1977: Love Guns vs. Sex Pistols

If you follow Metal’s timeline from its origins in the late ’60s, and continue through its classic early-to-mid ’70s heyday, you will eventually encounter something of a dead end near the end of the decade: The Punk era. Metal was at it’s lowest ebb near the end of the 70’s, as most of the giants had either gone missing (Zeppelin), broken up (Purple) or gotten seriously off-track (Sabbath), while their American ‘Second Wave’ counterparts (Aerosmith, Kiss, BOC) were ‘experimenting’ with Disco, Pop, or hard drugs. Enter: Punk Rock, to point out how tired, overblown and boring mainstream Rock music had gotten, and wipe the slate clean and make way for something new. The situation was so dire that in October of 1979, Creem Magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’

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Of course, this standardized version of the history of that era is of course a gross oversimplification: Heavy Metal did not ‘die’ at the hands of the punks, only to be ‘reborn’ in the UK (with the NWOBHM) after punk self-destructed. The truth of the matter is that Metal continued to operate, albeit in a diminished capacity, throughout the uproar. The Punk Rock explosion posed the biggest threat in the UK, where its impact was felt as a genuine cultural phenomenon; Punk bands dominated the UK press, and Punk singles and albums charted high. Punk’s raison d’etre, to ‘Smash It Up’, with ‘it’ being Rock’s status quo, was a direct shot across the bow to the established UK Rock and Metal bands of the day.

Some HR/HM bands just starting out in ’76 wisely ignored Punk completely; Rainbow’s ‘On Stage’, released in the summer of 1977, raised the bar for never-ending, self-indulgent soloing, and Judas Priest released ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, a record that helped shape the template for the HM genre, and then soldiered forth as the ailing genre’s standard-bearers. But most of the established UK HR/HM bands of the 1970s could mark the end of their ‘classic era’ right around 1976/77; aside from the aforementioned, consider Foghat, Uriah Heep, Status Quo, Wishbone Ash… all emerged from the fray mortally wounded, some searching for a new direction, some just sounding tired and obsolete, setting the stage for the NWOBHM.

mi0001448346As an example of just how drastically things changed in Britain’s music scene, consider Slade. After a long string of hit singles (a stunning seventeen consecutive Top Twenty hits, twelve of them Top Five, and six of those were Number Ones!), Slade headed off to try to break America in 1976. After returning to England in ’77, Slade quickly discovered that they were old news and nearly forgotten. Three of their next four singles charted at #53, #48, and #32; one didn’t chart at all. Their next six singles failed to chart at all in the UK. The title of their first LP after returning to England says it all: ‘Whatever Happened to Slade?’ It, too, failed to trouble the UK charts. In the space of 12 months, the single most successful Hard Rock band in Britain had been rendered irrelevant.

Other well-established bands responded, even if only by commenting on the fray through their music. ‘Lights Out’, UFO’s sixth record, came out in May of 1977. For the album’s title track, UFO’s lyricist, Phil Mogg, referenced the punk uprising through military imagery:

‘From the back streets there’s a rumbling
Smell of anarchy
No more nice time, black boy shoe shines
Pie in the sky dreams’

And of course, the title of the song/album is a direct nod to blackout regulations imposed during The Battle of Britain, aka ‘the Blitz’, where Londoners were urged to extinguish all lights to hamper German nighttime bombing raids:

‘Lights out, lights out in London, hold on tight till the end

UFO released ‘Lights Out’ just as the Sex Pistols’ 2nd single, ‘God Save the Queen’, hit #2 in the UK singles chart. Six months earlier, the Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single had climbed to #26. None of UFO’s 9 singles had charted in the UK. Mogg and his band, having seen Punk singles climbing the charts and the movement dominating the press, knew another Battle of Britain was underway.nmecover_july2_1977

Queen’s ‘News of the World’ came out in July of 1977. The title of the album is a reference to the British tabloid paper News of the World, an infamously trashy broadsheet that regularly featured the most scandalous and sensational national stories of the day. Here Queen were referencing the top UK music papers, such as Sounds and the NME, who were at that time thoroughly enamored with the Punk phenomenon; not only reporting on the musical and cultural shifts but also capitalizing on the sensational aspects of the movement by plastering ‘shocking’ headlines and ‘alarming’ pictures of punks in full mohawk & safety pin regalia.

The cover art for Queen’s 5th album also comments on the Punk movement. Queen are depicted as dead, having been killed by a giant robot as a panicked crowd below flees in terror. Inside the gatefold, the robot reaches for more victims. It’s not difficult to decipher the ironic message here: Monster destroys beloved band; you’re next. But the music on ‘News of the World’ also contains a few nods to Punk Rock, most obvious of which is the song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, which is flat-out Punk. Roger Taylor said in 1991:

“It’s quite interesting, because we were making an album next-door to a punk band, the Sex Pistols, and it really fit into that punk explosion that was happening at the time, which was happening right then. It was actually better that it happened that it came out on the ‘News of the World’ album.”

newsoftheworldOn ‘News of the World’, Queen take on several forms of music: Salsa, Psychedelic Rock, Torch Balladry, the Blues, even football chants, so throwing in a take on Punk would not have been out of place in the least. But ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is more than Queen showing their versatility; here, it’s cultural commentary. With lyrics like ‘Well you’re just 17 and all you wanna do is disappear/You know what I mean there’s a lot of space between your ears/I feel so ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-inarticulate’, it wasn’t hard to read exactly how lyricist Roger Taylor felt about the Punk Rock audience.

Interestingly, Taylor rights the scales on his ‘Fight From the Inside’, by taking on the point of view of a punk rocker and pointing the finger at the pop stars of the pre-punk era (I.e., himself/his band), and urging the listener to fight to change the status quo:

‘You’re just another picture on a teenage wall
You’re just another sucker ready for a fall
You’re just another money-spinner tool
You’re just another fool 

You gotta fight from the inside
Attack from the rear
Fight from the inside
You can’t win with your hands tied’

Queen’s next album, ‘Jazz’ would include more commentary by Taylor on the transformation of the UK music scene and his band’s place in it. In the album’s final song, called ‘More of That Jazz’, Taylor seems to be complaining about being spoon-fed the same old thing:

‘If you’re feeling tired and lonely
Uninspired and lonely
If you’re thinking how the days seem long
All you’re given
Is what you’ve been given a thousand times before
Just more more
More of that jazz
More no more of that jazz
Give me no more
No more of that jazz’

The song winds up with several snippets from the album’s previous songs, edited together in a montage of the album’s highlights, in effect giving the listener more of ‘Jazz’… and implying that the album you just listened to is just ‘more of that jazz’. For Taylor, always Queen’s resident ‘punk’, the Punk movement clearly instigated some serious self-examination. Queen were at a crossroads during the Punk era; the band would survive the upheaval and move from strength to strength, but would never be the same.

With Punk Rock’s disdain for virtuosity and technical ability came the death of the guitar hero. One of the UK’s biggest was Robin Trower, who charted high in the Top 40 with his 3rd and 4th albums… Then the punk bomb exploded, knocking him down into the low 50’s and then off the charts completely for his 1978 album ‘Caravan to Midnight’. Robin who? His next record would be titled ‘Victims of the Fury’, in a pointed reference to his own diminished stature, and feature a stripped-down, earthy sound, with few overdubs and a renewed abrasive energy. The title track’s lyrics told the tale:

‘We were blessed as though in heaven
We were messengers of joy
There were angels all around us
There was none who dared destroy

Then the world collapsed around us
And the tables overturned
We were lambs before the slaughter
We were driven out and burned

Victims of the fury
Shadows in the dark
Victims of the fury
Arrows found their mark’

Pat Travers, a young Canadian guitarist who emigrated to the UK to seek fame and fortune, found it; he scored a record deal with Polydor and appeared at the Reading Festival before 35,000 in 1976, just before all hell broke loose. On his third album, ‘Putting it Straight’, he explains why he decided to hightail it to America in 1977, in a song called ‘Life in London’:

‘Life in London is bittersweet
Spray can slogans along the street
Some kind of revolution in the town
Razor blades and safety pins make you look like a clown’

Prog Rock gods Yes were an obvious target for Punk rockers’ derision, with their ‘pretentious’ this and their ‘self-indulgent’ that… But Yes’ success was unhindered by the advent of Punk, with their 1977 album ‘Going for the One’ reaching the top of the UK charts and it’s follow-up, 1978’s ‘Tormato’ going Top Ten. ‘Tormato’, however, contains some artistic commentary on the goings on of the previous 18 months, beginning with it’s cover, where a picture of man dressed in period clothing and using divining rods is pelted with a tomato. This can be interpreted as a blatant rejection of ‘the old ways’, or, if we view the man with the divining rods as employing ‘divination’, or searching for something using ‘magical’ methods… an artist following his muse, perhaps… Splat!

tormato_cd_germany_booklet0‘Tormato’ contains a song called ‘Release, Release’, which is as punk a song as Yes would ever be capable of. Its odd time signatures, multiple key changes, and super-busy arrangement prevent it from ever being confused with a Ramones tune, but its stripped-down rock and roll feel, up-tempo delivery and surprisingly direct delivery reflect the energy of the Punk phenom; also Jon Anderson’s spacey lyrics contain ample evidence of an awareness of the turmoil, and perhaps a plea for us to rise above the conflict:

‘Have you heard before, hit it out, don’t look back
Rock is the medium of our generation
Stand for every right, kick it out, hear you shout
For the right of all of creation

Power defy our needs, lift us up, show us now
Show us how amid the rack of confusion Power at first to the needs of each others’ days
Simple to lose in the void sounds of anarchy’s calling ways

Straight jacket, freedom’s march, is it all, far beyond
Our reason of understanding
Campaign everything, anti-right, anti-left Release, release, enough controllers’

At about 2:57, the song left-turns into that most dreaded of all arena-rock staples: a drum solo, played out over a recording of a cheering stadium audience. This self-deprecating gesture added a welcome touch of irony to the album, as the band that brought us ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Prog excess, struggled to find footing in a hostile musical landscape.

Love it or hate it, Punk Rock was a game changer. UK Heavy Rock’s response to Punk Rock made 1977 a truly fascinating year in Heavy music, forcing many of the established bands of the day to react artistically in one way or another, and giving us a handful of records that stand out as unique in the HR/HM canon. If they’re not your cup of tea, don’t forget: many Rock bands that didn’t face the Punk movement head on were instead ‘experimenting’ with Disco…

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Three Great Albums That Sound Like Shit

Blue Oyster Cult’s first three albums: A masterclass in 70’s hard rock songwriting and tasteful playing, equal parts nuance and bombast, delivered with both menace with considerable wit. But let’s face it: they sound like shit. Words like ‘thin’, ‘flat’, and ‘tepid’ are often used to describe the sound quality of these records. Imagine the impact this trio of albums would have had if they shared the production value of other contemporary US hard rock bands; say, Aerosmith or Montrose. Methinks BOC would have had a much better chance of achieving their initial goal of becoming ‘The American Black Sabbath’ had these records sounded like what they looked like.

The sub-par sound doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of these records at all; in fact, ‘Secret Treaties’ is one of my top three favorite albums of all time. Production value is only one element of a record’s overall success; if the songwriting’s great, and the playing’s stellar, it’s easy to overlook a record’s sonic shortcomings. Most of us grew up listening to badly-produced records before we really knew or cared about the sound quality of the music we listened to. Some of us still don’t care. I do; when I hear a record like ‘Tyranny and Mutation’, and those crazy, crafty and cryptic tunes, I hear a missed opportunity; I want it to knock me flat on my ass, but it just doesn’t have the visceral impact that it could.

Of course this is all just my opinion. In my own musical universe, there are a handful of albums that frustrate me endlessly because, to my mind, the sonics just don’t live up to the caliber of the material or the level of the performances. But I get it: inadequate budgets, inexperienced producers, bad decisions and drugs happen. Truth be told, I wouldn’t change a single second of any of these records… I love them all dearly… But it’s hard not to lament what might have been. Here are my three favorite examples:

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Kiss/Hotter Than Hell
So many things went wrong for Kiss in 1974, it’s a wonder they made it to ’75. Sales of the debut failed to live up to expectations, so a mere six months after the release of their debut, their label, Casablanca, pulled them off the road and shoved them back into the studio for a quick follow-up. The production duo of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise were again tapped to produce, but had both moved to California, so the four New Yorkers flew to sunny Los Angeles to record their all-important 2nd record. The project was regarded by Casablanca as ‘make or break’; not only for Kiss, but for the label as well. The fledgling label had just lost it’s distribution deal with Warner Brothers Records, and Warner’s promotional budget with it. A lot was riding on this record…

Several books have been written on the early days of Kiss, including biographies by all four members. Each tells the same story about how difficult the sessions for ‘Hotter than Hell’ were: the band hated LA, Kerner and Wise hated the studio, Ace wrecked his rental car and was injured, Paul Stanley’s custom-made Flying V was stolen on the day the sessions began. Wah. None of this had anything to do with why this record sounds like a garbage can filled with forks rolling down a stairwell. The real culprits were Kerner and Wise.

While the pair had done a decent job on Kiss’ debut, Wise wanted to move the band’s sound in a different direction. Hoping to better align their music with their image, Wise planned to move the band away from their rock n roll core and toward a heavier, more menacing sound. This was Stupid Idea #1. Stupid Idea #2 was to record everything ‘hot’, meaning distorted, needle-in-the-red ‘hot’. As in ‘Hotter Than Hell’. Get it? Wise stated in the book “Kiss: Behind the Mask” that ‘It’s the worst-sounding album I ever recorded. It was overly compressed and overdriven. I’ll take the blame for wanting to make it heavy and distorted… The intent was to make a Black Sabbath kind of sounding record, but it just didn’t pan out sonically.’ He also called it ‘…very harsh and just disgusting.’ Paul Stanley’s bio also acknowledges that the distortion in the recording was intended.

Several songs on ‘Hotter than Hell’ have risen from the murk and gone on to become bona fide Kiss Klassics; a testament to the strength of the material. Unfortunately this clusterfuck recording renders them almost unlistenable. Even with huge advances in recording technology, this recording simply cannot be fixed. When Kiss put out their ‘Double Platinum’ best-of in 1978, most of the songs included were remixed, but the two from HtH were not… because it wouldn’t have helped. The distorted signal that Wise was after is printed on the original tapes, and it’s there to stay. The Kiss catalog was remastered in 1997, allowing Kiss fans to hear this godawful sludgy mess with crystal clarity.

The Kiss story almost ended right there in the control room of Village Recorders in West Los Angeles, California. ‘Hotter Than Hell’ flopped hard, peaking on the charts even lower than the debut. After the failure of HtH, Kiss faced losing their recording contract, and Casablanca faced bankruptcy. Four months later, Kiss was once again forced off the road and into the studio. Dressed to Kill was Kiss’ third album in 13 months, was NOT produced by Kerner and Wise, and peaked at #32. The rest is history.

Rainbow-Rising

Rainbow/Rising
What could one say about Rainbow’s 1976 classic, ‘Rising’, that hasn’t already been said? How about this: ‘It sounds like shit.’ Some of Metal’s greatest performers deliver some of their strongest performances here, and there’s a handful of indisputably classic songs on hand (side two is flawless). However, all of the epic grandeur of Blackmore/Dio’s finest hour (34 minutes, actually) is buried in a resoundingly flat, one-dimensional mix, devoid of any discernable bottom end, and utterly lacking the clarity and depth that this material calls for. The strength of the songs and the musicianship shines through, making this record an absolute classic of the genre… But sonically, it sucks.

‘Rising’ was recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany; same studio that hosted the ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ sessions a year earlier. Martin Birch helmed both records. So how come the sonics on ‘Rising’ are so… crappy? Well… Birch’s initial mix (completed in LA) was rejected by the band’s label as being ‘too bass-heavy’, and the album was remixed (in NY). It’s the NY remix of the record that was pressed onto plastic. What went wrong here? Cozy Powell sounds like he’s playing in a separate room; bassist Jimmy Bain in another zip code. Dio’s vocals sound phoned-in… literally. In the louder, busier passages (and what’s HM if not loud n’ busy), the sound dissolves into an annoying grey mess.

Things were rectified somewhat in 1986, with ‘Rising’s first appearance on CD. Birch’s original LA mix was utilized when the record was mastered, as Polydor were unable to locate the master tapes of the NY mix. This version of the album sounds pretty great, with Bain’s bass loud and clear, Dios vox are warmer and several layers of guitar and keyboard overdubs apparent that were barely audible on the NY mix. This version was available commercially for a little over a decade, until Polydor remastered the entire Rainbow catalog in 1999.

‘Rising’s ’99 remaster utilized Birch’s NY remix… But how, if the original tapes weren’t available? The mastering engineers at Polydor utilized the ‘needle-drop’ method; they used a vinyl copy of the album, plus tons of noise reduction and digital tweaking. This was done mainly so the label could market the remaster as the ‘original mix’. But the original ‘original’ mix was in fact the LA mix… Are ya confused yet? The ’99 remaster does sound decent, considering it’s source material. Thankfully, this epic saga has a happy ending.

In 2011, 35 years after the album’s original release, a Deluxe Edition of Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ was issued in a two-CD set. Both the NY and LA versions are featured, both newly mastered, providing nerds like me a great way to compare both mixes. The remaster of Birch’s original LA mix wins hands-down. On disc 2, a rough mix of the entire album is included, and even it sounds better than the NY remix ordered by the label. Moral of the story? Don’t mess with a Martin Birch Mix. Perhaps the Mystery of the New York Mix will be explained in Birch’s book…

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UFO/Obsession
Okay, this one’s probably just personal preference.

UFO’s fifth Schenker-riffic album, Obsession, contains some of the greatest lead guitar playing of the 1970’s. To capture it, producer Ron Nevison located a disused post office building just outside of Los Angeles, set up Schenker’s favorite 50-watt Marshall head on top of 2 a Marshall 4×12 cabinet and let the German genius wail away at will into the cavernous space. The sublime tone and fiery attack of Schenker’s lead work never sounded better.

Nevison’s approach to recording the rhythm guitar tracks was a bit different. The famed British producer had previously produced and/or engineered records by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and The Rolling Stones, so nobody argued when the legendary producer set up microphones around a Pignose amplifier.

The ‘Pignose’ amplifier is a small, portable, battery-operated 5-watt amp that employs a single 5-inch speaker. It was created as a practice amp that could be used in a variety of places and situations without having to plug in to a power outlet. The Pignose ‘sound’ at it’s best is a mid-to-high end processed fuzz/crunch; nasal and treble-y, but certainly decent enough for warming up backstage or practicing quietly at home without disturbing Mom and Dad. But when it comes to 70s Hard Rock, isn’t disturbing Mom and Dad mandatory?

To these ears, the rhythm guitars on ‘Obsession’ sound barely demo-worthy. The riffs written into the harder songs sound limp, fuzzy… almost comical. The Pignose was used by Nevison on UFO’s previous album ‘Lights Out’, but merely as one more guitar sound for that record’s expansive sonic palate. On ‘Obsession’, the Pignose’s signature ‘sound’ is harnessed and expressly highlighted, removing the crunch and punch from some potentially monstrous riffs and creating several infuriating moments of near-parody, subverting the very idea of riff rock itself. Perhaps Nevison was aiming to play with the contrast between the two sounds; it doesn’t work.

Where the Pignose works well is in the record’s quieter moments; the li’l champ adds some textured delicacy to the chorus of ‘Born to Lose’ and to the intro to ‘I Ain’t No Baby, as well as some brassy, trumpet-like sass to ‘Lookin’ Out for No. 1 (Reprise)’. But Oh, how I would LOVE to hear the balls-out rockers like ‘Hot n’ Ready’, ‘Pack It Up (and Go)’, or ‘One more for the Rodeo’ played through Schenker’s own equipment, or maybe (since we’re daydreaming here) through brother Rudy’s Scorps gear. Imagine if the Mad Axeman had rejected that rizzy little box with the Radio Shack speaker, and instead tore into ‘Only You Can Rock Me’ with the ‘post office’ set-up… Talk about ‘going postal’!

Of Pigs and Power

After appearing on classic albums by UFO, Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, one of the UK’s biggest rock stars is calling it a day. The name might not be familiar, but this legendary icon’s contributions to rock music are surely familiar to just about anyone who owned a turntable in the 1970’s.

The Battersea Power Station is located on the South Bank of the River Thames, in the Battersea District of South West London. This coal burning power plant is actually 2 identical buildings; Station A, built in the 1930’s, and Sation B in the 1950’s. The station stopped producing power in 1983, but has nonetheless become one of the most popular landmarks in London and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Since its decomission, investors have sought to make the building into a theme park, a stadium, and even another, more modern power station. Since 2012, the site has been under development as a giant mall, with residential apartments and townhouses, and opened these rental untis to the public on May 1st of this year. Thankfully, the British government required all bidders on the 39-acre site to include the 4 iconic chimneys in their redevelopment plans, thus retaining the buildings’ iconic look and national landmark status.

So how does the largest brick building in Europe become a rock star? Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters lived near Battersea in the 70’s, and those famous chimneys constantly loomed as part of his local skyline. When the Floyd needed an image to communicate the ideas found on their upcoming ‘Animals’ album, Waters thought the coal burning, smoke spewing power station, which was then within a few years of outliving it’s usefulness, would be an effective way of communicating the record’s concept. Loosely based on George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, the album’s theme centered on the UK’s outmoded class system hierarchy. The pig floating between two chimneys sealed it, a mocking symbol of corruption hovering majestically between two of Battersea’s towering chimneys, as they belch black smoke into the sky. The image perfectly encapsulated Waters’ view of Britiain’s class system and the societal and moral decay he felt it produced.

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‘Animals’ was released in January of 1977. Today it is acknowledged as Pink Floyd’s reaction to the burgeoning Punk Rock movement, an attempt to tackle some of the same ideas and concepts so vociferously explored by punk music. Battersea provided Floyd with an iconic image (created by the legendary Hipgnosis graphics group) that helped the record achieve 4x Platinum status, which in turn helped make Battersea one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

Next up for Battersea was an appearance on the cover of UFO’s ‘Lights Out’ album in May of ’77. Hipgnosis once again looked to our favorite power station for an image to communicate another Punk Rock-inspired idea: Who controls the ‘power’, and what happens after the ‘power’ goes out and no one is looking? And where better to question the goings on along the corridors of power than… along the corridors of power?

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‘Lights Out’ was not a concept album, but the lyric to the title track, with its artful allusions to the bombing of Britian during WWII, deals with such themes as war in the streets and a forced toppling of the status quo, a perfect description of what was going on in the UK’s music scene in 1976/77. Battersea provided the backdrop for an image of power station workers, ie those who control the power, disrobing while on the job, clearly up to something other than their work. It’s a subtle but striking graphic representation of the abuse of power.

In June of 1977, Hawkwind released their seventh studio album, ‘Quark Strangeness and Charm’. To many, the psychedlic Space Rock of Hawkwind, with it’s sci-fi lyrics and hippie jam band musical aesthetic, may have seemed immune to the siezmic shifts in rock music caused by the birth of Punk Rock. But the hippies shared with the punks a major imperative: ‘Question Authority’. Hawkwind had also shared members with UK proto-punks The Pink Fairies, so the self-appointed Psychadelic Warlords were a lot closer to the punk rock fray than most rock fans realized. In a timely attempt to underscore Hawkwind’s connection to punk’s ideals, Hipgnosis staged the image to illustrate the band’s political stance, and shot the cover to ‘Quark’ in one of the control rooms at Battersea.

Hawkwind-Quark-Strangeness-and-Charm

The image is set in the enterior of a high-tech control room, and depicts two machines interacting together, with dangerous-looking results; lightning and laser light are arcing into the nearby control panels, while a portal of some sort seems to be opening between them. The lab-coated human in the picture looks the other way, completely oblivious to the activity behind him. The back cover features a close-up of the ‘face’ of one of the machines, while behind and to the left, the human technician is shown to be asleep in a chair with paperwork covering his face. This artwork brilliantly captures the essence of Hawkwind’s underground philosophy: Let’s change the world while ‘The Man’ isn’t looking. It’s another compelling image with a charged political message, depicting those in control asleep at the switch.

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In the first 6 months of 1977, as the Punk Rock apocalypse poked, prodded and outright threatened more established rock acts, three major British bands rose to the challenge, and looked to the artists at Hipgnosis to graphically express their responses. Hipgnosis, in turn, found their go-to symbol to represent power, authority, and control; the perfect setting to stage three chilling tableaus of corruption, abuse and moral decay: the brick and wrought iron fortress known as the Battersea Power Station.

From coal-fired electric power plant to unlikely rock star to metrpolitian shopping mall. There’s a concept album in there somewhere.

Unbelievably Frustrating Object

!!Spoiler Warning!!

If you’re a fan of UFO’s classic live album ‘Strangers in the Night’, be aware: the following analysis contains information that could really harsh your buzz. Like, wicked bad.

If you’re not, what the hell is wrong with you??

Released in January of 1979, UFO’s bid for 70’s double-live gatefold gonzo, entitled ‘Strangers in the Night’, was a cut above most of the 2-record live sets released by their contemporaries in the 70’s. Several of their hard rocking brethren had opted to release singe-lp live albums the previous year; AC/DC, Cheap Trick and Blue Oyster Cult among them. But UFO went for broke, doubled down, and the gamble paid off. Shows recorded in the fall of 1978 in Chicago and Louisville were compiled into what is now regarded as one of the greatest live rock albums of all time.

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‘SitN’ hit number 7 in the UK and number 42 in the US, a territory that the band had been working hard to break open since the top 40 stateside success of their 4th Schenker-Era studio album, ‘Lights Out’. The live album’s success shouldn’t have surprised anyone; ‘SitN’ displayed better chops than Kiss did on ‘Alive!’, was more consistent than Thin Lizzy’s patchwork ‘Live and Dangerous’, and more coherent than Aerosmith’s ‘Live! Bootleg’. Simply stated, it’s a masterpiece of live hard rock, delivered with powerhouse precision by a fiercely dynamic band on the brink of implosion (see Deep Purple’s ‘Made in Japan’). So then… Why has this classic record been so shamefully mishandled by the powers that be for the last  decade-and-a-half?

‘Strangers in the Night’ was first released on CD in 1987 on Chrysalis Records. It was a simple transposition of the original album from 2 vinyl records to 1 CD. Same songs, in the same order; at 69:13, no editing was needed to fit the entire double album set into the single-CD format. The CD sounded vastly superior to the vinyl version. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

I wish. In 1999, EMI released a remastered version of ‘Strangers in the Night’. Okay… remastered is good; the original CD had been mastered for vinyl, so this version would sound even better. EMI also added “2 Previously Unreleased Bonus Tracks”. Um, okay: this is where it gets weird.

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Adding ‘Bonus Tracks’ was and still is the standard tactic to persuade consumers who had purchased a previous version of an album to shell out and buy that same album again. In the case of ‘SitN’, EMI added live versions of ‘Hot n Ready’ and ‘Cherry’ to their remaster, in an alleged attempt to replicate the running order of UFO’s set during their 1978 tour. Since these two songs were the first 2 songs in their ’78 set, they were tacked on to the beginning of the CD, as opposed to the end, which is standard procedure for bonus track placement. Thus these 2 added tracks became the first 2 songs on the record. Makes sense, right? Sure. However, both tracks are markedly inferior to the material on the original album. ‘Hot’ was taken from a Youngstown, OH show on the same tour; vocalist Phil Mogg is pitchy/mostly flat throughout the song. A feedback-ridden version of ‘Cherry’, taken from a concert in Cleveland, just doesn’t cut it. Neither song reaches the level of performance or sound quality of the material on original album; neither song benefits from the extra crowd noise (from the Chicago show) added into to the original album to ‘juice up’ the record. At this point, after just the first 2 songs, this record is ruined.

But wait! There’s more!

The rest of the original album follows, but the songs’ running order is changed to further reflect UFO’s set from the 1978 US tour. As another added ‘bonus’, all of Mogg’s between-song stage banter is restored, which, at best, amounts to several wasted (and I do mean wasted) minutes of drunken, nonsensical rambling and unfunny in-jokes, and prevents this version of the album from gaining any forward momentum. It’s more than a little embarrassing. Who thought this was a good idea? If this junk is considered ‘bonus material’, I’ll pass, thanks. There’s a difference between being historically accurate and creating an exciting, entertaining rock album. And if restoring the flow of the original concerts is really the goal here, where’s ‘Pack It Up and Go’? Where’s ‘Ain’t No Baby’? And, he demanded in an increasingly hysterical tone, where is ‘On With the Action’??? “Pack’ was played at the Cleveland show, and ‘Baby’ was played on the Chicago date. But the omission of ‘On With the Action’ has to be the most egregious error committed here, as it was the B-side of the album’s single, ‘Doctor Doctor (Live)’. It has appeared on (a comp) CD before; why the HELL not include it here?

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Chrysalis re-released ‘SitN’ in 2008, in yet another remastered edition. Other than the pointless re-remastering, it’s the exact same version of the album released by EMI in 1999. Unless you count the following bombshell, hidden in the ‘extensive liner notes’, as ‘bonus material’…

!!Final Spoiler Warning!!

In the booklet included with the 2008 version, it is revealed that 2 songs from the original album, ‘Mother Mary’ and ‘This Kid’s’ were not performed on the 1978 tour, and the versions included on the original album (and all subsequent versions) were in fact live-in-the-studio recordings with crowd noise from Chicago added. Ouch. Dear Paul Elliot: I think I could have lived the rest of my life just fine without ever becoming aware of that particular piece of information, fuck you very much.

And if these 2 songs weren’t played on the ’78 tour, then why incl… oh fucking hell. I give up.

!!End of Spoiler!!

Most ridiculous of all is the fact the original version of the album has been unavailable (legally) since 1999. Anyone since then wanting to check out this legendary piece of heavy metal history has probably ended up with either of the 1999 or 2008 train-wreck versions, and was left wondering ‘Eh… what’s the big deal?’ That’s a crime. Capitol’s 1999 US reissue placed the bonus tracks at the tail end of the CD; this seems to me to be the best way to deal with them… This, then, would be the most desirable version of the album to hunt for on the aftermarket, as it’s remastered and sounds better than the Chrysalis original. Just quit listening after ‘Shoot Shoot’!

!!End of Rant!!

Whichever version you may have, take a second and check out Track 7, titled ‘Love to Love’. At exactly 1:00, you’ll hear one of my favorite recorded moments, on any album, ever. While the song kicks in just after its extended intro, one member of the band yells ‘Yaaaaaaaa!’ and another lets out a ‘Whoooo-hoooo!’ in response. This moment perfectly encapsulates the genius dichotomy of UFO and ‘SitN’; class, elegance and precision vs unbridled power and wild abandon. Ya gotta listen close but after you hear it once you’ll hear it every time thereafter.