HMO salutes Paul ‘Tonka’ Chapman who recently passed away aged 66. The Welsh guitarist had played with the Irish Skid Row, Lone Star, Waysted and others but he was most famous as the guitarist that replaced Michael Schenker in UFO. An unforgivable task that Tonka proved more than equal to: recording albums like The Wild, The Willing And The Innocent that remain fan favourites.
I was tempted to pick one of that album’s songs as a tribute but I decided to go for an older, and geekier, recording. After Schenker debuted with UFO on 1974’s Phenomenon the band decided to draft in a second guitarist for live duties and, for a brief period that year, the band featured both Schenker and Tonka on lead guitar! This fascinating and short-lived lineup can be heard on this BBC live recording from London. Rock Bottom was always a live centrepiece due to its extended soloing and here you get to hear both Schenker and Tonka trading wonderful solos. Chapman kicks his off at the 4:25min mark. It’s a cool, wah-tinged solo that makes jazzy use of the passage’s Dorian tonality and there’s a real chemistry between the two guitarists. Chapman was nicknamed ‘Tonka’ because, like the steel toys, he was thought to be indestructible, and he certainly sounded it here.
Only a year had passed since Saxon’s 1985 Hammersmith show was broadcast on BBC Radio but Saxon invaded the UK’s airwaves yet again as their headlining slot at 1986’s Reading Festival was recorded for broadcast on the BBC Friday Rock Show. The band were touring to promote the imminent release of the Rock the Nationsalbum and, while that patchy album found them losing their Midas touch in the studio, on BBC in Concert (23rd August 1986) it sounds like they were losing none of their knack as a live act.
Sadly, the BBC didn’t air the whole set and cherry-picked just 9 songs for broadcast. Much of the broadcast has since been available on Saxon’s BBC Sessions album but this album download (available on Amazon/iTunes etc…) now presents the complete 9 song, 51 min broadcast as it was originally aired. It’s fairly heavy on the classic material and if you didn’t know what year it was from you could be forgiven for thinking this was the band in their NWOBHM pomp. Only two new songs give the game away: an excellent version of Rock the Nations that fits right in with the older material and a performance of Waiting for the Night which… doesn’t. It’s actually a pretty good version of the track but its pop rock breaks the spell cast by glorious versions of metal powerhouses like 747 (Strangers in the Night) and Wheels of Steel. On the bonus side it’s the song here that gets played least often so it’s good to hear and own a live version of it.
That one hiccup aside, the rest of the performance is impressive. The band is on winning form and the crowd sound like they’re lapping it all right up. While new bassist Paul Johnson didn’t command the stage like Steve Dawson he acquits himself well musically. Never Surrender and 20,000ft give the classic TheEagle Has Landed live album versions a run for their money and an excellent Strong Arm of the Law climaxes with a wailing Graham Oliver solo (with some Sabs and Hendrix thrown in for good measure). The real highlight, though, is a captivating The Eagle Has Landed which puts its studio counterpart firmly in the shade.
The vintage quality of this performance must have been heartening stuff for fans troubled by the recent studio albums but any hopes for a return to form would soon be dashed. The Rock the Nations album proved disappointing and, frustrated by the way the band was being managed, Nigel Glockler would leave the band at the end of the tour to join GTR. And Saxon’s next, and last, studio album for EMI would be a desparate gamble that would test the patience and loyalty of their fans more than any other yet.
“Did you listen to the radio every Friday night?” asked Saxon in their classic track Denim and Leather. If you did back in the 80s you might have heard this excellent live recording of Saxon’s show at the Hammersmith Odeon. Broadcast on Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show, BBC In Concert (18th September 1985) captures a difficult and interesting time in Saxon’s career as they toured to promote their controversial new album Innocence Is No Excuse.
Only a selection of the concert’s songs were broadcast so only four Innocence tracks appear here. Of those, Broken Heroes and Devil Rides Out fare best in the live setting, sitting comfortably alongside the band’s established repertoire. However, the moody Rockin’ Again is badly placed and struggles as the first encore tune. And while the catchy and upbeat Back on the Streets kicks off the broadcast well, its worth is put into question by the absolutely spine-tingling performance of Dallas 1PM that follows it.
On one hand the Innocence era tracks weaken the set but their lesser-heard nature adds to the interest for long-time Saxon fans. The rest of the broadcast is taken up by their radio-friendly classics which, with the possible exception of a tired-sounding Strong Arm of the Law, sound fresh and lively. Some of the performances here are exciting enough to make you feel like you’re hearing these songs for the first time. The versions of Dallas 1PM and Power and the Glory might be the best I’ve heard yet and older material like Wheels of Steel and Princess of the Night serve as strong reminders that this is the same band that recorded The Eagle Has Landed three years previously.
But they wouldn’t be for much longer. This would be the band’s last tour with bassist Steve Dawson. Disagreements with the band and management saw him fired before sessions began for their next studio album. It was a risky decision: Steve’s playing, performance and writing had played a crucial role in the band’s career and success.
But the problems behind the scenes are not evident in this live recording. It’s not an essential purchase but Saxon devotees are sure to get a good kick out of this. It’s an exciting and atmospheric time capsule of classic 80s Saxon out to prove their worth at a challenging time in their career. They certainly seem to have won over Hammersmith on 18th September 1985 but, with a key member gone and a couple of spotty studio albums behind them, the challenging times would continue.
This recording is available as part of the EMI Years [1985-1988] box set and also available separately as a download through iTunes, Amazon etc…