The Axe Factor

Thin Lizzy. UFO. Scorpions. Motorhead. Four of the most prestigious names in Hard Rock/Heavy Metal history. Three of them still exist to this very day; four if you count Black Star Riders (I don’t). Celebrated for decades, their basic histories are pretty well known to the average fan of heavy rock around the world, while hardcore fans will even recognize names like Lucas Fox or Rudy Lenners. What’s not so well-known is how many ex-members these bands share between them. For these bands early on it was all about getting the chemistry just right; about finding that magic missing piece of the puzzle. What follows is an outline of how these four iconic bands hired, fired, borrowed and traded several guitarists before settling on the line-ups that made them famous. Do try to keep up…

Round 1: Gary Moore quits the band he joined at age 16, Skid Row, in 1971, just before a planned tour of the States. Guitarist Eric Bell, then a member of Thin Lizzy, who have just released their debut album, replaces him for some live dates. Welsh guitarist Paul Chapman is hired soon after as Moore’s permanent replacement. Chapman quit in ’72, and the band folded.

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Round 2: UFO have released 3 albums with guitaris Mick Bolton, to modest success. Bolton, however, quits in January of 1972. The band hire Larry Wallis, who lasts until October; UFO never record anything with him in the line-up. Wallis is replaced by Bernie Marsden, who records a 2-song demo with the band before leaving abruptly while on tour with Germany’s Scorpions in mid-1973. Scorps guitarist Michael Schenker, then 17, plays guitar for both bands for the duration of the jaunt. At tour’s end, Schenker is invited to join UFO permanently. He accepts, and Scorpions split up. Klaus Meine and Rudy Schenker join Uli Jon Roth’s band Dawn Road, bringing the Scorpions name with them.

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Round 3: On New Year’s Eve 1973, Eric Bell quits Thin Lizzy. Bell is replaced by ex-Skid Row guitarist Gary Moore (see Round 1). Moore only stays until April of ’74, but the band record three songs with him that would appear on their next album, ‘Nightlife’. Moore is replaced by ex-Atomic Rooster/Hard Stuff guitarist Jon DuCann for live work. DuCann and Lizzy’s Phil Lynott clash, the band’s Phonogram deal is about to expire, so drummer Brian Downey quits the band. Downey eventually rejoins Lynott, who hires guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson to complete the classic Lizzy line-up.

Round 4: Paul Chapman (ex-Skid Row, see Round 1) joins UFO as second guitarist for the ‘Phenomenon’ tour in 1974. He leaves in January of ’75, but evidence of the short-lived 2-guitar UFO can be found on the final four tracks of the ‘BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert’ CD.

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Round 5: Also in ’75, Larry Wallis (ex-UFO; see Round 2) joins Lemmy’s fledgeling Motorhead. Wallis appears on Motorhead’s debut album, which is shelved by United Artists as being ‘unfit for commercial release’ and isn’t released until 1979. Wallis quits a year after joining, in 1976, when 2nd guitarist Eddie Clarke is added to the band.

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So at this point, all four bands have entered a period of relative stability, having finally arrived at what many refer to as their their ‘classic’ line-ups, and release a bunch of undeniably classic albums. For UFO it’s ‘Force It’, ‘No Heavy Petting’, and ‘Lights Out’; Thin Lizzy make ‘Fighting’, ‘Jailbreak’, and ‘Johnny the Fox’. Scorpions release ‘Fly to the Rainbow’, ‘In Trance’, ‘Virgin Killer’ and ‘Taken by Force’. Motorhead’s Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor trio begin making records. And then, Restless Guitar Syndrome set in again…

Round 6: In November 1976, Thin Lizzy’s Brian Robertson (see Round 3) severely injures his hand in a bar fight and has to sit out the band’s US tour with Queen. Robertson is replaced by Gary Moore (see Rounds 1&3). After Robertson recovers, he rejoins the band for another album and tour but he is fired for his excessive drinking, and is replaced once again by Gary Moore in June of 1978. This is Moore’s 3rd go-round w/Lizzy.

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Round 7: In June 1977, after wrapping up the UK leg of the ‘Lights Out’ tour, troubled UFO guitarist Michael Schenker (Round 2) disappears. Paul Chapman (Rounds 1 & 4) rejoins the band again at the height of their US polularity. Schenker is coaxed back to complete the tour, and Chapman steps down. A year later, Schenker quits UFO, while at the same time, Uli Roth (Round 3) leaves Scorpions. Scorps hire Matthias Jabs to replace Roth, but after Schenker becomes available, Jabs is kicked to the curb, and Michael Schenker rejoins his brother in Scorpions after 7 years. Schenker plays a handfull of shows with Scorpions but soon flakes out yet again, and is replaced permanently by Jabs. Oh, and Paul Chapman, on his third tour of duty with UFO, finally becomes a permamnent member.

Scorps go on to fame and fortune as a very different kind of band with Jabs. Lizzy will never be the same, with a revolving door of guitarists that never quite recapture the Gorham/Robertson magic. UFO continue onward with some great records but the ‘Chapman Era’ will always be unfairly compared against the ‘Schenker Era’, and usually not-so-favorably… And what of Motorhead?

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Round 8: Fast Eddie Clarke (Round 5), disgusted with his band’s collabration with punk band The Plasmatics, quits Motorhead during the 1982 US tour promoting the ‘Iron Fist’ album. Mere days later, ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson (Rounds 3&6) is on stage in New York with Philthy & Lemmy, and remains in Motorhead until November 1983. It would be another 13 years before Lemmy and Co. would arrive at the satable 3-piece line-up that still exists to this day.

So what have we learned here?

1) There’s considerably less than ‘six degrees of separation’ between these four bands. The most moves required here to connect any two of these groups is 3.

2) This post is in dire need of a flow chart.

2) Guitarists are mercurial, ego-centric prima donnas.

3) Guitarists may be mercurial, ego-centric prima donnas, but finding the right one was essential to the chesmistry that created the four of the greatest bands and some the greatest music in Heavy Rock history.

 

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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’!