Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Michael Schenker

I’ve wanted to write about Michael Schenker for the longest time but didn’t know quite how.  Then I saw a 30 for 30 thing on ESPN the other day called Believeland.  It was a thing about being a sports fan in Cleveland, and how much it sucks to be a sports fan in Cleveland.  You have such high hopes for your teams but in the end they just crush your dreams [The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Decision, the Browns winning the Super Bowl after they moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, etc].  Being a fan of Michael Schenker is like being a sports fan in Cleveland.  He’s a brilliant guitar player, but he just doesn’t have his shit together.  In UFO, he was the meticulous German in an English band of drunks.  There was always a separation between Schenker and Phil Mogg and Pete Way.  There’s the language barrier, Mogg and Way were practical jokers and piss-takers while Schenker always hid away to practice, practice, and practice some more.  The band’s substance abuse problems would probably kill mere mortals.  Mogg and Way did so much cocaine they kept Peru’s economy afloat, Way supplemented his coke with heroin, and Schenker just drank a lot (an understatement if ever there was one).  Schenker couldn’t handle success – he disappeared for months after Lights Out became a hit.  Why do I like Michael Schenker?  Because he can riff like Tony Iommi and solo like Ritchie Blackmore.  It’s a shame that he’s a head case. 

Schenker’s technique is flawless [unless he’s drunk, of course].  He’s precise, he’s intricate, he’s fast when he wants to be, and he can bend notes like Albert King.  His playing is astonishing, his solos soaring.  His riffs are as solid as any of those written by Tony Iommi.  He gets his unique tone by setting his wah-wah pedal at a certain spot and leaving it there.  He could write and play titanic riffs.  But here’s the rub – producer Ron Nevison once said "Schenker would give me these amazing, epic riffs, but he didn't write with any sense of a vocalist involved.  The guitar parts were these wandering, beautiful things, but they weren't for a band with a singer."  It’s no wonder that some of the best songs he’s done on albums he’s made away from UFO are instrumentals [Captain Nemo, Ulcer, Coast To Coast, Essenz].  He’s also done two electric instrumental albums [Adventures of the Imagination, MS 2000: Dreams and Expressions] that are dazzling.  But what Nevison said about Schenker not being able to write for a singer is true – he’s has many albums with anonymous bands and even lesser-known singers who are as faceless as they are weak, where you can count the really good “songs” on one hand, sometimes even one finger [hence my “Cleveland sports fan” metaphor].  His music with UFO was his best, followed by that of his own Michael Schenker Group between the years 1980-84 [see below]. 

I had the opportunity to see Michael Schenker live twice.  The first time was in a small club in Colorado Springs with MSG in 1984.  They played most of his songs that I knew and some that I didn’t.  The second time was in 1995 with UFO at an even smaller club in Tucson.  I was right up front for the MSG show, and I’m sure I lost some hearing.  Having learned that lesson the hard way, I sat/stood in the back of the club when I saw UFO in ’95.  There was no hearing damage that night.  It was like being a part of the Strangers in the Night album – they played it all, plus one new song [Venus].   Strangers in the Night [1978] was one of those live albums where everything clicked.  If you are going to own one UFO album, Strangers in the Night is the one to have.   The scary thing about Strangers is that Schenker claims the best takes from different shows weren’t used.

The list: 
Phenomenon [UFO] – Rock Bottom
Force It [UFO] – Let It Roll, Out in the Street, Mother Mary, This Kid’s
No Heavy Petting [UFO] – Natural Thing
Lights Out [UFO] – Too Hot To Handle, Lights Out, Love To Love
Obsession [UFO] – Only You Can Rock Me
Strangers in the Night (Live) [UFO] – the whole thing (11-minute Rock Bottom!)
Lovedrive [Scorpions] – Lovedrive, Coast To Coast
Michael Schenker Group – Cry For the Nations, Into The Arena, Armed And Ready
MSG [Michael Schenker Group] – Attack of the Mad Axeman, On And On, But I Want More
Assault Attack [Michael Schenker Group] – Assault Attack, Samurai, Desert Song
Built To Destroy [Michael Schenker Group] – Rock Will Never Die, Captain Nemo
Walk On Water [UFO] – A Self Made Man, Venus, Stopped By a Bullet, Darker Days
Written in the Sand [Michael Schenker Group] – Essensz
The Unforgiven [Michael Schenker Group] – Rude Awakening
Covenant [UFO] – Love Is Forever, Unraveled, Miss the Lights, The Smell of Money
Adventures of the Imagination [Michael Schenker] – Achtung Fertis, Los, Aardvark in a VW Smoking a Cigar, At the End of the Day
MS 2000: Dreams and Expressions [Michael Schenker] – all of it
Be Aware of Scorpions [Michael Schenker Group] – No Turning Back, On Your Way
Sharks [UFO] – Quicksilver Rider, Deadman Walking, Fighting Man, Crossing Over 

Today, Michael Schenker records and tours with a band he calls his Temple of Rock.  Doogie White [who used to sing for Ritchie Blackmore] is the vocalist, while the rhythm section is Franz Buchholz and Herman Rarebell from the Scorpions, with Wayne Findlay from previous editions of MSG on second guitar and keyboards.  The songs are solid and consistent, just not spectacular.  But the two albums he has done with them are the best things he’s done in years, so there is hope that this Teutonic stringmaster is finally getting his act together.