McAULEY SCHENKER GROUP
© Dave Ling - January 1992 - previously published in RAW magazine
He doesn’t look bonkers to me, anyway. There’s been more uncharitable, unfair things written and said about Michael Schenker over the last few years than all but the most rhinoceros-skinned individual could bear, but the man sitting opposite me seems quite unconcerned that so many of his movements and decisions have been misconstrued. By the appearance presented here in this west London hotel, the Michael Schenker of 1992 is a self-confident, quietly spoken but firmly assured character. He insists that he’s been sober for more than three and a half years now, the banning of booze and drugs from his system – in tandem with attendance of many self-help seminars – awakening a strong peace-loving and humanitarian streak. And it’s contagious. A while in his company is time beneficially spent.
On the way home after our meeting a motorist pulls over at the side of the road to enquire directions, and I’m surprised to find myself telling him to drive safely. What the hell’s going on? As with kindred spirit Dan Reed, it’s easy to poke fun at some of Schenker’s beliefs, but this dog-eat-dog world of ours would be a far better, kinder place were we to adopt some of the guitarist’s philosophies.
Michael and trusty McAuley Schenker Group sidekick Robin McAuley are in town to promote MSG’s latest album, which has been given the imaginative title of ‘MSG’. Following on the heels of ‘Perfect Timing’ (1987) and ‘Save Yourself’ (1989), it’s the third disc the pair have made together since McAuley arrived from the Far Corporation and Grand Prix. Perhaps inevitably, ‘MSG’ boasts many of the same strengths and imperfections as its predecessors.
Shall we get down to the nitty-gritty? I’ve gotta be honest here and admit that Schenker’s post-UFO career hasn’t moved me greatly since ‘One Night At Budokan’, a 1981 double live platter served up by a line-up of Gary Barden on vocals, ex-UFO keyboard player/axeman Paul Raymond, Cozy Powell on drums and former SAHB bassist Chris Glen. Since then, the songs have often been too trite and throwaway, and the ever-shuffling personnel of the band has inevitably lacked cohesion. Elevator music for the metal generation is arguably the kindest way of describing the McAuley Schenker Group’s output.
"Rudolf and I decided that joining UFO was enough. Going further would probably
have put me underground, so I said no."
Schenker on turning down an offer to become a Rolling Stone.
Like it or not, however, Michael and Robin have forged a strong bond, the interplay between their guitar playing and vocals resulting in an identifiable combination. Occasionally, such as with rousing opener ‘Eve’ and the balladic ‘When I’m Gone’, they strike rich seams of gold. Nevertheless, to these ears MSG have too often seemed workmanlike rather than spectacular. But past sales have been respectable, so who am I to complain?
Due to time restrictions, Robin and Michael are to be interviewed separately. McAuley is up first, which when given the revealing nature of some of Schenker’s answers is perhaps fortunate. The singer is funny and friendly, but also occasionally contradicts his partner.
“We used Kevin Beamish on this album,” he tells me, “which was a direct line from Michael having played with the Contraband project [a Beamish-produced band featuring members of Ratt, Vixen, L.A. Guns and Shark Island]. There was a conscious effort to keep things raw and stripped down. In the past there has been a lot of keyboards, and that really isn’t the case this time.” Schenker later confides that the album’s slightly heavier feel was less premeditated than these comments would imply.
What’s indisputable is that there have been considerable displacements in the band’s line-up since ‘Save Yourself’. The former Lionheart duo of guitarist Steve Mann and bassist Rocky Newton are no longer on board, with drummer Bodo Schopf following the pair out the exit door. Robin takes up the story…
“We toured with Great White, but that tour came to an early demise,” he says. “After that, although the song ‘Any Time’ was picking up lots of radio play, we discovered that Capitol Records and our old management had seemed to stop backing us. It took us 18 months to get a new label [Electrola] and management, and consequently two of the guys we had in the band that were from Germany went back there and ended up staying. So we relocated to Los Angeles to get in some fresh blood.”
Drummer James Kottak, previously with Kingdom Come, was approached to join but had already formed his own group, Wild Horses (not to be confused with the UK-based 1980s act of the same name). But Kottak did play on the album, along with ex-Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson. But for the foreseeable future MSG seem set to remain a duo, as they’ve been since 1986.
“It was kinda strange making an album the way we did, with just Michael, myself and the producer around,” admits Robin. “You’d show up at the studio and go, ‘Jeez, where is everyone?’, but I think it’s certainly the strongest work we’ve done to date. It brought out the best in us that we were able to put new management and label together. We knew we were going nowhere fast the way we were, and maybe that has given us inner strength.
“When we tour I think we’ll approach James and Jeff,” continues Robin, “and we’ll try to get Spencer Sercombe [Shark Island] as the second guitarist. Let’s hope they’re not too busy when we need them.”
I wonder, does McAuley get annoyed by the dogged insistence of the press in droning on about how nutty ‘Mad’ Mickey Schenker is? After all, the music does sometimes tend to get overshadowed.
“No, the man’s a legend,” he replies. “Michael’s set a precedent for himself, there’s always been this element of curiosity surrounding him, but it doesn’t get in the way as much as it used to. There was a time when he was likely to disappear at the drop of a hat, but he’s honestly very together now.He’s found a whole part of life that he didn’t know was out there since he cleaned himself up. He’s high on life and that’s great because there’s a lot of life out there to enjoy.”
"I enjoy my interviews, I enjoy giving autographs, I enjoy going to the toilet,
I enjoy going to the bank. I enjoy not going to the bank.
There is not such a thing as a more or less important moment."
Michael gets deep and meaningful.
Witnessing the way that Michael Schenker behaves with his children is probably the best way of judging the depth of these changes. He definitely seems to be a doting father. But if there’s a flipside of that, my own suspicion is that the guitarist’s mind is less on rock ‘n’ roll then ever these days. Music seems to be more of a profession than a lifestyle.
We begin by discussing whether or not Schenker is happy with what he has achieved with MSG, and it soon becomes very evident that he’s at peace with himself.
“In the past three and a half years I’ve really come to understand what it is that makes the world go round,” he explains. “Now I do not concentrate on results, I’m just aware of the moment. The least expectations you have, the higher your level of inner peace. It’s good that people can just enjoy my music, I can do for people what others like Jeff Beck and Leslie West [of Mountain] did for me – give them goose pimples. And if on top of that then material success comes too then I’ll be pleased to let it in, but I won’t be doing this…” he makes wild grabbing motions. “You waste so much energy getting it and then keeping it, you just end up like a nervous wreck. I’ve seen people who’ve worked for 50 years to become millionaires, and when they achieve it they find they’re still unhappy. If they were to admit it, the only reason they’ve done it all is to impress their parents. If people ask me whether I’m happy I’ll tell them that I am,” he continues. “It’s not because of MSG, it’s not because of music. Since it all changed for me, I enjoy my interviews, I enjoy giving autographs, I enjoy going to the toilet, I enjoy going to the bank… I enjoy not going to the bank. There is not such a thing as a more or less important moment; every moment is part of your existence and they all add up to the whole of your life. Once that clicks into place, everything becomes totally different.”
So what kind of a person would Michael Schenker say he had been before this awakening?
“I was lost,” he shrugs humbly. “I would just play my guitar and that was the centre of my universe. I looked around and asked myself, ‘Is this all you get from 34 years?’ I had to drink all the time just to reach the high points, and when I was drunk the world was a great place. But that’s very dangerous because I would drink just to get myself through the bad times, and those kind of things are there to make you grow.
"The obstacles are what life’s all about. We are students on this planet. Instead of running away, you should face these challenges with a smile. If you drink for 20 years instead of facing your problems then you haven’t learned any lessons at all. Since I stopped drinking, one curtain after another would part. All of a sudden I was seeing a whole different world.
"Screw all that rubbish about me having been in UFO. In the last few years I’ve not been
in a successful band, but I’m the most successful I’ve ever been”
Surprisingly, this newfound awareness has nothing to do with God.
“I don’t even know what it means to be religious,” states Michael. “I’m looking for happiness and inner peace. If somebody crashes into my car or when somebody wants to hurt me, I don’t want to freak out about it. I want to learn to love unconditionally. Love is the only thing that helps trapped people out of trapped places. Negativity attracts negativity. If somebody hates you and you hate them back, war is going to happen. There is a way of understanding why somebody has been bad to you; they’re not necessarily a bad person, they’re just trapped in a bad place. If you recognise that situation then you have the power to help get them out, because you can see things clearly and they cannot.
“My new desire is to express my happiness through music,” Michael points out with a smile. “A long time ago, if you had asked me what I was trying to express through my music then I wouldn’t have known what to say. I’m not taking energy from a different source.”
So there’s no temptation to go to the bar for just the occasional drink? Michael shakes his head.
“What I’m experiencing now I wouldn't change for anything,” he affirms. “This is the first time I’ve been happy with my life. Screw all that rubbish about me having been in UFO. In the last few years I’ve not been in a successful band, but I’m the most successful I’ve ever been.”
Schenker doesn’t mind admitting that “the success almost killed me with UFO” during the excessive 1970s, and professes gladness that he turned down an audition for the Rolling Stones for the same reasons.
“I was shaking when the offer was made,” he recalls. “I was 19 years old and I phoned up my brother Rudolf [of the Scorpions] and we decided that joining UFO was enough. Going further would probably have put me underground, so I said no.”
This is all water under the bridge, of course. But why didn’t he agree to rejoin the Unidentified Flying Ones when they approached him to do so last year?
“For several reasons. I’ve been asked for them for years and I’ve always declined. But that was when I was in this other dark place. Since I’ve opened up I find myself saying yes to so many more things. I’ve noticed that saying yes rather than no all the time makes your life much more colourful and exciting. Too often people will always so no and then wonder why their life is boring.
“I know how much people want to see UFO together with that line-up again, and that makes me want to do it,” he elaborates carefully. “But I don’t want to do it in a sloppy way; materially speaking, I never made anything out of being in UFO. So people shouldn’t be surprised if when the same group offer me a chance, I’d want my management to be in control. I need to know that I’ll get what I deserve, you don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
Returning to UFO would have left McAuley in the lurch, too.
“No, that doesn’t mean that I’d have to lose him,” parries Michael. “There’s the time to do all of this. I do an album with Robin every two years; the reason that I did Contraband was that there was nothing else happening. I did two albums in six years and that’s not enough for my creativity. If you have an opportunity then you look at it. Maybe it’s good that in the past I said no, but now I’d rather say yes if I can do it without hurting anyone else.”
Two recent moves that caused much puzzlement came when Michael stood in for departed guitarist Robin Crosby on Ratt’s recent US tour, and when Schenker went on hunger strike in a bid to get the original UFO among others to play a charity show at Irvine Meadows in California.
“I am friends with Warren De Martini [Ratt’s other guitarist] and he asked me to jam with them,” states Michael. “Contraband were supporting them and because I was there already I agreed. I played four songs with them, coming in for ‘Round And Round’, and I had a lot of fun. Probably this was because there was no responsibility, just playing. The Contraband thing didn’t really take off,” he adds. “At the first gig, Richard [Black, Shark Island singer] left the stage and Share Pederson [Vixen bassist] didn’t do it in the first place, so we only jammed two numbers.”
It must have been strange seeing Ratt playing UFO’s ‘Lights Out’?
“Warren had wanted to do ‘Love To Love’ as well, but the others didn’t want to because it’s a slow song,” reveals Michael.
Okay, so what about that famous hunger strike? The explanation is fascinating and believable in a charmingly nïave kind of way.
“I was introduced to a cassette during my self-help programme, and because of that I chose to do a project on hunger in the world,” responds Michael. “I was listening to this cassette, and it made me realise some important things. For 36 years I had heard of hunger and just accepted it. The message was just so powerful. I was going to strike until the Irvine Meadows show was sold out. I wanted to stand up and say that in the year 2000, hunger should be wiped out. I believe that it’s possible to achieve, but only if everyone works for it.”
What Schenker had in mind was a Live Aid-style charity performance, pulling in as many favours as he was able. With himself cast in the Geldof-style anti-starvation role, he was to be disappointed.
“I wanted to get 10 top bands to play two songs each and read a paragraph or two from the cassette while the changeovers were made,” he reveals. “By the end of the show I’m sure the crowd would have got the message. If half the population of each country were to make a fuss about this, the governments would be forced to do something. I was on the phone organising the event from morning to night, not eating at all. But I was so excited and full of power that some people thought I was taking drugs again. Some thought I was trying to blackmail them into appearing because I was saying, ‘The concert is on the 26th, unless you want to be responsible for my death then you’d better be there’. People didn’t like that.
“After 11 days, I was having problems getting people to commit themselves. Suddenly I realised why. I’d just released an album – they all thought I was doing it for the publicity. So I went straight onto my next meal,” he says, throwing his hands up in mock exasperation. “I didn’t get the project together, but I’m not done with it yet.”
Michael Schenker: Not mad, just misunderstood.
The official Michael Schenker website
Exhuming this one from the files brought back some memories. This was the first time I’d actually encountered former UFO axeman Michael Schenker in a professional capacity (let’s draw a veil over him rudely slamming a door in my face at a Thin Lizzy after-show party many years earlier – all I dared to do was ask for an autograph!), and what a pleasure it turned out to be. It was particularly touching to seeing Michael cavorting with his kiddies before we spoke and also to hear him talk at length about the clarity that sobriety had brought him. If we fast forward a dozen years and soak up the mess he seems to be in today, some of his comments now sound more bizarre than ever. But back in ’92, there was a serenity and confidence about him that, as I mention in the story, seemed a little contagious. I sincerely hope that he manages to recapture those good vibes one day. (25th August, 2004)
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