By Martin Popoff
Having undergone emergency triple bypass surgery in September, Saxon frontman Biff Byford certainly didn’t want to be celebrating the release of his first solo album with aches and pains and a compromised constitution. But such is life when you’ve gone through the school of hard knocks, which is not so coincidentally the name of the man’s bracing and expertly paced new record.
“Coming along all right, getting a bit stronger, you know,” begins Biff, willing to talk about his proud new baby—he blames his brush with death on smoking when he was younger, but then again, nearly 50 years in bands (and 42 of those in Saxon, previously known as Son of a Bitch)… Biff has had his share of second-hand smoke as well.
As alluded to, Biff experienced a tough upbringing, up in Northern England, Barnsley, Yorkshire area. Mom died at 11 and dad was a violent alcoholic. What’s more, when Biff was 15, his 16-year-old girlfriend was suddenly with child, prompting a marriage which predictably crumbled. All this at least gave us a triumphant song of hope, the record’s flagship title track, which is only a hair more Saxon-inspiring than world-beating opener, “Welcome to the Show.” However, both are a little more straight-ahead hard-rocking than what Saxon might do, which is balanced by a tough middle core of the record that is as mad-as-a-hatter Saxon all the way.
“Well, I wrote that song a couple of years ago, ‘School of Hard Knocks,’” explains the 68-year-old Byford. “It’s a great title and I like the sort of sentiment behind it. It’s definitely autobiographical. I came from a working-class background. It wasn’t easy, very poor, but it wasn’t unhappy, if you know what I mean. I was quite happy in my childhood—I think I was, anyway. But we had a lot of problems and tribulations, like you do with a working-class background. And I saw the album cover (a painting by John Hanley), which sort of sums up where I came from, really—the industrial north. All the factories along the streets and brick houses, that’s basically where I was brought up. So yeah, both the track and the album cover are a bit autobiographical.”
“I would think ’65, ’66, something like that,” answers Biff, asked when he was bitten by the rock bug. Unsurprisingly, it was seen as an escape from working in heavy industry—Biff was first a guitarist then a bassist then a singing bassist then a full-on front man.
“Generally working-class jobs, really, that was my future at the time,” reflects Byford. “Places that my friends worked in, the mines and the factories. I wanted something different, something to try to move out of that cycle of working in factories. My friend’s brother was in a band, and we used to go and watch them rehearse, and then I really got into it. We were buying singles in the ’60s, from The Kinks and people like this, The Rolling Stones. We were rock fans, back in the day. We liked the rockier stuff and weren’t really into sort of soul music, although blues music was quite popular with us as well. But it was my friend’s brother that taught me some guitar—just like the song says, really.”
Biff indeed plays the bass on that one, while Phil Campbell of Motörhead contributes the guitar solo. As well, it was written by Biff on guitar, and Biff played bass on all of the record’s demos.
“We both miss Lemmy,” muses Biff, asked about Phil—Saxon’s first big break was touring with Motörhead on that band’s Bomber campaign. “Obviously, Phil was touring with Motörhead, so I’m sure he misses all that as well. Because they were a hard touring band, definitely. So yeah, we miss him and we think about him a lot. I’m sure he’s coping okay. He’s got his solo album out, and he’s with his son—his son is in the band, so I think he’s pretty busy.”
As alluded, there’s pure heavy metal on School of Hard Knocks as well. “Sure, I suppose two or three of the songs could’ve been on a Saxon album, definitely, especially ‘Hearts of Steel.’ But it’s just a collection of different styles of music I like, including metal music and sort of softer music and folk music, just a good cross-section of stuff that I write. I’m only a Saxon guy when I’m in Saxon. When I’m not in Saxon I like all types of music. And it’s only to be expected on a solo album that I’m going to do something a little bit unusual as far as Saxon’s concerned. There are the cover versions of the two songs plus a song about my 25th anniversary with my wife. And the other sort of lighter one, ‘Black and White,’ is just about, you know, things running you down but you try to stay up (laughs). Which is what quite a lot of my lyrics are about, like ‘Never Surrender’ or ‘Stand Up and Be Counted.’ But musically, it’s not metal, obviously.”
The covers Biff refers to are Wishbone Ash’s “Throw Down the Sword” and the traditional “Scarborough Fair,” best known through its Simon & Garfunkel rendition.
“Wishbone Ash was really influential in my early years,” says Biff. “I loved their melody; I loved their lyrics and things. It’s a bit of a battle song, and I suppose it inspired me to go down the road of writing quite historic songs. Also, they were the first band I heard doing the twin lead guitars, which was quite interesting. And ‘Scarborough Fair’ is a Yorkshire song. It’s about a small sea town in Scarborough, basically, and I only live about 30 minutes away from Scarborough. It’s a Yorkshire folk song that’s 200 or 300 years old. So it’s a song I knew when I was a boy—we used to sing it in school.”
Elsewhere there’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which Biff describes as prog, although it’s pretty damn metal as well.
“I was a huge prog fan,” explains Biff. “Yes and Genesis and all of the bands, really, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Saxon’s first album definitely had prog elements. Me and Paul (Quinn, guitar) were huge prog fans. Some of the songs are from the band before Saxon that me and Paul had together called Coast. So there are a few proggy things on there that were obviously longer when me and Paul played them originally. But yeah, obviously the first two tracks aren’t like that: ‘Welcome to the Show’ and ‘School of Hard Knocks’ are more classic sort of rock songs. I love AC/DC so they are more in that style. And then, sure, it goes into a more proggy and metal style. But I like them all, really. They’ve all got something special.”
And to reiterate, again, there’s something about that fine art album cover painting that puts a homey spin on the record in totality. “Sure, well, like I say, the album cover sums up my early childhood. It’s a street, a British street, probably in Yorkshire. It’s got the steam train in there, it’s got a factory. So it really says something about where I came from. And I just thought it was a good album cover to put out, even though it’s not a metal cover. Even so, I think it’s a great cover, definitely something fresh.”