UFO fans who might have discarded this short era as a kind of anomaly must re-examine their beliefs immediately…
Tempting as it may be to lump UFO in with the New Wave Of Heavy Metal Bands of the late ’70s and early 80’s, in fact they belong to an altogether more revered timeline – formed in 1969, they were recording their first material at the same time as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Their classic core trio of Phil Mogg on vocals, Pete Way on bass and Andy Parker on drums lasted until 1982, with Mogg and Way also forming the backbone of the reformed band for most of the ’90s and noughties. The guitar corner was a different story though, with a revolving door parade of axemen coming and going, rarely stopping. The absolute classic line-up is widely considered to be the one that included German prodigy Michael Schenker, who joined the band as a teenager and recorded some of their most memorable material on 1974’s Phenomenon, as well as powering one of rock’s all-time most revered live albums, Strangers In The Night, just before he left in 1978.
However, arguably the best and most potent line-up was when Mogg and Way dragged the band out its second hiatus, reforming with Clive Edwards on drums and Laurence Archer on guitar, the first time the band could boast a genuine ten-fingered metal tapping shredder. The latter pair had both played in the Thin Lizzy splinter group Wild Horses, although not at the same time, and Archer had been a key member of Phil Lynott’s post-Lizzy project Grand Slam. This UFO line-up recorded just one fairly low-key studio album, High Stakes & Dangerous Men in 1992, augmented by the brilliant Don Airey on keyboards, and one live set, Lights Out In Tokyo the same year, which gained enough traction to prompt the classic band with Schenker and Parker to reform, and Archer and Edwards were out.
Now the extraordinarily prolific Cherry Red label, in their quest to power the world with classic rock, have acquired the rights to release both albums in a single package, showcasing the entire output from this short-lived but remarkable combo. And if you thought Archer and Edwards were just a stop-gap, then think again, because this two-CD set is superb. High Stakes is a 52 minute, 12-song original set, that drifts in quietly with some ambient traffic and cricket noises, a smidge of hi-hat, bottleneck slide chords and some bluesy guitar in the background – Running Up The Highway powers in hard and rocking after a minute though, with a driving beat; Mogg’s voice is deeper, thicker and simply better than on their early releases, and the whole vibe is heavier and more powerful. Primed For Time is more of a melodic hair-metal number, and with hindsight, could probably do without the cursed ‘80s biscuit-tin snare. Nevertheless, it’s this mix of melodic metal and hard-driving power rock that really defines UFO at their best, walking the fine line between the two genres. Ain’t Life Sweet is another out-and-out driving rocker, with a proper drum sound too. The band’s versatility is demonstrated by Don’t Want To Lose You, a species of major-key acoustic pop, like Queen’s Who Needs You or My Best Friend’s Girl by The Cars, with heavier interludes coming across in the manner of Hootie And The Blowfish. But then with Burnin’ Fire we’re in full AC/DC territory; Mogg’s voice doesn’t necessarily fit that description, but the high backing vocals could almost be Brian Johnson. And so it goes; I would probably tag pop-rocker Revolution as the only case of blatant filler, but every other track is good or excellent, finishing on Let The Good Time Roll (‘Time’ in the singular on the original release), a mid-tempo rocker reminiscent of early Van Halen.
But how does it all translate to the live recording of Lights Out In Tokyo? Very well I would say. Obviously it’s going to have a task on its hands to outrun Schenker’s Strangers In The Night, but this is a noble attempt. Archer’s guitar is as powerful and bombastic as Schenker’s, and the numbers are as good. Running Up The Highway is an all-guns blazing opener, much more potent than the studio version on High Stakes, with a beefy intro riff and a great shredding solo. The classics are interspersed with numbers from High Stakes, as you would expect, but they are all handled with aplomb, with the audience mixed at the right level to add to the atmosphere without taking over the gig. It’s nice to hear the southern rock vibe of Cherry included in this set, as it was on the recordings for Strangers In The Night, but only appeared as a bonus track on the 1999 re-issue. There’s something strange about the guitar in the solo though; it has an oddly background sound as if the amp mic has dropped out and it’s being picked up by another microphone somewhere. In fact there are one or two minor irritations in the production, like the crowd noise cutting abruptly between numbers instead of being nicely crafted together as would have happened on Strangers (or on Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous), but by and large the mix and separation are good.
A series of crowd-pleasing set pieces starts towards the end of the set with the eight-minute Love To Love, followed by the clap-along riffage of Only You Can Rock Me. Then we have a 6½ minute rendition of Lights Out, in which the word ‘London’ is replaced just once by the word ‘Tokyo’ in a well-received nod to the audience, with the main set finishing on an extended take of Doctor Doctor from Schenker’s Phenomenon.
A three-track encore starts with another number from the same album; the inevitable Rock Bottom, which is extended to almost ten minutes. There follows an excellent rendition of Shoot Shoot from 1975’s Force It, before the night closes with Eddie Cochran’s C’Mon Everybody, which the band covered on their first album, way back in 1970. Classic rock fans who may have missed out on this line-up first time around would be more than rewarded by giving this a listen, whilst any UFO fans who might have dismissed this short era as a kind of anomaly must re-examine their beliefs immediately. The double Digipack is augmented by a great cover booklet outlining the background behind the albums, partly in the words of the band members, and as a document of a largely-overlooked period in the band’s history, the whole package is well worth it.