TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 June 2014
During their late 1970s heyday, UFO were a band I always wanted to like more than I did: they lacked the imagination and fire of more determinedly Heavy Metal monsters Judas Priest and lacked the widescreen feel of Dio-era Rainbow, but wrote some great tunes and were endearingly direct. They were, however, sometimes a little dull and lacking in imagination in the songwriting and arrangement departments, which I feel is why they've never gained the mainstream respect the likes of Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple have. UFO were, in many ways, a band looking toward a different future for rock music as it became fragmented, setting the standard for straight-ahead heavy music (sometimes with mildly thoughtful, downbeat lyrics) alongside the like of Germany's Scorpions. Put them in context and they were clearly influential over many British and American bands that followed. While this might be clear to many rock fans of a certain age, younger listeners and mainstream rock fans may not yet appreciate UFOs importance in the scheme of things. Recently, I've examined their back catalogue in some depth and now feel they are generally one of the most consistently brilliant hard rock bands of the 70s and I'm now a dyed-in-the-wool Schenker period UFO nutter!
After an early career as a blues-spacerock combo - an era I find very interesting in their work - UFO signed to Chrysalis and settled on a lineup that took them down into an upward jetstream trajectory with the addition of much-vaunted Teutonic lead guitarist Michael Schenker, who to the uninitiated could be described as the European Eddie Van Halen. Fan favourite 'Phenomenon' followed - a record I personally find a little dull, despite it having one of the best record sleeves in history, even by Hipgnosis standards (and that's saying something). A couple of albums later, it seemed that UFO could hit the big time on both sides of the Atlantic and 'Lights Out' (issued in 1977) was the key part of their strategy for commercial success.
Taking on one Paul Raymond (no, not the naughty magazine publisher!) on second guitar and keyboards and employing a producer named Ron Nevison, who convinced the band to use strings and (rather subtly applied) horns on a few tracks on the album, the result was the bands' most varied, appealing and expansive album to date. Incidentally, if you're the sort of listener who instantly gets put off at the idea of horns on a hard rock record, trust me, there's nothing to worry about.
'Lights Out' is consequently a very listenable album for anyone who wants to invest in a classic British hard rock record: beautifully produced, consummately played, varied and well-paced, it's a taut, loud, energetic and highly professional set that doesn't outstay its welcome. It is, however, flawed by the inclusion of a pointless cover version of psychedelic-era ur-text 'Alone Again Or'. Love tend to be one of those bands the critical consensus of rock journos and trendy magazines rave about unreservedly, though personally I feel they're interesting but overrated. Despite this, UFO simply don't have a subtle enough approach to tackle this song - it's been covered a few times and the best cover is by The Damned and even that is fairly needless. It's a very specific, unusual and memorable song and as such, is a poor candidate for covering - the best covers tend to be either very straightforward or little-known songs that are then rearranged radically by the new artist, resulting in a startling new aspect of the song coming to the fore. To be fair to UFO, they show a lot of respect for the original and maybe that's the problem - their version seems pointless as a result.
The rest of the songs are all UFO originals, carved out equally between uptempo, ballad and medium-paced tracks. One high point for me is 'Try Me', one of the ballads, which has some great piano and a highly enjoyable coda section which showcases Schencker soloing with finesse, judgement and harmonic fealty to the excellent string arrangement that acts as a base for his guitar to ride over. While most hard rock/heavy metal solos are simply exercises in rapid fretwork for the sake of it with little attention to the art of melody and composition, this charge can't be levelled at Schenker here. Closing cut 'Love to Love' is another favourite, with vocalist Phil Mogg in fine voice and at his most wistful and introspective here, poetically singing about "misty green and blue....". This is late psychedelic blues merged tellingly with standard rock balladry, lovely stuff.
Other high points are "Just Another Suicide" written by Paul Raymond, so it naturally features some good keyboard work, which, when utilised well, tends to lift this kind of album from the monolithic dullness so much hard rock descends into by continually over-emphasising guitars, guitars and more guitars. 'Electric Phase' might almost be Mott the Hoople, while tracks like "Getting Ready" and "Too Hot to Handle" are more like Mott, the final lineup of Mott the Hoople. I make this comparison only to place UFO at the straighter hard-rock end of heavy metal for listeners unfamiliar with the band.
"Electric Phase" has some interesting guitarwork at the start and coda, which made me sit up and take notice - not to mention some bottleneck, slidy, fluid stringbending from Schenker throughout. As I say, he plays with more finesse than many of his contemporaries and copyists. The thin, spidery platinum guitar figures at the coda of "Electric Phase" seques into a plangent gong that ushers in closing cut "Love to Love".
On the downside, opening cut "Too Hot To Handle" is riddled with exactly the kind of hard-rock lyrical and musical clichés you'd expect. This cut is representative of UFO in their duller moments - if you find their single "Doctor Doctor" a bit of a bore, you'll know what I mean. Meanwhile, the title track is a powerhouse that barrels along and grows on you with each listen. A word here for singer Phil Mogg - he has a fine voice, good diction and the while the lyrics he sings/writes aren't always first rate - as a stylist he lacks the memorable timbres of Page, Osbourne, Dio, Gillan or Halford. He's a good singer, but technique and consistency sadly aren't enough to guarantee immortality - you have to sound different to stand out and Mogg, for all his good qualities, isn't a master stylist with an unforgettable voice.
Now a contextual comment: appearing at the moment that Punk Rock was the new big thing in the UK music scene, there is no doubt that UFO seemed old hat to young rock fans and those who had traced the development of outsider music from the Velvet Underground, through Bowie, Roxy, Prog and Pub Rock like Dr Feelgood. To me, this was the moment when music like UFOs started to become an even more derided ghetto than heavy music had ever been before, leading to the increasing use of the label 'heavy metal'. Chrysalis, of course, also had Generation X, so they had both bases covered. None of this stopped 'Lights Out' doing well in the USA though!
Overall though, if you're in the mood for a carefully crafted and gorgeously executed British hard rock album that reflects a certain period (the late 1970s) you can't go wrong with 'Lights Out'. It also has an excellent Hipgnosis sleeve (which for me eachoes the one of Hawkwind's 'Quark, Strangeness and Charm', a record from the same year that is absolutely brilliant), while the remastering is bold and clear and loud without loss of period detail. The bonus tracks show how proficient UFO were live - as you'd expect from a band who made their reputation by getting out there and playing. So if you are a fan of rock music in its broadest sense and fancy dipping a toe into the pool of hard rock just as it is about to become formularised as heavy metal, you can't go wrong here - this is a great fun record.
Finally, the edition I'm reviewing here is the 2008 remaster.