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Saxon

Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie DVD

Review by Mike Korn

A world class band deserves a world class DVD tribute and Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie is absolutely worthy of Saxon. The boys from Barnsley are genuinely one of England's greatest exports and in terms of hard work, showmanship and song craft, they don't have to take a backseat to anybody, even Maiden and Priest.

This huge two-DVD pack is everything a Saxon fan could dream of and is such a work of quality that I recommend it even to people who know nothing about the band. It's right up there with Beyond The Lighted Stage, the great Rush documentary released a couple of years ago. It covers the band honestly, warts and all, from their beginnings as Son of a Bitch all through the hard years and shakeups of the early 90s to the band's resurgence late in that decade and their current triumphant position. It provides some brutally honest interview with current and former members of the band, as well as producers, managers and admiring members of other acts.

The first DVD is really the one to catch. It will take you back to the glory days of the NWOBHM, as metal first really began to rise in England and shake off the punk movement. It was a different era, one of vinyl records, no internet, grimy pubs in British manufacturing towns and a time when a band could make a real dent in the music industry if they stuck to their guns. I have tremendous fondness for the early days of Saxon and I think it is pretty fair to say that the records Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather have a certain unarguable feel of working class Britain that has never really been equaled, even though Saxon's current output is very strong, That was the band's classic line up of singer Biff Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver, bassist Steve "Dobby" Dawson and drummer Pete Gill. There are great interviews with everybody but Gill here. Byford explains how he used rock music to escape working the mines where he grew up ("a terrible place"). The band struggles and starves through their early years as Son of A Bitch before changing their name to Saxon and getting a recording contract. It's great listening to the stories of the metal scene in late 70s/early 80s Britain. Former band manager Dave Poxon has some pretty hilarious descriptions of Saxon..."they looked like a bunch of hod carriers, not a proper band.” He also describes Byford as a "rocket-propelled squid" and describes with awe the band's obsession with drinking English tea.

The band became hugely popular in Europe but their management became obsessed with making them just as huge in America. New manager Nigel Thomas hooked them up with REO Speedwagon producer Kevin Beamish for Crusader, a turning point for the band. Steve Dawson vehemently protested the more commercial style Saxon was taking up and combined with a newfound cocaine habit, he got himself kicked out of the band. Dobby comes across as a very likable character in the documentary, a small town boy who just got screwed up by the music industry. He talks about the decision to quit the industry completely and go back to the labor exchange in his hometown, where he got ribbed by people he left behind. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he laments and you can really see his sadness in leaving the rock and roll life behind.

In the early 90s, Graham Oliver got kicked out of the band for trying to get profits from a bootleg album without the knowledge of the other members. It's sad to hear Oliver talk of leaving the band, as well and his Northern English brogue is a marvel to listen to. He had accidentally cut off the joint of one of his fingers earlier and credited Paul Quinn and Tony Iommi (who suffered a similar mishap) with helping him learn to play again. During one of the most plaintive moments on the DVD, Oliver says "All I want to do with the time I've got left is enjoy some of my legacy with Saxon in peace.” He and Dobby tried to put together their own version of Saxon which was crushed by the "real" Saxon in court. Byford comes across as something of a hard man when talking about his former mates, but every band has its general and its pretty clear that Byford calls the major shots in Saxon.

The DVD follows the band through the low years of the early 90s, where they struggled with a reputation of being "has-beens.” Following the death of manager Nigel Thomas ("he probably inhaled too much money", remarks Byford), we see Saxon start to slowly pull itself back together, getting new bassist Nibbs Carter and new guitarist Doug Scarrat into place. They then slowly began to put together a string of strong metal albums like Metal Head, Unleash the Beast and Killing Ground. By the early 2000s, Saxon had managed a hard fought resurrection of their career and on mainland Europe, they seemed to be just as popular as they were in the 1980s.

This is a classic rock and roll story and the first DVD tells it all with no punches pulled. This is one of the best heavy metal documentaries on the market and a fascinating watch. The first DVD alone makes this well worth purchasing, but we get a second DVD which fleshes things out even more. The highlights here are two concert performances at opposite ends of time. There's a great nostalgic 1981 concert performance on the German "Beat Club" TV show where the young Saxon, just starting to hit it really big, play full blast in front of a crowd of seated and rather bemused German hipsters. The crowd didn't make a difference, they cranked out the metal with fury and a younger Byford looks really loose and gawky in his shiny silver pants. The second concert is held 27 years later, in 2008, in London on St. George's Day and is surely one of the best live metal gigs ever committed to film. The improvement in Byford's stage presence and vocals from the early days is astonishing and although I will always love the Oliver-Dawson days of Saxon, it's obvious that Carter and Scarratt are superb entertainers and musicians. The love and admiration coming from the crowd during this show is palpable, you almost feel as if you were there.

The concert footage is a standout, but there's a nice mini-documentary about the close relationship between Saxon and Motorhead, with the two grand old men of British metal, Lemmy and Byford, comfortably trading jabs and memories. We also get a very interesting studio documentary done at the time of the recording of Crusader where you can kind of feel some of the tension that was starting to trouble the band. Not so good is a similar studio doc done during the No Excuse for Innocence days and it just further confirms that this was Saxon at one of their low points, supporting perhaps their poorest album. Rounding things out is a look at the making of the Into the Labyrinth album in 2009, which is not exactly a gripping viewing but a nice contrast to the earlier studio documentaries.

This whole package is absolutely essential and a complete no-brainer for anybody who enjoys Saxon, British metal or quality rock documentaries. It is highly recommended!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

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