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By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most influential British hard-rock bands of the ’70s, veteran quintet UFO has been setting the bar high with its heavy, hook-laden anthems and fiery live performances for the better part of the past half century. Formed as a quartet in 1969 by singer Phil Mogg, drummer Andy Parker, bassist Pete Way and guitarist Mick Bolton, the band took it’s name from the popular psychedelic nightclub in London and initially explored an unusual mix of epic space rock and gutsy, blues-based boogie.
While those early albums found an audience in Germany and Japan, it wasn’t until after Bolton’s exit and the arrival of German guitar wunderkind Michael Schenker that the band began pursuing the more concise style of catchy hard rock that became their signature. Starting with the 1974 album Phenomenon, Mogg and Schenker teamed to pen such classic songs as “Doctor Doctor,” “Rock Bottom,” “Lights Out” and “Too Hot to Handle” that filled a string of successful albums and helped make UFO a successful concert attraction on both sides of the Atlantic. Albums like Force It, Lights Out and Obsession would help shape the sound of everyone from radio-ready hard rockers like Def Leppard to metal icons Iron Maiden (who have been playing “Doctor Doctor” right before taking the stage for years) as well as heavier thrash metal bands Metallica, Slayer and Testament.
The band’s dogged touring help make their 1979 double live recording Strangers in the Night one of the great concert documents of the era, but escalating tensions between Mogg and Schenker would lead to the guitarist sudden and acrimonious departure. UFO would enlist a variety of guitarists as it struggled during the ’80s with key members Parker, Way and guitarist/keyboardist Paul Raymond all leaving (only the initial post-Schenker recordings with replacement Paul Chapman keeping to the band’s high standard).
By the early ’90s, Mogg and a returning Way managed to pull together the band’s classic line-up with Schenker to record Walk On Water in 1993, but the reunion was short lived, with Schenker walking out on the band mid set at a concert in Palo Alto. The group would reconcile with Schenker two more times over the next decade, but continuing difficulties with the troubled guitarist led to the permanent hiring of current six-stringer Vinnie Moore in 2003.
One of the more talented American players to emerge from the post-Yngwie Malmsteen wave of neo-classical shredders in the mid-1980s, Moore played lead guitar on the first album by Bay Area metal band Vicious Rumors, toured and recorded with Alice Cooper and established a nearly two-decade career as a solo instrumental star prior to joining UFO. He became Mogg’s main songwriting partner and has recorded five studio albums with the band during his tenure (now the longest of any guitarist to play with UFO), including the band’s most recent effort, 2015’s hard-hitting Conspiracy of Stars.
Moore has helped the current line-up with Mogg, fellow founding member Parker, Raymond and bassist Rob De Luca (who replaced Way in 2008) maintain the band’s reputation as a stellar live act. The guitarist recently spoke with CBS SF about his time with the band, plans for an upcoming album of cover songs and their current co-headlining tour with British metal band Saxon that comes to the Independent in San Francisco on March 15 for a sold-out show with opening act Jared James Nichols.
CBS SF: I know that UFO has something of a history with Saxon and that they toured the U.S. together in the ’80s. But UFO always seems to have no trouble selling out venues in the States when you tour on your own as headliners, so how did you end up getting this package together?
Vinnie Moore: The idea came from our booking agent, who also books Saxon. It seemed like a really cool idea. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this, doing a whole tour with another band who isn’t opening for us. It’s more of a dual headlining type of thing. We’ll see how it goes. I think it will be a cool vibe. It will give people more bang for their buck.
CBS SF: Will the setup change the amount of time you’re going to play if it is more of a co-headlining tour? You’ve played a pretty generous set when I’ve seen you in the past, usually going a good 90 minutes to two hours while doing 14 or 15 songs. Will you both be doing something closer to 75 minutes.?
Vinnie Moore: From what I understand it’s going to be pretty close to our normal set, so we’ll be doing at least an hour and 30 minutes.
CBS SF: It’s been going on a couple of years since Conspiracy of Stars, UFO’s last studio album came out. Are you still going to be featuring a few songs from that album? Or will you be changing things up from what you played on the U.S. tour last year?
Vinnie Moore: Yeah, I think we’re going to change it up a little bit. We’re going to do “Messiah of Love” from Conspiracy and at least one other. I can’t remember which at the moment. We also have a new record in the pipeline that’s totally finished. It’s being mixed now. It’s actually a covers record. So I’m hoping we’ll do at least one cover from that. That would be a lot of fun to do live.
CBS SF: Are you at liberty to talk about that album at this point or are you still keeping details under wraps?
Vinnie Moore: Well, I can talk about one song. We’re doing the Animals song “It’s My Life.”
CBS SF: So is it mostly ‘6os songs?
Vinnie Moore: Actually it’s ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There are a couple of songs that are really going to surprise people. Songs that people would never expect. We’ve been getting a lot of guesses from people on our website. People are guessing Bruce Springsteen and things like that. But we’re definitely not doing Bruce Springsteen. Even though I like the Boss a lot.
CBS SF: I know the last album was the first time the band had recorded in the States from what I was reading. Where did you track the covers album?
Vinnie Moore: We got together last summer in Hanover, Germany. We went in and cut rhythm guitars, bass and drums over a two-week period. Then we did some other tours. I did some solo guitars and additional guitars at home and Phil did vocals in England. And now it’s being mixed, I think, in Germany. We’ve done it in bits, because we didn’t have a block of time to put aside to do the whole thing at once.
CBS SF: Are you anticipating this is going to be on Steamhammer like Conspiracy of Stars?
Vinnie Moore: No, it’s going to be on Cleopatra Records, which is a California-based label.
CBS SF: You’ve generally made time to record and tour for your solo albums between UFO album cycles. Do you have anything planned for yourself in the immediate future?
Vinnie Moore: It’s pretty much written and I’ve been trying to get into the studio to finish it. I just have to get the time. I’ll start on it after this tour ends. We’re going to go in and cut drums. So I’m hoping to have it ready to release maybe at the end of the summer or in the fall.
CBS SF: So that must be a complicated thing. When UFO has something new coming out, I imagine that — especially given the band’s European following — that the summer is generally taken up with playing festivals…
Vinnie Moore: Yeah, we do have some festivals coming up, but there’s not a whole lot this summer. We tend to tour in spurts. Not all at once with long tours over four to six months like UFO used to do back in the old days. And I used to do that as a solo artist. We pace ourselves a little more, which I think is better.
CBS SF: I’ve seen you perform with UFO a few times dating back to the early 2000s when Jason Bonham was playing prior to Andy Parker’s return — I think Barry Sparks was on bass. But all the other times since 2008, Rob De Luca was filling in on bass. I know Pete Way was initially not touring due to visa problems before health issues kept him off the road. Has there been any consideration on bringing him back in, if not to tour, then maybe as a contributing songwriter?
Vinnie Moore: He was in the band when I first joined, but couldn’t do the American tours because of those visa problems. So we’d get fill in guys. And then he had health issues and we got to a certain point where we knew he could no longer be in the band unfortunately. Though we all love him and it was always great to have him on the tours, because he was so funny. It was always a laugh with Phil and we do miss him, but at some point we sort of had to put it to rest.
CBS SF: You’re been Phil’s main songwriting partner since you joined the band, with you doing a majority of the music and him writing the lyrics. How has your working relationship evolved over your years with UFO? Do you come to him with mostly completed songs and he fills in the vocal melody and lyrics?
Vinnie Moore: My demos are pretty complete. When I come up with ideas, I even go to the extent of singing temporary vocals on them sometimes. Though he often doesn’t listen to those, which I totally understand, because he wants to listen to the music, get a feel for it and interpret it in his own way without hearing a vocal.
So I just send him complete demos and he picks the ones he likes, and Paul Raymond does the same; he’s do completed demos and send them to Phil and Phil will pick the songs he likes. He sifts through them and figures out what he can work with and what inspires him. Sometimes we’ll change arrangements, but sometimes we won’t.
We start the idea and he finishes it. He really procrastinates a lot! He waits to the last minute. Often we don’t even know what he’s going to sing and we’ve already recorded our parts for the record. So when we actually get a mix, that’s the first time we’ve heard vocals [laughs]. He gets inspired by waiting until the last minute. He’s one of those 11th hour guys. And he’s always, always been like that. I talked to Ron Nevinson, who produced their ’70s records, and he told me the same thing. He had no idea what Phil was going to sing on Lights Out and Obsession, because he didn’t do anything for the rehearsals and had no lyrics. But he delivered at the end. Everybody has a different way of working.
CBS SF: I remember touching on this briefly when I interviewed you and Andy after a show a few years ago, so I was wondering if the band was starting to think about special plans for it’s 50th anniversary coming up in 2019?
Vinnie Moore: I’ve heard nothing about that. In fact, I was unaware that we were coming up on the 50 year mark. I don’t know if Andy and Phil are aware of it, but I’ll tell them to make sure that they do. It would be something to capitalize on.
CBS SF: I know it was almost a different band back in 1969 with Mick Bolton. UFO was doing much more of a space-rock thing on those first few albums, but I’ve always liked them and wished there was a way to squeeze one of those songs into a set…
Vinnie Moore: Ironically, those records were big in Germany. And every time we play there, they ask for “Boogie for George” and “Prince Kajuku.” I didn’t really know those songs growing up. I didn’t even know those records until I joined the band! [laughs] But we hear that a lot in Germany; “Prince Kajuku!!”
CBS SF: Those albums were never too easy to find. I guess in the modern age you can probably find the CDs online or listen to them on YouTube, but it took me a while to track them down….
Vinnie Moore: A girl came up to us in Italy and handed me one of those records through a fence to sign. I grabbed it and had a pen in my hand, but I didn’t know she had the record inside and I turned it sideways and the inner sleeve was going the wrong way. The record came out and hit the concrete and broke! I felt horrible. Normally when you put a record away you up the sleeve in sideways so that holds the record in, but she didn’t do that.
CBS SF: You’re mention of the upcoming covers record reminds me that UFO kind of has a history of doing covers. Even back then, the band did a version of Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” and “Who Do You Love?” by Bo Diddley. I know there were other covers later too, like the Love song “Alone Again Or.” Has the band ever done any of those songs during your tenure live?
Vinnie Moore: No, we’ve never done the Love song. I don’t think we’ve ever done a cover onstage other than jamming on “LA Woman,” throwing it into “Shoot Shoot.” Sometimes we end with “Shoot Shoot” and do this extended version and I’ll go into “Johnny B. Goode” or that Doors song or something else. We put all kinds of different things in there over the years, but have never done a full cover song.
UFO and Saxon bring their current tour to the Independent on Wednesday, March 15, 8 p.m. $39.50 (sold out)