Saturday, March 4, 2017

Denim and Leather

Heavy metal, especially in the 1980s, had something of a Dungeons and Dragons bend. Many bands wrote songs about mythical battles, swords clashing, axes flying, giant monsters to be slain, and lands to be conquered.

With that said, one would assume "Princess of the Night," the opening track off Saxon's fourth album, Denim and Leather, would belong in the fantasy realm with a name like that. Actually, the song is about a train and how singer Biff Byford feels nostalgic for it. As he puts it:


"Ninety tons of thunder
Lighting up the sky.
Steaming red hot pistons
See the wheels flash by.
Hear the whistle blowing
Streaking down the track.
If I ever had my way,
I'd bring the princess back one day."

Yes, the train is the princess, and if you still question the song's fealty to metal - even with the references to thunder, lighting, and red hot pistons - then consider another lyric from the song. "Iron striking metal, the sound of racing steel, it's all I ever want to hear. It's music to my ears."

Arriving in 1981, Denim and Leather proved to be the third in a string of classic albums from Saxon, putting them at the forefront of the then-burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Saxon played their best (and still do) not as larger-than-life superstars but as scrappy, blue-collar rockers. These are guys more comfortable riding motorcycles from bar to bar than taking a limo to a club.

That attitude is best exemplified in this album's title track, which proved to be one of metal's most iconic anthems. In this song, Saxon pays tributes to their fans, the ones who "queue for your ticket through the ice and snow," "read the music papers from the back and to the front," "listen to the radio every Friday night," and "hang around your local record store." As the thunderous chorus declares, "Denim and Leather, Brought us all together, It was you who set the spirit free!"

This grounded perspective carries through the whole album. "And the Bands Played On" chronicles Saxon's performance at the Monsters of Rock Festival, "Midnight Rider" is about their American tour and encountering all the interesting sites, and "Play It Loud" celebrates listening to Deep Purple and other rock and roll that pisses off your parents and other authority figures. On Denim and Leather, Saxon come off as a bunch of music fans living the dream, still in awe of their success.

Musically, Saxon is as strong as ever: aggressive, hard-driving, and catchy. They might not be as heavy as some of the bands they inspired (such as Metallica), but one can hear the influence they had on the thrash bands that followed them, their high speed matched by their technical chops. Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver make a great pair of axemen and Biff's in fine voice. Produced by Nigel Thomas and the band, the album is cleaner from a production standpoint than their preceding albums, but here, it's a nice balance between melody and crunch. You'll bang your head as you sing along.

Following the release of Denim and Leather (along with Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law), Saxon appeared poised to explode into the stratosphere. Alas, the departure of drummer Pete Gill meant the end of the group's classic lineup and misguided attempts to crack the U.S. mainstream watered down their sound into sub-par Def Leopard imitators. The band eventually recovered and continues to churn out strong releases today, but Denim and Leather remains one of their best.


Standout Songs
Princess of the Night - Proto-thrasher opens the album in high gear.
And the Bands Played On - You'll feel like a Monster of Rock.
Denim and Leather - Anthemic rocker celebrates heavy metal.

Favorite Moment
During "And the Bands Played On," Paul or Graham plays a sweet lick in the middle of the chorus, right after Biff sings, "We sat in the sun, whoa-oh-oh." When Biff follows that with "And the bands played on," it's electrifying.

Album Cover
A simple, blue background with the band's name and logo (the iron eagle) in highlighted black and the album name in white. Nothing fancy. Simple and direct.

Track Order
1) Princess of the Night
2) Never Surrender
3) Out of Control
4) Rough and Ready
5) Play It Loud
6) And the Bands Played On
7) Midnight Rider
8) Fire in the Sky
9) Denim and Leather

Lineup
Biff Byford - Vocals
Paul Quinn - Guitars
Graham Oliver- Guitars
Steve Dawson - Bass
Pete Gill - Drums

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