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In 1981, the classic Saxon line-up broke-up with the departure of Gill, who 3 days before the Denim And Leather tour started was replaced by then-Bernie Tormé sticksman Glockler, as he had suffered a serious hand injury. Nigel became shortly afterwards a full band member, taking drum duties on the group’s first live record The Eagle Has Landed - Live in 1982, so you see the 4th studio album wasn’t just a turning point in quality and musical terms. Despite the lack of inspiration and direction on the last release and the formation change, Saxon kept doing shows, maintaining their status of NWOBHM big shot, so it was a right choice to capture all that splendor while it lasted. As usual, as people rightly say a live album marks the beginning and the end of an era for a group, this one certainly did as the hungry early years phase came to an end once Biff & co. played that epic ending on “Machine Gun” here.
It’s a truly solid set-list, featuring the heavy artillery of the mighty 2nd and 3rd albums, plus 3 new tracks from the recent one – Saxon could do no wrong. Tracks like “Motorcycle Man” and “20,000 Feet” drove the enthusiastic crowd crazy with vicious riffage, blistering double-bass kicks and overwhelming power with the Barnsley fivesome at its best, performing professionally and passionately those refreshing NWOBHM anthems. “Princess Of The Night” and “Strong Arm Of The Law” maintain the intensity and fire, however going unexpectedly slower than the studio originals, revealing certain exhaustion from the group on auto-pilot as their playing lacks ferocity and attitude. Of course, there are no variations or distinct arrangements to be found here but the feel is alarmingly similar to the original song versions, making most of the set kinda dull and generic. The combo Oliver-Quinn is particularly uninspired, deprived of the astonishing chemistry on previous efforts on songs like “747 (Strangers In The Night)” and “Never Surrender”, on which they deliver some poorly-designed, chaotically improvised pickin’ parts that elude the discipline and taste displayed in the studio. Biff’s voice doesn’t sound very convincing either, he’s introducing few verse changes, loyally obeying the studio version patterns predictably with an often erratic, fragile tone. He never possessed an incredible voice, yet he doesn’t lack charisma on other hand – making the avid fans sing along the “Wheels Of Steel” extended sequence of choruses enthusiastically (which is the only modification from the original album configurations you’ll find here). The most tedious moments arrive with the introduction of the newest stuff from the last record like “Fire In The Sky”, considerably weaker musically than the rest of classics, played without much distinction and energy either.
The performance is honest, occasionally decent but not better from what Saxon did on the studio. Particularly, this new rhythm section is deprived of the power and ferocity Pete’s immense drumming provided (check out those epic live bonus tracks on the Strong Arm Of The Law EMI 2006 CD reissue). Nigel was a competent replacement but not unleashed or defining an own style yet, generally simply copying Gill’s fills and rolls with bad chemistry with Dawson, whose lines are buried under guitars and voice completely. Sound quality definitely ruined the set actually, guitars are too loud, featuring sloppy, fragile texture and distortion as you can hear on the lame intro on “Never Surrender” which for a second includes 3 guitar tracks, so if I didn’t lost track myself I’m afraid they felt tempted to use some studio tricks and overdubs that ain’t making the music sound any better, though. The fragility on the Denim And Leather albums is reflected vividly on this performance, not only on the numbers from that record, even the classic this are played without much punch or rage, flat and dull instead, representing the increasing absence of direction of the group. The minimalist performance of the songs exactly as they were originally configured in the studio came as no surprise, specially if you were familiar with the usual simplistic methodology and scruffiness of these guys, as well intentionally or not obeying the principles of the NWOBHM, pushing away the complication and epic of 70’s rock shows. Spontaneous jams, improvisation (with the exception of a couple of newly-arranged solos) and extra instrumental sequences they didn’t play in the studio are out of the question. Even though Byford & co. have never been too meticulous or perfectionist musicians, they deliver a cleaner, more accurate performance than other chaotic subgenre peers.
They can do it better than this; I insist you’d better not miss those bonus tracks I mentioned which reflect the true potential of Saxon on stage. This set sounds very much like the studio originals without much difference instead, simply featuring a scruffier production, crowd noise and goofs, inadequately engineered, making the polished studio material a better choice. The Eagle Has Landed - Live isn’t a challenging, inspired or talented album, it rather confirmed the growing vulnerability of the group in a turbulent period in their history – it meant the end of the glorious early years as well and the beginning of the musically-poorer mid-80’s era. Not a spectacular farewell but much stronger and superior to the many sequels they did of this record later (how many by now? 3, 4?).
Picture yourself in the world famous Barnsley Opera house, amongst hundreds of fellow Gumby enthusiasts. “Sax ‘un” “Sax ‘un”, bays the man next to you; excitement has reached fever pitch. It’s Saxon at the height of their powers, the peak just before the slow descent into barely passable hair metal. And finally, over the PA we hear…
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Derek and Trevor tour”
Guitars scream, bassists point and Biff informs you that ‘Strong Arm of the Law’ is off the ‘Strong Arm…’ album, a shocking revelation if there ever was one. It certainly isn’t the coolest gig in town, nor by 1982 is it the heaviest and it certainly isn’t the best looking, but by God is it fun.
So indeed, this is Saxon at the very pinnacle of the commercial and creative powers. With a set-list culled from such SYGM classics as ‘Wheels of Steel’, ‘Strong Arm…’ and of course, ‘Denim and Leather’. But some found the original, a mere single vinyl, was incomplete. But thankfully, Biff and the boys have rectified this problem adding a whole assortment of bonus tracks. Sure ‘Midnight Rider’ and ‘Dallas 1pm’ aren’t my favourite Saxon tracks, but they sound a hell of a lot better in the live environment. The most important addition here is the sing-along brilliance of ‘The Bands Played On’, no Saxon gig would be complete without this. Yet still, no ‘Denim and Leather’, madness!
Interestingly enough, in the albums pacing, we kick off with three different transport modes. Motorcycles, yeah they’re rock ’n’ roll alright. A 747? Ok, if it’s going for an emergency landing and not a commercial flight to Benidorm. A train delivering post? Oh please, Mr Byford, try to hide the fact that backstage instead of hookers and blow you have a model train! What d’ya mean no? Fuck, even Rush are cooler than you guys, at least they have roast chickens for a back-line. Still, terminally uncool moments aside, this a very forceful and dramatic way to open a live album. Saxon’s uncouth nature certainly never hindered them in the live environment, they always remind me of a dog who just can’t wait to bound and leap away after his master’s stick and then chase his own tail until he becomes dizzy and falls over. Throughout their career, the band’s enthusiasm in the live arena is both astounding and commendable. I’ve watched footage of the band playing a backwater festival somewhere in Europe or even to a pub full of indie kids who expected a surprise gig from The Cure and they still command the stage as if they were playing Wembley Stadium. Just shows how good a live band you can be if you don’t mind that your band looks like they were given fifteen quid to spend in a charity shop for stage wear.
‘The Eagle has Landed’ aptly displays the seamless shifting Saxon utilise. For every proto-thrash metal barrage such as the frantic ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ we get a more boogied piece of rock ’n’ roll in say ‘Strong Arm of the Law’ or metal’s greatest paean to disabled women, ‘Wheels of Steel’. This pacing ensures, that unlike Biff’s claims the audience will not actually die from exhaustion and in all makes for a very enjoyable listen.
Special praise must be given to Nigel Glockler, who not only gives an exemplary performance on drums, but was only in Saxon for about fifteen minutes prior to these recordings, after Pete Gill was given his marching orders. As well as being the most accomplished musician in Saxon at this point, Nigel gives a lesson in speed metal precision. See the rip-roaring finale of ‘Machine Gun’, this is double bass utilised to perfection. If you want double bass to really give a song weight, use it tastefully rather than relentlessly (unless you are say, Philthy Animal Taylor). Complete overuse will limit it’s dramatic and sonic effect, so putting a rather break-neck bit of double bass at a song’s climax is a far more refreshing approach than the unrelenting modern approach to this technique.
However, ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ did have the same curse of the live album that has stricken so many of rock’s hopefuls. Motörhead had the exact same problem with ‘No Sleep…’, how do you follow a immensely successful live album with what are considered to be your “greatest hits”? A very difficult question indeed. Often bands struggle and flail, ‘Iron Fist’, ‘Power and the Glory’ and even UFO’s ‘No Place to Run’ show this, all are far from bad, just somewhat uninspired compared to the live majesty that preceded them.
So a seminal NWOBHM document and one of metal’s best live albums. An absolutely mandatory purchase for those with an interest as to why Saxon kick unexplainable amounts of arse. But why no ‘Derek and Trevor’? Shame really, oh well, all together now;
“Derek and Trevor, brought us all together!”