The Chrysalis Years
(1973-1979)

UFO

UFO was one of those 70s bands that should have been a lot bigger. Like so many others, they had personnel issues that held them back from moving up the ladder. The problem fell primarily on the brilliant, young and naïve Michael Schenker, who left and came back to UFO any number of times. The fact that he was so friggin' good - not only as a guitarist, but as a songwriter - made the band's marginal success all the more painful. When they finally hit pay dirt with their double live Strangers In The Night album in 1979, Schenker had already tendered his resignation. The five-CD The Chrysalis Years (1973-1979) captures it all and much more, before the temperamental German wunderkind went his own way.

Before Schenker joined, UFO was a wayward blues-based rock band in search of a sound. They dabbled with long-from "space rock," but after guitarist Mick Bolton bolted, they reconfigured themselves as a leaner, edgier outfit. They tried out other guitarists, notably Bernie Marsden, but ended up hiring Schenker, who was playing with the Scorpions at the time. This is where The Chrysalis Years (1973-1979) picks up the story with all five studio albums - Phenomenon (1974), Force It (1975), No Heavy Petting (1976), Lights Out (1977) and Obsession (1978) - plus, the extended version of Strangers In The Night (1979) and various live cuts, radio sessions and singles slotted in between.

Phenomenon provided the blueprint for what was to follow. But before we get to that, there's the manner of an early, tactful 1973 German single called "Give Her The Gun," an exercise to help the band get their bearings. Opening the set, the riff is certainly the impetus for Phenomenon, the first of three down n' dirty UFO albums produced by Ten Years After bassist Leo Lyons. The album is a mixed bag of catchy critters - from barnstormers like "Oh My," "Doctor Doctor," "Rock Bottom" to more ethereal tunes like "Crystal Light," "Space Child," "Time On My Hands" and the instrumental "Lipstick Traces." It certainly got things off to a promising start for the new lineup.

Before moving onto Force It, the set features a raw, three-song Bob Harris session and a previously unreleased, eight-song slice of a live November 1974 show from the Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, Georgia. If you think Strangers In The Night is the definitive statement on what UFO was all about on stage, this earlier performance may well have you changing your mind. There's an immediacy to the recording, giving tracks like "Doctor Doctor," "Built For Comfort" and "Rock Bottom" a requisite primitiveness that would become more polished and refined by the end of the decade. Even though a drawn-out stab at John Lennon's "Cold Turkey" nearly derails the momentum, there can be little doubt that UFO was ready to move into the big leagues as they continued to find their way and distill their style.

Force It lifts off like a rocket with "Let It Roll," "Shoot Shoot" and "Mother Mary." But, as the band had made clear on Phenomenon, UFO wasn't all about hard rockin' riffs - they also gravitated to more complex arrangements and lighter shades. Perhaps the presence of keys, courtesy of Ten Years After's Chick Churchill, on "Out In The Street" helped fuel the idea of hiring keyboardist Danny Peyronel to play on No Heavy Petting.

At this point, UFO was mutating into a late 70s arena band. With its quirky Hipgnosis cover art, No Heavy Petting certainly marked a maturity in the band's sonic attack. Best of all, the keyboard flavorings on tracks like "Can You Roll Her" and the especially radio-friendly "Highway Lady" do little to soften the execution, instead accentuating the rough spots and broadening the palette.

To observers of UFO's development, Lights Out could be called out as a game-changer. Ron Nevison, who worked as an engineer on epic albums like The Who's Quadrophenia and Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, brought an ear for the mainstream to the proceedings, producing a hit album with mixed reaction. Indeed, the addition of strings and ball-bouncing reverb may well have sent the hardcores running for cover. But for every miscalculated dud like "Just Another Suicide" or "Try Me," there are set-in-stone reminders of the band's muscle on "Too Hot To Handle," "Gettin' Ready" and the lovable title track. And, of course, a healthy balance gives wings to the climatic "Love To Love."

The added John Peel session from June 27, 1977, gives the three songs enlisted from Lights Out some much needed legs and provides an ample bridge to the band's final studio album of the 70s with Schenker, Obsession. Again with Nevison behind the board, UFO sacrifices the heaviness of the early 70s for the safer, over-processed waters of the late 70s. "Only You Can Rock Me," in all its formulaic posturing, isn't necessarily a bad song; it just makes you yearn for the ferociousness of "Rock Bottom" or "Mother Mary." Some may even speculate it took the addition of "Rock Bottom" to the UK single of "Only You Can Rock Me" and "Cherry" to get it into the British Top 50. It's apparent UFO was doing whatever they had to do to stay relevant during a time when new wave and punk were emerging. Glimpses of Schenker's heavy axe appear on other Obsession songs like "Pack It Up," "Hot N' Ready" and "You Don't Fool Me." Unfortunately, the material makes it difficult to gauge where the band could have gone next.

From the perspective of the record company, the answer was obvious: a live album. Strangers In The Night successfully brought all the elements together and left the filler on the cutting room floor. By this time, Schenker and keyboardist (and second guitarist) Paul Raymond (who joined the band for Lights Out) were engaging in some on-stage dalliances that underscored the band's musicianship. "Rock Bottom" ascends the road to frivolity and never comes back, while "Doctor Doctor" found new life as a single. When one recounts the numerous classic live albums from the 70s, Strangers In The Night inevitably makes the short list.

Today, singer Phil Mogg, drummer Andy Parker and occasionally bassist Pete Way, keep UFO running, primarily as a tribute to those heady days of the 70s, when international domination was only a hit single and stable lineup away. Since his sorely timed exit from UFO in 1978, Schenker's had his share of hits and misses. He even reunited with UFO for three albums and tours, but by then, it was pure nostalgia. The classic songs, the explosive live performances, the peak of their powers - it is unlikely UFO's career will ever eclipse what's contained on the five discs comprising The Chrysalis Years (1973-1979).

~ Shawn Perry

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