Saxon – Wheels of Steel

Saxon - Wheels of Steel (1980)
Saxon – Wheels of Steel (1980)

Back in the 70s and 80s a lot seemed to happen in a short time. Following their 1979 debut album, Saxon were forced to find new management, bagged a high-profile (if slightly scary) support slot on Motörhead’s Bomber tour and managed to record one of the all-time classic metal albums; all in the space of a year. See what can happen when you don’t have the internet distracting you? In 1980 the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was picking up serious momentum with bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Angel Witch and Diamond Head all releasing their debut albums. In addition to, and inspired by, the NWOBHM scene older Metal acts like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were upping their game and releasing classic albums of their own.

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Saxon entered the competitive climate of the year as a more seasoned unit than most of their NWOBHM competition: already on their second album with a strong, settled and experienced line-up that was now gelling as a unified songwriting team. The musical indecision of their debut was gone, the proggy, glammy elements removed in favour of straight-up, raw and abrasive metal. Their second album Wheels of Steel was a near-flawless set of gritty metal anthems performed with pride and conviction. Much of the album follows the direction set by the debut’s classic Stallions of the Highway: up-tempo, racing tunes like Motorcycle Man, Machine Gun and Freeway Mad have driving Motör-rhythm, hollering vocals and hooligan riffing expertly spiced up with ringing chords and hot soloing from guitarists Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn. The title track is simple, headbanging swagger with a great singalong chorus. Elsewhere, Stand Up and be Counted engagingly sets out the group’s working-class stall, See the Light Shining has a clever change in direction half-way through and it is hard to imagine any of Saxon’s contemporaries even attempting the yearning quality of Suzie Hold On.

The undoubted highlight of the album, however, is the classic 747 (Strangers in the Night). It’s one of Saxon’s greatest and most enduring songs: combining unforgettable melodic riffs and leads with a taut, expressive Biff Byford vocal and dramatic lyrics depicting Scandinavian 101’s perilous flight. One of those great moments of creativity that makes you wonder where it came from and why no-one came up with it before.

Wheels of Steel is a class-act from start to finish. It deservedly shot Saxon to the front of the NWOBHM pack and posed a serious challenge to the established metal acts of the day as Saxon enjoyed hit singles, a Top of the Pops appearance and a spot on the first Monsters of Rock festival bill at Castle Donington. In a fertile and competitive era in metal, Saxon had what it took to stand up and be counted, releasing not just a classic NWOBHM album but a classic and timeless metal album full-stop. It remains their most well-known release, many of its tracks still featuring in the band’s sets today. Keeping in mind that this was the early 80s, their fans wouldn’t have to wait long to find out how Saxon would, or if they could, follow it. In just four months, Saxon would be back. Many bands released classic albums in 1980. Saxon released two.

HMO Rating: 5 out of 5

[Saxon – 747 (Strangers in the Night)]

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58 thoughts on “Saxon – Wheels of Steel”

    1. You really should give them a go. I was skeptical for years, but these last two years I’ve been hammering the classic Saxon albums constantly… such good records. You can get em all in boxsets too for really cheap. There’s a boxset of the first 7 or one of the first 5.

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Original-Album-Series-Saxon/dp/B00GJZBPNG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415616438&sr=8-1&keywords=saxon+original+album+series

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Carrere-Years-1979-1984-Saxon/dp/B0079043T8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415616446&sr=8-1&keywords=saxon+years

      Also there’s another one of their mid-years but I haven’t heard anything later than their 7th album yet to know whether to recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Totally banging album, that’s spot on!

        KCP’s right Mike, you should really give them a go. But, because I know you like your bonus tracks, both these sets are great value but they are really light on bonus tracks compared to the individual editions that I’ve got. But if you just want the albums both of the Carrere sets look great.

        As far as post 7th album goes… there was a bit of a lull for a couple of albums but some of their best albums have been their later ones and even the “bad” Saxon albums have brilliant tracks. I can’t wait to be going through the later years’ albums.

        How do you like Innocence Is No Excuse?

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      2. Yes BUT…

        As Scott knows, with me it’s always “SHOW ME THE BONUS TRACKS!”

        Even if it’s a band I’m only checking out for the first time, I never buy anything without the bonus goodies. Because if I like it, I’ll just want them anyway.

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  1. Great review! I can still hear Biff on The Eagle Has Landed saying Sheeeeeees Got what??? Hammmmmmmermith! Never owned this one my collection darted at Denim and Leather…..but man good to see you reviewing this stuff..brings back a ton of memories!

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  2. I only have one Saxon album here, on cassette (Denim And Leather), but your write up here makes me wanna yell SAXON!!

    As for this album, you had me at “The musical indecision of their debut was gone, the proggy, glammy elements removed in favour of straight-up, raw and abrasive Metal.”

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      1. Hmmm good question…I have never been a big lyrics guy ….. I like Avenged Sevenfolds music but every song Ive heard seems to be about suicide…and downers. Thats the first band that comes to mind.

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      1. I’ve only really started exploring metal a bit more. Colleague of mine has been shining some light on stuff I would never have thought to listen to. Some of it has really appealed more than others. So we’ll see how this one goes!

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      2. So far I’ve been digging a lot of it. A good mix o’ stuff from Pantera, Maiden (I had briefly flirted with Maiden in the early 90s, but drifted to more ‘exciting’ alternative sounds), Danzig, Dio … and Shrinebuilder. Haven’t so much enjoyed Doom, though.

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  3. Unsurprisingly, I love these albums, and I’ve been afforded the honour of singing these songs live with Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson. I can’t even describe the feeling of opening a show with ‘The Power and the Glory” – belting that out next to Graham’s mighty riffage is akin to feeling Godlike! I still maintain the Oliver /Quinn guitar attack is far superior to the later Scarratt/Quinn years, but then, I’m biased! I actually envy anyone discovering these classic metal discs for the first time, and in fact, I might get that box set anyway!

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    1. I was hoping to hear from you about this Saxon stuff Kev, knowing that you have some insider knowledge ha ha! Playing with Oliver and Dawson must have been a great experience. I do prefer Oliver/Quinn too but Scarratt is a tasty player. I think the original guitar team just came up with some more memorable solos. And Dawson’s contribution has always been overlooked I think. I reckon he was a huge part of the band’s soul and songwriting. I think they must have really felt his absence for a long time.

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  4. Thanks man! We’re hoping to have the follow up to ‘Axe to Grind’ out this year! It’s pretty much written anyway! \m/ Yes..Steve is a huge part of the songwriting of the early hits. I’d say that he, plus Graham’s memorable riffs, defined their early sound and success. You’re right about Scarratt though, he ‘s a great player.

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    1. That’s great news! I’ll look forward to that.

      The original Saxon lineup had such a great chemistry together. You don’t get that very often. I think the modern Saxon is really strong though but the early (Gill and the first Glockler era too) lineups were unique and special.

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