In every metropolitan area throughout the United States, there’s a classic rock radio station broadcasting endless repeats of tired tunes like “More Than A Feeling” and “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Tuesday’s Gone.” And why, in the midst of (or in place of) the eternal Zeppelin and Van Halen and Aerosmith, there’s virtually no occurrences of a “Lights Out” or a “Rock Bottom” or a “Cherry”… well, that’s both baffling and more than a bit tragic. Because the thing is: UFO rocked and rocked hard, and they did so in finer fashion than many (possibly “most”) of the bands currently filling up forty-minute rock blocks somewhere on your FM dial. (Yeah, I’m talkin’ ‘bout you, Bachman Turner Overdrive.)
Granted, for all their underdog appeal, UFO is not entirely unsung – Iron Maiden has been praising them for years, both through appropriating the galloping drive of “Lights Out” and “Doctor Doctor” and by using the latter as the final “people, get ready” song before they take the stage. (A 90s Maiden cover of “Doctor Doctor” is a b-side from the Bayley years, but rightfully, it’s the original that still gets the nod for pre-show plays.) For decades, former UFO guitarist Michael Schenker has been featured in countless guitar magazines, his legacy begun here and his neo-classical technique subsequently copied by legions of shredders. The man’s been a certified axe god since his teens, starting with his brief tenure in The Scorpions alongside his brother Rudolf before bursting out with UFO for the duration of the 1970s and later finding solo success with MSG in the 1980s. So it’s true that UFO is overlooked, but it’s true they’re not forgotten – they’re arguably the best 70s rock band that most people have heard of and few people have ever actually heard.
Now, more than thirty years after their creative peak, their best work still holds up brilliantly, and The Chrysalis Years is a five-disc compilation of those glory days. By the time UFO switched to Chrysalis in 1973, they’d already released two middling albums of decent but unexciting space-tinged hard rock that failed to find an audience. After the departure of guitarist Mick Bolton, these Britons lured Schenker away from The Scorpions, and his arrival facilitated a change in sound, as the spacey soundscapes gave way to a muscular riff-driven approach that beautifully suited Phil Mogg’s throaty, gritty voice. 1974’s Phenomenon brought two of the band’s signature tunes – “Rock Bottom and “Doctor Doctor” – but overall, it’s a portrait of transition, the band still uncertain where to go with their new German shredder. Follow-ups Force It and No Heavy Petting fared better, solidifying UFO’s new direction through hard-hitting tracks like “Let It Roll” and the VD-themed anthem “Natural Thing,” but the band’s crowning studio achievement remains 1977’s Lights Out. The title track from that record is a barnstormer, a direct precursor to the NWOBHM movement in structure and style, and hands down, one of the best proto-metal songs of the 1970s. But Lights Out doesn’t begin or end there – other tracks like “Too Hot To Handle” and “Gettin’ Ready” rock just as hard. (Plus, there’s a cover of the perennially underrated “Alone Again Or,” originally by Los Angeles psychedelic rockers Love.) Riding on Lights Out’s success, Obsession followed a similar formula, with hard-edged numbers interspersed amongst prog-tinted numbers. (Witness the driving “Only You Can Rock Me” contrasted against the moody dynamics of “Cherry,” easily one of the band’s best compositions.) After Lights Out,UFO released their best-known effort, one of the definitive live albums in an era when such albums truly mattered. 1979’s Strangers In The Night routinely finds itself at the top of Best Live Albums lists, and for good reason: The band smokes; the material is top-notch. Many of the tunes the band had already released (including “Doctor Doctor” and “Lights Out”) were refined and/or perfected in their rawer, rougher live versions. “Doctor Doctor” itself benefits from a more finished lyric, while “Rock Bottom” showcases Schenker’s six-string skills in full force for anyone who doubted his talents. (By the time the album hit, he had already left the band.)
So after three paragraphs of dancing around it, I’ll get right to the task at hand: The five discs of The Chrysalis Years comprise not only the six albums I mentioned above, but also radio sessions, b-sides, live recordings and two demos that arrived in the brief period between the band’s signing to Chrysalis and the arrival of Schenker. (Future Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden plays on 1973’s “Give Her The Gun,” which opens this set.) While it would appear that this is everything the band released in the six-year stretch indicated, each of these records was reissued individually by EMI (Chrysalis’ parent company) in 2007 / 2008, but with bonus tracks that often don’t appear on this set. And therein lies one bummer about this – as a box set, The Chrysalis Years is, by nature of being a box set, a for-fans affair, but most of its content is just the album tracks, which a fan should already have. If taken as a way to collect all the UFO tracks from this particular era, as its time-based title would imply, it stumbles by virtue of not including all the tracks available. Thus, while The Chrysalis Years is certainly a great place to pick up all of UFO’s best records in one place, to get all the appropriate add-ons and bonuses, one would have to buy not only this set, but each album separately, as well. (Most glaring: the bonus tracks that complete the set-list of Strangers In The Night aren’t present here.) Also, the masters are different for each album in the set – some are the 2007 master, some the 1999 master, and no explanation is given as to why.
Another minor quibble I have with The Chrysalis Years is that it really should be six discs – to fit six albums on five discs, along with the appropriate bonus material, the albums are often split in half – for example, half of No Heavy Petting appears on Disc Two and half on Disc Three. In the world of digital downloads, such structuring is irrelevant, but it’s still irritating if you’re old-school like me and based on physical discs as it disrupts the flow of the albums as they were originally intended.
All that said, as you’ve probably gathered from my enthusiastic opening sections, I’m a UFO fan, and regardless of sequencing issues and the absence of some of the (admittedly largely unnecessary) possible bonus material, there’s one undeniable fact: These records, even with a few songwriting misfires here and there, rock like hell. Between some seriously great tunes, Schenker’s guitar heroics, Mogg’s gritty bluster and Pete Way’s rock-star attitude, UFO is easily one of the most underrated acts in hard rock (underrated in America, at least). And though the band continues to this day (with only Mogg and guitarist/keyboardist Paul Raymond remaining, Way seemingly not as indestructible as he appeared), their legacy was built upon the records contained within this box. The Chrysalis Years isn’t a smashing success as a compilation, but it’s nevertheless good, the music contained within its discs great enough to overcome a few hurdles. All told, these are the sounds of 70s hard rock done properly, by a band that should’ve been bigger than they were and are. The Chrysalis Years is a good chance to pick up UFO‘s best work in one fell swoop (and at around $40, it’s really not terribly expensive for a five-disc-er). Any fan of guitar-driven hard rock should know this band, should know these records; any fan of guitar-driven hard rock should love this band and love these records… And all of you should be cranking up “Lights Out” right now, because your local radio station sadly won’t be…
(To clarify my scoring — the set itself gets a 7; the music contained within gets an 8. Thus, it balances to a 7.5.)