April 1, 2024

Front man Phil Mogg has been a fixture of London rockers UFO since day 1, and the late, lamented bassist Pete Way was also a feature throughout most of the band’s history, but the other members came and went in a bit of a blur. Original drummer Andy Parker joined and left multiple times, and so did various guitarists. Originally formed in 1968, the band had limited success with a couple of spacey albums, but it was when they were supporting German band The Scorpions that their fortunes changed. Incumbent guitarist Bernie Marsden was taken ill, and the Scorps’ teenaged prodigy Michael Schenker stood in at short notice. The chemistry was instant, and the next thing we knew, he had left the Scorpions and thrown in his lot with UFO. With hindsight, the history of UFO divides quite neatly into phases, or eras, mostly hinging on whether Schenker was in the band or not.

UFO, left to right: Phil Mogg, Aynsley Dunbar, Michael Schenker (in disguise?), Pete Way

Their first album with Schenker, 1974’s Phenomenon, was just that – the timing was perfect, just as the New Wave Of Heavy Metal was brewing in the wings, and not only was it the band’s breakthrough album, but Schenker’s strident guitar riffs on numbers such as Doctor Doctor and Rock Bottom formed a template on which much of the New Wave was based. Schenker recorded five albums with the band between 1974 and 1978, plus the all-time classic live double LP Strangers In The Night, and this phase of UFO’s existence is viewed by many as the classic era.

Paul Chapman replaced Schenker for the next four albums; he was an excellent axeman to be sure, and the band’s run of success continued, but there’s no doubt that the overall sound changed without Schenker’s distinctive sound and riffage. The band underwent a period of instability after that, breaking up and reforming multiple times, with Mogg as the only constant presence throughout all incarnations. It wasn’t until 1995 that Schenker returned to the studio with UFO,  and recorded the limited-release album Walk On Water, reuniting the full line-up from Strangers In The Night: Mogg, Way, Schenker, Andy Parker on drums and Paul Raymond on second guitar and keyboards. This encouraging start sputtered to a halt as Schenker left the band yet again, releasing a couple of albums with his own Michael Schenker Group. Nevertheless, he returned to the fold one more time and UFO recorded two albums as a four-piece: Mogg, Way, Schenker, and the solid and ever-reliable Aynsley Dunbar on drums, before Schenker once again left the field, and the current extended era, with Vinnie Jones on guitar, began.

But it’s those two albums, Covenant in 2000 and Sharks in 2002, that are the focus for today, as Cherry Red Records have now re-released them both as a set, with a third CD containing live tracks from the era. In fact, the original CD release of Covenant comprised the 50-minute studio album, plus a bonus CD of seven live tracks, recorded in Buffalo, New York, on the Walk On Water tour in 1995. The Japanese release of Sharks included three more tracks recorded at the same gig, and the third disc in this current set reunites all 10 songs, which we shall come to later.

UFO, helpfully holding clues to their instruments to aid identification

To start with though, how do Covenant and Sharks measure up? Remarkably well, really. Schenker’s heavy rhythm riffage and sparkling, clear lead work are tremendous. In truth, despite its great songs and far-reaching influence, I never thought of the guitar work on Phenomenon as anything special. But Schenker proved with his own Michael Schenker Group that he was up there with the best, and these two albums demonstrate that, perhaps even more so. Covenant’s opening statement of intent, Love Is Forever, is a career highlight in my book. Starting with a jangly, discordant  guitar arpeggio before launching into a proper heavy metal riff, Mogg’s rich, laconic vocal tones waft in over the top, with the backing alternating between hard-rocking verses and more subtle choruses. It’s a tremendous opener that would be on my best-of UFO mix tape for sure. Midnight Train is another highlight, a rapid-fire rocker reminiscent of Turn Up The Night by the Dio-era Black Sabbath. This number is ruled by Schenker’s great rhythm guitar work, but also includes some tight timing features in the bridge before the solo, followed by a rare helping of reverb-drenched slide guitar. It’s followed by the manic heavy metal of Fools Gold, which features some genuine shredding from Schenker.

The Smell Of Money is a hard rocker in fast 15-8 time, with added proggy bits and a tight ending; Serenade even includes a great, (but short), solo played on a nylon-strung flamenco acoustic. The album concludes with The World And His Dog, with its frenetic opening riff, and fast, slightly desperate rhythm recalling the band’s classic Lights Out. At 2½ minutes, it breaks down into slow, ominous, organ chords in some really weird timing – then morphs back into a heavy rocker, before signing off with another tight ending.

Sharks is another 50-minute offering, opening with the excellent, hard and aggressive Outlaw Man. Deadman Walking is a really interesting arrangement – it almost seems as if Schenker came up with two backings, and they couldn’t decide which to use: clear-toned, rolling guitar picking, or a hard-edged ‘You Really Got Me’ riff – so they used both, on two separate guitar tracks. The two wildly differing backings should fall over each other, but they don’t; they are well separated in the mix and simply work together. A bit of light and shade is brought into the album with Shadow Dancer, an up-tempo, hooky-chorused pop-rocker. Truthfully though, this is probably where Covenant scores slightly over Sharks, which maintains a high standard throughout, but without much variation or any particularly notable stand-out tracks. Having said that, Someone’s Gonna Have To Pay is probably my pick of the album; it has a great opening heavy shuffle riff, with some bluesy guitar at interludes, recalling a massively heavied-up version of Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode, strange as it may seem. The concluding solo is a work of art too.

Perfect Way is a considered, narrative tale of crime, jail and growing up. A proper UFO song in other words, with Mogg’s trademark thoughtful lyrics coming to the fore. The album ends on a bit of an oddity, the sub-one-minute Schenker solo piece Hawaii. With a heavily reverbed lead guitar playing sweetly over ambient slow-strummed chords, it fades out brusquely after 44 seconds, as if he was recording an idea in order to build it into a proper track later, but never got around to it – a strange way to sign off.

This brings us to CD 3, the live disc recorded on the Walk On Water tour. This is mainly interesting for historical reasons, as it repeats the line-up from the classic Lights Out album, with the exception of Andy Parker on drums: Mogg, Way, Schenker and Paul Raymond are joined by Simon Wright behind the kit. And that’s it really; it might have been a great gig if you were there, but as a live album it’s nothing special; just the kind of live footage you might expect to find presented as bonus material on a set such as this. It’s a tight band, and the musicianship is good, but the vocals tend to dip and dive in the mix. The live renditions of Venus and Pushed To The Limit from the Walk On Water album have some historical significance perhaps, but the obligatory workout of Rock Bottom at the end is just bizarre, fading in halfway through the song, just as Schenker is getting to work on his solo. I would consider it a bonus disc, a freebie if you will, and thank you very much. But Covenant and Sharks are the main event here, accompanied by an excellent 24-page booklet, including the original liner notes from Covenant, plus reminiscences by the band. These albums are worth the effort; they contain some excellent rock and roll, and it was great to hear Schenker back in the fold, for a while at least.

UFO – Covenant and Sharks are re-released by Cherry Red Records on 19 April 2024