NOTE: This will be the inaugural column for a series called Vinyl Analysis. The purpose of this column will be to offer a hypothesis about an event in the history of popular music. While these analyses may apply to any genre or era, most will focus on the history and development of heavy metal. They will focus on some sort of turning point. These arguments will generally seek to add to the record rather than overturn it. The overall purpose will be to offer something to think about. At least for the moment, these columns will neither seek to identify these turning points chronologically from the beginning nor suggest a comprehensive treatment of any given issue. It’s not about knowing it all; it’s about finding some more of it. (VL)
The subject of this inaugural column will be the 1974 album Phenomenon, the third studio outing by British heavy metal band UFO, released on the Chrysalis label and featuring vocalist Phil Mogg, guitar virtuoso Michael Schenker, pioneering bassist Pete Way, and drummer Andy Parker. As the band’s name may suggest, UFO began with a “space rock” ethos. But many of the songs on the album here under examination mark a sudden and definitive change of direction toward a heavier, edgier sound. The track listing is as follows:
- Oh My
- Crystal Light
- Doctor Doctor
- Space Child
- Rock Bottom
- Too Young to Know
- Time on My Hands
- Built for Comfort
- Lipstick Traces
- Queen of the Deep
In fact, this shift in ethos has more profound ramifications than a mere change in direction for a single band. I will advance the hypothesis that this album pioneers numerous elements of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). This will not be the first time UFO and NWOBHM are mentioned in the same breath, but I hope to substantiate the importance of this album as a part of the development of this subgenre. The evidence for this thesis will be drawn almost entirely from the music on the album (focusing on the artifact itself will typically be the case for Vinyl Analysis).
Most people agree that Motörhead and Judas Priest pioneered NWOBHM and that Iron Maiden confirmed it. The faster tempos, heavy drumming, operatic vocals, and intricate guitar work established a new template for heavy metal. In fact, a strong argument surely exists for the UFO album Lights Out (1977) standing alongside the early work of these three bands as an early NWOBHM document.
However, I believe Phenomenon heralds NWOBHM in 1974. One hearing of the album should be enough to confirm it. While some of the music on this album (such as “Crystal Light” and “Space Child”) sustains the space rock model of the first two studio albums or conforms to other stylistic approaches (see below), the songs examined here show advances in speed, technical proficiency, and raw power that herald the NWOBHM approach. “Oh My” offers a brief, up-tempo song of the sort that would become coin of the metal realm for an opening track during the 1980s. The riffs, fills, and solo reflect the urgency of the coming subgenre. “Doctor, Doctor” opens slowly, but the bridge to the faster main riff, as well as the twin leads reprised throughout the song, sound very much like what would be heard from Iron Maiden years later. Side One ends with metal juggernaut “Rock Bottom,” which almost single-handedly sums up NWOBHM in its six-and-a-half minutes. Opening with an uncompromisingly fast riff for the time, the intensity grows exponentially as the song progresses. After a tempo change into a slower, epic passage (with lyrics actually heralding death metal), Pete Way’s driving bass line carries the song into an astonishingly intense solo section by then 19-year-old Michael Schenker. There seems little doubt that this solo is among the best of its time, and it still holds up. The legato style suggests an influence on Iron Maiden, and the sheer speed of the entire passage seems characteristic of the increased intensity that would come to distinguish the NWOBHM movement.
The first track of Side Two, “Too Young to Know,” features an opening lead characteristic of NWOBHM. Again, the tempo, driving bass line, guitar solo, and lead fills also seem typical of things to come. As the second first song, “Too Young to Know” asserts its command of Side Two in the same way as “Oh My” opens Side One. The use of similar opening songs for each side indicates planning on the album level. This is not merely a collection of songs. UFO manifestly intends to establish a shift in approach. Side Two does lean on the blues during the almost southern rock song “Time on My Hands,” “Built for Comfort”( Willie Dixon cover), and “Lipstick Traces.” “Queen of the Deep” seems to follow suit at first but then shifts to a dark, doomy riff reminiscent of early metal. The solo section of this closing song again brings the virtuosity of the NWOBHM movement to mind. The closing power metal motifs sustain the overall NWOBHM ethos.
Additionally, though less coherently elaborated than the other NWOBHM elements noted in this examination, “Space Child” and “Time on My Hands” have occasional touches of another NWOBHM staple, the power ballad. Neither song completely fits the model for the power ballads that would proliferate throughout metal during the NWOBHM/Power/Glam era, but some elements—especially the solo section in “Space Child” and the acoustic opening of “Too Much Time on My Hands”—seem to presage the elements associated with power ballads. They’re missing the crushing power-chord chorus (and seem more organic than the prefabricated, market-tinged format that would ultimately prevail), but they do create softer moments on a heavy album and perhaps even a skeletal outline for the future form.
Well, there you have it. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Many see the boundary between classic metal and NWOBHM as a mark on a timeline, a straight line between one band like Motörhead or Judas Priest or Iron Maiden and the rest of metal history, but I believe that such a line meanders through time, with one element established early here or another late to develop there. The evidence I’ve offered suggests that UFO’s Phenomenon is one of the curves forward in the line of metal demarcation.
Thanks so much for your fine attention. And remember, this is not the last word; it’s only a Vinyl Analysis.
Dr. Martin Jacobsen (Dr. Metal)-Vinyl Lair
Vinyl Analysis #1
Great post and I totally agree. I’m not even sure that their subsequent albums, great though they were, had quite that same NWOBHM feel. Phenomenon was the first UFO album I ever heard and my first thought was that it was very NWOBHM in style.
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Thanks. I’d also says that Lights Out has some NWOBHM elements, and Strangers in the Night. But Phenomenon was prior to the movement taking hold, and the seeds of the movement are surely there.
I’m also struck by UFO’s obvious love for the southern rock style. On many albums, they would have a song like that. That may be another essay…
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That’s true… and when I think about it Force It had many NWOBHM moments too. Maybe it’s the rawer production that makes Phenomenon seem a little more in that vein to me?
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That’s possible. Early Def Leppard had a spareness to it too. The Way/Schenker fusion on Phenomenon-for me-have that energy NWOBHM bands privileged. I make much of “Rock Bottom” in the piece, but “Doctor Doctor” may exhibit the sound better from a whole-song standpoint. And it’s also fair to say (but wasn’t within the scope of the piece) that UFO’s influence may have been more directly on other bands than it was on the larger audience. If Phenomenon had been a multi-platinum smash, Iron Maiden wouldn’t have seemed so new.
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