I’m sitting in the back of the car as we’re driving out to the Black Country, heading for the old JB’s or the original Robin. I can’t recall which. All I know is, time has passed since the former Quaker hierarchy at Birmingham City Council began closing down all the rock venues in the second city, blind that fellow councillors were plotting to develop woodland area near the airport for an arena to bring in musical mega-bucks with themselves as shareholders along the way. In a brighter world UFO would have continued their rise to fame, and they’d have been playing the NEC. Victims of their own excesses, that wasn’t to be. Instead, we’re having to head out of town to catch the reformed band, but I’m confused; listening to mates reminisce about how Pete Way and Paul Chapman were shoulder-barging each other and shooting daggers through intoxicant-fuelled eyes centre stage down at the Odeon, New Street during one of their annual tours there. My innocence is broken, I thought they were good naturedly doing a Keef & Woodie routine.
Once in the club, we arm ourselves with ale, and by the time the new line-up appears on stage it looks like they’re a few shorts ahead of us. It’s apparently new guitarist Lauren Archer’s 30th birthday, so I continue to forgive exuberances, and fortunately, as our own alcohol intake increases, we join in the party atmosphere – These are still my teenage idols after all and I’ve already become fond of their new album.
High Stakes & Dangerous Men came out in 1992, the band’s 13th studio album, as luck or otherwise would have it. After the original Schenker fallout, Lone Star guitarist Chapman returned full-time to the band, and despite naysayers attempting to rewrite history (UFO were doing increasingly good business, the Odeon was down the road but up a level from the Town Hall where the Obsession and Light’s Out tours took place, with Bogarts, where they’d played earlier in their career, situated mid-point), right up until the time Mogg had a meltdown on stage in Athens, Greece. Picking himself up, he began checking out whizz-kid guitarists in Los Angeles, while cashing royalty cheques at Five Ways, Birmingham and dropping in for a drink at the Costermongers, where he was now residing (Brum that is, not the pub). The Misdemeanour line-up was the result, but a UK tour and another mini-album later there was no mistake they were mimicking the hairband acts who’d stolen their own musical schtick. By then, co-founding member and bass player Pete Way had made his way to Brum, and plots were being hatched.
Their cache with mainstream record labels was behind them though and they signed with Castle Communications, out in Stratford; a company who specialised in documentaries and rock video footage for TV, but would continue to diversify their musical output, not least with countless Uriah Heep related releases in years to come. The music press (now glossy magazines rather than weekly rags) was still behind UFO, giving them good coverage, but no one was underwriting full scale tours or spending dosh on full page adverts to inform the faithful a new album was out. And anyway, many of the faithful had moved on, dealing with new families, suffering midlife crises or just totally ignorant of the music scene’s changes in those pre-internet times.
For those of us still clinging on by the seat of our stretch pants, High Stakes & Dangerous Men was just what we needed. A dozen tracks of meaty rock and bitter sweet slower tunes, delivered with class, and the prophetic voice of an elder brother warning us which way the wind might blow if we followed suit.
The solid song-writing structure, semi-introduced during the Chapman period, allowed vocals a broader template to play with, rather than the brilliant-as-they-were riff method approach of Schenker whose stylisations were to be more apparent in the lead work of one of his former disciples.
Guitarist Laurence Archer had made his bones with Lautrec and Stampede, before Phil Lynnot had come a calling with the promise of a Grand Slam. Similarly, new drummer Clive Edwards had served a full apprenticeship, playing with acts as diverse as Screaming Lord Sutch, John Cale, and Uli Jon Roth, as well as several bands alongside Archer, including Wild Horses and Medicine Head. Keyboards for the recording were played by Don Airey, more notably was the addition of backing singers.
Previously on record, Mogg had often double tracked his voice, this time one of his own idols, Superlungs himself Terry Reid was also involved, as was Stevie Lange (most notably remembered for singing the Heart-rocking ‘Remember My Name’ featured on the Limara body spray TV advert). It worked.
Thematically, songs were shifting a little. The usual suspects were ever-present but on numbers like ‘One Of Those Nights’ reality checks were being ticked that would take greater emphasis decades later on albums like The Monkey Puzzle with numbers such as ‘Black And Blue’ and ‘Drink Too Much’.
In their past, rival contemporary acts were Judas Priest by way of their shrieking guitars, AC/DC by way of a broadly Humble Pie-informed rock base, but most particularly Thin Lizzy – Both bands’ frontmen were viewed as being one-of-the-lads, both offering worldly advice in their lyrics, but whereas Mogg also offered bare-faced sarcasm, Lynott romanticised. If you’re gonna tell a lie, tell a whopper. We fell in love with Phil L, we raised a glass to Phil M. Alas, reality checks meant only one of those singers was now with us.
Whether he’d dismissed the subject matter previously to avoid comparisons or was now simply more into it, Mogg began playing in Lynott’s neck of the woods, elaborating tunes with wild western themes – This would become most apparent in the latter-days of Schenker’s return on albums like Sharks, but began here earnestly with opening track ‘Borderline’.
Archer’s guitar begins to idly scratch like a fly-troubled horse’s ear twitching in the heat, Mogg lets out a gentle whoop and holler calling the cattle (we as fans?) to attention and there’s an easy riding intro as “Daylight’s rising across the plains”. Things aren’t rushed but no sooner than he told us he’s “a gambling man”, we’re galloping off “one step closer to the devil, one step farther from the law” under a full-bloodied swing. Archer’s guitar nods to Schenker in its scaled approach but the sound has become his own, with the added squeals and effects that technology had since brought us in the hip and happening nineties. The music shoulders weight and responsibility, dips in and out with time changes, and comes to rest satisfied in what it achieves. Perhaps, within the cowboy-styled lines of this particular number there’s a statement of intent for the band, they were never goodie two-shoes but they always did their best not to let you down. Possibly. I just know I still like it.
Later, tracks like ‘Burnin’ Fire’ will deliver frontier-spirited hell and damnation preacher metaphors about falling for a woman, while despite its bump and grind ‘Back Door Man’ is less focussed on anal sex and more about doing what pleases you, like some bad-assed gunslinger, ‘Running Up The Highway’ stretches the comparisons but it bucks and kicks excitedly enough to get included here.
Second track in, ‘Primed For Time’ with lines like “there’s a price on my head” seems to hold to the western motif, but others like “It’s a nervous breakdown, a teenage shakedown” have us edging towards some of the creepier numbers found back on the Making Contact album. Musically it still rocks.
‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ charges, doesn’t let up as it takes musical detours and is hardcore riffing that encompasses all you could ask of UFO, while being the number you actually forget about until you play it. ‘Revolution’ has Way deep in Obsession-era mode, pedalling the double notes as on ‘Cherry’ then later getting complex as he had with ‘I Ain’t No Baby’, Edwards powers through admirably on drums, Archer shifts moods guitar-wise, and Mogg is ably assisted with higher-end vocals by Lange. Later, guest musician Airey tinkles the ivories to strong effect on another typical UFO hard rocker in ‘Love Deadly Love’.
As with all bands with miles on the clock, fans and critics too will always point to their earlier career as when they wrote their best songs. It’s true that UFO could never shake the impact the live greatest hits double album Strangers In The Night had and their later stage career must have felt like Groundhog Day re-enacting it. However, lyrically, I’d argue some of Phil Mogg’s finer lyrics came this millennium, on albums where Vinnie Moore had become guitarist. But, I believe, we can pinpoint the starting point for that more mature style on this record, and I honestly believe you’ll hear some of his very best vocal performances running among these tracks. Producer and engineer Kit Woolven, having layered such a solid band sound gave Mogg all he needed to exude strong performances.
The slower formed numbers, also stand out for me. Not ballads as such, more melody based with a rocking undertow. ‘She’s The One’ has Edwards knocking hard while altering patterns over emphatic dance beats, while Archer switches between All About Eve style arpeggios, hard rocking chords and joyously sensual lead lines. ‘Don’t Want To Lose You’ similarly shifts gears, with something of a first in a Latin rhythm section, a style the band would repeat often in later years, but most importantly it’s practically a duet with Mogg and Lange and it’s gorgeous in its very desperation. ‘One Of Those Nights’ rounds out the songs for swinging lovers, giving stoic lines like “She ain’t here and you’re asking why, life’s a bitch and then you die.”
The record ends with ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ that is has to be said, is not too dissimilar to The Easybeats’ ‘Good Time’, a single co-written and played on by George Young, elder brother to AC/DC’s brothers but also guest featuring Steve Marriott, another influence on Mogg. The song punches in the same way ‘Only You Can Rock Me’ did, not hitting the highlights it’s true but with a great party atmosphere.
To my mind this was strong solid album, just like the band. Most particularly, I think it’s worth pointing out the work Archer put in. He was not only credited as co-writing most of the songs with the Mogg/Way axis, but he was structuring his guitar sounds to suit those songs. In fact, I’ll also state that I think he was the only guitarist in the band’s entire history who played with consideration to what the singer was doing, not least the emotional context of the song. I would so love to have heard a follow-up by this line-up.
Fortunately, they did get to bring out a live album in Lights Out In Tokyo, apparently also released in 1992, but I tend to recall this coming out under the radar, and only being able to pick it up later.
It’s front-loaded with a number of the High Stakes & Dangerous Men tracks, starting with ‘Running Up The Highway’, that doesn’t quite feel like an opening number and still makes me wonder if this was a full set, in running order. One also gets the impression it may not have originally been recorded for release, but having heard the results then decided to do so. Alas, by then live albums no longer had the cache they did in the 70s, had become seen as stocking-fillers to earn a bit of extra cash at best. For us as listeners, no, it hasn’t got the umph and brutal yet elegiac power of Strangers In The Night, but I forgot just how good some tracks are.
Jem Davis, formerly of Birmingham band Tobruk had joined the band after the studio album, and was a more than capable player. Stands out from him include his piano on ‘She’s The One’ and the way the applies himself to ‘Love To Love’, invoking the Raymond-devised theme but offering up a contemporary synth-like sound too. Archer is by now already developing his riffs and sounds from their recorded versions, playing adeptly throughout shorn of guitar overdubs, though for the life of me I could never understand why Mogg and Way allowed him to play a bit Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ at the start of ‘Rock Bottom’, and of all the tunes to do it on.
What’s a nice surprise on this album, is the way they open up some of the old numbers, playing and jamming away, with a sense of joie de vivre possibly only intimated during their The Wild, the Willing & The Innocent days previously, and rarely since musically.
What I hadn’t realised until listening back to this new CD edition was how bloody brilliant Pete Way is all over the shop – Totally stretching himself, sometimes riffing so hard and playing counterpoint melodies that you’re wondering who the hell kept him away from the drinks cabinet and the chemistry sets long enough to make him relive his love of John Paul Jones and Andy Fraser.
That they take it back to the beginning to close the set with their cover of ‘C’mon Everybody’, from back when Mick Bolton played guitar, begs the question if they had to play this hit single every time they played Japan – Unfortunately, the sleeve notes are rather slim for a record company like Cherry Red, not telling us, and my memory of the times doesn’t always tally with some of what’s written.
Alas, the truth is, promoters wanted the Strangers line-up back on stage, not just Schenker, but Raymond and Parker (even though feelers had also been put out to Chapman too for a while). That came to pass, as did black eyes and inevitable fallouts. But they rebuilt the starship, with Vinnie Moore and Jason Bonham, and a returning Paul Raymond, and several ins and outs along the way until deciding to call last orders, but to my mind, what they did was take the High Stakes & Dangerous Men blueprint and make it work.
On leaving UFO, Jem Davis has been with FM pretty much solidly ever since, Clive Edwards has continued to perform with diverse acts, but is doing regular business with a reformed Lionheart, while Laurence Archer reformed Grand Slam, their album featuring some stonkingly good tracks. Pete Way is up in Heaven, being the life and soul of the party (because he went to Hell but wore them out). While the man at the front, Phil Mogg, will be hanging his UFO mic up once their covid-postponed dates are over, but he promises that doesn’t mean he’s retiring.
For some, the music of UFO is a way of life. In the early 90s the music they made steered me through the next stage of my own life, and it still sounds good to me.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- High Stakes & Dangerous Men/Lights Out In Tokyo (2CD set) is released via Cherry Red/HNE Recordings on 22nd July 2022.
- Official Website
CD 1 High Stakes & Dangerous Men (1992)
- Primed For Time
- She’s The One
- Ain’t Life Sweet
- Don’t Want To Lose You
- Burnin’ Fire
- Running Up The Highway
- Back Door Man
- One Of Those Nights
- Love Deadly Love
- Let The Good Times Roll
CD 2: Out In Tokyo (1992)
- Running Up The Highway
- Too Hot To Handle
- She’s The One
- Back Door Man
- One Of Those Nights
- Love To Love
- Only You Can Rock Me
- Lights Out
- Doctor Doctor
- Rock Bottom
- Shoot Shoot
- C’mon Everybody