Rock and Roll Deep Dive #1: UFO (and Michael Shenker Group)

I’ve got to pick up where I left off in my last post, and that means starting my rock music journey where it began. UFO’s song “Rock Bottom” is responsible for reigniting my love for rock music, and I have quite a lot to say about it, as well as the band in general.

I rarely indulge in the childish impulse to play a song on repeat, but I’m afraid I am no better than a three-year-old with an Elsa doll. But I keep asking: why the hell is it so awesome?

It has such intensity and power, but it seamlessly swerves into new territory ever few minutes, throwing in totally new chords and guitar solos whenever it feels like it. It’s such confident musicianship, and I think it is impossible to have a ho hum reaction to something like this. It demands your attention!

It turns out, there is way more to UFO than this one awesome song. There is a pretty interesting story, and I’m surprised more people don’t know about this band. I’ve asked many classic rock lovers over the last few weeks about this band, but suprisingly few of them have even heard of the band.

I obviously won’t go through all of their albums, because there are 22 studio albums, several live albums and greatest hits albums, not counting the covers album. But I will cover enough of them to give you a sense of what to expect, fill in some gaps, highlight the things that I think make the band unique, and hopefully explain why this is not a band to overlook.

UFO’s debut album, UFO1, is a very enjoyable blend of blues rock and trippy hard rock. This was also the first album I’d listened to in a very long time that doesn’t have a single track I dislike. It is dark and thrilling, and even renders familiar songs like “Who Do You Love” and “C’mon Everybody” in brilliant tones. For me, though, the most impressive track is the cover of Belefonte’s classic “Melinda.”

There have been many versions of the song about a girl that discovers her dead mother’s body during a war, and UFO’s version is nothing short of haunting. By the time the song makes it to its eerie guitar solo, it includes a weird backmasking effect that evokes images of an actual trauma occurring in real time.  It’s truly disturbing.

The band went even further with its space rock sound on their second album, UFO2, which even had the second title “One Hour Space Rock.” It’s definitely worth checking out at least once, if only to experience a vintage rock album in this style for the first time. I gotta say, though, I must no longer be as big of a fan of twenty-minute songs that seem to go on forever as I once was, because I don’t see myself returning to it very often. This album actually has a nineteen minute song and a twenty-six minute song, and while they are a mixed bag, “Silver Bird” and “The Coming of Prince Kajuku” are very playlist-friendly tracks to check out.

This style of rock has always been interesting to me, but based on subsequent live albums, it would seem that the band eventually settled back into being essentially a heavy metal infused blues rock band, which has remained true to this day. After producing their first live album featuring hard blues rock songs, Mick Bolton left the band. Bolton was the guitarist most responsible for their sound up to that point, and the band must have agreed to go in a different direction musically. And this began a very long saga of almost constant line-up changes over the course of the band’s near fifty-year history.

Credit has to be given to Phil Mogg, the lead singer, for keeping the band alive, more or less, the entire time. He and drummer Andy Parker are the only ones that pretty much never left. Pete Way, the original bassist, left and came back. Michael Shenker became the new guitarist for a while and then left to form his own band, Michael Shenker Group. Paul Raymond was an experienced jazz musician playing in several bands before replacing UFO’s original keyboardist, but he also left to join Michael Shenker Group.

ufo_walk_on_waterThey all got back together in 1995 on the album “Walk on Water,” which features on its cover — in uncharacteristic fashion — all of the band members. Phil Mogg, Pete Way, Andy Parker, Michael Shenker, and Paul Raymond. In all the years of changes to the band, those five names seem to be the “essential” talent of UFO, according to fans.

Michael Shenker, though. Let’s talk about that guy for a minute.

He was originally the guitarist for his brother’s band, The Scorpions, and was recruited after they opened for UFO. I love to imagine what they must have thought seeing an 18-year-old shredding a guitar like he did. Who wouldn’t try to recruit this kid? As a pretty cool aside, his brother was overwhelmingly supportive and told him to go for it.

It wouldn’t be the first time Shenker was propositioned, though. He thrived with UFO for a while because he was allowed to co-write the songs he played. He played in and subsequently quit many bands upon realizing that he had no desire to play other people’s songs. That territory-seeking spirit, coupled with the language barrier (Shenker didn’t speak any English) — not to mention a penchant for drinking — eventually lead to many blow-ups. The tension famously came to a head when Shenker quit the band mid-set — mid song, in fact — during a show in Palo Alto, California, back in 1978.

But the Shenker era of UFO produced some of rock music’s best tracks, in my very humble opinion. The first album made with Shenker features the aforementioned classic, “Rock Bottom.” And upon discovering all this history, this song makes even more sense. Phil Mogg also apparently claimed once that his inspiration for the song was a horror film, but he can’t remember the title. I guess when you consider it’s about kissing a dead girl and getting swallowed up by hell, that’s probably not too much of a stretch!

Phenomenon may be the album with this epic song, along with the other famous hit, “Doctor, Doctor,” but all of the songs are worth checking out. Many of them are beloved by fans, and were included in their sets for a number of years, including “Too Young To Know,” “Oh My,” “Time On My Hands,” and “Sixteen.” “Built For Comfort” is also a really cool classic blues rock song with a hard start-stop rhythm.

Force It shows UFO moving closer to heavy metal with its most notable track, “Mother Mary,” which was written together by Mogg, Shenker, Way, and Parker. At times, the album actually feels like a return to its original sound, which gives it a special brooding vibe. While I do like the album, none of the songs particularly stand out to me. “Out In The Street” is a fan favorite, and I totally see why. It’s a great song. Except. The keyboard at the beginning. It sounds like one of those old timey educational videos. I can’t listen to the intro of this song without imagining a voiceover cutting in with, “Here’s a list of things to keep in mind before getting into the vehicle…”

Everything up to this point is really cool stuff in my opinion, and I would recommend it to anyone. But I was not prepared for the sheer pleasure that was their next album, No Heavy Petting. It injects so much intense emotional weight, as well as delightfully complex songs and musical experimentation, that it benefits from multiple sessions with really good headphones.

Seriously, I can’t push this album enough. It is an album that is all about having a good time, and being a good friend to those that need one. It is also without a doubt the most enjoyable album I’ve ever listened to in one sitting. It’s just so fun. I mean, it has a monkey on the cover for Pete’s sake!


It opens with a fairly typical track, “Natural Thing,” giving you a comfortable feeling that this album will be more of what you’ve come to love about the band. But then a curve ball is thrown with “I’m A Loser.” This song hits me in all the feels. It is a rock song about helping out friends and strangers through hard times, and that’s pretty badass.

The next song, “Can You Roll Her,” is just crazy. Having listened to all of UFO’s live albums (and that’s saying something, because there are a lot!), it is noticeable that fans really dig this song, despite the fact that it doesn’t usually get played live after Shenker leaves the band. Perhaps I’m just connecting dots that aren’t there, but I’d say that’s because most guitarists that joined the band after his departure had a hard time matching the speed and intensity. I could be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure one of their live versions is actually slowed down a bit. It may not seem like a testament to Shenker’s virtuosity the way “Rock Bottom” was, but it does ratchet up the speed.

“Belladonna” takes another left turn, blending several musical instruments into a slow-building rock ballad that is as hypnotizing as it is powerful. This album’s motif of suspended repetition is on full display here. “Reasons Love” and “Highway Lady” are two more traditional rock songs that are just asking to be on someone’s playlist.

But then the album makes another turn with “On With The Action,” a seeming rebuke of societal decay. The pounding and thunderous melodic structure of this song leaves you feeling an uneasy mixture of paranoia, despair, and even agony. This song is followed by “A Fool In Love,” another traditional hard rock track, and then concludes with “Martian Landscape,” continuing the squishy, sappy rock ethos of “I’m A Loser” by promoting an idealized world where people don’t totally suck.

That’s where the original album ends, but the 2007 release included a few other tracks that are pretty enjoyable. “All Or Nothing” is a surprisingly catchy song about stubborn individuals that refuse to take good advice from friends, and I’m really puzzled by why it never became a hit. It’s very radio-friendly cover of a long-forgotten song that is totally unfamiliar to me. The other noteworthy new song is the cover of “Have You Seen Me Lately Joan” by Frankie Miller, which is a beautifully written but very powerful song.

I really just wanted to gush over that album, and now that I have, I am satisfied.

However, even though I’m definitely not about to go through all 22 albums like this for obvious reasons, I feel like I owe it to this band to cover as much as I can. So while none of the albums to follow quite measure up to the one with the monkey on the front, UFO is nothing if not surprising.

The next album, Lights Out, is actually considered the best album by many UFO fans, particularly the ones that like their metal sound. It had a ton of classics that UFO pretty much never dropped from their set list, like “Too Hot To Handle,” “Love to Love,” and the title track, “Lights Out,” which is among their best known (and probably my favorite of the album). For me, while it’s an enjoyable album that I could easily see myself putting on at a party, I can also take it or leave it. Obsession also has a few more metal classics, like “Only You Can Rock Me” and “Hot N’ Ready.” “Cherry” in particular is also begging to be in everyone’s summer playlist.

And after seven successful albums, UFO released what is apparently widely regarded as one of the best live albums of all time. If you only have time to check out one of their live albums, at least check out Strangers in the Night (1978) for this reason. Most of the songs I’ve talked about are on there, including a twelve-minute version of “Rock Bottom” that’s epic without feeling stuffed or repetitive.

The rest of UFO’s discography after this point can best be summed up with one word: tenacity. With various members coming and going, Mogg still tried his very damnedest to keep the roller coaster rolling, and it comes across in the music. Some might accuse them of not being experimental enough, although they do add various instruments based on who is in the band. But mostly they just keep making kick-ass rock and metal music in more or less the same style as what’s been discussed here. They do seem to get back to their bluesy roots in the most recent records, so if you’re into that, check out Sharks, Covenant, and A Conspiracy of Stars.

I will definitely be revisiting this band from time to time. As I suggested in my last post, I’m looking to add the best albums to my record collection. For UFO, I want to add UFO1, Phenomenon and No Heavy Petting. I basically dislike nothing on those albums. So UFO overall? I gotta say check it out!

Additional tracks I really like:
Long Gone (The Wild, The Willing, and the Innocent)
Push, It’s Love (Making Contact)
When It’s Time To Rock (Making Contact)
One Heart (Misdemeanor)
Venus (Walk on Water)
The World and His Dog (Covenant)
Midnight Train (Covenant)
Someone’s Gonna Have To Pay (Sharks)
Messiah of Love (A Conspiracy of Stars)
Precious Cargo (A Conspiracy of Stars)

I also reviewed the discography for Michael Shenker Group, which is pretty dope as well. More emphasis on the musicianship, and a decidedly heavier sound. Here are the tracks I liked the most:
Lost Horizons (Michael Shenker Group) *the best*
Into the Arena (Michael Shenker Group) *the second best*
Armed and Ready (Michael Shenker Group)
Attack of the Mad Axeman (MSG) *actually, wait, this is the best*
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (MSG)
Searching For A Reason (Assault Attack)
Arachnophobiac (Arachnophobiac) *no, wait, THIS is the best*
Rock and Roll Believer (Arachnophobiac)
War Pigs (Heavy Hitters) –cover that’s, sorry to say, way better than the original
Money (Heavy Hitters) — also way better than the original!




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