Saxon and UFO may not be ‘forever young,’ but their spirits have yet to grow old.
By Scott McLennan
When the Saxon recorded the song “Princess of the Night” for its 1981 album Denim and Leather, the band probably had no idea how well it would serve as a career allegory.
The tune is an ode to an old locomotive facing the “writing on the wall,” yet the eponymous Princess is hardly going quietly into the good night. Instead, it lights up the night sky with blasts from its engine furnace, making a hell of a lot of noise as it rumbles down its tracks.
And there was Saxon Friday night on stage at The Palladium in Worcester, strobe lights flashing and stacks of amplifiers pumping out the sound of screaming guitars and the full-throated howl of towering front man Biff Byford. “Princess of the Night” was saved for near the end of the band’s set.
Saxon and the band UFO have once again teamed up for touring package that delivers all the right sonic blows, evoking an era of British rock when bands were moving from a blues-based sound into heavier, more turbulent and aggressive styles. All of that anarchy simmered and then came to a full boil during a period than ran from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s. A few bands such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, along with their Australian peers AC/DC, took this style to the bank. Literally.
The many bands that did not go on to achieve the stadium level ticket sales and multi-platinum record sales by and large sputtered, earning their line or footnote in compendia of heavy metal and hard rock or popping up whenever a popular band would mention an old timer as an important influence. (UFO riffs, ironically, on this trope of reflected glory with its social media hashtag: #YourFavoriteBandsFavoriteBand). At best, you’d think your only chance to see a Saxon or a UFO show in 2017 would be at a state fair or as a casino freebie.
Yet earlier this year, these two bands toured together and pulled crowds packed with both older headbangers—as you’d expect—as well as smatterings of new-gen rock fans. A sign of the times: many Boston musicians who perform in contemporary thrash and metal bands were spotted at the UFO/Saxon shown that sold out the Brighton Music Hall in April.
Not that Saxon and UFO sound alike or shared fan bases back in the day, but the two are complementary in both sound and style.
The show Friday in Worcester was no rehash of what these bands delivered in the spring. Both groups have the good sense to understand that people who bother to shell out to see Saxon or UFO are not doing so to just hear the hits.
Saxon balanced its classic cuts with the new “Battering Ram,” the mid-’90s thrasher “Dogs of War” and 2007’s “I’ve Got to Rock (to Stay Alive).” UFO, likewise, opened its headlining set with the deeper track “We Belong to the Night” and then played “Run Boy Run” from its latest album before sliding into a selection of prime era anthems.
Too many older rock bands—even the venerated punk band X, which played the Brighton Music Hall last month—are content to stay in the safe zone of material, eager to serve up tunes from the time their fans first flocked to them. Saxon and UFO showed that there is a reason—and value—to keep putting out new music. Fans may very well decide to support it.
Refusing to be trapped in the past is noble, but pointless if you can’t make the music live in the moment. And, when it comes to that edict, Saxon and UFO are both still in top form. Yes, the years have shaved down some of vocals’s expansive reach and tone. But Saxon’s Byford and UFO singer Phil Mogg are still galvanic leaders on stage. And each band passes the integrity test by including longtime, if not original, members. Saxon guitarist Paul Quinn has, like Byford, been with the band since its inception in 1977. Drummer Nigel Glockler has been in and out of the band since 1981, while bassist Nibbs Carter has been holding down the low end since 1988. “New guy” Doug Scarratt joined in 1996, and is a potent partner when it comes to trading guitar leads with Quinn.
The quintet nimbly moved through 15 tunes that ranged from the harsh thrash of “Motorcycle Man”’ to the grandeur of “The Power and the Glory.” Swaying from the pure hedonism of “This Town Rocks” to the more provocative “Dallas 1 PM,” a song about the assassination of President Kennedy, Saxon generated dynamic shifts in tone and temperament.
The wry Mogg is UFO’s sole original member but, since its start in 1969, the band has maintained a revolving door membership. The main thing now is that Vinnie Moore came on board (in 2003) and rightfully claimed the ‘guitar god’ role first crafted by Michael Schenker: it is is crucial to UFO’s sound. Moore’s fluid and theatrical guitar parts carry UFO from song to song, whether the band is applying a light balladic touch (“Love to Love”) or delivering a heavy dose of bombast (“Rock Bottom”).
Geriatric jokes and allusions to Spinal Tap are de rigueur whenever aging metal bands take the stage. But Saxon and UFO are banging out the last laugh. They may not be ‘forever young,’ but their spirits have yet to grow old.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.