FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 40: Saxon – Wheels Of Steel

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 40: Saxon – Wheels Of Steel

This is the fortieth entry of my blog series ‘First Impressions.’ In each entry of the series I write about discovering an influential or genre-classic album for the first time and then write about that experience in a semi-planned, semi-stream of consciousness manner that is less helpful than a traditional album-review, but which does contain more personal flavour.

I prefer my reviews to be serious and informative. ‘First Impressions’ allow for a more director’s commentary approach. I can be silly and talk bollox, or make points that only a handful of people will understand. Usually I will deliver insights into my history with similar music as well as into how my mind works and how both of these things change over time. You will have to either possess a fairly detailed understanding of Rock and Metal history and Subgenre conventions or have a second tab open at Wikipedia to fully follow every single point that I make, but don’t let that put you off…I’m not honestly expecting you to know every single riff or tone I’ll point out off by heart.

If you want your own First Impressions article done, just suggest it in the comments. I’ll give anything a shot.
This entry will cover the NWOBHM classic Wheels Of Steel from the Yorkshire band Saxon.

I’ve heard a few Saxon songs before, I‘ve had a sort of eye on them since I heard ‘Denim And Leather’ crop up in either or both Heavy The Story Of Metal and Metal Evolution. I had a listen through of their greatest hits record once around the same time that I got into Queensryche, and last month I watched the Harvey Goldsmith Get Your Act Togther documentary with them in it. I didn’t actually think the band came across as likeable people in that, but I’d heard it was deliberately edited that way and was very unfair on them, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Hey; I bought an Anvil greatest hits after watching their documentary and I didn’t think Lips came across as a good guy, and I had to fight a hell of a lot of forward and reverse-hipsterism instincts when making a purchase based on a film everyone was talking about… my teenage self would explode making that choice.

NWOBHM, I’ve covered before in these articles. I’ve heard a few songs from nearly every band in Wikipedia’s list of NWOBHM bands, and most of them remind me of a slightly limp AC/DC song with sections of Rush influence and sections that work with the same logic as Thrash. A lot of it lacks the umph I enjoy and a lot of it has a production job I don’t care for.

I’ve never even really enjoyed Iron Maiden’s debut all that much, for all the years I’ve owned it.

What I’d always imagined NWOBHM would sound like is more like how W.A.S.P’s albums sound, which I’ve been giving pretty heavy rotation since you ask. A bit more power, umph and production value. Still not thrash yet, still with a rough charm, but just not so limp. Less of Samson’s Biceps Of Steel and more of The Torture Never Stops.

Still. Diamond Head have some enjoyable songs that I still listen to about a year on from their entry in this series. Even if I didn’t enjoy anything from that greatest hits set on that particular occasion I feel like giving Wheels Of Steel a shot. And I’m just in the mood to try out Saxon, ok? I don’t have to explain myself. I had to explain myself to some bible-people today…I’m explained out. Just go with it.


Motorcycle Man kicks it off, some motorcycle sound effects pan around for a few seconds. The first riff could go either way. It kind of sounds like it can’t be bothered because it knows its just a false start. The next bit comes in, its got a jaunty ‘Shoot Out The Lights’ sort of energy about it. If you listen carefully when Biff sings the first long hanging ‘motorcycle maaan’ it sounds like the drummer is sat stationary on the throne/stool and the drumkit is slowly wheeling away from him downhill, and he has to stretch more and more to reach it, but he’s determined not to stop and do a new take. The solo is very noisy. Its kind of unpleasant on the ears productionwise but pleasant on the ears musicwise. The bits when it’s a bit deep and a bit driving are enjoyable, but the very bright sounding hanging sections aren’t what I was craving. A new section with a new solo comes in and saves it. A bit of variety. At the start of the song I didn’t enjoy the vocals but I’ve been won over now.

Next up is ‘Stand Up And Be Counted’ which has a thudding metallic rhythm section and a fun intro riff that is driving me fucking crazy because I cant tell what its ripping off or was ripped off by, I’ve paused it and tried Sabbra Cadabra and Cat Scratch Fever, as well as Stand Up And Shout and Rainbow’s Starstruck to find out what it is that I’ve heard before that’s so similar, but I can’t reach it. It could be anything from a deep Queen cut to a famous Megadeth single but I just can’t grasp its slippery form.

UUUaaaaaaaagh. Thank fuck. Its ‘Overlove’ by Dio. Not the intro bit, but once it kicks in hard. UUUUH what a relief. I can put on Saxon again and conti-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! False bloody alarm. Overlove isn’t it at all! Damn you brain!

Somebody please tell me what it sounds like before my head explodes.

Ok. Back to the song… After that DICKHEAD of a riff goes away we’ve got some bright hanging chords and some swinging vocals over the driving rhythm. Some Thin Lizzy style twin leads for a very brief moment, and then back to bright hangs, and then the same thing. Then that asshole riff comes back to tease me. Then some cool breaks, rolls and pauses and a nice, non-noisy solo. The Lizzy bits come back but sound better for some reason. Now the drummer puts in more sneaky fills and its all very great. This would be a brilliant tune if it wasn’t doing my goddam head in.

‘747’ kicks in bringing some relief to my mental torture. Its got a clean, fun, slightly Blackfoot sounding riff and very pleasant leads. The vocals are cleaner and more talented sounding than what’s came before. Its very pleasant and enjoyable rock. It takes a bit of a sad tone with some arpeggios then goes back to that good clean melodic rock sound. It doesn’t blow much wind up my non existant kilt but I do like it. The solo comes in. Wow, bit breezy in here, is it?
That’d be brilliant if it was four times as long. Still. This song is definitely in my ‘not shit’ drawer. There’s still fourty seconds left, still time to drop a longer solo and-YES. There it is. Ah, faded out. Prick tease.

‘Wheels Of Steel’ comes in next. Its got the ump I expected. This is kind of cool. Its like if Foghat did what I wanted them too more often, but produced as heavily as Blackfoot’s ‘Warped.’ It seems a bit long at 5.59 seconds of length, hopefully some variety will come, because its good but it wouldn’t stay good for that log without new ideas. Nice solo. Also not noisy. First un must’ve been a red herring.
God. It didn’t drop any new ideas. Well, Just adding a maraca and saying ‘ooh yeah’ in an existing bit. Pushing it a bit.

Next up comes ‘Freeway Mad’ that’s got the umph and charm I want. Its schizophrenic main riff is a goddamn timeline though. Listen to how it gets from Chuck Berry to Sabbath to Diamond Head before its done. All the lead guitar and speed really put this thing in my ‘what I wanted’ drawer. Its also brief and doesn’t overstay its welcome, to make up for dragging out the title track.

‘See The Light Shining’ reminds me a bit of the last one, mixed with ‘One Way Or Another’ by SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH AND NOT A REAL BAND. Its got similar speed a lead goodness. A bit of Lizzy in the chorus too. Double kick flapping. Then at 2.30 a complete about-face into a complete Rush rip off. Its brilliant but incongruous as hell. The song stays in that vein and some great fills, leads and drop outs happen. Its like a completely new song. It fades out on the rush riff with superimposed too-loud double kicks.

A very exciting and metallic riff announces the next song’s arrival. My eyebrows raise. The breaks full of lead are great, then tails are great. Its like Diamond Head production, Motorhead speed and Lynyrd Skynyrd logic. It sounds ahead of the rest of the album’s time. It’s called ‘Street Fighting Man.’ Sounds famous.

Hey, some Rushy stuff from the next tune too. More melodic clean vocals. A kind of southern riff. Wow. I didn’t expect Saxon to sound like this. Its called ‘Suzie Hold On’ its very good. Its not so much Rush or Thin Lizzy its activating in my brain, there’s bits of Deep Purple in there too, the very exciting bunch of fills reminds me of Green Day’s ‘Prosthetic Head’ when the snares come in and make it take the weird psyche-turn, which in turn reminds me of this psychedelic Halloween cartoon I over-watched as a kid that had heeby-jeebies in it and a bell that scared away evil. And all the monsters played in a band at one point. It looked a bit like it might be Hannah Barberra. Please tell me you know what its called. They had a scene where one of em ate a medicine ball. COME ON!? Please…

Next up, and last up, comes ‘Machine Gun’ which is a very promising NWOBHM title if you ask me. I’m hoping for another ‘Its Electric’ here.

OOO. Goddamn. Saxon oblige. This song has EVERYTHING I want from a NWOBHM song. It sounds too fast, its got that buzzy heaviness. Its got too-loud vocals. The vocals work along a logic that’s really like Judas Priest’s ‘Exciter.’ Think about how Rob says ‘Fries Him to a Crisp’ and ‘First To Smoke And Smolder’ then listen to this.

The pre-solo, build up seeming thing with double kicks that actually ends up being the solo but no wait a new solo… anyway, that bit sounded like a war. I bet people said that at the time. Then it carries on all fast and powerful like. Then a bonous solo later, with double kicks. Yes. Yes indeed. That is exactly how to do it. Fantastic end to the album.

The short short album. Hmmm. Actually it was fourty minutes. Why did it feel so short then?

There’s a bonus live version of ‘Stallions Of The Highway’ which apparently is about ‘Motorcycles and not giving a shit.’ Its fun. Its one more in the driving, deeper n chuggier vein… y’know, the ones I like. Lets just see if he stops in the middle to go ‘vroom vroom’ like Quiet Riot.

As I’m typing and checking the spelling and grammar, ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ from the next album comes on. Damn. Why wasn’t this album that way inclined. Its what I wanted. Why is this one the classic? Ok. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it had some stand out moments, especially the closer. But Strong Arm Of The Law’s first two songs suggest a much better album there than here.

What is it with the next album coming on and being better? Venom, Black Label Society, now Saxon…

Anyway. I’m now reading Hannah Barbera’s Wikipedia article and listening to Strong Arm Of The Law, desperately trying to find that Heeby Jeebies cartoon, and marveling at how much Saxon improved between those two records. Ok… the lyrics to ‘Six Form Girls’ are very questionable, but the production, performance and confidence of that album compared to this, night and day.

Ah dammit. I can’t figure out what that show was and entering ‘heebie jeebies’ and ‘eats a medicine ball’ and ‘psychedelic halloween cartoon’ into youtube didn’t help much. I mean it was very interesting to find ‘Malice In Wonderland’ and see how massively it got ripped off for the sex/flowers/dragons animated bit in THE WALL (during Empty Spaces if memory serves)… but that’s got me no closer to having this curiosity satisfied.

Side note – if you get a chance, give ‘Monster Shindig’ a listen. It sounds like ELP at points, but through an Austin Powers filter.

TWO HOURS LATER EDIT – OH THANK YOU JESUS. It was ‘No Class’ by Motorhead. UUUUGH. That hurt. That hurt bad. Now what the fuck was that cartoon called…

ONE DAY LATER EDIT: For those readers who do not have me on facebook, the cartoon was called Groovy Goolies, as my good friend and mental health savior Magnum discovered.

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