There’s underrated, underappreciated and undervalued. For UFO, it’s the last word on that list that has proven the most problematic. It would be difficult to argue the band is underrated or underappreciated by fans of bristly ‘70s street urchin rock. From the early to late ‘70s the group released a stream of celebrated, now classic hard rock albums, finding plenty of commercial and artistic success along the way. However, the ‘80s were not kind to the band or its fans, and a series of lacklustre and increasingly uninspired albums tainted UFO’s legacy throughout the decade. And, some would say, ever since.
The studio albums that brought the band the most fame, fortune and creative acclaim—all recorded with whippersnapper German guitar god Michael Schenker—were collected together on a five-CD remastered box set in 2011. With bonus live tracks and assorted B-sides and rarities, The Chrysalis Years (1973–1979), represented the band’s artistic peak. A very reasonably priced collection, with a raft of great sweeteners, it captured the band reveling in its rock ‘n’ roll glory years. It’s an essential purchase for hard rock fans.
The recently released second part of the UFO reissue series, The Chrysalis Years (1980–1986), captures the band on an entirely different trail, one marked by diminishing returns and a steep creative descent. By the start of the ‘80s, internal tensions in the UFO camp had caused Schenker to exit the band, taking much of its impetus and rough-hewn artistry with him. Schenker went on to further acclaim before personal issues derailed his career, but what followed for UFO is perhaps why the band has come to be so undervalued in the annals of hard rock.
The Chrysalis Years (1980–1986) is, once again, a multi-disc remastered collection comprised of No Place to Run, The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent, Mechanix, Making Contact and Misdemeanor, along with assorted live and obscure tracks. Following Schenker’s exit, UFO decided on Paul ‘Tonka’ Chapman as the replacement for the guitar hero role, and to be fair, his playing is more than competent. Initially he bought a dusky roots-rock tenor to the band, but that was not to last, and comparisons with a six-string legend like Schenker were always going to make life difficult for him.
UFO clearly recognized this, and reconfigured its sound for 1980’s No Place to Run, which had a more leisurely pace and focused less on flashy guitar histrionics. Produced by none other than George Martin, the album was full of ideas, and vocalist Phil Moog and the rest of the band sounded enthusiastic and in fine fettle. No lasting damage from Schenker’s exit was evident—not at this point anyway—and if any album on the collection warrants a reassessment and more attention, No Place to Run is assuredly the one. In addition to the album, a gutsy live show from early 1980 reveals Chapman as a fiery guitar slinger. Though he lacked Schenker’s finesse, he could clearly hold his own on stage.
The band’s next two albums, 1981’s The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent and 1982’s Mechanix, showed all the signs of a band struggling to maintain its velocity—although surprisingly, Mechanix was UFO’s biggest chart success in years. Further exiting members, and an attempt to combine slicker ‘80s hard rock with the band’s boisterous temperament, made for two jumbled and dithering releases. Neither is a complete disaster. The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent was a valiant attempt at blending sophisticated melodic rock into the mix. Measured against all that had come before, the band was clearly grasping for direction.
Given the rise of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and heavier musical ventures in general since the late ‘70s, it’s understandable the band was not on sure footing in the early ‘80s. It watched as scrappier acts, which clearly drew inspiration from it, eclipsed its success. There’s a marked contrast between The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent/Mechanix and the band’s looser ‘70s albums. The two albums sound dull and dated, and the band’s ‘70s work sounds visceral and energetic to this day. The band was drifting in the ‘80s, and sounded undecided on which path to follow. And things were only going to get worse.
Founding member and bassist Pete Way split after touring for Mechanix, leaving only two original members, Moog and drummer Andy Parker, in the line-up that recorded ‘83’s Making Contact. The resulting album was a shambolic muddle, and a critical and commercial failure. The band sounded extremely weary and uninspired, and the occasional searing riff, which attempted to claw back a few harder rock credentials, didn’t bolster the depressingly mundane album. The band subsequently and sensibly called it quits after the album tour.
The tale of UFO’s descent from the lofty heights of hard edged rock ‘n’ roll stardom to melodic rock mediocrity was muddied. Hubris, drugs and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction obviously all played a part, as did the collapse of artistic confidence (compounded by endless acts citing the band as an influence before going on to greater success). It’s a rather sad story, if replete with rock ‘n’ roll clichés, and one has to feel for UFO as it watched its career and reputation slide away. However, the final nail in the coffin had yet to be hammered in. The vacuous drivel of ‘86’s atrocious Misdemeanor took care of that, as Moog attempted a comeback, of sorts. Middle of the road, commercial rock rubbish, Misdemeanor was an extremely unimaginative album filled with ‘80s melodic pap, and it signaled the end of UFO’s relationship with label Chrysalis.
You’d forgive a band a poor album or two, but the five-album slide into an artistic abyss from ‘80 to ‘86 is exactly why UFO has become so undervalued. This collection is littered with increasingly pedestrian detritus. That said, it’s important to point out that The Chrysalis Years (1980–1986) is still worth investing in, however contradictory that sounds. It’s very reasonably priced, and once you’ve sorted the wheat from the chaff there’s some great material to be found—which makes it an ideal purchase for the curious and the die-hard UFO fan alike. The live albums included are all worth listening to; they vividly illustrate the band’s initial post-Schenker determination, and its ensuing deterioration. The rarities on the box set will be of interest to some, and The Chrysalis Years 1980–1986 is the perfect way to gauge the band’s later material without having to purchase single album reissues.
No one is going to claim The Chrysalis Years 1980–1986 captures UFO in a favorable light, especially if you follow the albums in chronological order. But the collection manages to turn a negative into a positive by proving once again why the band’s ‘70s work is rated so highly—even if that is to be appreciated by listening to its subsequent plummet. No Place to Run and, to a certain extent The Wild, The Willing and the Innocent, are well worth revisiting, and a scattering of tracks throughout offer glimpses of the band’s former glory.
The Chrysalis Years 1980–1986 could, at best, be described as a mixed bag. But if picking it up leads anyone yet unacquainted with the band to seek out UFO in its most powerful years, then it’s a complete success.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Notes from the Road
"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.READ the article