Some LPs are built for contemplating the imponderables of the universe, some LPs are constructed to lift you up and propel you to a greater shared understanding of life, some LPs leave you a wiser man for having heard them, some LPs put you into the mood for getting jiggy with a favoured other and other LPs are just constructed to get drunk on cheap lager and mindlessly headbang to. Saxon Wheels of Steel ? no prizes for guessing which one this is.
Wheels of Steel is as simple as metal gets. There are no dragons, complex time changes, fancy haircuts, runes, irony, conceptual nonsense, broadswords, funk or punk influence here. This is loud, uncompromising music, mostly about vehicles and weapons, played by hairy bruisers from a coal-mining town in South Yorkshire. This is escapism through velocity and volume.
This is apparent right from the off with ‘Motorcycle Man’, which features the best use of a motorbike sound effect blending into a song I can think of and yes I am including Manowar’s ‘Death Tone’ in that. It’s fast, really fast for 1980 and not particularly melodic – just the tonic. Skip ‘Stand Up And be Counted’, which I don’t think has stood the test of time very well and just launch straight into Saxon’s finest melodic moment ‘747 (Strangers in The Night)’, a great, wonderfully well sung tune about that age-old staple inspiration for songwriters through the ages, a power cut at an airport; ‘They’re overshooting, there’s no guiding lights / Set a course into the night’. It’s brilliant and only their later single ‘And The bands Played On’ runs it close in my book.
Then we hit the real jewel in the crown of Wheels of Steel, the title track. An ode to vehicular speed, it is great beyond all description, but hey, let’s have a go. Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver lay down one of the all-time metal riffs, over a rock solid rhythm track supplied by Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill. Biff Byford snarls and soars his love of all things speedy and uncompromising,
I’m burnin’ aviation fuel my foot’s to the floor
Ya know she’s crusin’ one forty she’d do even more
I’m burnin’ solid rubber I don’t take no bull
‘Cause my wheels of steel are rolling, they’re rolling your way
Saxon took a lot of stick over the Americanisms in this track and on side two opener ‘Freeway Mad’ (great use of sirens on that one), trust me there aren’t many freeways around Barnsley – but that’s the whole point of escapism isn’t it? Anyway I love this track, deeply and non-ironically and I have done for 25 years now ever since hearing it on The Friday Rock Show late one Friday night. I had a Wheels of Steel badge on my denim jacket and used to spend a lot of my free time sketching the band’s logo on the back of exercise books. At university me and a mate of mine developed a sketch where we invented a particularly non-PC band called Norman who’s singer would dedicate ‘Wheels of Steel’ thus, ‘This next song’s about having a girlfriend in a fucking wheelchair!’ and then fall about laughing at the lines,
She’s got wheels, wheels of steel
She’s got wheels of steel
Wheels of steel
Talking ’bout my wheels of steel
Well we were 19 and thought it was hilarious. I’m older now, but I can’t hear the tune without that intro.
Moving on, down the freeway of dreams, ‘Freeway Mad’ is the best track on side two and features another great riff and some more titanic drumming from Pete Gill. I enjoy the fierce crunchy guitars of ‘See The Light Shining’ and Biff’s tough vocals on ‘Street Fighting Gang’, this really is foot to the floor rocking. We even have a sad love song, ‘Suzie Hold On’ about a doomed romance with an addict ? or that’s my interpretation anyway. ‘Machine Gun’ isn’t much of a song, more of an excuse for some great soloing and even more sound effects.
There you have it, subtle as a fist and classy as supermarket own-brand bitter, I’ve always been a real sucker for the proletarian charms of Saxon. My metal uncle used to go and see them whenever they toured on their own or supporting anyone and he remembers seeing them in Taunton when the fans on the balcony were jumping up and down and headbanging so hard that the theatre balcony started to swing up and down during ‘Strongarm of The Law’. Total committment.
If you like metal you really can’t go wrong with Wheels of Steel, or the two follow-ups Denim & Leather and Strong Arm Of The Law, although I am ashamed to admit I haven’t got around to buying the other two yet and I’ve long since lost the tapes uncle Alistair did for me. Bands just don’t make music this unironic anymore and more’s the pity I say.
I’m going down the freeway
Never gonna get me out
Steaming like a freight train
Gonna blow my pistons out