got us through. It's only a dip in the press, on profile level - we've really not had that many dips in audiences. You just play smaller places and sell them out, rather than bigger places that are empty."
With this, my short slot is over, and I’, shuffled out of the door so the next journo can come in. You get to meet a lot of people in this job, but like sex, it’s your first that you will never forget, and even though it’s taken 26 years I’m glad to have shaken the hand of the guy that popped my live music cherry all those years ago. Cheers Biff, and long may you continue…