Retro Action 42: Michael Schenker — The Legend Comes Alive

It’s hard to believe this thing called rock n’ roll is now in its eighth decade. A lot has happened since it kicked off and very few musicians can say they’ve played a part in the majority of it. German guitar-slinger Michael Schenker has done so for two-thirds of it and has recently embarked on his 50th Anniversary Tour. Having started out playing lead guitar as a young teen in his big brother Rudolph’s band the Scorpions, Schenker was a teenage wunderkind who soon found himself in high demand for his frenetic, but tasteful fretwork and killer tone. Now, some five decades later, the man is selling out venues the world over and continues to be cited as an influence by multiple artists across the spectrum. 

The Backstory

At age 18, Michael Schenker was recruited from the Scorpions by the then-bigger UK band UFO. While his English was scant and he looked at himself as a loner solely focused on his playing, joining the far more renowned UFO was quite an adjustment. Schenker would go on to co-write and play on UFO’s biggest albums including 1977’s Lights Out, Obsession (1978) and the landmark live album Strangers in the Night (1979), which would elevate the band’s international standing by leaps and bounds. But in spite of the success, Schenker would soon leave the band due to internal conflicts, which would plague the axeman at several points throughout his career. 

After a short stint playing on the Scorpions’ Lovedrive album in 1979, Schenker found himself in high demand. An audition with Aerosmith went south after the band’s organization allegedly made Nazi jokes. Then after Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhodes tragically perished in a plane crash, the newly successful solo singer invited Schenker into the fold to replace his own young guitar prodigy but was refused. Rumored offers also came from the likes of Motörhead, Thin Lizzy, and Deep Purple, but Schenker would opt to pursue a solo career, and thus, the Michael Schenker Group (MSG) was born. 

Michael Schenker Group 1981

With firm momentum and a supportive major label (Chrysalis), The Michael Schenker Group released its self-titled debut to critical and commercial acclaim. Charting in several countries, the album was a strong seller here and abroad. English singer Gary Barden would prove to be a strong writing partner for Schenker with songs like “Armed and Ready” and “Cry for the Nations” which were rife with both power and hooks, and would serve as effective vehicles for the guitarist’s deft playing. The next album MSG (1981) would benefit from high production values and also endear the band to fans and the press. But just as momentum was on the upswing, old patterns would resurface and Schenker would fire Barden in favor of new blood in the form of Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet. The new lineup would release Assault Attack in 1982 to mixed reviews, and soon Bonnet would be sacked and Barden would rejoin for one more album, Built to Destroy (1983). 

The original MSG would soon disband under a cloud of stress and rash decisions. Schenker would then set about organizing a new, more commercially viable project with Scottish singer Robin McAuley. The new McAuley Schenker group arrived in the late ’80s with a slicker, more produced sound that would garner them some decent record sales, but ultimately lack the original enthusiasm that distinguished the earlier lineup. After a few albums, the band would also disband.

The ‘90s and very early 2000s would be a dark period for the guitarist. Schenker would rejoin and quit UFO a couple of times, struggle with addiction, divorce, poverty, and a string of solo albums that did little to live up to his legend. But miraculously, after pulling his personal life together, the guitarist would reunite with old UFO chum and bassist Pete Way for the one-off recording project, The Plot. The album would be leaked online to a rabid fan reception elated at seeing its UFO heroes reunite. With such a buzz cooking, the band would release it officially in 2003. The album sheds the slick, polished hard rock sounds of UFO and MSG in favor of a grittier, more back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll sound that thrives on Schenker’s screaming leads and Way’s scratchy vocals (think Rolling Stones meets AC/DC with a dash of Motörhead thrown in for good measure). The album has now been reissued as part of a sweet little box set The Plot vs Damage Control ft. Pete Way & Michael Schenker: 2003-2009, (Cherry Red) where you can get it in remastered and expanded—a must for Schenker diehards.

Now with a more optimistic outlook in tow, Schenker would also reunite with his original partner Gary Barden to record 2008’s critically acclaimed In the Midst of Beauty, re-establishing MSG internationally and regaining his title as one of the world’s top guitarists. Since that time, Schenker has released a string of solo, MSG, and Michael Schenker Fest (a project reuniting with several of his prior singers) albums, to an ever-expanding fan base and sold-out world tours. Latest album, Universal (2022) has also been racking up rave reviews and sees the veteran axeman on a fresh new global tour. 

The Concert

Michael Schenker’s 50th Anniversary tour made a marquee appearance at the iconic Great American Music Hall on September 29, 2022. The sold-out show kicked off with Bay Area veteran Eric Martin, the former frontman of Mr. Big, and Bay Area cult faves The Eric Martin Band in support. The acoustic-based set showcased Martin’s signature melodic snarl as he ran through a set composed of Mr, Big’s early ‘90s catalog, including the national hit “To Be With You,” which resonated heavily with the packed audience.  

Michael Schenker and band hit the stage just after 9 pm to an ecstatic welcome. Adorned in his signature oversized Russian fur hat, the man in black opened the show with a rousing version of the instrumental “Into the Arena.” Singer Ronnie Romero, the journeyman Chilean vocalist who’s already loaned his talents to other reformed legacy outfits such as Rainbow and Vandenberg, soon joined the stage for a rousing rendition of “Cry for the Nations” before tearing into the UFO classic “Doctor Doctor.” 

Romero’s rendition of the wide-ranging material was stellar; his multi-octave range did the classic material due justice. Other highlights included the aforementioned “Armed and Ready,” UFO classics “Lights Out,” “Rock Bottom,” “Shoot Shoot,” and “Too Hot to Handle,” and early MSG staples “Red Skies” and the quasi-hit “Looking for Love” from the second MSG album. Now in his late sixties, Michael Schenker looked young, fit, and energized with his black-and-white Flying-V guitar, signature slouch, and incessant smile—whipping up the enthusiastic crowd in the process.  

The Legacy

After nearly six decades of plying his trade as a world-class guitarist, songwriter, and band leader, Michael Schenker shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The past decade and a half have seen the artist release several albums’ worth of new material, collaborate with other renowned singers and musicians, and sell out clubs and theaters the world over. But on top of that, Schenker has something that very few other artists have—the reverence and sphere of influence over several generations of guitar players such as Kirk Hammett, George Lynch, Dave Mustaine, Randy Rhoads, Dimebag Darrell, Adrian Smith, Slash, John Norum, Paul Gilbert, and so many others. 

For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, drop me a note. @jimkaz1

Live photo by Kasey Kaz

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