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If there ever was a record that tried just a little too hard to represent the early 80s heavy metal phenomenon, but was nowhere near good or interesting enough musically to live up to this promise, it has to be Saxon’s quintunessential ‘Denim and Leather.’ The band may be entirely forgotten today – they’re still touring to a cult following – but these Yorkshiremen were once one of the biggest names in the home-grown New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement (NWOBHM). On its release in 1981, this album hit #9 and the single reached number 12. This means that, at one time, people were more interested in listening to Saxon than Tony Capstick & the Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band.
‘Denim and Leather,’ while completely mediocre, is nevertheless regarded as a genre classic by many. It’s certainly the last ‘quite-good’ album the band would produce in its original style, before moving to a more polished ‘quite-bad’ sound in a consistently failed attempt to break into the American market like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest managed (Saxon lacked only the talent). Whilst very little of Saxon’s output is comparable to their contemporaries even in this alleged classic period, the early albums are mostly enjoyable affairs, especially if you enjoy songs driven by derivative guitar riffs and embarrassing macho lyrics, as I do. You’d still be better off listening to Manowar, but Saxon were always a lot more radio-friendly.
‘Denim and Leather,’ follows the more impressive ‘Wheels of Steel’ and ‘Strong Arm of the Law’ released in quick succession the previous year, and is sadly the weakest of the three. This album suffers in a similar way to Iron Maiden’s sophomore release ‘Killers’ of the same year (which still fared better), by containing some classic, immortal staples of the Saxon live set amidst a sea of forgettable mediocrity. The main songs in question are helpfully singled out at the start and end of the album, in the form of the energetic ‘Princess of the Night’ lamenting a decomissioned train – not a prostitute like you thought – and the anthemic title track. ‘And the Bands Played On’ is slower and more heartfelt, and probably the highlight of the recording, as well as incredibly short to boot. It isn’t a flaw of Saxon albums that they never hit the forty-minute mark, as they were defecated forth from the studio in such rapid succession as to exceed the yearly output of more quality-centric bands.
Listening to this album is a reasonably enjoyable experience, if you disregard the fact that you could be spending your time listening to something more worthwhile, but it really hasn’t stood the test of time outside of its NWOBHM context. If anything, the music here veers away from the speedy heavy metal sound that was finally coming together in earlier songs like ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ and retreats into overly familiar, Led Zeppelinesque hard rock for the most part. Saxon’s artistic integrity seems to be fairly low, as every interesting feature – a pleasant guitar solo here or nice use of vocal harmony there – is instantly negated by blatant attempts at popularity. This wouldn’t be a problem if the band wasn’t so insistent on its rebellious, back-streets image, best expressed in the punk angst of ‘Play it Loud.’
Bill Bryford’s vocals earn the accolade of actually being distinctive, despite imitating the alternating wails and groans of every other band of the time, but the other musicians aren’t particularly notable. The twin guitars of Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn do nothing new and exciting, especially in contrast to the triumphant dual guitar melodies produced by every notable heavy metal band of the decade. The only instance of drums that stands out is the slow, plodding march of the title song. ‘Denim and Leather,’ the song, is a run-of-the-mill stadium anthem, but by its own low standards it actually manages to impress. Even outside of the catchiness of the chorus – which conjures in my mind, for some reason, a literal melting pot of torn jeans and beaten leather jackets being brewed in an attempt to capture the essence of heavy metal through clothing – the unoriginal leading riff is quite cool, and it’s quite nice to hear the chanting of fans fading in at the end to lead out the album.
The lyrics are pretty silly but nicely optimistic, as Bryford tells you to think positive and become a singer like him, embracing the life of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the kind of song that makes you realise how sterile it is to judge music based on artistic merit rather than the simple feeling it generates, and the way it can inspire these feelings in an entire generation’s sub-culture. But then you listen to one of the dozens of better albums that were released the same year that accomplishes exactly the same thing, and cast Saxon aside like the pointless underdog it ever shall be.