Nether Regions 10.04.11: Saxon - Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie
Posted by Chad Webb on 10.04.2011
This week’s rarity is relatively new documentary about a British heavy metal group that always had trouble “cracking America” as Lars Ulrich put it….
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
HEAVY METAL THUNDER: THE MOVIE
Featuring (as themselves): Biff Byrford, Paul Quinn, Graham Oliver, and Steve Dawson Directed By: Craig Hooper Running Time: 2 hours and 51 minutes Original Release Date: July 27, 2010 Missing Since: Never Released in the US Existing Formats: Region 0 DVD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Moderately Rare
Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie is a documentary about the British heavy metal band Saxon, which formed in 1976 in Barnsley, Yorkshire. The 2-Disc DVD set I purchased is relatively new, but what makes it somewhat hard to find, and thus suitable for this column, is that you can only purchase it throughout Europe. On top of that, finding any information on it, whether it be Wikipedia or IMDB, is difficult since no listings exist. I own a multi-region DVD player, so I bought it. The package comes with 6 hours of material: the documentary, making of mini-films, archival interviews, concerts, and a bonus booklet. It was funded by hardcore fans, who donated money to buy the documentary before it was even made.
Saxon's 5th studio album. Cover designed by Ridley Scott.
Here's where it gets weird. I heard about this documentary on That Metal Show (see that video review below), an American series on vH1 Classic. Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie was one of their picks of the week, but they forgot to mention you can only get it over seas because I could not find any copy available in the US. Nevertheless, I was excited to watch it because my knowledge of Saxon lies mainly on the surface. I underestimated the running time though. This baby clocks in at nearly 3 hours. That's a lot of time with Saxon, or any gathering of musicians for that matter, but think of this as an extended, uncut version of vH1 Behind the Music. If you like that series, you will enjoy this. Of course it also helps if this music is your cup of tea.
The documentary was directed by Craig Hooper and made by Coolhead Productions. The crew doesn't employ the slickest editing in the history of music documentaries, but considering the funds, this is a remarkable achievement. It is comprised of candid and fascinating interviews with most of the members of the band (past and present), along with their manager, Lemmy, Lars Ulrich, and other associates. It is also wonderfully narrated by Toby Jepson. Lead singer Biff Byron, with a long mane of gray, aging rocker hair, is the centerpiece and is on camera more than anyone. The original line-up are the highlights: Guitarists Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver, Bassist Steve "Dobby" Dawson, and drummer Nigel Glocker. Original drummer Pete Gill declined to be interviewed. He left in 1981 due to a hand injury, but later wound up in Motorhead for three years.
Biff begins by discussing his childhood growing up in Yorkshire, working in the mines and eventually leaving to pursue being a musician. He talks about how the members came together to form the group Son of a Bitch. The origins are fairly standard. They performed in dilapidated bars, were poor, and were waiting to score a record deal. There is a funny story about an invention they created to steal cigarettes. They attached a nail to a piece of bamboo and when they arrived early at a bar, before it opened, they stuck this device through the cage and caught packs of cigs. After years playing for next to nothing, with each person sleeping on a mattress in a van, the French label Carrere Records signed them. First order of business: changing the band name. Son of a Bitch almost became Spitfire, but then somebody suggested Anglo-Saxon, which was of course shortened to Saxon. After a middling self-titled debut album that failed to sell to expectations, the label declared they had no more money for them.
David Poxon was their manager, on at least two occasions, and he prepared key gigs to spread their name around. This included a tour with Nazareth and Motorhead. Amusingly, they had a choice to tour with either UFO or Motorhead, but with the latter they would have to pay for a spot. They wanted UFO, but the label decided for them, and they were off with Lemmy and Motorhead on the Bomber tour. Their sophomore album, Wheels of Steel, would fare better and produced a couple of hits for them in the title track and "747." From there Saxon would continue to ascend as one of the most popular metal groups in the U.K. They churned out albums at a rapid pace. 1981's Denim & Leather, arguably their seminal release, was followed by a successful live album in 1982, and then Power & the Glory from 1983, whose cover was designed by none other than Sir Ridley Scott.
Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie is most intriguing when examining the fade of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in favor of glam rock. With new management, the goal was to transform Saxon into a more accessible rock group, even begging them to wear make-up. As entertaining and solid as Saxon are, they have never "cracked America" as Lars Ulrich puts it. I won't go into excessive detail about the documentary, but it covers Saxon's timeline from birth to present, spanning over 30 years, with amazing clarity and passion. I appreciate when documentaries touch on all the albums, along with the member changes, from a respective group. That's what I find interesting, and 9 times out of 10, the discography is skimmed over.
The reason why Saxon never made it big in America could be as simple as never having a massive hit to something far more complicated like image, management, or politics. Now, as I mentioned, there are interviews with Lars Ulrich and Lemmy, but by all accounts, Saxon are a very unique (but certainly nice) group of guys. They had oodles of females to choose from over the years, but you have to hear them speak about sex on the road and getting all that attention. One can tell they didn't, and perhaps still don't, know how to handle it. Biff talks about having sex with multiple women at one time and then faking an orgasm because he couldn't perform. Steve Dawson later describes how they memorized the penises of the members from Motley Crue. These guys were not known partiers, did not drink, and did not do drugs. Dawson had a brief stint with cocaine, but stopped after one coked out companion drove too fast on the highway. There is a segment on the documentary on how they are always drinking tea. Lemmy is obviously holding back a joke or two when they question him about this.
Bassist Steve Dawson, inspiration for Derek Smalls from This is Spinal Tap.
Ted Nugent has been forever vocal about his lack of drug and alcohol use, but what separates him from Saxon is that he's insane. I have never observed a heavy metal group like Saxon before, and that is not a knock on them, but they are odd fellas without a doubt. Though I must say, the stories from touring about groupies and one-night stands are hilarious. They have a distinct attitude, so much so that they were one of the inspirations for Rob Reiner's classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. Every member is interviewed about this, and the topic spurs mixed reactions. They admit to the film being funny, but some of them are still embarrassed at the notion that they were the primary influence. It is hard to deny the similarities between Dawson and Derek Smalls however.
Of course many bands suffer from a revolving door of member departures and entrances, and Saxon is no different. Biff Byron has remained the leader and frontman since their inception, and quiet guitarist Paul Quinn is still present as an original player, but the documentary includes riveting sequences on the terminations of Steve Dawson and Graham Oliver. To date those two have not worked out their issues with Biff and the rest of the group. The suggestion of a reunion is not completely dismissed, but just about. Despite all the lineup changes, Saxon is still renowned for their live performances, and Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie contains several superb clips from various live shows, including rare footage from the Motorhead Bomber tour in 1979, Wacken Open Air in 2009, and many others.
Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie is not as heart wrenching and gripping as say Anvil: The Story of Anvil!, but it's a commendable piece about a group the majority of metal fans have probably heard of, but never really explored. In many ways, Saxon reminds me of Overkill, another metal group that has been releasing consistently favorable albums for decades, but have never quite gotten over the hurdle to mainstream success in North America. I sincerely hope that this documentary is more readily available in the US because it deserves the recognition. If you're interested in buying it, click here.
Final Rating: 8.5/10.0
Essential Saxon Album: Demin and Leather (1981)
- They have had 19 studio albums, 10 live albums, and 11 compilation albums
- I have read varying reports of this DVD working in region 1 players. It is described as region 0 (region free), so you might get lucky if you buy it.