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Biff Byford - Blast From The Past (Apr 2020)


Biff Byford photo
Biff Byford
 
There are songs specific to my youth, like the title track and ‘Welcome To The Show’ and of course you can hear the Saxon influences in those tracks but the lyrics are more about me.
 

To celebrate the mighty Saxon's latest release 'Hell, Fire and Damnation' our Social Media Manager Pete Arnett dipped into our vast archives and pulled out this gem of an interview with frontman Biff Byford from Issue 90. Ian Johnson was the interviewer and Biff was in great form.


Saxon are a name that sits alongside the giants of Heavy Metal and their singer Biff Byford is a legend of the genre. Strangely, in a career that spans forty years and more, Biff has never, until now, released a solo album. ‘School Of Hard Knocks’, a semi-autobiographical work, is his first and Fireworks talked with the frontman at his home about the new album, why he’s never done a solo album before and how he’s really looking forward to getting back on stage, a place he views as his natural home.


Saxon have been around for over forty years now, so it begs the question as to why this is your first ever solo album? Was it loyalty to the band that stopped you doing one before or was this just the right time?


Just the right time really. We kind of scheduled it in during a break between Saxon tours and albums. Of course I had to stop and go back to Saxon for the 40th Anniversary shows but because Saxon weren’t working on a new album, something which won’t be ready until late this year or early next year, we decided to go ahead and do this album and recorded it last year for an early spring release.


So when were the songs for ‘School...’ written? Are they all new compositions or songs written over the last few years?


Some are new, some I’ve had for a few years because although they fit the Saxon mould, because they were about me and my life, I left them. To be honest all the guys in the band have heard them before I recorded them for this album but for whatever reason, they never made it to a Saxon record, but they were perfect for this one. So I called a few friends to help out, then we set out a schedule to do this after my health scare and here’s the new album.


The album has many facets and the songs deal with varying subjects from personal things close to your heart to historical songs and even something that I’d describe as a bit of a curveball, which we‘ll come onto. So when you started to write the new songs for the album was it important to have that connection to Yorkshire and your childhood as part of it?


Well I write all the time and I’m inspired by many things – from history, the news or books, and like I mentioned I’d had a few of these songs for years waiting for the right time to use them. There are songs specific to my youth, like the title track and ‘Welcome To The Show’ and of course you can hear the Saxon influences in those tracks but the lyrics are more about me. The musical facets you talked about are more about the types of music I like listening to. I’m a big Prog fan, I like Rock ‘n’ Roll and even softer ballad type stuff, so all that crops up on the new album. I think this album is really all about my voice and I was able to write in a more personal way on some of the songs this time around, so they suited my vocals and where I went with them.


I was discussing this album with a friend and he said, “Oh it’ll just be a Saxon clone” but it isn’t, apart from the voice which is instantly recognisable. The music itself, personally, doesn’t always remind me of Saxon. Was this important to you when you wrote the album, to make sure that the songs sound slightly different from Saxon and have their own identity?


What happened was that I had about twenty songs to choose from and I just chose the ones I liked the most [laughs]. So maybe some of them aren’t pure Saxon in sound but I think for me it does have a distinct Saxon thing and easily two or three of the songs could have been on any of our albums. So I don’t agree totally with what you said, but I understand where you’re coming from because other tracks wouldn’t be for Saxon and have a different sound, so the songs are a mix of both Saxon style and my own likes. I tried other styles as well, like Prog and Hard Rock because I didn’t want this record to be predictable and to be honest, never having had a solo album before, I winged it a little bit but I like what we did and lots of people have said they do too, which is always great to hear.

 
So I don’t agree totally with what you said, but I understand where you’re coming from because other tracks wouldn’t be for Saxon and have a different sound, so the songs are a mix of both Saxon style and my own likes.
 

There’s a real Rock ‘n’ Roll feel to some of the songs, with the title track, ‘School Of Hard Knocks’, being a prime example. Why do you think that while other genres have come and gone, Rock ‘n’ Roll has stayed?


The guitar riffs I wrote for a lot of the songs are just classic Heavy Rock guitar riffs that have been around for years, and Rock ’n’ Roll, because it has a great sound, will always be with us. The great bands like Zeppelin and AC/DC will always be around even after they’re dead and gone and it was important for me not to put anything on ‘School...’ that I didn’t want. I like hooks, great melodies, guitar riffs and I wrote this one like I do for Saxon, with all those elements which have to be there for any song to work.


Let’s talk about a few of the songs please. The aforementioned title track is autobiographical I suspect, so was it nice to reminisce about your childhood and early life when writing for this album?


Yeah it was. That song is a couple of years old and I’d had that lyric knocking around for a while. When I decided to put it on the new album I just fine-tuned everything to make it work for the record. The lyrics, which are all about me as a teenager, came very easy to me. Just listen to them because they’re autobiographical and self-explanatory; everything you need to know is in the song.


How do you come up with something like the spoken word ‘Inquisitor’, which sounds to me like a poem set to music. Even though it’s a short track, the research for the song must still take time to find?


The spoken words are actually from the Edgar Allen Poe novel The Pit And The Pendulum. It’s just a passage taken from the first chapter that I read out which then leads into the actual ‘Pit & Pendulum’ song.


Talking of ‘The Pit And The Pendulum’, that’s my favourite song on the album, with a real Prog like feel to the music. Was it important for you to come up with different styles of Rock music for this album so as to give the music an overall different vibe?


The reason I wrote those songs was all about our guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, who’s in a Prog band called Opeth, who I know really well. He came up with a piece of music that flows so well and because I love Prog music it was easy for me to write the song in a Prog way and sing it in a Prog way. I think Prog and Heavy Metal is a great way to tell stories and this song was easy for me to write. I’m a lyric lover and I love playing with words and because I listen to everything from Journey and Tom Petty to Metallica and even Slayer, this gave me a wide range of styles to go for on the new CD.

 
I think Prog and Heavy Metal is a great way to tell stories and this song was easy for me to write.
 

The curveball I mentioned earlier is the song ‘Scarborough Fair’, which you‘ve given a wonderful arrangement. When I first saw it on the track listing I thought, ‘I wonder why Biff has done this one?’ Is it a song close to your childhood or just a song you’ve liked over the years?


I used to sing it at school and I wanted to do a song that was based in or about Yorkshire, and apart from ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’ [laughs] there aren’t a lot of other tracks to choose from. So we went for ‘Scarborough...’ and the arrangement we did for it really changes the feel of the song and everyone who’s heard it likes what we’ve done with it. A curveball, like you said, and the way it starts simply and ends up epic is just how I wanted it.


I believe that either late this year or early next year you’ll be doing some live shows for this album, but they’ll be different from a normal gig because it will be you in conversation with the audience first and then the concert afterwards. With such an interesting life in music, these gigs could last for quite some time. Which part of the show do you think you’ll like the best?


Well what we’re actually going to do is this – a good friend of mine, Don Jamieson, who co-hosted VH1 Classic’s ‘That Metal Show’, is coming over to do the show with us and it’s going to be like a late night chat show format, me on the sofa with Don talking to me, and after this there’s going to be the show. Fredrik won’t be there at the start as he’s on tour with Opeth in the States but he’ll be doing some gigs with us and for the rest of the shows I’m going to get some great musicians in to help out. It should be a lot of fun.


Finally, if you don’t mind me asking, how are you after your health scare? Fighting fit and raring to go I hope?


I’m getting there, it’s a slow process. I’m exercising everyday and I sing every day. After the scare I didn’t sing for about five months but you can’t rush things so I’m taking everything a day at a time. I’m keeping myself busy and I’ll hopefully be back to full strength soon, and as you said, raring to go.

 
I’m getting there, it’s a slow process. I’m exercising everyday and I sing every day. After the scare I didn’t sing for about five months but you can’t rush things so I’m taking everything a day at a time.
 

Interview by Ian Johnson

 

BLAST FROM THE PAST

BIFF BYFORD

 

If you enjoyed this - Check out our shop for back issues containing more superb interviews with all the Rock & Metal stars out there!

 
 

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