UFO - THE MAKING OF OBSESSION
© Dave Ling - November 2003 - previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
Though a mere 16 years old when he met them in the summer of 1973, Michael Schenker became UFO’s talisman. An iconic though increasingly eccentric figure in later times, the mercurial guitarist was equally likely to trash his famous Flying V, board a plane and vanish into thin air as to use it to create the stirringly melodic solos that became his trademark.
In the decades before Metallica and the innovation of their ‘performance coach’, or management companies that intervened on a wayward musician, acts like UFO were left alone to wrestle with their demons. Sure, Michael’s complex psyche brought some sizeable baggage, but when the band hit top gear it was figured that all the schism was worthwhile.
Vocalist Phil Mogg, bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker had worked with various guitarists since forming UFO in North London in 1969. Mick Bolton, Larry Wallis of Pink Fairies/Motörhead fame and future Whitesnake man Bernie Marsden had generated varying levels of chemistry within their formative line-ups, but it wasn’t until the fateful day that Marsden turned up late for a gig in Germany and Michael – then still unable to converse in English and playing with support band the Scorpions – was asked to deputise that sparks began to fly, enabling them to leave behind the ‘space metal’ of their early days and move into the realm of classic blues-tinged hard rock.
“Michael lit the fuse and gave us confidence,” Way told me years later, with Mogg adding: “He was so striking with his Flying V and blond hair. So we asked his brother Rudolf [the other Scorpions guitarist] if we could borrow him, and he said: ‘We’ve been trying to get rid of him for years’.”
“Eddie Van Halen wanted to audition for UFO after Michael Schenker left, but he didn’t have the bottle”
That UFO would praise Schenker to the skies in one breath and humiliate him in the next was perfectly typical of their lads-own culture. They derived great pleasure in pointing out each other’s physical shortcomings, whether it was Mogg’s nose (once described as being “like Concorde with glandular fever” or worse still, “an appendage that could get him dates with elephants”), Parker’s inseparable head and torso (hence the nickname ‘No-Neck’), and Way’s complexion (which once caused Mogg to explain: “Pete’s face is so greasy his first wife used to fry eggs on it – and just look at that colossal chin”).
The band’s abuse of alcohol and narcotics was so extreme that Mogg later declared Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols “a wimp who couldn’t take his drugs”, even forcing Ozzy Osbourne to admit: “They call me a madman, but compared to Pete Way, I’m out of my league.”
Being in UFO has never been an environment for shrinking violets, and while it was mostly true that the band shielded Schenker from much of their internally focused abuse, he was forced to at least partially adapt to their mindset to survive. Both onstage and off the results were volatile, but rarely less than entertaining. Encouraged by his new colleagues, Schenker took to consuming huge amounts of whiskey, which made him violent, and succumbed on occasion to drugs, which made him doubt his own ability.
It all came to a head on ‘Obsession’, a remarkable album that was somehow created in the eye of the proverbial hurricane, setting standards that UFO and a raft of imitators would struggle to match again.
In 1974, ‘Phenomenon’ had yielded two landmarks tracks in ‘Doctor Doctor’ and Schenker’s showcase, the epic ‘Rock Bottom’. The following year’s ‘Force It’ (titled punningly after the US word for bathroom taps) indicated a preference for all things Stateside, as did songs like ‘Shoot Shoot’ and ‘Let It Roll’ which took them to the brink of America’s Top 40. In 1976, the arrival of ex-Heavy Metal Kids keyboard player Danny Peyronel added colour to the ‘No Heavy Petting’ album, and the Argentinean-born Peyronel struck up a brief friendship with Schenker, as the group’s two foreigners and outsiders.
“I put Michael to bed on at least one occasion,” recalled Danny recently. “The hallway wasn’t the best place for him to lie in.” However, Peyronel maintains he was made a scapegoat when ‘…Petting’ failed to match expected sales. Sure enough, when former Chicken Shack/Savoy Brown man Paul Raymond replaced him, he played guitar as well as keyboards. Extensive touring nudged the group’s next album, 1977’s ‘Lights Out’, into the US Top 20. However, on the eve of a vital American tour, Schenker vanished. Not for the last time and with just six days’ notice, UFO were forced to draft in Lone Star’s Paul Chapman.
It was even reported that Michael had joined the Moonies, but eventually he was located in Germany, explaining that he’d needed quality time with his girlfriend.
“I got scared, and I left,” he says now. “I knew that staying in UFO meant more touring and more drinking. I’ve had stage fright all my life, and to stand there and enjoy it I had to have some drinks. After the shows that would continue – it became very exhausting. When ‘Lights Out’ did so well, I started asking myself questions.
“Three months after leaving I needed my equipment back,” he continues. “I wanted to get on with my career. I wasn’t making any money from being in UFO – somebody must have, but I don’t know who – so I called them and asked for it to be shipped back to me. It was Pete Way, the master of persuasion, that talked me into coming back.”
“At first things were fine with Michael were fine, but the conflicts began when the real touring started, and when he began to speak English,” agreed Way years later. “You’re borrowing money from the record company to be there and every gig’s important. Suddenly molehills become mountains. What happened after the show became an extension of the music. We often played with the wrong bands – people like Rick Wakeman and Rod Stewart – and maybe one person out of a thousand would clap. Sometimes the energy spilled over.”
“Every night became a social occasion,” concurred Phil. “You’d party for most of the night, grab an hour or two’s sleep and just start again. It was like going down the pub with a bunch of mates – it will always affect one guy more than the others.”
“As we sped off Ron Nevison screamed, ‘You fucking guys, where’s her car?’
We just waved, bye-eeeee.”
Indeed, the rivalry between Schenker and Mogg was at the root of UFO’s simmering tension.
“Our personalities always clashed,” states Michael. “If you go by Chinese horoscopes, he’s a rat and I’m a horse. There’s nothing we can do about that. It was a bit like being in the jungle, where the strongest gorilla would lead the pack. Phil was a fighter in those days, and I tried to stay away from him as much as possible. He’s always needed to be in control of his environment, and as we all know, it’s impossible to mould the external world to suit one person’s wishes.”
After Schenker had walked out on his commitments for ‘Lights Out’, Mogg admits that “dismay” began to enter the equation. Raymond maintains that at this point UFO began to treat Michael with kid gloves (“He was often allowed to fly back to LA after a gig, which cost us a lot of money”), though when Mogg denies walking on eggshells around the volatile guitarist.
“My attitude was, fuck you,” he says. “Having Andy Parker in the band was a great leveller. If something stupid was going on he’d always moan and groan about it and most of the time it’d get sorted out. Michael says he wasn’t a drinker before he joined UFO… yeah, really [sarcastically]: he was a member of the Holy Trinity.”
“Some nights you’d drive past the Whiskey [A Go-Go] or the Rainbow [Bar And Grill] and Michael’s car would be outside,” agrees Pete. “He wasn’t a saint.”
The importance of the album that would become ‘Phenomenon’ was understood by everybody from the band’s record label on downwards. Before switching to Chrysalis, UFO had signed a contract that netted the entire group a paltry £800 in royalties for their first two albums. Such naïveté could not even be considered again.
Afterwards, ‘Phenomenon’ had been made in ten days flat with producer Leo Lyons, cutting ‘Force It’ in a mere 15, and receiving just five days more studio time for ‘No Heavy Petting’. Lyons (also the bassist for Ten Years After) was disappointed not to have been retained for ‘Lights Out’, the budgets for which he later noted had been increased “astronomically”, adding: “The ‘extras’ bill for ‘Lights Out’ was larger than the money I’d been given to make the three previous records.”
Having toured across America on numerous occasions with the likes of AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Blue Öyster Cult and Rush, securing several valuable footholds in the process, UFO came to a decision. They would strike while the iron was hot and stay in California, living the rock star dream.
“Phil and I hung out together a lot,” Way recalls. “He had a Trans Am and I had a Camero and we raced one another over Lauren Canyon – two drunks in a contest with each other was not a good idea. One day we went across a red light… I bet Phil doesn’t even remember that.”
“We quickly assimilated into LA life,” Mogg confirms. “There were a lot of laughs to be had. We would fly in and out of California to play gigs. There was a certain amount of nervousness around us, but we didn’t care. We knew we’d got as far as we had through our own ability and were incredibly cocky – almost to the point of arrogance in retrospect.Cocaine had crept in for us by then, and it gave us a lift, but [with alcohol involved] you ended up chasing one with the other. It wasn’t out of control, but it was used.”
“We’ve always been egotistical,” acknowledges Way. “At that point, we thought we were the best band in the world. All we needed was to prove it.”
UFO’s intentions were good enough, but Paul Raymond recalls manager Wilf Wright laying down the law that all five members must attend an early rehearsal session – only to discover that no one had any written any new songs. Manning the console for these make-or-break recordings, as he’d done for ‘Lights Out’, was Ron Nevison. With a track record that included Led Zeppelin, The Who and Bad Company, his disciplinarian streak was all that prevented the sessions from descending into bedlam.
“Ron expected a certain professional manner, which was definitely needed at the time,” confirms Mogg. “At times it was like being back at school, but there was a definite learning curve.”
“Everybody was terrified of Nevison,” Way agrees. “He’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake… have you lost your ability to count to fucking four?’ You could never get away with being drunk [while working] with Ron. At a push you could be wired [on cocaine], but somehow that enhanced the session.”
At first, UFO set to work at C.P. MacGregors, a derelict sound studio in Hollywood, but they unanimously objected to the producer’s choice of decoration – “The chairs and things Ron had got in were flea-bitten and dirty, just like you’d find on an old skip,” smiles Mogg. They put up a sign in the window stating the room was an exhibition of a living room in the 1930s American depression.
Phil: “When Ron walked in he went, ‘Hey, what’s all this? Your sense of humour is outta line’, threw one of his wobblers and everyone went home. It was like, ‘Fuck you, we simply refuse to sit on such filthy furniture’. And that was on the first day of the album!”
This was to be the first of many such ‘wobblers’. The producer went on to hire the Record Plant mobile and, declaring that he was “moving things up market”, relocated everyone to another surreal location: the West 3rd Carrier Station – a post office in Beverly Hills.
“There were no staff messing around in there with envelopes – the place was disused,” chuckles Schenker now. “It was a big building that Ron found for us, it had just the ambience we were looking for.”
“It was close to where we were living and perfect for what we needed,” nods Mogg. “We’d rehearsed quite a lot before we started the backing tracks, and Michael had a huge room – almost like a hall – to play his guitar in.”
Schenker was certainly happy during the sessions, considering Nevison to be the band’s “sixth member”, and insisting that an addiction “that later caused problems in his life” didn’t prevent Ron from being “very focussed” at the time. Despite the occasional tension in their shared workplace, UFO sometimes hung out with the producer in Hollywood.
“Ron would take us out for a meal every night, he could definitely be one of the boys if the mood demanded,” enthuses Mogg. “One thing we noticed was that each day he would turn up at the studio in a different car. Whether or not that was to impress us, it worked. We used to joke with him that he’d done well for himself, having once been Eric Clapton’s roadie.”
Schenker, on the other hand, professes his usual studied indifference to Nevison’s credentials, stating: “It didn’t mean anything that Ron had worked with such great groups – at the time I was just shy little Michael, I was too interested in my own performance to be impressed by such things. Who I was making records with didn’t matter, as long as I did a good job.”
“Phil had a Trans Am and I had a Camero and we raced over Lauren Canyon
– two drunks in a contest was not a good idea!”
Known as a meticulous producer, Nevison’s brusque demeanour could sometimes rub artistes up the wrong way.
“He made you feel like dirt, but he got performances,” comments Raymond. “I cracked once and stormed out into the car park in a row over guitar tunings. Mike Clink [the engineer who later produced Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite For Destruction’ and worked with Metallica, Mötley Crüe and Heart] had to come out and calm me down.”
However, in fairness to “the ever-present Ronnie Fury” (as he was named in the record’s special thanks list), what Nevison was subjected to would have tested the patience of a saint. On one occasion, Pete Way discreetly moved the speaker on which the producer listened to playbacks into the gentlemen’s toilet.
“Ron was barking out his orders, but we couldn’t hear a word because his voice was coming from a cubicle,” guffaws Pete. “He was furious, as was anyone in there at the time who’d been having a shit.”
“Another time, a girlfriend of Ron’s arrived in her sports car, she was very glamorous but a bit the worse for wear because she’d just been in an audition for a James Bond movie,” Mogg remembers fondly. “He made her wait outside because he wouldn’t have anyone disturbing him in the studio. So she staggered out to the car park. Anyway, there was this thing that went on with me, her and Pete over the bonnet of her car… I can’t remember the gory details. But afterwards she went back in to the studio.”
Gleefully, and as though it happened yesterday, a schoolboy-like Way picks up the tale: “We wheeled her car away from where she’d parked it and hid it behind a couple of Post Office vans.”
“She came out again and went absolutely berserk,” continues Mogg. “You know how those type of ‘beer people’ can go when they’re on booze? As Pete and I jumped into our car and left, Ron was outside remonstrating with her, pushing her away while she tried to pull out all the wires from the mobile into the studio. We sped off and Nevison screamed, ‘You fucking guys, where’s her car?’ We just waved, bye-eeeee.”
Internally, there was also considerable ridicule. Being the drummer, Parker was the butt of most jokes. Mogg himself was flattered to be asked to sign an autograph by a pretty girl… until he realised what she wanted signed was “a photo of my hooter” that Way had given her.
Though his vocabulary was improving, conversing with Schenker was still a problem. Often it lead to misunderstandings, but Mogg claims that on occasion Michael could be hilarious, although the very fact that his band-mates would roar with laughter with – and not at – him was sometimes misconstrued as ridicule.
“Sometimes Michael could be startlingly funny,” clarifies Phil, “but when he was, he thought we were taking the piss.”
Raymond remembers Schenker being “quiet and more detached than ever” from the rest of the group by ‘Obsession’. “He used to lay on the floor with a cushion behind his head and play.”
Although the finished record lasts for just 35 minutes and 11 tracks, no missing treasures from the ‘Obsession’ sessions exist. Indeed, Mogg comments: “We were just glad to get the bloody thing finished.” Conjecture still surrounds the composers of certain songs. This was due in part to Raymond’s “bum publishing deal” of the day, which saw some of his work credited to Way. However, the band often collaborated on each other’s half-finished concepts. A case in point is ‘Only You Can Rock Me’, which has been featured in just about every UFO concert from 1978 to the present day.
“I have no clue where that song came from,” Schenker shrugs. “In those days Pete or somebody would come up with the basic idea, then they’d come to me and say, ‘Michael, can you find another part for this?’ I’m assuming that was one of those.”
“Pete had written ‘Only You Can…’, but it was lacking something till Michael came up with the mid-section,” qualifies Mogg. Raymond has a better memory still. He says: “It was one of the songs that Michael transformed while he was laying on the floor; he just went, ‘I think eet should go like zis’, and we all agreed. The breakdown section on the keyboard was something that I stole from Rush.”
It’s been speculated that the lyric of “You made the impact back in 1965/But now move over friend/I think you’ve had your time” on ‘Pack It Up (And Go)’ was a jibe at larger bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. It was actually addressed to “hippies and acid freaks”, though Mogg willingly offers that ‘Ain’t No Baby’ was inspired by Chrysalis’ preoccupation with label-mate John Waite and his band.
“We were up in the office one day and they’d taken down our posters and put the Babys up instead,” he sniffs. “It really wound us up.”
Former Alice Cooper collaborator Alan McMillan wrote scores and conducted the orchestra on ‘Looking Out For No. 1’ and ‘Born To Lose’, but Schenker says that for the most part UFO were “not needed around to confuse the issues” while the classical musicians added to the group’s work. Until then the band had largely substituted keyboards for strings, and to Mogg it was “really exciting” to hear the way the songs were embellished. Way, however, was terrified of UFO “sounding like Des O’Connor.”
“Nevo once asked me what I thought, but at the time the beauty of it was only in Ron’s head,” he relates. “I told him, ‘It’s fucking awful’. We were a fucking rock’n’roll band, it was hard to get vibed up on cellos.”
Conspicuous among football terrace anthems like ‘Hot ‘N’ Ready’ and ‘One More For The Rodeo’ was ‘Arbory Hill’, a delicate showcase for Schenker’s flute-playing skills that Michael would later re-shape as ‘Tales Of Mystery’ during his early solo years.
“Phil is very good at picking up on controversial things like that,” he nods. “It was a time when I was practising flute – maybe because of [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Stairway To Heaven’, who knows? – but he really liked the idea.”
On ‘Cherry’, with salacious lyrics about a stripper dancing on a tabletop, Way used the bass as a lead instrument, something he later regretted because it “gave me problems to play” in years to come.
In keeping with their previous four albums, UFO commissioned Hipgnosis, the London company who’d designed iconic sleeve artwork for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Nice, to deliver something bold and futuristic-looking. They didn’t disappoint. To everybody’s astonishment, Storm Thorgerson and team arrived in Los Angeles armed with a job-lot of ball bearings and some glue.
“They took us down to an operating theatre in the University. We were told to put on suits and ties and all had our hair slicked back, then the ball bearings were stuck into our eyes,” recollects Mogg with a grin. “Our photos were taken separately and then they made a collage.”
Presumably Schenker, who stands looking on impassively between Messrs Mogg (on the left) and Way, wouldn’t go along with Storm’s concept?
Phil (his grin growing wider by the moment): “No, that was the whole point. When Michael saw a mock-up he said [in convincing Teutonic tones], ‘I like zees cover, but how come I am ze only one wiz no balls?’ Brilliant!”
“I just recall Michael going out the studio door mumbling, ‘Poor, poor Rock Bottom' ’’.
That was the last we saw of him”
Phil Mogg on the departure of Schenker.
In June 1978, ‘Obsession’ was released to rave reviews, providing a real taste of homeland triumph to those British members of the band by crashing into the UK’s Top 10. In America, a lengthy tour eventually spawned one of the greatest live double albums of all time, ‘Strangers In The Night’. Little did anybody know it, but UFO’s finest hour had arrived and they were too busy partying, arguing and worrying to savor it.
“By that time a doctor in England had prescribed the same tablets that had killed Keith Moon, just to counter my stage fright,” admits Michael. “Unfortunately, I was mixing them with alcohol and by the end of concerts my head would turn completely purple. It was embarrassing, and a nuisance.”
Six months later, with Chrysalis keen to cash in on an extremely hot property, ‘Strangers In The Night’ also made the British Top 10. However, Schenker had already clashed with Mogg for what seemed to be the final time.
“I’d told Phil that if he ever hit me I would leave the band,” relates Michael sadly. “I guess he was trying to check out whether I meant it because he hit me in the stomach, and I did leave. Maybe I was happy to go… I don’t really remember how it felt [to walk out], but maybe I needed that punch to bring me to my senses.”
Mogg has since dismissed the confrontation as “a bit of playful shoving”. “There were definitely times when I wanted to belt him, though,” he grins. “At that point Michael only weighed about ten stone, not like now.”
Fearful that his memory may be failing him on something so crucial, Phil suggests that I ask Way and Raymond about the fracas. Both draw a blank, though Pete dimly remembers a violent confrontation taking place in Belgium years earlier when Michael “got there first and took all the band’s Mandrax [downers].”
Another factor in Schenker’s departure, besides auditioning unsuccessfully to replace Joe Perry in Aerosmith, was Nevison’s refusal to let him overdub a guitar solo on ‘Strangers In The Night’.
Mogg agrees: “I just recall Michael going out the studio door mumbling, ‘Poor, poor ‘Rock Bottom’’. That was the last we saw of him.”
“Afterwards, in a Seattle hotel bar with Van Halen, we were up late and messing around,” confides Raymond in a tantalising glimpse of what could have been. “Eddie [Van Halen] said he’d wanted to come down and audition for us after Michael left – the first time, after ‘Lights Out’ – but he didn’t have the bottle. He didn’t think he was good enough, but the entire course of rock history could have been re-written.”
Out on his own, Schenker faced weaning himself from the tablets that had been making him into a purple-headed monster. “It was my worst experience because I’d been taking them for two years,” he says. “I went cold turkey and had two seizures. It was a brutal withdrawal, I don’t know how I got through it.”
After leaving UFO, Michael rejoined the Scorpions and soon realised that he “didn’t want to do the whole band thing anymore”, resulting in yet another vanishing act and the formation of the Michael Schenker Group in 1980. Ironically, given their current frostiness, Raymond would join him in MSG. In another bizarre coincidence, Way reveals that Peter Mensch had wanted to take on UFO circa ‘Strangers…’, the future Metallica/Def Leppard manager telling the bassist: “He couldn’t understand how we fucked things up.” After briefly representing Schenker at the start of his solo career Mensch probably now has a better idea of how they managed it.
In Michael’s wake, UFO invited Paul Chapman, nicknamed ‘Tonka’ for his indestructible qualities, to join them on a permanent basis. Once described as “looking permanently like he’s just got back from the Charing Cross Meth Drinkers Annual Dinner And Dance”, the lunatic Welshman was infinitely better suited to UFO’s accelerating levels of depravity.
Mogg has since owned up to undue haste in appointing Chapman. Raymond also admits he was “dead against it”, and Phil’s memory of the guitarist’s audition, recounted back in Issue 22, was indicative of the what would follow. “Paul was an hour late, so I went out to Walthamstow tube station to look for him,” he told us. “At the end of the road I could see this figure in an old dufflecoat with a guitar and a bottle raised to his lips. ‘He-e-e-e-ey-y-y-y, alright boy?’ slurred Paul when I reached him. ‘Couldn’t find you for a while there’. He was absolutely pissed.”
1980’s ‘No Place To Run’, the first post-Schenker album, was recorded in Monserrat under the scrutiny of Beatles producer George Martin before the band were ejected from the West Indies due to immigration laws. Dismissed as lightweight and laid back by the critics, excellent material like the ‘Alpha Centuari’/‘Lettin’ Go’ medley, ‘Young Blood’ and the graphic, simmering title track nonetheless confirmed the possibility of continued life minus the German. The following year’s ‘The Wild, The Willing & The Innocent’, was a genuine return to form, and multiple nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo ensued.
“Commercially, we were most successful in the Chapman era,” points out Way. “In Chicago we could play to 28,000 people with Paul. The big disappointment was that Michael had played such a big part in getting us there.”
UFO have been named as an influence by Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich of Metallica among many others, with Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris using the showmanship and modesty – if not the hedonism - of Pete Way as a template for his own success. 25 years later, ‘Obsession’ remains a benchmark hard rock release.
Mogg: “It was fun to make, and now to listen to. I like that we were open to new ideas, like using strings.”
Way: “It captured the band’s vibe [of the time], of getting on a plane to Hollywood and just believing in yourself.”
Raymond: “To me, ‘Lights Out’ marginally beats it, but considering the pressure we were under it’s incredible how good it is.”
Schenker: “Was ‘Obsession’ UFO’s best record? Absolutely. Along with ‘Lights Out’ it was our first with a professional producer, and the songs were amazing. Those days were necessary and I embrace them. Everything leads to the next step of your development.”
The official UFO website
The story of the ‘Obsession’ album – doesn’t the mere thought make your taste buds tingle in anticipation?! Two of the four interviews for this story of California-based excess were conducted over the phone. Michael Schenker and Pete Way were both in America at the time. It’s hard to know whether Michael’s memories of this time are really as vague as he claims, or if he just doesn’t want to play ball. Pete, on the other hand, spoke fondly and at length about what was UFO’s golden age. I met Phil Mogg and Paul Raymond in separate London pubs and on different days (neither was avoiding the other, I think; it just happened to work out that way). They were both full of great anecdotes, as you’ll see here… (25th August, 2004)
Please send me your comments on this article.
This comment was sent in by Ray from Cheshire:
Dave, well researched and written. Just seen the boys 3 times on this 2015 tour with great trax from Lights out and Obsession being key parts of the set. We all love those albums of course.Interesting that over the years Phil doesn't seem to play live anything from TWTWATI, unreal in many ways given the superb songs... any insight?