[19 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Starting off as a merely ordinary space rock outfit that followed the lead of Hawkwind, it was the addition of a flashy German teenager on lead guitar that transformed England’s UFO from a bunch of middling psychedelic burnouts to one of the most important bands of heavy metal/hard rock’s second wave in the mid-1970s. Essentially the bridge between the proto-metal sounds of Deep Purple and Uriah Heap and the brash, flashy New Wave of British Heavy Metal, UFO brought an edginess to their brand of hard rock, thanks to one Michael Schenker, whose sharp, memorable riffs and fluid, melodic solos served as the perfect foil for rough-throated vocalist Phil Mogg, yielding six albums in the process, including one undeniable classic, and one of hard rock’s finest live albums.
Schenker’s mercurial run with UFO would take the band right to the cusp of major success in America by 1978, only to see it slip from their grasp after the guitarist’s sudden departure from the band that year, to the point that by the mid-‘80s, they were a mere afterthought, not even garnering the same level of classic rock radio airplay that their peers like Scorpions and Blue Oyster Cult would go on to receive. However, as the fine new 19-track compilation The Best of UFO 1974-1983 proves, not only has the band’s classic material aged beautifully, but the post-Schenker years hold up nearly as well, too.
During that period spanning 1974 to 1978, though, UFO was near untouchable, as the compilation’s first dozen tracks attest. On 1974’s Phenomenon, the 19-year-old Schenker’s impact was immediate, and is best exemplified by the audacious “Rock Bottom”, which starts off as a wicked metal boogie, only to shift into a mesmerizing extended solo showcase for the young guitar god. As for “Doctor Doctor”, the album’s other classic track, and arguably the band’s most famous single, it’s been wisely passed over in favor of the blistering version from 1979’s Strangers in the Night live album. The 1975 follow-up Force It had the band gelling even more, the rhythm section of bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker propelling the Uriah Heap-esque rocker “Let It Roll”, Mogg’s charismatic delivery dominating the Stones-ish “Shoot Shoot”, while on 1976’s No Heavy Petting, Schenker’s solo during “I’m a Loser” catapults the track into the stratosphere, while his blue-collar riffs on “Natural Thing” was just what the arena crowds craved.
Lights Out (1977) was a substantial hit in both the US and the UK, the band’s now well-honed sound augmented by keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Paul Raymond. Produced by Ron Nevison, the album was carefully crafted for mass consumption, songs running the gamut, style-wise. The incendiary title track sounds absolutely scorching even today, and presaged the NWOBHM bands that would follow UFO’s example a few years later. “Too Hot to Handle”, on the other hand, is a straight-up party anthem, Schenker’s fills playful, Mogg’s vocals full of male braggadocio. Seven minute ballad “Love to Love”, though, is a marvel; unlike the mellow-loud-mellow-loud power ballads that would become popular in the 1980s, this track instead is a slow burner, built around a simple repeated keyboard arpeggio that at first sounds innocent enough, and indeed Mogg’s chorus of “Misty green and blue / Love to love to love you” is pure cornball shlock, but as Schenker starts to let his guitar dominate, the mood quickly shifts from wistful to menacing.
UFO’s post-Shenker material is considerably less consistent, but the tracks included here, featuring replacement axeman Paul Chapman, hold their own quite well. “Lettin’ Go” and “Young Blood”, from 1980’s George Martin-produced No Place to Run, lack the flair of Schenker, but remain a pair of solid, bluesy rockers. A year later, The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent would see Mogg exhibiting a thinly veiled Springsteen/Phil Lynott obsession, but true to form, the world class vocalist sells the shtick superbly on “Lonely Heart” and “Chains Chains”. Minor hit “Let It Rain” is an overlooked gem from ‘82’s Mechanix, but “When It’s Time to Rock”, from 1983’s Making Contact shows the band is clearly out of gas.
By 1983, Schenker had gone on to enjoy considerable success with the aptly named Michael Schenker Group (1982’s Assault Attack remains an ‘80s metal classic), Way joined forces with Motorhead guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clark, forming Fastway, then the even sillier-named Waysted a few years later. As for UFO, their thunder had long been stolen by younger UK phenoms like Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. Mogg, though, would continue to stubbornly soldier on with a revolving door of supporting musicians, and despite a reunion of the classic UFO lineup in 1993, the band would go on to toil in relative obscurity. Recently, though, they’ve begun to show signs of life again, as 2006’s The Monkey Puzzle, with Vinnie Moore as their umpteenth lead guitarist, proved to be a very respectable effort. But the real UFO, the one that transformed hard rock 30 years ago, remains essential listening, and for those looking for a quick primer, this compilation does the job nicely.