Monday, March 5, 2012
Beginner's Guide To UFO
It may be an odd comparison to make, but when the Beatles came along in the very early '60s, playing mostly other people's songs, they still managed to do what no other bands had done. Then they moved on to writing their own songs and, again, they managed to do what no other band had done. Not happy to simply repeat the formula, or sound like any other band, they didn't just create their own style, they invented a musical language that all band's employ to this day. By doing so, they again did what no other band had managed to do.
Over the course of eight years, they somehow managed to not only go from doing other people's tunes to writing pretty good songs of their own, to writing really great songs of their own, to creating psychedelic rock and, yes, even heavy metal ("Helter Skelter" anyone?).
What has always puzzled me is the number of musicians who witnessed such one-of-a-kind greatness, such unspeakable musical highs, and still had the guts to pick up an instrument knowing full well they'd never come close to creating anything remotely groundbreaking, much less listenable. There have been tons of mediocre and downright lousy bands in the years following the Beatles. Some have even managed to get signed and do okay for themselves.
Is it misplaced bravado or simply the desire to feel just a tenth of what John, Paul, George and Ringo felt when they coaxed such beauty from wood and wire?
I ask this because thousands of bands came crawling out of the woodwork during and after the Beatles and the world is a better place because of it. A band didn't have to change the world to give you a fucking rush. Bands like Led Zeppelin injected blues and heavy amplification into the mix and came up with something that would prove to be almost as groundbreaking, but much more sexual, than anything the Beatles had done.
Of course, in their wake, even more bands would follow. While nowhere near as flashy or well-managed, or, for that matter, lucky, a new wave of British hard rock acts emerged in the early '70s. They toured relentlessly, built their audience one town and one show at a time.
One such band was UFO.
While their first two albums, UFO and UFO 2, are not without their moments, they show a band in an almost embryonic stage of development. On UFO 1, though, they do manage to turn in an inspired version of Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" that recalled Blue Cheer's steamrolling version of Cochran's "Summertime Blues". Cool, but hardly earth-shattering or original.
The band's 1974 opus, Phenomenon, was their introduction to the US market brought about by their move to major label Chrysalis Records. Quite notably, the album also marked the introduction of guitarist Michael Schenker, eighteen years old at the time and fresh from a brief stint with the Scorpions. Already heralded as a very talented guitarist, his addition to the band raised the stakes considerably.
As a result, Phenomenon, while a huge step forward, is still the sound of a band finding its way, gaining confidence with every step. The album opens in passably boogie-riffic fashion with "Oh My", then shifts into a slower gear on "Crystal Light" (hmm, I suddenly find myself thirsty, but for what? Some Crystal Light, perhaps?). By the time "Doctor Doctor" comes roaring out of my speakers, I'm beginning to think that maybe my childhood could have used a little more of this.
Granted, I wasn't even ten years old yet when this album was released and, truth be told, I never actually saw it in any of the record stores I frequented growing up in small town Michigan. If I had, I know the cover would have gotten my attention and that I'd have more than likely picked it up. I mean, as a kid, I bought the "melting face" Peter Gabriel album based solely upon the cover art. Why not UFO?
Having said that, at this point, one must question whether or not UFO's sound truly matches the sophistication of their album covers. Hipgnosis, the art house that designed the cover (as well as other legendary ones for the likes of Pink Floyd, 10cc, Led Zeppelin, ELO, T. Rex, and Bad Company, among others) was known for dreaming up images alternately mysterious and menacing.
Thus, from Phenomenon's cover, one could not be faulted for expecting something slightly more mysterious, more menacing, like Pink Floyd at their most introspective or 10cc with their deceptively subversive musical bends. What one hears instead is the sort of band that would seemingly be just as happy to slap the current version of their four faces on the cover and be done with it. Their lyrics seem to confirm such suspicions, never once conveying anything even remotely mysterious or menacing.
As if to prove my point, "Rock Bottom" announces itself as the sort of clichéd rock song that must have been cool at one time, though I am hard-pressed to determine when that might have been. Truth be told, this is the sort of song that could have only existed (in a serious sense, at least) in the year that was 1974.
By '79, it would be the stuff of sad, out-of-time rock bands at the bottom of a huge bill of bands all opening for Status Quo. By '83, only Spinal Tap could get away with such material and only then with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The song, the album, and the band themselves are largely representative of the musical no-man's-land that was 1974. For the most part, it was still living in the shadow of the late '60s, but still years away from the vibrant rock explosion of the late '70s that saw punk dismantle the old guard and blaze the trail that would give way to the emergence of bands that would define the "new wave".
Still, refresh my memory…why is "Too Young To Know" not one of those prototypical '70s rock tunes that is a staple of every classic rock station's playlist; one of those songs we all love and know by heart despite ourselves? It's got enough tasty guitar riffage and hooky double-tracked vocals to have achieved certain rock radio saturation. There is no doubt an alternate universe somewhere with much better tunes on their radio stations.
"Time On My Hands" seems intent upon setting the clock back to an even simpler time, with a vocal performance that evokes Faces-era Rod Stewart. Oh, that Stewart should have ever found his way to this song, with all the crap he's been covering lately. He's well-past having the voice to do it justice these days, but Rod pre-"Atlantic Crossing" could have torn the roof off this mutha.
That's not to say that Mogg doesn't give one of his most memorable and spirited performances. In fact, he appears to be hitting his stride just as the album enters the final stretch. On the bluesy Willie Dixon cover, "Built For Comfort", he injects just enough sly confidence to give any UK white-bread blues singer a run for their money. Schenker, by comparison, is the perfect musical foil, unleashing a flurry of licks that mix the familiar with the sublime. One is left wondering why the band didn't devote more time and energy to this sort of material.
Of course, the minute I mention Mogg hitting his stride, the band kills the momentum with, of all things, an instrumental called "Lipstick Traces". On "Queen of The Deep", the band returns to form and closes out the album just as they began - in full boogie mode.
A year later, the band released Force It, an album that raises the stakes with more volume, faster tempos, and tighter arrangements. Mogg seems to have gained a noticeable amount of confidence as a singer and the band is the better for it. Additionally, for once the album cover (two half naked teenagers on the verge of "discovery" in the shower) matches the music found within.
"Shoot Shoot", for example, rockets out of the starting gate like a thoroughbred, the band firing seamlessly on all cylinders. While the band's affinity for mellower tracks on Phenomenon (notably "Crystal Light" and "Space Child") served only to derail the rock & roll juggernaut, the band mercifully makes but one one lightweight pop detour (the forgettable "High Flyer"). The remaining nine cuts deliver the goods in high volume.
Having not been terribly familiar with the band, even I was aware of Michael Schenker's legend as a guitar hero. About halfway through Force It I begin to see why. Not only does he excel in a variety of stylistic environments, from blues to acoustic to all-out gonzo rock, he never attempts to steal the spotlight outright, choosing instead to attack each song with a series of well-placed strategic strikes. As "Keep It Simple Stupid" seems to be an ideology he has taken to heart, his melody lines tend to favor economy over extravagance. This is most evident on the riveting "Love Lost Love".
Beginning with an elegiac piano coda, "Out in the Street" (with the refrain of "Over My Head") is an exciting new addition to the band's sonic palette. Shades of Supertramp melded with thunderous power chords and a strutting Mogg vocal turn. The band revisits the lilting piano line just long enough to create the necessary ebb before once again unleashing the fury. Anyone who thinks the Pixies or Nirvana invented the quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic need only listen to this tune to realize the mistake.
"Mother Mary" is about the closest the band will ever come to being mistaken for Led Zeppelin. To say that this song is a guitar showcase would be an extreme understatement, but, again, even when given the spotlight, Schenker takes only what he needs to get the song's point across.
The real star of this album, and rightfully so, is singer Phil Mogg, who has truly started to emerge with an identity all his own. Still, much like Schenker at this point, he's more interested in elevating the material than stealing the show.
1976, of course, brought the cheekily titled No Heavy Petting and showed UFO to have no patience for resting on their laurels. Instead, they up the ante considerably with the authoritatively riff-heavy "Natural Thing". Whereas ballads had not necessarily been a strong suit on previous efforts, the plaintive "I'm A Loser" (not the Beatles tune) and the lushly beautiful "Belladonna" break that mold and stand as two of the album's brightest moments.
Of course, when the band pulls out all the stops, as they do on "Can You Roll Her", "Reasons Love", and "A Fool In Love", there are few bands that can touch them. What they may have lacked in mystique or hedonist displays, the band more than made up for with consistent songwriting and no need to rely on a preponderance of bells & whistles or studio trickery.
On 1977's Lights Out, the band is as focused and energized as ever. Mogg's vocals absolutely take this album to another level. While fan favorites "Lights Out" and "Too Hot To Handle" are found here, it is the evocative ballad "Try Me" that knocks the proverbial ball right out of the park.
Upon hearing this record and taking in the sonic assault of a band firing on all cylinders, one is left wondering how such a band could have failed to take the rock world by storm. Granted, the album is the only UFO album to ever break the US Top 40, but is it not worthy of so much more than that? It's easily twice the album that Aerosmith's Draw The Line was and that album sold millions.
Granted, Mogg is no Steven Tyler in the showmanship department, but that’s the only thing that Aerosmith has over this band.
Released in '78, Obsession was an album that carried itself with the confidence and swagger of rock royalty. No previous UFO release had opened with a more effective one-two punch than that of "Only You Can Rock Me" and "Pack It Up (And Go)", evoking both Led Zep and the aforementioned Aerosmith at their best.
The orchestral "Lookin' Out For #1" is obviously a track the band felt was the album's centerpiece, as it appears again a few songs later, and one can't really argue with their logic. While it remains, at best, a well-kept secret to all but a chosen few, it is easy to see the song's influence on just about every hair metal act to ever walk the earth. With its mid-tempo, Bic-friendly groove, sing-along chorus, and symphonic flourishes, this is the foundation upon which a thousand lesser power ballads were built.
The band can't quite stop itself from unleashing the occasional meat-head rocker, though. Enter the machismo-packed "Hot 'N Ready". Thankfully, the band quickly returns to more righteous fare in "Cherry", which alternates esoteric, stripped down verses with anthemic choruses and does the impossible by working both as a lilting love ballad and all-out arena rocker.
All songs considered, there is no real misstep to be found on this album, which ranks as one of the most consistent and focused efforts of their career. Too bad only a few heard it.
Having toured tirelessly and built up a sizable audience that betrayed their moderate album sales, the band released their first live album, Strangers In The Night seemingly held their best hope for attaining the chart success they'd long dreamed of. The live versions of "Too Hot To Handle" and "Lights Out" attained widespread AOR radio airplay, but failed to make the jump to Top 40 format stations.
In a time when live albums were quite capable of thrusting near-unknowns from obscurity to rock stardom (Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick, to name just a couple), it's a shame UFO were unable to benefit from such an opportunity given the extent to which live versions of "Natural Thing" and Mother Mary far surpass the studio versions.
As the end of the 70's approached, the band had to be thinking that something had to give. They'd done everything they could think of to blow the US wide open and were still "on the verge", at best. Of course, what eventually gave was the floor beneath them when guitarist Michael Schenker chose to leave the band. He craved fame and had obviously grown tired of the lack of forward momentum. It hadn't stopped his ego from growing by leaps and bounds and he'd been chopping at the bit to venture forth on his own.
The band, not as surprised by this move as one might think, took this as an opportunity to wrestle back control of the band from a guitarist who may not have been "serving the song" the way he once had done. Additionally, it gave them a clean slate upon which to craft their next album. They were now a band that could do anything and go in any direction they wish. Heck, they could even work with legendary Beatles producer George Martin, if they wanted.
TO BE CONTINUED...