By and large, with a few notable exceptions, the turn into the 1980s was not kind to the giants of 70s hard rock. Metal pioneers Black Sabbath spun out of their nosedive with a new singer and an updated sound, and AC/DC rebounded from the death of the iconic Bon Scott with one of the biggest selling albums in history. Both Judas Priest and the Scorpions found greater commercial fortunes at the expense of stripping their sound down to its basics. The late-entry party boys in Van Halen were still on the rise, riding their signature guitar flash and good-time tunes toward even bigger success.
But others weren’t so lucky. Led Zeppelin disbanded in the wake of John Bonham’s death. Deep Purple had already sputtered to a halt four years prior, and Blackmore’s offshoot Rainbow would begin the 80s with an abrupt shift away from epic hard rock and into radio-ready AOR. Scotsmen Nazareth followed the same lead into lackluster half-rock. American shocker Alice Cooper had returned from rehab strong with From The Inside, but quickly lost focus in a shift to New Wave. Kiss’ original line-up splintered, collapsing beneath the weight of one of the most-derided concept albums of all time. Aerosmith’s excesses ripped them apart. Thin Lizzy soldiered on, but their best days were behind them – their three 1980s efforts are underrated, but far from their best. Blue Oyster Cult released one last brilliant record for the new decade and promptly fell to pieces. Uriah Heep ended 1980 reduced to one member. Queen abandoned both their art-rock tendencies and their “no synthesizers” credo in favor of poppier waters.
Like their peers, at the beginning the 1980s, UFO was also struggling. Guitar wunderkind Michael Schenker had departed to briefly rejoin the Scorpions before forming his own eponymous group. His replacement Paul Chapman had first joined UFO in 1974 as a second guitarist and had returned in 1978 as a fill-in for Schenker when the latter’s alcoholism and mercurial disposition caused him to not perform. By the end of 1978, Schenker was officially gone and Chapman was a full-time member. Though the remainder of the band remained intact, and though Chapman was no slouch on the guitar himself, there’s no denying now that a certain spark was missing. Schenker’s playing was always fiery, and while Chapman was technically sound, that lack of spark would eventually prove insurmountable in the face of the onslaught of fiery NWOBHM bands that UFO had inspired.
Released in January 1980, No Place To Run almost literally opened the decade. The band was coming off the career high of their landmark live record Strangers In The Night, so Schenker’s departure couldn’t have come at a worse time. No Place saw the band scale back the hard rock in favor of a more controlled arena-ready approach, and though some songs work well enough, others tread too close to sub-Night Ranger AOR for comfort. While “Letting Go” and “Money Money” had promise, the likes of “Young Blood” and “This Fire Burns Tonight” are both simply too weak for the band who brought us “Rock Bottom” and “Lights Out” only a few years prior. Produced by George Martin (Beatles, Cheap Trick), the album sounds slicked up, less muscular, giving the whole thing a pop sheen too far removed from the UFO of old. This band had always balanced the harder numbers with ballads and more straightforward moments like “Shoot Shoot” and such, but those weren’t the focus tracks, and from this point forward, the lack of a “Lights Out” or a “Doctor Doctor” would be the band’s undoing.
Keyboardist / guitarist Paul Raymond departed after the No Place To Run tour – leaving to join the Michael Schenker Group, no less – and UFO replaced him with former Wild Horses member Neil Carter for 1981’s The Wild, The Willing And The Innocent. A step up from its predecessor, Wild was produced by the band themselves, and it was a far more rocking affair, though at times it, too, fell prey to the AOR tinges that crept into No Place To Run. Still, tracks like the title track, “Chains Chains,” and “Long Gone” showed that the band hadn’t quite run out of steam yet, even if they weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders.
Despite having one of the worst album covers in rock history (and being marketed with the tagline “It will tighten your nuts!”), the subsequent Mechanix album held steady with Wild’s just-a-hair-harder-than-radio-rock approach, again with some decent tunes (“The Writer,” “We Belong To The Night”) and its fair share of duds. (The cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” is dreadful, and “Let It Rain” runs a killer set of hard rock verses into a saccharine melodic rock chorus, and yet still manages to be better than “Terri.”) Still, Mechanix proved to be the band’s biggest chart success in the UK, and it even briefly returned UFO to the bottom end of the American airwaves with the radio-friendly “Back Into My Life.”
Post-Mechanix, founding bassist, songwriter, and unflagging advocate of vertically striped pants Pete Way split to form Fastway with former Motorhead guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke, Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley and future Molly-flogger Dave King. (Don’t mention that to King these days, though – he doesn’t wanna talk about it.) Though Way’s contract with Chrysalis would prevent him from recording with Fastway, he didn’t come back to UFO – instead, he joined Ozzy’s band for the Bark At The Moon tour and, following that, founded the underrated Waysted.
Down to only two original members, Mogg and drummer Andy Parker, UFO drug on, with Chapman filling the bass slot on record for 1983’s Making Contact and with former Talas and future David Lee Roth / Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan subbing in for the tour. Regardless of who was on the four-string, by this point, UFO was running on empty. Struggling through a few more decent tracks (“Blinded By A Lie,” “The Way The Wild Wind Blows”) surrounded by four times as many tunes of faceless hard rock (everything else), the once-great UFO was not so much making contact as just flying blind.
After a follow-up tour with former Damned bassist Paul Gray tagging along, UFO landed, seemingly for good. Chapman joined up with Way in Waysted. Mogg relocated to Los Angeles to begin work on a new band, recruiting Gray and guitarist Tommy “Atomik Tommy M” McClendon. The returning Paul Raymond signed on for Mogg’s new outfit, and Chrysalis insisted that the UFO name be used, and thus came Misdemeanor, the whole of which is keyboard-saddled 80s hard-rock lite, tailor-made for the soundtrack to some lost Corey Feldman film. Such faux-Survivor radio dreck did little to re-instill faith in the band and the brand, and by the end of 1986, UFO and Chrysalis Records parted ways.
So all that to say this: If you couldn’t have guessed, The Chrysalis Years 1980-1986 is a compilation of the UFO material released by Chrysalis during the titular timeframe. It’s obviously a companion piece to the earlier Chrysalis Years set, the one that spans the band’s glory days from 1973-1979. Considering that the quality of UFO’s output during the 1980s was below the level set by their output in the 1970s, it follows suit that this latest installment of The Chrysalis Years is a lesser offering.
On the plus side, 1980-1986 corrects its brother’s biggest problem by covering fewer albums – 1973-1979 crammed six albums onto five discs, whereas 1980-1986 only compiles five. Thus, with its source material and its divisions appropriately aligned, 1980-1986 allows for one original album to feature on each disc, avoiding the split situation that disrupted the flow of the earlier set. On the down side, 1980-1986 still sells itself short by virtue of not being comprehensive – it adds in live material, single versions, BBC sessions and other unreleased goodies, but much of the material that serves as bonus tracks to later reissues of these individual albums doesn’t appear here. Thus, to get all the tracks that pertain to these releases, UFO enthusiasts like me would still have to buy not only this set, but also some of the albums separately.
Of the bonus material, the live content is, of course, the biggest selling point – there’s a BBC concert special from 1980 that features Schenker-era tracks alongside leaner and meaner live arrangements of songs from No Place To Run. There’s a five-song live set from the post-Contact compilation Headstone, recorded at Hammersmith in 1983 and featuring mostly Chapman-era tunes. Both are recorded well, both enjoyable enough, neither essential to all but collectors. If nothing else, they show what the records also showed, that these incarnations of UFO were missing the fire that made the classic era burn.
Of course, as an ardent and avowed completist, I’m always interested in an affordable, “one-stop-shopping” approach to a band’s catalog, particularly when it’s the least-essential part of their canon, and that’s pretty much what The Chrysalis Years 1980-1986 is good for. There’s probably no UFO fan alive who would argue that these albums are better than those that came before, though there are plenty who would argue that some of them are underrated, and that’s true – The Wild, The Willing And The Innocent, at least, gets overlooked too easily and too often by virtue of its lack of Schenker. That one does deserve a bit more attention than sheer off-the-cuff dismissal. Still, there’s only a little here that would show why the band is as revered as they are, and unless you’re a UFO die-hard or a collector, all but part of these particular Chrysalis years are very easily ignored.
Don’t overlook or underestimate this band in their prime. Explore the early days first, and if you’re thoroughly hooked, here’s the remainder of their Chrysalis recordings, in all their mixed-bag glory, a bunch of mostly sub-par arena rock wrapped up nice and neat with a few hidden goodies in the midst.