There once was this heavy metal band that preferred tea over whiskey, so much they had boxes of it shipped from England on their first jaunt through the United States way back when. The band was SAXON and they may not have had a taste for American tea, but as history reveals, they had a yearning to ram their native Union Jack up the bums of their bratty brethren across the pond. So much, the desire to break out of their fruitful UK habitat nearly destroyed SAXON on their quest for global success.
You might consider this the premise of "Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie", a punchy and honest recount of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends whose story is long overdue. The mighty SAXON continues to rage proudly through a long succession of impossibly heavy albums this deep into their careers, beginning with 1995's "Dogs of War" and rolling into recent days with "Into the Labyrinth" and "Call to Arms". This lengthy examination of the band will present better insight (for better and worse) into the ascension of a heavy metal juggernaut and how ego, mismanagement and trend-hopping divided segments of the classic SAXON lineup and nearly put the band to rest altogether.
Trailing the band from their working class roots in Yorkshire, England, "Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie" relays stories of how the former SON OF A BITCH evolved into SAXON, sleeping on dirty mattresses at fans' shacks and shagging groupies in the back of their van from town-to-roughneck-town during their formative years. SAXON recorded the original demos for their metal masterpiece "Wheels of Steel" in a shoddy studio filled with mouse dung. Coupled with a climate of political and social upheaval in the UK prior to the album's release in 1980, it's no wonder "Wheels of Steel" transcended the '79 self-titled debut with such ferocity, staking SAXON's claim to a rock 'n roll market growing heavier by the minute back in the day.
As the demand for SAXON's punishing style of metallic mayhem grew, inevitably so too would the in-house friction once the band ventured east towards the glitzy glam parade of Los Angeles. On the heels of a step-by-step implosion, three of SAXON's core members would be wiped clean. Say what you will about SAXON ever since. Their metal hearts are always in the right place and seldom few traditional-minded metal bands can compete with their enduring professionalism. Yet SAXON carries a stigma that's hashed out in this film and there's a price to be paid, fan-wise, for the revelations brought forth.
"Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie" presents apposite viewpoints of the band's career from Biff Byford and Paul Quinn on one end of the spectrum, the long-lost Steve Dawson and Graham Oliver on the other. For a while, the tone is reverential as each member reflects on the band's glory days and specifically targets SAXON's yeoman tour with MOT?RHEAD on the latter's "Bomber" cycle as a breakout period.
The more "Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie" digs and probes, however, we're forced to acknowledge that rifts and wounds gush as they ever have and this leaves an intentionally somber air that almost negates the cathartic position of the movie. SAXON carries on today with honor musically-speaking, having weathered adversity and a handful of dismissible albums from the mid-Eighties to early Nineties. It's that period of awkward transition which found Steve Dawson voicing his displeasure at SAXON's surrender to Hairball Hell and which found him sacked from the group. Later, the band would put Graham Oliver on the street in a dispute over leaked tapes of the band's renowned Donington gig from 1980. To this day, the sores continue to ooze pus and that makes for a compelling spectacle, yet it also leaves extra density upon the heart when you go back and listen to the blistering magic of "Saxon", "Wheels of Steel", "Denim and Leather", "Strong Arm of the Law", and, depending on which side of the fence you sit on, "Crusader".
Added to the teeming interview guest list (which includes former managers plus current members Doug Scarratt and Nigel Glocker) are Lemmy Kilmister, Phil Campbell, Mikkey Dee and "Fast" Eddie Clarke from MOT?RHEAD plus Lars Ulrich from METALLICA. Ulrich is especially amusing in his recount of the first time he saw SAXON live, much less opened up for them in METALLICA. Stay tuned for a hilarious story regarding METALLICA and Biff Byford's stage fan, as well as a more recent snippet of Byford singing "Motorcycle Man" with them. Kickass stuff we'd like to see in full.
For all of the suppressive drama presented by the film, the aesthetic and audile joy comes on the second disc filled with hours of behind-the-scenes traipsing, interviews and recording outtakes from "Crusader", "Innocence Is No Excuse" and "Into the Labyrinth", plus two live shows showcasing opposite ends of SAXON's career. The "St. George's Day, 2008" concert reveals the perpetual power of SAXON in the new millennium, but the entire project's moment of supremacy comes via "Saxon On the Beat Club, 1980." The latter contains a near-hour set of vintage SAXON cuts featuring the halcyon lineup of Biff Byford, Paul Quinn, Steve Dawson, Graham Oliver and Pete Gill. Cleaned up beautifully for modern presentation, this concert is full-on energy. SAXON fans old and new will delight in this rare opportunity to see "Heavy Metal Thunder", "Wheels of Steel", "Strong Arm of the Law", "Machine Gun", "747 (Strangers in the Night)", "Frozen Rainbow", "100 Years", "Show Me the Way", "The Band Played On" and others at a maniacal tilt by the original players.
It's not so much a case of what might've been to the story of SAXON. Doug Scarratt, Nigel Glocker and Nibbs Carter have filled their roles with valiance and tenacity, principal reasons why SAXON continues to flourish and why they still matter in metal music today. However, now that certain truths have come about (one being that they're not wholly tea-totallers), there remains a smudge on the resume of these genre titans. Had they never veered towards the commercial pastures their peers reaped with far more lucrativeness, who knows what SAXON might've achieved through that lackluster period? On the other hand, it could be said SAXON came out a much stronger unit having learned their brutal lessons.
As a postscript, this review was written over a cup of PG Tips.
- Ray Van Horn, Jr.