Saxon – Rock the Nations (Review)

Saxon - Rock the Nations (1986)
Saxon – Rock the Nations (1986)

Saxon had aimed for the big time with the slick, streamlined Innocence Is No Excuse but fell short. The band put on a positive face, pointing to their improved US chart placings and successful tour but the album was basically an expensive flop. So for their follow-up, 1986’s Rock the Nations, Saxon went back to basics and recorded quickly and cheaply with producer Gary Lyons. Minus departed bassist Steve Dawson, vocalist Biff Byford took on the bass-playing duties for the recording of the album.* It would be the first and only Saxon album recorded by a four-piece.

Well, except the songs that have got Elton John playing on them.

I’ll give you a little moment here to let that sink in.

Rock the Nations sees the band return to a harder, grittier sound but there’s still a bit of radio-friendly finesse. It has a strong, muscular production much in the same vein as their classic Power & The Glory album. The opening title-track gets things off to a great start with its bold, blocky riffing and gruff vocals and the next track Battle Cry is even better, a strident true metal belter. Byford’s vocals are astonishingly passionate and gutsy, the arena-ready main riff is absolutely inspired simplicity and the rhythm section is flawless and propulsive. It’s a bloody triumph. But any hopes for a return to the band’s “classic trilogy” heyday are dashed as the band fail to maintain this fighting form for much longer.

2015-08-28 12.10.53

Waiting For The Night is a catchy, personable AOR track. It’s one of those coulda-shoulda-been hits but it’s poorly positioned and fares badly coming hot on the heels of the bulging, anthemic Battle Cry. Elsewhere, tracks like Running Hot and You Ain’t No Angel are well-performed but forgettable Sunset Strip rockers (and the spoken word part on the latter is a low point). We Came Here to Rock overcomes its clichéd chorus with lively verses and Empty Promises is a pleasingly sultry slow-burner that gets lost on the album due to being sandwiched between “those” two songs. You know… the ones with him on them.

Yep, in the oddest pairing since Billy Joel guested on Exodus’ Bonded By Blood album**, Elton John was recording nearby and ended up tinkling the ivories on two of Saxon’s new tracks. You can probably guess from the titles that neither of these songs are particularly sophisticated. Party Til You Puke is a loose, fun Rock n’ Roll jam but the jokey lyrics and vocals are painfully unfunny and sink the song. And Northern Lady is uninspired, lazy balladry. If you’re going to write a passionate ode to your great love, you’d like to think you could think of a better way to describe her than just “Northern” surely? Just me?

Ultimately, Rock the Nations is Saxon putting on a brave face at a difficult time but their spirit is weak. The album starts off sublime and loses focus, direction and steam as it progresses. It’s not a bad record, it has some brilliant songs and a loose, fun quality about it, but it is a frustrating one. And, following Crusader and Innocence Is No Excuse, Saxon needed to do better than release another patchy underdog effort. Their next album would need to be much better or their days as a major-label act would be seriously numbered.

*During the recording Saxon would audition and hire Paul Johnson as their new bass player. He would be credited on the album sleeve as the bassist on Rock the Nations but he doesn’t play a note here.

**OK, I made that one up.

Mah copy
Mah copy

66 thoughts on “Saxon – Rock the Nations (Review)”

  1. This was my last Saxon purchase but the cover was cool how about that Canuck Flag flying high! Crusader Crusader please take me with uuuuuuuuu! Sorry,had to! But Yep I had bought Crusader,Tbone bought Innocence,I bought Rock The Nations and than punched out from the Saxon Army! They had a good run and it’s good to,still see Biff metaling out the masses! Good on him!
    Yeah I don’t know why I packed it in but I just did!
    But thanks for bringing me back down memory Lane!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries Deke! I can see why you might have punched out after this one (and if you hadn’t you definitely would have after the next one!)

      I do quite like this. It’s OK but, back then, there were much better albums than this floating about.


  2. Also nice pic layout! When I bought the album it had nothing it ..just a plain clear sleeve..i was pissed! Ha! Maiden and there packaging ruined it for a lot of bands as Maiden made there albums fan,lyrics,artwork ….etc

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess maybe that when it’s Saxon I think of a particular type of ‘Northern’ and it’s not very sexy! And the chorus ‘Northern lady, you’re the one’ sounds like an advertising slogan to me too. I imagine ‘Northern Lady’ as an insurance company or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great write-up! I still need to get to this band.

    If Billy Joel played with Exodus, and Elton played with Saxon, I figure both Joel AND John should do one of their duo tours with MANOWAR!

    Also, and this is just my Canadian roots showing (again), but calling a girl Northern isn’t too far off, eh? I mean, we’ve got A LOT of North here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I suppose if ‘Northern’ is your thing you definitely live in the right place. So do I for that matter. “Must have GSOH and be Northern” It’s all you can ask for in a woman really! I take it all back.

      And I think Manowar are too tied up with their Bruce Hornsby collaboration at the moment. Shame.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s disappointing. Though I suspected as much when I looked at the cover art … always a dead give-away!


  4. This must have been the tour I saw them on at Hammersmith. Except for hearing a couple of tracks at a metal club in London, I never really listened to this album. Your spin on it has me intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No I think the first time I saw them perform was the MTV awards. 92? November Rain.

        A few songs before, Nirvana played. Krist Novoselic threw his bass in the air and beaned himself right on the top of the head! Then Grohl ran out to the front of the stage. “Hi Axl! Hi Axl! Hi Axl! Hi Axl!” It was well known the two bands didn’t get along.

        Then GN’R played and there’s Elton John, two big pianos on stage…and I said, “Well, Axl got the last laugh, he upstaged Nirvana in a big way tonight.”

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm… I think probably not as good by this point. Too patchy and too confused. They weren’t competing with the Thrash and Glam bands and Iron Maiden and Leppard had left them standing. But at their best (Battle Cry) they could be as good or better as anyone. But they weren’t hitting that quality enough on the EMI albums.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well that’s it. They are too good a band not to be worth hearing, even at their worst. It’s like with KISS albums like Unmasked or whatever. You know there are always going to be a couple of classics that make it worth hearing. I think Saxon might be the Kings of the underdog album! They’ve done so many haha.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The two songs he’s on are probably the worst things on this but I don’t think it’s his fault! He plays good stuff, it’s just the songs that are a bit rubbish. It’s not like Elton John-style music if you know what I mean. There’s just some extra piano.


    1. Hi Dave,
      Thanks for the comment and for stopping by! You’ve summed up one of the problems I think they had right there. A lot of their videos and single choices weren’t all that great and by the time they started getting MTV airplay they were going downhill. So I think a lot of people might have saw those and thought they weren’t up to much. But the early albums really are priceless!


      1. Wheels of Steel, Strong Arm of the Law and Power & the Glory are all great places to start Dave. I’ve reviewed them all and there’s songs attached on the reviews if you want to hear some tunes. Actually, if you like live albums then The Eagle Has Landed is a good live ‘greatest hits’ too!


      2. Wheels of Steel is one I have heard of, so and some point in the near future I will invest and give it a fair play, thanks my friend.


    2. Yeah, I read you on the samples not clicking and turning away. So many metal options and life being so short and all… Yet, for me, it was the inversion, i never heard a Saxon note before going into a record store called “Sounds of Music” after school and seeing a stack of Crusader LPs facing me way over my teenage shoulders. Fucking attitude of the artwork, arrow soaked coprses, battlefield dust clouds, ugly determined faces, togetherness, their killer dbl axe”S” and that “x” in the center marked the spot for me. My 7th grade teacher was all into traveling Europe, medevial stories – passed some of that wonderlust on.

      Course, didn’t hurt that one of the most vivacious kids at school, same grade, same eye level, sported a Power and Glory concert basball jersey with that black helmed warrior, royal blue sleves, glowing red lines in the face etc. Guess I was curious where his special engergy came from and risked 8 bucks,(that was like 4 Saturday lawn mowings or one generous birthday card surprixe). Cool dude, Carlos Jimenez(holler, man!) a few shaping heavy metal conversations 1984-1986 in Leadership class at Montebello Intermediate school. I was so impressed when he started his first major writing project that year writing about the song “Dee” by Randy Rhoads, motherly nod. Heard the Dee studio takes on Tribute? Was always reaching higher, over his mountains, musically, I’d say. He also toured with the Blizzard’d one, with Saxon, I’ve read. Nick Bowcott informed me of guitar note passing between RR and Saxon’s guitarist G Oliver. Circus mag for me then, John Tucker’s Never Surrender book, recently.

      Overall fave Saxon track: Inner Sanctum

      Saxon have inpired in me greater appreciation for Art and Wonderlust and to be a slaying, yet sensitive, creator. Fuck, it’s noon and I gotta get my ass across the river and into the Bilbao Guggenheim to absorb some Basquiat and Jeff Koons!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. To me, this was actually Saxon’s finest hour. The strong points (especially the rhythmically tight and triumphant “Battlecry”, complete with some of the coolest, transcendental outfits the band has ever worn in inner sleeve pictures) outweigh the lows. To me, the band here are doing masterfully what they do, even when they overindulge. It is precisely this overindulgence that I like, as it shows a band perfectly engrossed in their own element, making a strong statement in the moments when this album gets down to heavy metal business.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s cool you dig this one. I can’t agree that it’s masterful or their finest hour but that’s just my taste/opinion. This definitely has great tracks (Battle Cry is phenomenal like you say). Not a bad record by any means. Just… overall… not up with their best for me. But I think it is a bit overlooked so glad to hear that someone really loves it! Thanks for reading.


  6. Wasn’tt Fiona Flanagan the girl pictured on the cover of “Innocence is no Excuse”? It seems like 35 years ago I heard her comment on it when she was touring with Bryan Adams (?)

    Liked by 1 person

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