The ‘Phenomenon’ that is UFO

Q & A with founding UFO member Andy Parker
By Peter Lindblad

Through lineup changes, substance abuse, health problems, the occasional breakup and just plain burnout, UFO has persevered, producing album after album of chugging, powerhouse hard-rock. Originally named Hocus Pocus, UFO, re-named after a defunct London club of the same name, evolved from charged-up blues-oriented blasters into hyper-driven space-rock explorers. But more changes were on the horizon.

Andy Parker, the band’s original drummer, having formed UFO with vocalist Phil Mogg, guitarist Mick Bolton and bassist Pete Way in 1969, has been back in the fold for the last two UFO studio albums, 2006’s The Monkey Puzzle and 2009’s The Visitor. Both records featured recent addition Vinnie Moore on guitar, replacing iconic six-string shredder Michael Schenker, the ex-Scorpion who first joined UFO in 1974, stepping in for the departed Bolton. It was with Schenker in the mid-1970s that UFO peaked artistically and commercially, as the band cranked out such stone classic LPs as 1974’s keg of dynamite Phenomenon (featuring perhaps the band’s biggest hit, “Doctor, Doctor”), 1975’s Force It, 1976’s No Heavy Petting and 1977’s Lights Out, which included new keyboardist Paul Raymond. Next to arrive was Schenker’s initial swan song, 1978’s Obsession.

Adding Paul Chapman in Schenker’s stead, UFO charged ahead with No Place to Run, but even though the band, in its various incarnations, kept on recording throughout the next three decades, UFO’s salad days were behind them, even though the records they made post-Schenker remained remarkably consistent. But, after 1983’s Making Contact, UFO called it a day, only to reunite in 1993, as Parker, Mogg, Schenker, Way and Raymond recorded 1995’s Walk on Water. Again, however, UFO couldn’t keep from splintering. Mogg and Way would continue working together, though, and then, in 2000, Schenker made a triumphant return, along with drummer Aynsley Dunbar.

When Schenker and Dunbar departed after 2002’s Sharks, Moore and Jason Bonham jumped into the fray. Soon, the new UFO returned to more of a bluesy sound that recalled their earliest work, which had given way to the expansive space-rock the band explored prior to Schenker’s 1974 arrival. A new compilation, the SPV/Steamhammer release Best of a Decade, due out Sept. 28, testifies to the band’s newfound affinity for the blues, while at the same time, proving the band has lost none of its metallic power.

Parker took time out to talk to Backstage Auctions about the band’s history (see a previous blog for the lowdown on UFO’s Best of a Decade release).

What was it that made you want to rejoin the band?
Andy Parker: What brought me back? A phone call from Paul Raymond, that’s what (laughs).

It’s as simple as that, huh?
AP: Yeah, the thing is, they’d asked me several times over the years. I mean, it’s difficult because life doesn’t always go the way you plan and this is my third stint in the band. I quit in ’83 for pretty much personal reasons. And there was a lot of stuff going on with the band, a lot of problems within the band, and we were just pretty much burned out from constant touring and studio work, and you don’t have any time to deal with your private life. I left and I had a very young daughter when I left in ’83; she was only three years old, and I wanted to spend some time with her. That was the first time. I came back in ’94. The guys asked me to rejoin. I did the Walk on Water album, and that was great. It was a great experience. But there was still a lot of stuff going down in the band that I didn’t really want to deal with. They still had a lot of inner kind of tension going on there, and I chose not to tour, which, in hindsight, turned out to be the right choice. And I’ve said this before, as much as I love and admire Michael, he’s an amazing guy, there was a lot of problems with him and stability-wise with the band. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to be in a band that was that unstable at that time. They asked me to come back in 2005, and I knew that Vinnie was in the band, and initially I came back and did one show for them, because Jason had left and they had a show booked in Spain. So the moment I did that show and got to play with the guys again, and with Vinnie, it was just such a pleasurable experience that they asked, “Will you stay?” And I said, “Yeah.” You know, this is really what it’s all about, what I remember UFO being and how it should be, so …

That seems to be the history of UFO. People leave and then return. What keeps everybody coming back?
AP: Well, you know, I think the whole thing is, when that band is good, it’s the best band in the world. That’s just like anything, you know. If anything’s good, you always want to go back to it. And like I said, my reasons for leaving … they certainly weren’t musical. I mean, I just loved the guys. We’ve spent so much time together now we can pretty much read each other’s thoughts. That’s a great feeling to be onstage and kind of … it really helps when you kind of know how the other guys play. Having said that, of course, Pete [Way] isn’t in the band right now, which is somewhat of a shame. I mean, obviously, we miss him gravely. I mean, he’s such a huge part of UFO; he has his own problems to deal with right now and obviously, we’re hoping that he’s going to get himself sorted out and be back some time  soon.

What was UFO like in 1969 when you guys first formed? Was there a real close friendship between the guys?
AP: Well, [we were] a lot younger (laughs). I think, obviously, it was ’69. I mean when I joined, Phil and Pete and Mick, the original guitar player, knew each other already. I don’t know how long they’d known each other. Probably not that long, a year or so. So we were all pretty new together … in ’69 to ’83, we’re talking 14 years of just being close to those guys, especially Phil and Pete. Michael left fairly early on, but I know of so many situations and so much stress, you know, good times, bad times, you can’t help but get close. You either get close or you get distant, you know what I’m saying? So I think the fact that we’re still buddies today and still doing it speaks for itself. You know, through the ‘70s with Michael, we were together so much of the time all those rough corners rub off. Now it’s just so easy. And there’s a very deep friendship there. I mean, it wasn’t always kind of noticeable, but you know, you can feel it. There’s a real good bond there deep down. It’s very comfortable these days.

When Mick Bolton left the group and you were experimenting with a couple of different guitarists, you settled on Michael. What did that do to the band’s sound?
AP: Oh well, I think from the very first time we saw him, we realized that this guy was something special. And you know, obviously, the band was hungry back then. We were looking to make a name for ourselves. When you see a person of that caliber, there’s no doubt. That’s the guy we wanted. I mean, I think it took us in a great direction. I think we really kind of found a direction for ourselves when Michael joined. We started off, like I said, in a kind of bluesy style, and we’d gone through our kind of space-rock era, and then Mick left – that’s Mick, not Michael, so we don’t get them confused - and then we had Larry Wallis, who ended up with the Pink Fairies and had a very different guitar style, and Bernie Marsden, [who had] a very blues-rock kind of style. He ended up with Whitesnake, as you know. But when we hit on Michael, all of a sudden, we said, “Yes. This is what we’re looking for. This is the sound.” And it really worked, as you can tell. We enjoyed a lot of success with Michael; just basically a lot of the problems were just our schedule. I mean, it was just constant touring and the rest of the time in the studio. So people had put their lives on hold, and that can only go on for so long I think.

You talked about going from blues to space-rock, and then with Michael stepping in, you got more of a heavy-metal sound. So much was happening musically at that time in Britain in the ‘60s. How much were you guys influenced by what was going on around you?
AP: Well, that’s an interesting thing … I never remember us being … in other words us listening to something and saying, “That’s how we want to sound,” or “That’s what we want to do,” or “This is where we want to go.” I said this before, with UFO, it was pretty much … I mean, obviously, you’re influenced. I mean, you listen to people. Like my biggest influence has always been John Bonham. I just loved the way that guy played from the first time I heard him. And that kind of changed my way of looking at the drum kit, you know. Before that, I listened to Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon – all the great British drummers. And they all had an influence, but when I heard John Bonham, I said, “That’s the direction I want to go.” But obviously you don’t consciously try to play like them. It’s just you listen to those influences and I think that’s the same with the band. I mean, Phil obviously had influences from vocalists and Pete from bassists. But, you know, as I said before, we never tried to follow a trend or sound, or actually manufacture our sound. It just was pretty much take your influences, mix them all up and see what you come out with.

Early on, in the very early ‘70s, you had albums that didn’t fare so well in your own country but did in other countries – France, Germany, Japan. What was it that changed with the mid-‘70s albums – Phenomenon, Force It, No Heavy Petting?
AP: You know, Peter, that’s a difficult question. I think it’s just right place, right time. We still don’t know why those first couple of albums were so successful in Japan and Germany. I tend to think it was because the record companies got behind them more than maybe they did in England and America. And of course, once we signed with Chrysalis, those first three albums … that was a really up-and-coming company. They had some clout and they had a great guy running the show in the States. And I think they really got behind them after that. And for a release, back then, it made a helluva lot of difference. You know, you got airplay, and that’s really what it was all about. I mean, we managed to get out there and play gigs. I mean, that’s what I would put it out to. Other than the fact that we were playing the kind of music they wanted to hear back then, which was obviously a great part of it. But if nobody hears it, it’s not going to become that popular, is it? So, I think at that time, I will put it down to the record company, and that’s maybe why those early albums did better in some countries than in others.

Why did you guys name yourself after that London club of the same name? Was there something special about that club?
AP: I think it just looked great. When those posters were up everywhere in the last night of that club … and it just looked really good on the poster; I mean, there were just these posters all over. And then we were driving back from a gig somewhere; I can’t even remember what we were called then. But it wasn’t UFO. We were looking for a new name. We weren’t happy with the name we had. And we were just driving through London late at night and there were these posters up there saying UFO. And we thought, man, that looks really good. And so we stole the name (laughs). It was as simple as that. But it was great. It really catches your eye, you know, if you see it on a poster. It really jumps out at you – simple and to the point.

Did you guys ever get to play that club?
AP: No. Well, I didn’t because I was kind of younger than the other guys. I think Phil spent some time there. It was kind of one of these sort of underground music clubs. So, no, because I didn’t really stay until it was closing, I actually never played there. But I believe Phil … I don’t know if the band ever played there, but I know he used to go there.

When you guys recorded that first album with Michael, Phenomenon, what was the recording process like for that record? Did you find it easy to record that record?
AP: Yes, because of Leo, Leo Lyons. It was great. I was a huge Ten Years After fan. To me, that was such a treat, getting to have Leo as a producer. And he’s just a fabulous guy. He made it so easy, you know. He had great ideas and he was really easy to work with, and of course, you know, who could not like it? You had a great record company, great producer and a budget, and you’re making an album with an excellent band. We had the world at our feet, as it were. So, yeah, I mean that was one of the highlights of my life. 

And that time, that mid-‘70s, that was really a peak for you guys.
AP: Oh yeah, it was. That was a great time. Up till the end of the ‘70s, I mean, when Michael moved on. Saying that, we did some great stuff in the early ‘80s too with Paul Chapman. You know, he had some big shoes to fill and he did an admirable job. And sometimes, people forget that, with No Place o Run, Mechanix – you know, there’s some great stuff on those albums.

That’s always been the case with UFO. There’s always somebody that’s been able to step in and fill a void and has always had big shoes to fill.
AP: Yeah, yeah. It’s difficult, because there are a lot of great guitar players out there, but it’s not just the music, is it? You’ve got to be able to get along, especially in those days when we spent so much time together. And that’s one of the great things about Vinnie. Not only is he an amazing player, but he’s also a really great guy. And that really does make a difference. You know, I think a lot of great bands have suffered because the people just couldn’t get along.

What was it do you think about that mid-‘70s lineup that just had that certain magic?
AP: I don’t know, but it just did, didn’t it? It was just like I said, right place at the right time and like I said, we were hungry, you know. We wanted to make a name for ourselves. But you know, you had this great vocalist, this incredible guitar player and this maniac on bass strutting around the stage with his arm flailing. It was just … and you know, and Paul Raymond, I still sometimes look at that guy today and go, man, he’s just so underrated. But you know, I don’t think people realize what a great job he does. I mean, he’s there playing keys, singing, playing guitar. I mean, playing guitar upside down for starters, being left-handed. He’s just a real solid guy to have in a band. He and I work so well together. I’ve got the greatest admiration for him as a musician. I think it was just an excellent band, and like I said, we were in the right place at the right time.

Do you have a favorite album among those?
AP: You know, Strangers [in the Night]is probably still my favorite, not because I don’t like the studio albums, but I think I always felt that if you wanted to see the real UFO, you’d see ‘em live. I always felt that we made great studio albums, but this band [always] was really a live band. And of course, Strangers was to me, and still is, one of my favorite UFO albums because it really just summed up UFO to me.

Among the studio albums do you have a favorite?
AP: Um, you know what? That’s difficult. I’m pretty happy with the last one, The Visitor. Yeah, because, you know, I love them all. You know, the fact that we can still turn out and play that good now, and I really enjoyed making the last one. It’s a different experience, these days, you know. It’s a lot quicker, and a lot more efficient, but I just think that after 20 studio albums to be able to turn out an album of that quality … and there are some great songs on it. I’m really happy with it.

That is an amazing accomplishment, to have turned out 20 studio albums. Looking back on it, that’s got to fill all you guys with a sense of pride.
AP: Absolutely, yeah.

After the 2000s, you were kind of looking at the band from afar until you went back with them. Did you hear any of the early 2000s music the band was making?
AP: You know, I have to be totally honest with you. I was completely out of the … I was working a job for my family. I was very deeply involved in the industrial side of the world, and I wasn’t really listening at all to music of any kind to be honest. Having said that, I’ve gone back now and listened to it now, like I said, Showtime and You Are Here, and Sharks is another one, because we played some of the songs when I rejoined the band. We were doing some of the songs from those albums, so I had to go back and have a listen. There was some great material there. I mean, they had Aynsley Dunbar playing drums at one point, who has always been an idol of mine. He’s a great player, and Jason, of course. So I did go back and listen, and yeah, there’s some good stuff. And I don’t think these guys have ever turned out any bad material. Obviously, it changes over the years, and some people did like it better than others, some people don’t, you know. But I think it’s certainly an incredible body of work.

Do you have a favorite moment from your touring days in the mid-‘70s?
AP: Yeah, you know, I think if I had to decide, I think the Day on the Green in Oakland with Bill Graham [a concert series the famed promoter put on]. You know, that’s the kind of thing that makes you think you’ve arrived. I mean, he was such a great guy. It was such a tragedy for him to lose his life that way. But he was always great for us, you know. He really treated us well and doing those shows with him, they were just incredible.

As the ‘70s went on and you guys completed Obsession, did it seem like Michael was ready to pull away at that point?
AP: Yeah, well, I think we pretty much knew I think that Michael was … but Mike, like I said before, everyone was pretty much burned. We had just been working hectic for years. I think everyone needed some space, Michael especially. I know that … well, we had warning that Strangers would be his last tour with us. Yeah, you know, it was a shame because I think had he stayed with the band we could have gone on to bigger and better things. We were really doing well up to that point, although like I said, we went on with Paul and we made some [great] stuff. You know, I think we kind of lost the momentum when Michael left, and you know, a lot of people felt that. It was a shame, but hey, you know, no point worrying over it. It is what it is, you know. And the band did some great stuff afterwards, so in hindsight, it was a shame because the band was doing so well then. But if people aren’t happy, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of point to it. That’s always been my theory. If you don’t enjoy doing it, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

You mentioned the burnout factor, was part of it to that Michael wanted to stretch out a little bit musically?
AP: Maybe, but I think he didn’t want to tour as much. And UFO has always been a touring band. You know, that was difficult for him. He didn’t … and it’s tough. When you’re on the road that much, away from your family, away from your friends, it’s very difficult and it does take its toll on you. Some people are more cut out for it than others, you know. I just don’t think it suited Michael that much. He wanted to be more of a studio musician for a while and put down some roots. And I can see that. It was very tough. My first marriage ended from that, and maybe two of Pete’s (laughs). He’s on his fifth or sixth now, I’ve lost count (laughs). I mean, it’s difficult. Any guy in the band will tell you how difficult that is. And [there were] no hard feelings. Michael had to do what he had to do. I just think in hindsight it was a crucial time for the band. We were just … we were on the back of some successful albums, and I think we could have pushed it over had we stayed together. Like I said, you know, water under the bridge now.

Being a band that did tour a lot, what did you guys like about it?
AP: Oh, I mean, you can’t beat playing to people. That’s the thing. Studios are great. You can sit back and listen to something you created, but it’s that feedback you get from the crowd when you’re in form and they’re enjoying it … there’s just no substitute for that. Even nowadays, I love that, the fact that we’re still able to go out and play, albeit smaller gigs now than maybe we were playing in the ‘70s, but that has its upside too. They’re a lot more personal, you can get to really enjoy the crowd rather than being sort of separated from them by large space. You know, there’s just no substitute for playing live to people.

What do you guys do to get through … the boredom of the road. What did you do to get through that?
AP: I never really thought about it. Read, watch movies, play and then you go home I guess. I mean, to be honest, the logistics of the thing take up a lot of the time. We sleep a lot because you’re up early traveling and up late playing, so you never get some time to sleep. That’s always good, but I think we just keep busy, just like you would as anyone else does. Obviously, not so much with stimulants and things these days, that kind of thing has passed. In the old days, I think that was a lot of the problem with bands. There was always so much time and boredom [that] you tend to end up drinking and whatever. That’s kind of calmed down a lot these days. So we’re just normal people who do normal things (laughs). I’m sure that’s boring. Nobody wants to hear that, do they? (laughs) We do watch a lot of movies on the bus when we’re traveling and listen to a lot of music. And we’ve got computers nowadays too. I mean, Vinnie’s online a lot of the time.

I suppose that has changed how you tour?
AP: You know he’s got kids and they’re on the web cam. That would have changed things a lot back in the ‘70s if we’d had that technology, to keep in touch and see your family.

How did you guys tour back then, van or bus?
AP: We had a bus. I mean, the very early couple of tours we flew everywhere because I guess you could then. There was an awful lot of flying, flying and rental cars in secure airports. Security was a lot easier then, but we pretty much soon graduated to a bus and that’s the way to go. It’s like a little home on wheels, and it’s lot less stressful, especially nowadays with the airport security. But yeah, and nowadays, we don’t tend to take the whole show, the lights and the PA. They’re pretty much provided at the venue so we don’t have a trailer with the backline. That’s kind of nice and easy.

What is the future of UFO?
AP: More of the same hopefully. I mean, you know, like I said, the band’s playing great and sounding great, so I just hope it continues for as long as possible. Everybody’s happy to be back and I think the band still has a lot to offer. We’re getting ready to start work on material for another album, so hopefully, in the new year, there’ll be something out again – no. 21. So that’s something to look forward to, but yeah, as I said, I mean, we’ve got the greatest fans. They’re so loyal and they’ve stuck with us over the years. Hopefully, we won’t disappoint them.

Andy Parker Official Website: click here 

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