April 20, 2024

It’s a set which has something for everyone with any degree of interest in the career of the mercurial and often unpredictable Schenker, and while the four original albums to me gradually decline from the debut onward, all contain varying amounts of excellent material.

When Michael Schenker left UFO mid-tour following the seminal Strangers In The Night live album, reportedly disappearing leaving only a pile of shorn blond locks behind him, it came as a massive shock to fans and journalists alike – after all, his star had continued to rise year upon year since his arrival in the UFO ranks for the Phenomenon album. However, those in thrall to his undoubtedly remarkable guitar ability did not have to wait too long for another fix as, following a quick stop off with his old bandmates The Scorpions to work on their Lovedrive album, he released the debut, self-titled album from The Michael Schenker Group in 1980, to considerable acclaim, along with three further studio albums over the next three years, all of which are here (with a pretty decent remastering job to my ears) along with a further two discs of fan-baiting demos, alternate takes and unreleased material. It’s a timely look back at one of the defining bands of the NWOBHM era (even though Schenker of course predated that ‘New Wave Of…’ crowd). Thanks to that vibrant scene, and the breakthrough of frontrunners such as Iron Maiden and Saxon, heavy metal/heavy rock (name it how you will) was big business in the early-’80s UK, and MSG, as they were regularly abbreviated, were at the forefront.

Looking at that first album however, it’s interesting to remember that when it was recorded there was no actual ‘Michael Schenker Group’ strictly speaking – Schenker and vocalist Gary Barden were already the core of what would be the line-up, but the album was completed on a session basis by much-travelled drummer Simon Phillips along with Mo Foster on bass and later Deep Purple man Don Airey on keyboards. By the time a tour to promote the album was required, a touring line-up had been assembled which brought in the crack talents of Cozy Powell on drums, ex-UFO man Paul Raymond on keyboards and Chris Glen, late of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, on bass. The shows featuring this line-up were triumphant, as I can attest having seen a UK date on that first tour, but with the talents of Phillips and Airey in the mix in particular, the studio recording was no less impressive. In fact, even with the benefit of hindsight, and removing the album from the rose-tinted blaze of excitement which greeted it back in 1980, that debut record still stands as the finest achievement of these four, and arguably of Schenker’s post-UFO career. There’s scarcely a weak moment on it, and it remains one of the most impressive hard rock/metal albums of the period. Of course, there are the standouts which have remained in Schenker’s live set to this day: the storming opener, Armed And Ready, the anthemic Cry For The Nations and the superbly constructed instrumental Into The Arena. But there is much more if you look beyond them: for instance, the epic closer Lost Horizons is still the best track on the album for me, and one of the crowning moments of Schenker’s entire catalogue – scandalously dropped from the live set in later years, the performance of it on that first tour was a thing of majesty, and the studio track does not disappoint. Victims Of Illusion and Tales Of Mystery are other songs which you might not recall instantly in your mental jukebox, but they illustrate the depth and breadth of the album. Essential stuff.

A year later, in a spectacularly unimaginative burst of titling, The Michael Schenker Group was followed by MSG. Not even MSG2, but just the name abbreviated. Not since Mott The Hoople called two successive albums Mott and The Hoople has less creative thought gone into an album name. Still, no matter, as – despite the drab cover art – the result is still a decent effort. There are less utter standout tracks, and a couple which are somewhat patchy, but it’s pretty consistent. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie is a great brooding rocker and But I Want More is dynamic and multi-faceted, while On And On, Never Trust A Stranger and the closing Secondary Motion all get the job done (MSG always had a knack for closing an album on a high note). In fact, the track which has aged the worst for me is probably the histrionic Attack Of The Mad Axeman, which – despite being widely touted as a highlight on release – comes off as an attempt at a ‘crazy’ title which is desperately in search of a song. Overall, a worthy follow-up, if a step down.

With the third CD comes perhaps the most divisive album here. Many people declared Assault Attack to be a return to top form after MSG, but listening back to back I still prefer the former, imperfect as it is. And the main reason for this, I freely admit, is a certain Graham Bonnet, who had replaced Gary Barden for this one. Now, Bonnet could be okay when he got the right song – he does a pretty good job on Rainbow’s Down To Earth for the most part – and his solo hit Night Games was a decent enough commercial air-puncher. But his performance here reminds me of the worst side of his days with Alcatraz; he unwisely largely abandons the more melodic side of his voice and attacks the songs with a rather stylised ‘generic metal frontman’ way, which he really can’t pull off. He sounds as if he’s trying too hard for much of the time here, and if you don’t like the style, it’s a hard thing to get past. If you happen to like his vocals, however, the album does have much to recommend it – the playing is harder, heavier and punchier than MSG in general, and it could be argued that the songwriting is more consistent. Dancer, Desert Song, the jaunty Searching For A Reason and the oddly-titled instrumental closer Ulcer are all highlights here. Samurai gropes for a melody it desperately needs, while Rock You To The Ground disappointingly fails to do what it says on the tin, but there’s good stuff here, and for a fan of Bonnet, it would probably be a favourite.

By the fourth album, Built To Destroy, things start to get a little messy. After the UK release, the album was remixed, the songs re-ordered and one replaced entirely for the American release. The reason for this seems unclear, as the main criticism to level here is probably that even the original mix goes too close for comfort to the MTV-type slick American rock which led to the hair-metal disaster area later in the decade. Keyboards become more prominent, and occasionally parp dispiritingly in a carbon-dated ’80s manner – but for all that there are some great songs here, and Barden is back on vocals. Red Sky is the highlight, with its prowling, menacing instrumental section truly managing to rock us to the ground on this occasion. Once again the album closes well, with Walk The Stage, while the opening Rock My Nights Away, The Dogs Of War and another fine instrumental Captain Nemo all keep the standard up. There are failures here – Systems Failing, appropriately, being probably the worst offender – but it’s mostly a pretty good listen, if a long way from that first album just three years earlier. Gary Barden in particular sounds less impressive this time – his voice has altered considerably, coming over in a rather strangulated Axl Rose manner at times, and while he still does better than Bonnet, he isn’t the man who delivered Lost Horizons or Cry For The Nations (Schenker does admit his part in this in the accompanying booklet, interestingly, admitting he pushed him to overstretch his voice). On this fourth disc here, we get both versions of the album, with the US one following on the heels of the original – and they would have been better to leave it alone, as the UK release is superior in every way. The US mix is in some places not too different, but in others, such as Red Sky, it sucks all of the depth and power out of the track. The running order change makes little sense, and worst of all the excellent Walk The Stage is butchered and renamed into the underwhelming Rock Will Never Die (dreadful title), which turns the fine original into a mess of syrupy ballad verses jostling with plodding shouty choruses. In this case, the original is most certainly the best!

That takes care of the first four discs of this six-disc set – and the four which most casual fans will be most concerned with. However, the two final discs are an excellent addition in terms of making sure everyone, at whatever stage of fandom they may be, can get something from this set. Divided into ‘Demos’, ‘Alt. Versions’ and ‘Unreleased’, these are all essentially under the same umbrella, ranging from non-album tracks and singles, and early demos of songs sometimes never used again, through to the far less essential single and radio edits, and the mid-ground of alternate recordings for such things as video games, different mixes, rehearsal takes and monitor mixes. The four demo tracks which didn’t make it to the first album (only Looking Out From Nowhere survived) are all pretty good, while the unreleased Never say Die is a rather good track which could easily have made it onto the second record. The single Girl From Uptown and the non-album track Don’t Take It Out On Me are both less essential, but at least new to many listeners. In fact, while the tracks on Disc Five have all appeared previously as bonuses on previous CD issues, everything on the sixth disc is previously unreleased, and bait for those hard-core fans who not only have the original albums but all of the Disc Five curios as well.

It’s a set which has something for everyone with any degree of interest in the career of the mercurial and often unpredictable Schenker, and while the four original albums to me gradually decline from the debut onward, all contain varying amounts of excellent material. The only thing which would have been really welcome would have been the classic 1982 live album One Night At Budokan to have been included, but clearly the intention here was to focus on studio recordings – and what is here is still a fine collection.