We’re now firmly in 1979, and it’s every bit as confused musically as 1978 was. There’s a period in my life coming up where I only bought albums by bands with long hair and distorted guitars, and I’ve had to work quite hard to keep this list representative without swamping the next few posts in albums which even I don’t really remember.
For the sake of research, of course, I have listened to some of them, but my decision not to include albums by the likes of Krokus, Tygers of Pan Tang or April Wine (no,really) was entirely justified.
Still, this was always going to be on the list. Indeed, when I tried to come up with some rules to help me narrow the selection down, the ‘no live albums’ rule was never going to make the cut because it would mean I couldn’t include this. It really is that good, and I’m going to try to explain why.
I have a post or two coming up which will try to explain my sudden conversion from thoughtfully nodding-along devotee of the abrasive and obscure to wildly head-shaking gangly, denim-clad fan of middle-age hearing loss, so I’m not going to go into all of that here. This album landed in my life probably about a year after it came out, just as all that noise was turning my head, but it was different then, and it is now.
UFO are too easily dismissed as just another heavy metal band, but I’ve never been convinced that was what they were trying to be. Sure, they fit into the same pattern established by Deep Purple and Uriah Heep – the five-piece with keyboards tempering the guitar-heavy sound, but there were as many cliches missing as present in their sound, and I’ve retained a fondness for their sound, and this album in particular, precisely because they didn’t do the things the other bands did.
For a start, UFO had a background in the late sixties underground, and at least one album which they themselves defined as ‘space rock’; their singer, the incomparable Phil Mogg, had a warm mid-range voice with no histrionics or extreme frequencies, their songs aimed more in the direction of Springsteen than Tolkien, and theirs was, unusually for the bands I was listening to at the time, music which worked significantly better live than in the studio.
According to my faulty memory, I saw them live at least three times, and remember that they were always good value; joyful and straightforward, clearly having as good a time up there as we were down here. You definitely couldn’t always say that about the avalanche of loud bands I went to see in those years; there was always something special about a UFO show.
(Incidentally, the only other band I remember as fondly in terms of terrific, engaging live shows were Whitesnake, but they weren’t getting on this list. Make of that what you will…)
Of course, they did – especially in the version of the band featured here – have an extraordinary guitarist who was writing the book on what rock or metal guitar was supposed to sound like; Michael Schenker had heard all of the first wave of rock guitarists and decided that he could do that, only faster and louder. Unencumbered by self-doubt, he propelled these otherwise perfectly solid rock songs into something closer to the sounds which the music of the NWOBHM – the world’s worst acronym – was about to make at once popular and unfashionable.
And there’s the issue, I think, with UFO. At a time when the musical trends were still firmly in the realm of the new and experimental; when ‘unpolished but keen’ was still a virtue, and when creating a new idiom rather than playing in an existing one was seen as crucial to success, UFO had found a sound and style which worked, and had polished it in hundreds, if not thousands, of live shows, but had discovered that – for the most part – the music press weren’t interested in that. Certainly radio and TV weren’t interested in them, and it was hard to shake off the idea that their sound was somehow ‘old-fashioned’ or derivative in some way.
I think you could say that about a lot of the bands which followed them, and I can honestly tell you that none of that criticism ever bothered me – my sole criterion for music at the time was whether or not I liked it – but I think it held them back. Even today, when many of the older bands have been reappraised in the light of having 50 years or more of context, I don’t think this terrific rock band have ever been afforded the respect they deserved.
Which, when you listen to the live behemoth that is Strangers in the Night (or to give it its full, original, title – Strangers in the Night: A Double Live Album), is frankly baffling.
Before I dove into the warm bath of nostalgia which is the music itself, a word or two about the album and why – in this case especially – more is less, and better is worse.
As I’ve noted already, double live albums were rare and precious beasts, and this one was no exception. The cover – by legendary suppliers of surreal covers to the likes of Pink Floyd, Hipgnosis – somehow captures the thrill of being right down the front of the stage by hiding the raw close-up photograph with pop art dots and lines. It’s still startlingly effective at capturing the energy of the whole thing without being in any way cliched or stereotypical. Even today, looking over at my own copy, it leaps out of the neat row of spines, almost insisting on being played.
Sadly, though, my own vinyl copy, although a thing of beauty in its own right, isn’t the same as the original copy. Throughout the whole of this project, I have been carefully noting every Spotify link which has in some way offered ‘extras’. This is the first album in the list whose reissued version messes with the running order (and, not incidentally for me) also completely changes the packaging, so that the careful diagonally placed wording, and the extension of the cover image into the gatefold, has been replaced by horizontal text, and a nasty dull green interior.
All of which means that I’m still searching for a second hand copy of the original release, because this stuff matters.
It matters that the original release features a running order which doesn’t reflect the actual stage show of the time. You might think it more important to keep the flow of the stage show, but I disagree. The stage set was designed to work as a full 90-minute plus event; the album has to work as four sides of vinyl, meaning that each side has to have its own flow. Each section has to cover arouns 20 minutes, and sound like it all fits together; each side has to have its own logic while leaving you wanting more.
The reissued and remastered vinyl edition breaks those rules, and while I still love the music (and appreciate the extra tracks, even if I still think ‘Cherry’ is one of those rare UFO songs which works much better in its studio incarnation, and is really weirdly placed as second song), I’d much rather have the original, which just works better.
The Spotify link up there, therefore, is a playlist I’ve put together which restores the original running order. All that’s missing is the original spoken introduction (the reissue adds it to the beginning of one of the extra tracks), which is a shame, but you can’t have everything.
This album, however, does have a pretty good stab at giving you everything. Schenker, famously, quit the band before this was released, meaning that he took no part in any overdubs or other tidying up of the sound; the extraordinary guitar is all exactly as it sounded on the night (or nights; no-one is pretending this is all from one show, and it is rumoured that there are even better takes out there, some of which have been released. While I’d like to hear those – and will track them down eventually – nothing can take the place of the original and the effect it had on me at the time.)
So, because of the way Spotify works, you’ll have to imagine the introduction (“Hello, Chicago! Would you please welcome from England…U…F…O!) before plunging in with me.
Natural Thing starts on this version with a spoken introduction which feels a little pout of place, but immediately sets the tone for the whole thing – the guitar riff is pushed a little back in the mix at times, making this a full band sound, and while it bounces along nicely, I’m already anticipating the transition to Out in the Street, where the band slow the tempo down and let the keyboards set the scene for a song which appears to be about a fading silent movie star. It’s the first time we hear Schenker really do his thing, and he somehow manages to make a guitar solo in his own wild style also fit the gentle melancholy of the whole song.
In the spirit of the whole ‘making each side flow’ idea; the other two tracks on side one crank up the pace; both Only You Can Rock Me and Doctor Doctor are splendid examples of the rock anthem; both together this early on in the album might threaten to overshadow what’s to come, but they’re merely setting the scene. Only You Can Rock Me is also a perfect example of the way UFO used dynamics to make their songs stand out; instead of just hurtling headlong into the solo, the song slows down, catches its breath and clears the stage for their young German superstar.
Michael Schenker repays the debt at the beginning of Doctor Doctor, laying out a carefully structured introduction before launching into the simplest and most straightforward (but also one of the most beloved) of UFO songs. It’s not a complicated thing, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. And this is only side one.
Side two begins somewhat controversially. Claiming to be a couple of songs short (although two songs were added to the reissue, so not sure what the real story is there), it was later – much later – revealed that both Mother Mary and This Kid’s were recorded as-live and added to this with overdubbed crowd noises. I certainly didn’t notice at the time, and I’m not sure what it matters now. One of the intriguing things about the idea of these being studio recorded is, of course, that this probably isn’t Schenker playing, but his replacement, Paul Chapman. I’m not sure you can tell the difference, which may be as a result of Chapman’s own versatility, or possibly simply down to my own familiarity with the songs; it all sounds right to me, because I’ve heard it so often. Listening now to This Kid’s I’m wondering if I do hear a different sound to the solo, or if I’m now projecting what I know onto it.
What I do hear is what I always loved about this song; the deliberate breakdown into a kind of loping blues to – once again – set the guitar solo off, before it. too breaks down and ends almost abruptly.
There’s no doubt, however, that Love to Love was recorded live; the studio version of this song has a grandeur to it, but the live version towers over that; carefully building its various instrumental introductions (including a pretty good for its time synthesized string section) before Mogg’s world-weary voice does heartbreak and loneliness in a way few singers in this genre ever did. Live, this song was always enhanced by the lighting; “misty green and blue” makes a lot more sense when you see it performed.
Love to Love is the first song where we properly get to hear what was so special about this band playing live; it is a slow song with all the pacing issues that can come with that, but they never let the tension of the song drop; it keeps you involved as it makes space for everyone to take the weight of the rhythm while we wait for the dam to break; when it finally does, the guitar solo is – of course – impeccable and inevitable, driving us to an ending which seemed unreachable at the beginning.
It’s at this point I will take a paragraph to wax lyrical about the bass playing of the late Pete Way. In many respects, Way was the focal point of the band in the live environment. Even more than his guitarists, Way was the energy of the band on stage, constantly on the move, always driving the songs along, or reining them in as needed, and not averse to a little showing off (or lying down) of his own. I’m probably going to forget to mention it when we get to Rock Bottom, but it’s the bass in that song which allows the astonishing guitar to work, and it’s Pete who gets the thing back on the rails once Schenker has – as far as anyone can tell – spontaneously combusted.
Halfway through, and the pace picks back up – Lights Out is an inevitable crowd-pleaser, allowing Phil Mogg to demonstrate that he does indeed know which city he’s in (Chicago in this case) and provoke an audience which is already bouncing along to even greater frenzy. Lights Out also demonstrates the flexibility of the UFO lineup – the keyboards are a key part of the overall sound, but if Paul Raymond needs to pick up his rhythm guitar and keep the train rolling, he does just that, underpinning the instrumental sections with a doubling of the rhythm, which lets the actual rhythm section keep the pace of the thing going.
And then we reach the centrepiece of the whole thing, the full eleven minutes of Rock Bottom, demonstrably a crowd favourite, and – of course – the one where the guitarist gets to properly show off.
Except, I don’t buy the whole ‘showing off’ thing. I don’t know how this song evolved from its studio version to the whole wig-out we hear here, but it will surely have been an organic thing; the middle eight slowly expanding as Schenker thinks of something else he can add to the structure of it. At no point does it feel to me that he’s just playing for the sake of playing; there’s a structure to it, at first an interaction with the rest of the band before he pulls on a thread long enough for it to start to unravel and take him to somewhere new. It’s what musicians do; what they’ve always done – just follow the music and see where it will take them. Sometimes we get to go with them, and when someone as startlingly talented as Michael Schenker is at the wheel, you’ll be taken to places you really didn’t expect.
There’s a drum fill towards the end which seems to signal the start of a second movement, or an understanding that we’ve reached the point where it needs to come back to the main theme, then Schenker wraps it all up and stands back, wondering where the song went.
Everyone takes a deep breath, then it’s once more round the main structure of the song before an inevitably protracted ending, because you can’t just end a song like that; you have to end it.
Rock Bottom will, I’m sure, have been the final song of the main set; whet’s left are the encores, and they are signalled for the owner of the original vinyl edition by having to get up and turn a disk over.
Spotify, of course, ploughs straight on, but if you want to take a short pause at this point, I recommend doing just that.
Side four is pretty much party time – Too Hot to Handle is a straightforward fun rock song, tempered by I’m a Loser which is probably the finest example of the social realist UFO song – they flirted with this idea several times during their career, but perhaps never as successfully as this, with its evocation of being homeless in the big city. Not, perhaps, where the previous couple of songs had been pointing, but as much classic UFO as the whole ‘rocking out and having fun’ songs.
I’m pretty sure it didn’t come in the middle of the encore in reality, though; it definitely brings the vibe down a notch.
On the home straight now, though – Let it Roll is closer in spirit to those early Deep Purple songs than anything else here – the nearest UFO ever came to a ‘cars and girls’ song, but with the dynamics we’ve come to love keeping it from becoming just a mindless ‘driving fast’ song; there’s always something more in the music than is hinted at in the lyrics of a UFO song, and nothing spells that out better than this song, with the keyboards shadowing the guitar through the instrumental break and giving it a distinctive shove as it kicks back into gear.
It comes to an end with Shoot Shoot, another clear crowd-pleaser, and pretty much the perfect song to end on, as it contains all the elements which have made the previous eighty or so minutes such fun; catchy melodies, great interplay between all the musicians, wild guitar work, and just an enormous sense of everyone thoroughly enjoying themselves.
I know I see this album through the uncritical lens of nostalgia, but, honestly, if I had to save only one album from the dozens I bought around this time to represent the kind of hard rock or whatever genre you want to call it that I loved so much back then, it would be this one, hands down, no contest. It’s quite possibly the greatest live album of its kind, and pretty much one of the best rock albums of all time. No way it wasn’t going on this list.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Everything you read will tell you it’s Lights Out, and it’s a fine studio album to be sure (but with the caveat, as noted, that the live versions blow the studio ones out of the water). Personally, I’d recommend one of the later studio albums, The Wild, The Willing and the Innocent (remember what I said about Bruce Springsteen?) – it covers all the UFO bases, and is pretty much the peak of their mature songwriting.
Compilations to consider?
If you treat this as a compilation, it’s pretty much unbeatable, although there are some later songs worth consideration, so I’d probably go for Headstone. I know they got back together and kept making music, but they definitely peaked around 1981, and Headstone covers that era as well.
I haven’t listened to any of the others, but they were always a compelling live band, so anything which is well recorded and has decent sound will probably hit the spot.
Anything else? If you’ve become hooked on the wild and crazy guitar sound of Michael Schenker, then you should check out some of his solo work, although it does sound a little dated now. I remember being particularly fond of his Live at Budokan album, so maybe start there. I know I’d read a biography of UFO (I read Bernie Marsden’s book a while back; having been briefly in UFO in the mid-seventies, he had some interesting things to say; I’d love to hear the other side of the story, and all the other stories…)