UFO: Strangers in the Night (1979)
If ever a band was destined for underrated status, that band would have to be UFO. There is no greater proof of that fact than their classic 1978 live album, Strangers in the Night. UFO had quite a run of outstanding studio albums beginning with Phenomenon in 1974 and continuing through Obsession in 1978. Listening to these albums today, it is amazing to think that UFO's legacy didn't hover as highly as that of more touted bands such as Aerosmith, AC/DC and Queen. For a while, it looked as though UFO might break into the mainstream. The 1977 release Lights Out made it into the US Billboard Top Forty charts and was their only LP to do so. Obsession should have consolidated that status, but only charted at #41. Frankly, the album isn't quite as consistent as Lights Out and may have disappointed some fans expecting Lights Out Part II. But Strangers in the Night more than made up for Obsession's shortcomings, although it too would be overlooked by the musical mainstream, peaking at #42. It did, however, climb into the British Top Ten.
Essentially a double live greatest hits album, Strangers in the Night deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Deep Purple's Made in Japan, Thin Lizzy's Live and Dangerous and The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Unlike most live albums of the time, Strangers in the Night rarely launches into lengthy jams. It is the tightness of the performances, the Phil Mogg braggadocio, the unpredictability of loose cannon guitarist Michael Schenker, the powerful drumming of Andy Parker, the hammering bass lines of Pete Way and the crisp production values that elevate the album to classic status.
Recently remastered and expanded by Chrysalis Records, and with a running order that more closely reflects that of the concerts, the album begins with "Hot 'N' Ready" and gradually gets better and better… which is saying a lot because it starts out great! Every studio album with Michael Schenker is represented and many of the best songs from each album are featured and often trump their respective studio counterparts. "Love to Love" for example is free of its string arrangement found on the Lights Out album and becomes a prototypical power ballad, presaging a phenomenon that would continue with younger metal bands throughout the 1980s ad nauseam. You can practically see the audience breaking out the lighters for this one. On "Let It Roll", Andy Parker goes ballistic on the bass drums while rhythm guitarist Paul Raymond doubles on keyboards. The AC/DC like swagger of "Natural Thing" is particularly effective on Strangers in the Night; Phil Mogg's tale of backstage debauchery and the woes of a sexually transmitted disease are that much more palpable in a live environment.
There are a couple of instances where the songs aren't quite as kicking as on previous studio outings: I miss the spacey mellotron induced outro of "This Kids" from Force It, while "Doctor Doctor" doesn't quite have the same energy as the version found on Phenomenon. Still, these versions are hardly shameful. "I'm a Loser" may lack the acoustic treatment and dynamics afforded by the recording studio on No Heavy Petting, but it completely rocks in a live environment.
"Lights Out" is where the album really shifts into high orbit and never comes back down to earth until Phil Mogg's final "thank you" at the end of "Shoot Shoot". In between those songs come the eleven minute "Rock Bottom" and it's the only track where the band stretches out. But don't expect a drum solo or band improvisations or audience participation, all of which usually feature on your typical live album; it's more of a Michael Schenker showpiece than a true band jam. "Too Hot to Handle" and especially "Shoot Shoot" end the album in fine fashion.
Strangers in the Night is the album that should have catapulted UFO into the hard rock mainstream, but it wasn't to be. Michael Schenker quit UFO a month prior to the album's release and the band replaced him with Paul Chapman, a fine guitarist in his own right though perhaps his playing was not as distinctive as that of Schenker. With the departure of Michael Schenker, UFO were unfairly given last rites by the fans. These guys still had many great albums left in them and No Place to Run, The Wild, The Willing and the Innocent and Mechanix are simply fantastic examples of a band that got hopelessly lost in the shuffle of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. But I am in the minority of opinion there as many reviewers shrug off most post Michael Schenker albums as generic and tepid.
UFO have reformed and split a couple of times with Michael Schenker since the mid 1990s and the band are currently aligned with Vinnie Moore as lead axeman. You Are Here, from 1994, was a decent effort but it sounded more like Bad Company than UFO. Recently, Classic Rock Productions have issued a DVD "Critical Review" of Strangers in the Night and while I don't have high hopes for the documentary given CRP's past efforts, I'm told the bonus footage of UFO's (complete!) performance from 1974 on the Don Kirshner show is extraordinary. The glory days of Strangers in the Night may be long gone, but it's comforting to know that efforts are being made to keep the band's rich heritage alive and well. Long live UFO!
1. Hot 'N' Ready
3. Let It Roll
4. Love to Love
5. Natural Thing
6. Out in the Street
7. Only You Can Rock Me
8. Mother Mary
9. This Kid's
10. Doctor Doctor
11. I'm a Loser
12. Lights Out
13. Rock Bottom
14. Too Hot to Handle
15. Shoot Shoot