"Strangers" No More

UFO at Chicago's Vic Theater

August 21, 1995

If you could replace the danger and the fear with pure excitement, it was probably not unlike a German air raid on London during WWII. After a high-pitched squealing sound (the opening band "Triangle") the people stood crowded together tightly, waiting in eager anticipation. Then finally it came . . . and it came hard and fast. It seemed to come from above too, and as it pounded away, those who weren't screaming just stared up in awe. It was non-stop, relentless and operated with clockwork precision. And when it was over you were left dazed, trying to catch your breath, and chances are you could hardly hear a thing.

But unlike a Luftwaffe attack, most all of the target audience at Chicago's sold-out Vic Theater were left standing . . . and wanting much much more.

It had been 16 years since a Michael Schenker/ Phil Moog armed version of UFO had landed in Chicago. Back then Jimmy Carter was president, Ford Pinto fuel tanks filled with 85 cents a gallon gas were exploding all over the place, "Different Strokes" was a top rated TV show, Sony introduced something called "The Walkman" and John Bonham was still alive. And amidst the onslaught of disco, the talk of test tube babies and lots of bad hair, Schenker, Moog and company rocked the old Chicago Amphitheater one night and made a hell of a lot fans in the Windy City. I wasn't there, I was just 12 years-old a the time, but I met many people last night who claimed they were. They said the show that night was just fantastic, "electric," so much so it was pressed into vinyl, slapped on to 8-tracks and cassettes and dubbed "Strangers In The Night," regarded by many as one of the best live rock albums ever recorded.

"Strangers" featured live versions of some of the band's early cuts such as "Rock Bottom" and "Doctor, Doctor." At a time before Eddie Van Halen started erupting and Ozzy went solo, these songs were true ground-breakers. It was UFO to many who were the true founders of "Heavy Metal." Brought to prominence by the speed and melodic precision of Schenker and the lyrical originality and power of Moog, the U.K. quintet broke out of the psychedelic "hard rock" boundaries of Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie and Deep Purple and pretty much founded the "in your face" fist-pumping master guitarist - lead style that dominated the 80's rock scene. But when a young and overwhelmed Schenker left the band just as UFO's popularity in the U.S. was on the rise, the band sputtered with different line-ups and faded. Rock music suddenly lost a great, pioneering band at their peak. To put in perspective, imagine what would have happened to Van Halen in 1985 if Eddie Van Halen left the band instead of David Lee Roth.

But now UFO has reunited, released a CD that shows flashes of what could have been, and hit the road to dazzle us with what we missed.

In this, the first of four sold-out shows, the 16 year gap since the immortalized "Strangers" LP seems to have acted as kind of a filter, allowing the band to play before some of their most faithful and frenzied fans. And having stared at these guys on the back of album covers for over a dozen years - figuring never to see this line-up again - the smaller theater was the perfect venue for the crowd too see their heroes up close.

First though, the opening act, Triangle, did a 45 minute set of screaming that went on about 40 minutes too long. Not that they were bad - as musicians they seemed very good - but their grunge style was way too far to the right for a crowd that would rather see Michael Schenker than Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, or Elvis Presley. By their third song the anticipation of UFO taking the stage was excruciating . . . like being handcuffed during foreplay after a year at sea.

UFO finally hit the stage at 9 p.m. and fired off "Natural Thing" from their 76' album "No Heavy Pettin." Although not their most popular song, the crowd erupted and sang along as if it were "Stairway To Heaven." They continued through their set at a dizzying pace blasting out virtually every song off their classic live album with a couple of new songs thrown in to acknowledge their new release "Walk On Water." Although "Water" is available in the U.S. only as an import or through the band directly at the concerts, the new songs were well received with a surprisingly large number in the crowd shouting out the lyrics to them as well. When Moog stampeded into the chorus of the classic "Lights Out," belting out "lights out , lights out Chicago," a line forever etched on "Strangers," the crowd erupted as if they had simultaneously climaxed . . these were no longer "strangers," these were old friends.

Schenker simply shined. These were the songs that only he was meant to play, and damn he was good at them. He smiled through the whole show and looked like he couldn't be happier. The man can play the guitar with anybody . . . still. And while Schenker is the heart of the band and Moog the foundation, bassist Pete Way is the soul. If Pete wasn't right up against Michael banging away in perfect rhythm - his fingers flying across the guitar almost as fast as his blonde buddy's - he was firing up the crowd bouncing around from one end of the stage to the other. It was as if the theater wasn't big enough to hold him.

Rhythm Guitarist/Keyboardist Paul Raymond was steady as he's ever been. Displaying a sense of rhythm and skill perfectly complimentary to both Schenker and Way. He is a big reason why UFO reached the high point that they did. Raymond was the first on stage each time and waved enthusiastically to the crowd. And although he's probably played the opening notes to "Love To Love" a thousand times, he was still able to give the crowd chills. Drummer Andy Parker's absence was only felt in a slight loss of nostalgia. Ex-Dio drummer Simon Wright never missed a beat and played with energy and enthusiasm from beginning to end.

Moog sounded great, but seemed a bit tense, strange for a man who's done about a million shows. He didn't speak to the crowd much in between songs, acknowledge the band's past nor their reunion. And aside from a token "it's truly great to be back in Chicago," the subject of returning to the city where they have always been favorites - where the band had just miraculously sold out four shows - wasn't mentioned either. Perhaps such talk of the past is uncomfortable? There seemed to be little camaraderie between Moog and Schenker on this night either. There were points during Michael's solos though when Moog did seem to stare over at the wiz-guitarist with sincere admiration . . . and perhaps with an ounce of misgiving. It was a curious look, one that maybe echoed what most UFO fans over the past 16 years have said, a look of "what if."

And that slight lack of humility, along with a set that lasted only a bit more than an hour, were the only disappointments on the night. I think we all wanted to hear Phil speak a little about the UFO's return - if not to Chicago than as a reunited band. But perhaps that would have slowed them down? Instead they came in as professional and veteran top-notch butt-kickers, did so for a little more than an hour, smiled and left. And unfortunately it was over before we knew what hit us . . . just seventy or so minutes of music from a band you've waited 16 years to see can leave you feeling a bit high-n-dry.

Keep in mind that I saw just the one show . . . they still had three more to go that week, and many fans were returning to one or more of them. Yet if UFO's strategy is to leave the fans wanting more, its working. (Let's just hope there is more.) Other than perhaps a reincarnated and reunited Led Zeppelin or "Diamond Dave" fronting a Van Halen show again, you got the feeling that there was no place in time and on earth these 1400 diehards would rather have been rockin' that night than face-to-face with a reunited UFO.

The band did have an autograph session at a local record store two nights later which drew a line of fans a few blocks long. They were very nice and signed anything you handed them. For those who made it inside, meeting the guys was a heck of a neat thing. I hope now, finally, that the guys are back together, they can record and tour long enough to finally earn the industry recognition and fanfare they deserve, because it was 75 minutes of rock-n-roll that none of us will ever forget.

Tom McDonald

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