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.
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