OLIVER/DAWSON SAXON – Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson

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INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ AND JARNO HUOVILA

In 1979 when the classic NWOBHM band Saxon was formed, its ranks consisted of five members, singer Biff Byford, guitarist Paul Quinn, guitarist Graham Oliver, bassist Steve Dawson, and drummer Pete Gill. Now, thirty years later, only Byford and Quinn remain under the Saxon banner. However, Oliver and Dawson have since joined together to carry on their part of the Saxon legacy. First, in 1996, under the name Son of a Bith, featuring Pete Gill on drums, and later, mainly to appease the promoters, as Oliver/Dawson Saxon. Read on to learn, straight from two founding members of Saxon, about the various stages in the history of one of the most celebrated metal bands to have emerged from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and the falling apart, piece by piece, of its classic lineup through the years.

EARLY DAYS OF SAXON

When the first Saxon album was released, the classic band logo became an instantly recognizable part of the band’s image. Can you tell me about its origins?

Graham Oliver: Steve commissioned that Saxon logo.

Steve Dawson: When we first got signed up with Carrere Records, we had to change our name from Son of a Bitch to Saxon. So when we agreed to be called Saxon, we wanted to have a logo like Queen, a really distinctive logo. This guy we worked with in the steelworks, Mick Scofield, was like an amateur artist. He lived like a mile from my house, and I went up to him and asked if he could do us a logo. I said we wanted it to be like medieval, you know, English like a Queen type thing. Anyway, about three or four days later, he rang me up and told me he’d done something. He had done the logo with the two axe-heads, and he had done an album cover as well for the first Saxon album, the warrior. It was on a big canvas, and he never got paid for it. He just did it because he was a friend.

Graham Oliver: Steve showed it to the band and the management, and they liked it, so they used it.

How did the original lineup of Saxon get together in the first place?

Graham Oliver: Without Steve Dawson, there wouldn’t have been a Saxon for anybody to like in the first place because it was Steve that came to me and said we ought to get Biff to sing. Biff had his band COAST, and they had lost their drummer, and we had a band with a drummer who lost our singer, so we sort of came together. Steve had a tape of Biff singing a song, and he said, we should do this. We had a play with Biff, and we were fantastic. Then Biff said he’d join if he could bring Paul Quinn, and we said fine because the guy that left us was a guitar player as well. It was such a contrast of styles, Paul Quinn’s and mine and everything else, the chemistry. All these elements came together and made for a great band.

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Original Saxon: Pete Gill, Graham, Biff Byford, Steve, and Paul Quinn

THE END OF THE CLASSIC ERA

After many successful albums and tours, what many considered the band’s classic era came to an end in 1985, when Saxon released a very different style of album, “Innocence Is No Excuse.” Although the following world tour was successful, Steve was fired from the band in 1986. What was the reason for that?

Steve Dawson: There weren’t any disagreements, but we had done a long tour of Europe and America. We finished in Greece, and there was talk of making a new album. I felt that the band needed a break, and we had peaked at that point.

Graham Oliver: Due to our previous success, we inevitably received some negative press because a couple of journalists hated Saxon. They were especially having a go at Biff over his new image because Biff had always had a brilliant image, and they felt that he had to change. It was stupid, but this put pressure on the band and added tension. This situation fused tension between Steve and certain members of the band, and I believed this would blow over, but inevitably it did not, and Steve and the band parted company. When we started recording the ‘Rock the Nations’ album in Holland, Biff played bass as he had previously been a singer/bass player, and he was more than competent to perform this duty. As for myself, I parted from the band in 1995, and this was mainly due to external influences which appeared to be ruling every decision. I firmly believe that if Saxon had had the same management as the likes of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, the band would have remained intact and had the popularity that both of the former still share to this day. I can say that the original lineup had a massive influence on the likes of Metallica and Skid Row, and I remember meeting Dimebag Darrell from Pantera, who handed me a tape of some early recordings he asked me to listen to. These were truly fantastic times for both myself and the band.

Steve, tell us, what did you do after parting ways with Saxon?

Steve Dawson: I first started a band called USI with this guitarist called Steve Johnson, and it was just him and me. We went into the studios and just did some demos with a drum machine, then we took them to EMI, and they really liked them. Then we thought we’d do some live shows, and I had seen Nigel Durham, who’s now in our band, playing in a band called MONROE in Sheffield, and he was great with all this stick twirling. We got Nigel in and then rehearsed for a year in this little rehearsal room, and we got brilliant. We only did three shows and then the guitarist, being the singer and the guitarist, a bad mixture. He just said he didn’t want to do it anymore. At that point, what little money I had gotten from being in SAXON because I wasn’t earning anything was gone. I was basically skint, I had no money, so when that packed in, I was sort of disillusioned with music and thinking I had been doing it since I had left school and wanted to do something else. A friend of mine had an antique shop selling old furniture, and he was a budding songwriter and always came around to my house with these songs, but they were like Bibles; they were like fifty pages in lyrics. He said I could have his shop for nothing and just pay him later, so I started doing that and sort of forgot about music. As it happened, it became really successful, and I made a load of money, much more than I had ever made being in Saxon. So I got sort of involved in that, and music got put on the back burner, although I never stopped writing songs because I’ve got a little studio in my house. Luckily for me, that little twist in my career meant that I could keep a nice house and live alright. So basically, I have always been in music, but I had a period where I did something else more than music.

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THE TWILIGHT YEARS

Graham, can you tell a little about the albums you did with Saxon after Steve had gone?

Graham Oliver: First of all, we did “Rock the Nations,” then we did “Destiny” with Nigel Durham, who’s playing with us now, on drums. I didn’t have much to do with those albums.

With the album “Destiny,” the band’s visual image got a bit over the top, wouldn’t you say?

Graham Oliver: Our image had been changing since the “Innocence” album; this was a reflection of the time. The next album was “Solid Ball of Rock,” which was Nibbs Carter’s first album. It was actually a very enjoyable time for myself and the band because then we went back to writing and recording as a unit. The most memorable time for me was the solo I recorded on ‘Alter of the Gods’, which Paul Quinn stated was the best solo I had ever composed.

Some sources claim that you didn’t play much on the “Dogs of War” album. What is the truth about it?

Graham Oliver: I did play on “Dogs of War.” We were recording in Revolution Studios on DAT machines. You have three machines, first of all, the one with 12 tracks for the drums and the bass, then you put another machine in and you have 24 tracks, and you do guitars and rhythm guitars and leads, and then you start doing vocals, and now you’ve got another machine bringing it to 36 tracks. You might not use all the 36, but they are for backing vocals and all this. Biff produced the album and what happened is that the management at the time [at the record company] didn’t like it; they wouldn’t have it. So they hired only two machines [to remix it], meaning they could only play 24 tracks, so anything on the third tape was lost. So backing vocals had to be done again, and two guitar solos of mine and two of Paul Quinn’s [were lost], and I have the recording from before that happened. The original album that Biff produced was actually better. I still have a copy of this for reference to prove that I did play a significant part in this record.

The album was released in 1994, and around the same time, you were out of the band. What did happen behind the scenes back then?

Graham Oliver: I didn’t leave. I was told that I would not be part of any future plans with Saxon. I was deeply upset and saddened by this and that no one had the guts to call me. A lot of friendships were brushed aside after many years.

So, what did you do after you had split your way with the band?

Graham Oliver: When I was out of the band, Pete Gill rang me up and asked what the fuck was going on. I said I had no idea, and he told me to ring Steve, and I did. So, to cut a long story short, he came to see me, and we went to see Steve. We got together and said we couldn’t be Saxon because that would have to include Biff and Paul; it can only be the original five guys who did it first. So we settled on Son of a Bitch and did the album, which was really a project to start with, we did a couple of gigs, and that was it. It was never going to be something because our singer Ted Bullet had commitments, and he was a fucking wild man. You could never go on the road with him; he used to smash things up. So Ted went, and then promoters were saying they’d book us, but they’d have to use the name Saxon. So we said we’re Oliver/Dawson Saxon.

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LIFE BEYOND SAXON

Well, that was enough of the past. Now let’s talk more about Oliver / Dawson Saxon. What plans do the band currently have for the future?

Steve Dawson: Well, since there are two versions [of Saxon], the promoters tend to book Biff’s…

Graham Oliver: We have offers from Germany now. Every time we used to have a German gig, we even set off to the airport once, we were nearly at Stansted to do a festival with Motörhead, and someone told the promoter to cancel us before we even set off. To me, it’s unfair because the songs that we play are ones that we mainly wrote. We just believe that we should be able to play our music.

Steve Dawson: When we get to the venue, there aren’t any problems with the audience. They all go crazy. And like Graham just said, we have more shows coming up than we’ve ever had, all over the place. We’ve played venues where the audience has seen the other version and then want to know what we’re doing, and it’s brilliant. I think there’s more aggression, more power in our version.

Graham Oliver: And because we’ve got nothing to lose. Steve and I are doing it now with exactly the same frame of mind and reason that we did it in 1979, not just to take the money.

Steve Dawson: There’s no money in our version! [laughs]

Graham Oliver:: We’re doing it purely for the music. We feel so passionate about the music; that’s why we’re doing it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it because Steve and I have to finance this fucking band ourselves for it to work. It’s like back to the beginning. People say we sound fucking brilliant, like the original Saxon. Well, if Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi played together in any band, they’d still sound like themselves, no matter what, and so do we. Steve and I can’t be different. I believe that Saxon has a sound, and we’re an integral part of that.

I remember that some ODS original material was released on “The Second Wave – 35 Years of NWOBHM -compilation, but do you have any plans to record more new material with this lineup?

Steve Dawson: Actually, there was a brand new studio built in South Wales, and this guy got us in this studio, and we recorded a CD of 15 tracks. Then the fucking studio went bust, it had only been open for about three months, but the guy never paid for anything and the actual stuff that was on hard drives that got repossessed, so we only had the listening tapes to see whether the tracks were coming on. We’re just in the process at the moment of getting the hard drives back.

When did these recording sessions take place?

Graham Oliver: About three years ago.

Steve Dawson: We’re going to play one of those songs tonight called “Whipping Boy,” which is going down ace.

Graham Oliver: Because we’re always being accused of not making our own music, but we’ve always made our own music. We’re our own thing, and that’s why we’re calling it ODS.

Speaking of the original five members, Pete Gill played on Son of a Bitch’s 1996 album “Victim You.” Do you know what he’s up to these days? Does he play drums anymore?

Graham Oliver: No, he’s not playing. He had to have a new knee.

Steve Dawson: He had a few years in the wilderness, but now he’s like back on straight and narrow. There are two heavy metal DJs in England called the Bayley Brothers, and one of them had a birthday party at this local pub, and there were all these different musicians there. Graham and I went, and Pete Gill went, and to cut a long story short, we three got up on stage and did “Wheels of Steel” and “747”. That was the first time that we played with Pete in a long time.

Graham Oliver: That was the last time Pete ever played drums. But I believe he could play again, and he just hasn’t got a lot of confidence.

Steve Dawson: He was still powerhouse Gill, though.

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Oliver/Dawson Saxon: Nigel Durham, Haydn Conway, John Wardy, Graham, and Steve

BIFF’S SAXON

Neil “Nibbs” Carter replaced Steve in Saxon, and you played several years with him in the band. How did you like him as a person and as a player?

Graham Oliver: When Steve and I were building this band, the original Saxon, with blood, sweat, and tears doing every gig with Iron Maiden in clubs, he was just a young lad, you know?

Do you have an opinion on Doug Scarrat, who replaced you in the band?

Graham Oliver: The criticism I’ve been told is that it’s like two Paul Quinn’s; you need that chemistry. But still, Nibbs is a great bass player; Nigel Glockler’s a great drummer.

Has either of you read Biff’s book “Never Surrender”?

Graham Oliver: We haven’t read it. I’ve only been told that there are some ‘unfounded’ accusations, which was why I got fired.

Do you guys know if there is still any high-quality unreleased material from the early Saxon days?

Graham Oliver: Steve has got some fantastic footage of Saxon on stage in 1979; we’ve got stuff in our archives that would blow you away. If there was going to be a definitive Saxon video, it should be in there to make it the best Saxon video for the fans.

Next year is the 30th Anniversary of the “Wheels of Steel” album. If you were asked to appear as special guests to Saxon, for example, at Wacken, would you do it?

Graham Oliver: Yes, because music is the most important thing. It would be like Pink Floyd coming together again; it would be a good statement to show that the music that Saxon made has stood the test of time and still has a place today.

Here’s hoping. Cheers guys!

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