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.
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.