When Saxon entered Rampart Studios in February of 1980 to record their breakthrough LP (and second overall) “Wheels of Steel,” the NWOBHM was just starting to really unfold, and would arguably peak later that year, with debut records being released by the scene’s top contenders, most notably Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang and Girlschool.
With the exception of Iron Maiden, none of those groups however, not even Def Leppard, would chart that year as high as these working class boys from Barnsley. With the strength of singles from the record such as “747 (Strangers in the Night)” and the title track, “Wheels of Steel” actually at one time reached #5 in the U.K. national charts. Astonishing, especially for an independent, underground recording from a previously little known heavy metal band. (Can you imagine that happening in the U.S.?)
Listening to this CD you can hear why. This was then and now the ideal music for speeding down the freeway with this particular album blaring loud (probably on an eight track at the time). The aforementioned title track is particularly earthshaking, taking the deceptively simple but highly catchy riff patterns of bands like AC/DC before them and merging them with the reverb of early Motorhead. Side 2 of the original vinyl opens with the track that best embodies this spirit, “Freeway Mad.” The record’s second half actually proves to be speed metal city for the most part, on standout scorchers like “See the Light Shining” and “Machine Gun.” Sure, Motorhead and Judas Priest before them had at times been fast, but Saxon were FAST. You just did not find tempos this rapid in music in 1980 without crossing over into hardcore punk, making Saxon one of speed metal’s true pioneers.
These 2009 remasters are infinitely superior to any previous pressings of their early albums, both in sound quality and packaging. They boast a much fuller and more roomy sound than older editions, more like listening to the original LP, but without the expected crackles and pops of 30-year-old vinyl records. To add to that there are great and informative liner notes with input from frontman Biff Byford himself. The icing on the cake is that each CD contains a reproduction of the original LP’s back cover, making them essential for collectors.
Saxon would just keep getting better and better and followed up “Wheels of Steel” with two even better LPs (one later the same year!). “Wheels of Steel” though remains a defining moment in the band’s career and brings you right back to the excitement of the early NWOBHM scene. Highly recommended.