Another classic retrospective (6 albums + extras over 5 discs ) from the Chrysalis stable, and the perfect partner to UFO's, charting what happened next for Michael Schenker after quitting UFO (for what really did appear to be the last time). Fortunately, it didn't take too long for him to get his act together - although the process wasn't exactly painless for the German guitar genius. Musically speaking, the starting point was the chance discovery of singer Gary Barden and the subsequent debut album, despite being under the banner of "The Michael Schenker Group", was essentially a Schenker-Barden affair (backed by top session players). And what a collaboration it turned out to be under the guidance of producer Roger Glover. Kicking off with "Armed And Ready", any doubts whether Herr Schenker could continue the astronomically high standards he had set in his previous band(s) were immediately dispelled. Classic riffs, classic lyrics, classic ending. And with a jaw-dropping solo - which is a classic. Can you get any more classic? And so it continued until the last fading notes of the album-ending epic "Lost Horizons" confirmed that this was a class songwriting partnership. And if "Tales Of Mystery" revisited "Arbory Hill", from UFO's "Obsession", there's no suggestion that the two had run out of ideas. This album has to be one of the best heavy rock debuts ever and contains some of Michael's finest work - as if he had a point to prove.
Hot on the heels of its release, the Michael Schenker Group took to the road with a permanent (as far as the term can be applied) line-up, which included the inspired additions of Metal Mickey's former UFO band mate Paul Raymond (effectively reprising his role in UFO), Cozy Powell and Chris Glen. The maestro was clearly in his comfort zone with this familiar format - so familiar that Phil Mogg joked that there was a band going round impersonating UFO; a claim given added credibility by the fact that - as MSG only had an album's worth of material - several UFO classics were included in the set-list (much to fans' delight). Tantalisingly, the 6 previously unreleased live tracks included here from MSG's debut UK tour are not described as "bonus tracks" and the booklet contains album sleeve photos which include what appears to be an unreleased album, "Live at the Manchester Apollo 1980". The remastered "MSG" album contains a further 6 numbers from this show, so maybe a full-length release is in the offing? Apart from the 12 numbers accounted for, the band also played "Into The Arena" (the live B-side included here is also from the Apollo) and, if I remember correctly, "Bijou Pleasurette" or possibly an early version of "Courvoisier Concerto". I don't recall any other UFO tracks being played but the atmosphere was absolutely electric and it was great to see the band really going full-tilt. Michael's playing on "Rock Bottom" is unbelievable. If you haven't heard this version yet, it will blow you away when you do.
"MSG" (album titles weren't a strong point) was a very different beast altogether from the debut. Schenker's choice of producer - Ron Nevison (from his later UFO days) - created a much heavier sound with Chris Glen's bass and Cozy's drums well to the fore (perhaps over-compensating for the lighter sounding rhythm section on the debut album). The songs too are very different, although just as good in their own ways. The lead guitar is (as you'd expect) pretty exceptional. In contrast to the heavyweight emphasis for most of the album, there are also some subtle touches throughout, such as Raymond's harpsichord-sounding keyboard on "On And On" and changes of tempo. At 7:00, "But I Want More" is an epic and is followed by an absolute gem (the only way to describe it) from Paul Raymond - "Never Trust A Stranger". Think 'Heavy Metal Barry Manilow' (not for too long!) and you won't be far off. But there's no slush here, just the purest of ballads with Michael conjuring up the type of solo that only he can. 'Rabbit out of a hat!' - most definitely. Why this song wasn't released as a single is a complete mystery to me. It could have been massive. "Looking For Love" has classic MS melodies and "Secondary Motion" completes the album, notes hanging in the air with Barden singing (almost prophetically, with hindsight) "Give me that chance ..." - the perfect ending to this classic album.
Next up is the live double album "One Night At Budokan" - here the original unexpanded version preferred by many (unless you're particularly into drum solos) but this time with Courvoisier Concert[o] misspelt (again). It definitely deserves its place up there with all the classic live doubles - it's that good - but its release also marked the first departures from the band. Exit stage left, Cozy Powell, Paul Raymond ... and Gary Barden.
What happened next ... you couldn't make it up. "Assault Attack" is arguably MSG's most 'musical' album; even if new singer Graham Bonnet's vocals aren't an easy listen, the playing and production are flawless. Martin Birch captured Ted McKenna's (another inspired choice) drum sound perfectly and if there's a better produced heavy rock album out there, I've yet to hear it. The single, "Dancer" ably demonstrates Michael's musical genius - taking the lyric's theme of a dancer falling, his solo begins with notes tripping and spinning from his guitar. But if an album this good can possibly have a stand-out track, it has to be "Desert Song" with its cinematic imagery and musically, Schenker bending harmonic chords by flexing the neck of his trusty Flying V - shades of UFO's "Love To Love", long instrumental sections and two sections of perfect, contrasting, lead guitar. An absolutely brilliant composition. The album ends with a barnstorming instrumental - "Ulcer" - with the band having an absolute blast and (again with hindsight) which seems an eerily prophetic way to end the album ... Exit singer number two. Welcome back, Gary Barden. Surprise, surprise!!
On to "Built To Destroy", an album I didn't bother with at the time (and haven't much since). Sometimes it's better to move on ...
And finally, "Rock Will Never Die"; another live offering - again the original (single album) version and arguably to be preferred to the expanded version for that reason. The highlight, for me at least, is "I'm Gonna Make You Mine", where rhythm guitarist Derek St Holmes sings the lead (superbly). It was very clear that Gary was struggling badly by now and St Holmes' vocal performance suggests what could have been if Michael (and he) had been willing to break the mould and develop this new approach.
Any quibbles? Well, the bonus tracks are a little disappointing, as most are already available on the re-mastered albums. The Sounds flexidisc edit of "Sleeping Dogs" (I remember having this) was more of a 'taster' - it stops suddenly after the guitar solo. And as much as "Armed And Ready" is a classic, there are no less than 5 versions of it here; maybe you can have too much of a good thing? Perhaps some of the best of the Reading headline gig could have been included for good measure ... but this is a highly recommended collection and remarkable value for money. The first four albums alone easily make this a 5 star box set.