The “classic trilogy” of Saxon albums that culminated with Denim and Leather had been a commercial and critical success. The band was poised for the big-time and a live album was proposed as just the thing to launch them to the level of the stupidly successful. But in order to do a live album, you need a tour and with only two days to go before the opening show of their Denim and Leather trek of the UK and Europe (with no less than Ozzy’s Blizzard supporting), their drummer Pete Gill was out of the band due to a hand injury. It was a disaster on the eve of such a critical and massive tour.
Enter Nigel Glockler: a friend of the band’s manager David Poxon. Nigel was drumming for Toyah at that point but was a hard-hitter with prog chops and a love of metal. Remarkably, in less than two days he was able to learn and perform Saxon’s entire 19-song set and kept the show on the road until Gill recovered, even performing at a show he had originally bought a ticket to see!* By the time Gill was able to return, Saxon had decided to hold on to Glockler as their full-time tub-thumper. So, as if learning 19 songs in two days wasn’t enough, Nigel would be appearing on the band’s hotly-anticipated first live album. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.
19,320 teabags later the Denim and Leather tour was over and The Eagle Has Landed live album hit the shelves in May 1982. It captures the sweaty, beery atmosphere of a NWOBHM-era gig. Saxon sound enthusiastic, tireless and tight. Each member is at the top of their game. Biff sings with charismatic energy and throws in some choice banter (“I wanna see people dying from exhaustion”) and the chemistry of the Oliver/Quinn guitar duo is palpable with the choppy, jousting guitars panned to each side. The rhythm section steals the show though: Glockler’s expressive, precision drumming charges the music with a fresh dynamism and, with his forceful, driving bass playing, Steve Dawson proves to be the pumping heart and soul of the band, especially on the faster numbers like Heavy Metal Thunder.
Saxon’s surfeit of brilliant material easily justified a lavish double-LP set but, unfortunately, Saxon’s label Carrere skimped and whittled it down to a miserly single album. Classic songs like And the Bands Played On, Denim and Leather, Frozen Rainbow and Dallas 1pm are inexplicably missing.** It’s a missed opportunity but the tracks we do get are hardly filler. The first side is absolutely top-drawer, opening with three of Saxon’s transport tunes: Motorcycle Man, 747(Strangers in the Night) and the definitive version of Princess of the Night. Side 2 falters slightly with some weaker song choices in 20,000ft and Never Surrender but Wheels of Steel is a victorious joy with a chummy singalong led by the charming Byford and the album closes explosively as Fire In the Sky and Machine Gun fly by in a furious blur culminating in wild guitar pyro and double-bass drumming.
The Eagle Has Landed manages to be essential and frustrating all at once. The performances are stellar, many of them definitive and it’s a great introduction to the band (I can personally vouch for that). It continued Saxon’s commendable run of hits in Europe but the omission of vital tracks stopped it being the career-boosting milestone or the all-time classic it should have been. But, nevertheless, it’s a street-level, no-holds barred barrage of an album that atmospherically and honestly captures a gritty and exciting time in metal history. And that’s worth the price of entry alone. It also marks the end of an era for Saxon: by the time The Eagle Has Landed hit the shelves a fellow British metal band had stolen their thunder, taking the NWOBHM to a massively successful and chart-topping conclusion. Saxon were no longer the scene leaders: their number was up. The number was six hundred and sixty six.
*Nigel has never received a refund for his ticket.
**This wasted opportunity has been satisfyingly rectified with the 2006 CD Reissue which adds six recordings from the era as bonus tracks. Still no Denim and Leather though.