Songwriter Interviews

Michael Schenker

by Greg Prato

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First hitting the rock scene in the early '70s as a member of the Scorpions (his brother is Scorps' rhythm guitarist Rudolph Schenker), it was as a member of UFO that the German-born Schenker truly came to worldwide attention, on the strength of such classic recordings as Lights Out, Obsession, and Strangers in the Night (the latter often considered as one of the '70s top live rock albums), and the anthems "Doctor Doctor," "Rock Bottom," and "Lights Out."

Since 1980, he has been the leader of his own group, the Michael Schenker Group (aka MSG), which has issued countless recordings subsequently, including 2014's Bridge the Gap, which saw the guitarist reunite the Scorpions' former rhythm section of bassist Francis Buchholz and drummer Herman Rarebell, marking the first time all three have played together on a recording since the 1979 album, Lovedrive.

Schenker has described his guitar sound as a search for a tone that is "meat without the bone." It's a sound that earned him such acclaim that Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne and The Rolling Stones all courted him (a factor in turning down the Stones gig: lice - read on).

Underrated as a songwriter, Michael co-wrote most of the UFO material when he was a member, and has continued doing so with MSG. He spoke with us about his songcraft, memories of those audition invitations, and if he really once played a song with his feet.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start off by talking about the new album, Bridge the Gap.

Michael Schenker: Okay. One thing leads to another, and in 2010, I was playing in a concert at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London and Pete Way from UFO showed up, and Herman Rarebell from the Scorpions. Herman told us where he was living and invited us over. We showed up together jamming some old stuff that we have done. I wanted to play Strangers in the Night material, which I hadn't done for a long time.

Michael Voss is is the longtime singer/guitarist of the German band Mad Max (and has worked with such other groups as Casanova and Silver). And Voss obviously knows his way around the recording studio as well, as he has served as an engineer for several artists, including releases by Schenker (Bridge the Gap), ex-MSG singer Gary Barden (Eleventh Hour), and Costancia (Lost & Gone), among others.
So I did a demo and went to Germany simultaneously and bumped into Michael Voss and he was the engineer. I asked him to help with the vocals, and I realized he was able to sing. I asked him if he wanted to do the album, if we could actually cut his vocals. That's how that whole thing came about, and then that album became Temple of Rock. Pete Way heard it, Herman heard it, and they wanted to do the rhythm section.

Then we had William Shatner doing the intro on that album. I had lots of musicians from the past and additional great ones on there.

So by the time I wanted to tour, Michael Voss was signed to a solo deal, so I had to figure out what to do. I also have Robin McAuley and Doogie White singing on that album, so I asked Robin to help me out in the States. Michael Voss was available for Japan, and Doogie White was available for Europe.

When we started the European part, Pete Way didn't do too well [health-wise]. So I asked Herman to ask Francis what he was up to, because we play lots of Scorpions songs - it would be great to have as many original Scorpions as possible. And Francis was more than happy to join.

And immediately, it started off great. The chemistry was great. Really, a lot of joy in playing together. And the audience was incredible. We were getting stronger and stronger every week. At some point I thought, "Whoa, I'd better capture this on DVD before something happens." So I arranged a video shoot and we decided on Tilburg [in the Netherlands, which resulted in the release of the Temple of Rock: Live In Europe DVD], which was most suitable and convenient for everybody that fitted into the writing.

But still, we carried on touring. People requested more and more. More and more offers were coming in, and it became so much that we had to add the second leg of the European tour. So the first leg finished in 2012 around September, and then the beginning of the second leg was not until the first of April in 2013. So we had six months.

I asked everybody, "Hey, why don't we make a record?" And everybody thought it was a great idea. I started writing, and by the end of the year I had enough material for Doogie. I gave him the stuff that I had written, and I already knew the album title, Bridge the Gap. Because Francis and I last did Lovedrive together - that was with the Scorpions. And now we were doing a second album after all these years, so it was like bridging the gap, bridging the past with the now.

I said to Doogie, "Think 'bridge the gap,' and think melodic." He went off and started writing. I went into the studio and we put on all the arrangements. We rented a special studio for drums and then we got the bass done, and then Wayne Findlay did strings and keyboards. Then it was time for Doogie.

We hooked up together - Doogie and Michael Voss and myself - and we collectively selected the best ideas that Doogie came up with and put it all in shape, and the album was basically done by the 31st of March.

And on the 4th, we already had the first show in Russia. So the problem was that the album was not going to be released until many months later, which was a very awkward situation. I've never had that happen to me before. So I decided to basically put the album away and not have anybody listen to it, because it would maybe be interfering with the touring modes.

I didn't want to have to discuss the album while we were touring, so I just decided to focus on touring. By the time the tour was finished, I decided to play to everybody. The good thing about it was that we all had fresh ears - we immediately knew what we could do better. We added stuff to it, we remixed it, we remastered it. And it got that much better.

Then it was time for the release.

Songfacts: How do you find that you write your best songs?

Schenker: I just do it the same way over and over. I love to play. I play and discover on a regular basis, so when I bump into a great piece of something that I think, "Wow, I should capture that" - and it's usually just 5 seconds, 10 seconds long - I'll put it on the cassette recorder in its raw form and I'll just leave it there. When it's time to make a new record, I listen to what I have selected, and then that inspires me to write the additional parts to it.

So I never really know what the song is going to be until the album's finished. On this album in particular, I was looking for more of a balance: Not too many mid tempos, but enough fast songs and many different elements in it that keep it going and keep it interesting.

It's like putting a puzzle together and never really knowing what comes out at the end.

Songfacts: How did the songwriting work in the band UFO? Was it more of a collaboration?

Schenker: Well, when I joined UFO, they were a psychedelic band. They were playing very different music. But I was attracted to them being British, since that's where the music that I fell in love with came from: Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Johnny Winter. Well, Johnny Winter was American, but a lot of the music that we were listening to at that point in time when I was 15 years old was coming from there.

When I toured with UFO and Scorpions, the guitarist from UFO lost his passport, so in order to continue the tour, I had to play for both bands. That was when I was 16 years old. I opened up with the Scorpions and then I played with UFO for a couple of days. And that's when they asked me to join them.

"Euro-disco" swept Germany during the 1970s, as evidenced by the success of Boney M., Dschinghis Khan, and Silver Convention. And it turns out that Boney M. was a band created by Frank Farian. Does Mr. Farian's name sound familiar? That is probably because he was also the "mastermind" behind the phantom singing sensation, Milli Vanilli.
I always told the Scorpions that if a British band would ever ask me, I would go just to get to a country where there was the interest for rock & roll. In Germany it was dead. It was disco music and it wasn't very interesting what I was doing. So I was more than happy to go over there. They invited me over and I took the offer.

When I got there I just laid down a riff and another one and another one, and Phil [Mogg] did his vocals to it and it just became a totally different band based on the pieces that I gave them, which every song was built on. I wrote that way right from the beginning, and it's still how I write today.

But because I had just joined them, we were more in the mode of making a record, touring, making a record, touring, making a record, touring. Because we were doing everything in the short amount of time, we spent a lot of time at the rehearsal studio.

Some very early songs, like "Rock Bottom," were very spontaneous. We were just sitting there looking for an additional song, and when I played "Rock Bottom," the riff, that's when Phil jumped up and said, "That's it! That's it!" So we started putting it together and putting it into form.

But in general, I would always come up with some riffs, give it to the singer and he would find something, too. Then we'd go into the rehearsal studio and work on it. That's basically how we used to write.

Songfacts: You just mentioned the song "Rock Bottom," which I was always a big fan of. The studio version and the live version are a bit different, as the live version had a long jam section. How did that come about?

Schenker: Well, "Rock Bottom" has that piece in the middle of free expression, and it's perfect for me because I love pure self-expression. It's a really, really good part to play over that particular chord there, and it leaves a lot of space to come up with a whole bunch of creative ideas. Over the years, the solos have changed. I keep the basic structure of it, but there is a lot of space to put new "sparks" on here and there and keep it fresh.

It's always enjoyable to play over and over and over, because I can be very creative with it on the spot. That's a very fascinating, enjoyable part of music for me.

Songfacts: Another favorite UFO song of mine is the song "Lights Out." Was that song pretty much the same, that you came up with the riff first and then it was a collaboration?

Schenker: Well, on songs like "Only You Can Rock Me" or "Lights Out," Pete Way would come up with (guitar sounds - play the clip to hear), and that was it. Then I get inspired by that and find the additional parts. Or in the other song, that kind of happened quite a few times, too, that Pete came up with, like, "Only You Can Rock Me," for instance (guitar sounds). But that was it. And then I added all the other pieces to it.
So that is also a way of writing. It's a combination based on the circumstances and on the moment. But there was no particular strategy of how to do it. It's just like, "Who has got something? What is it?"

If it was complete or just a riff or anything that sounds good or inspiring, we had enough people in the band that would create additional parts to it. Like, Paul Raymond is a very good songwriter himself, so he would also come up with stuff. I think most of his songs were complete. Most of Pete Way's were just riffs. They needed additional ideas. And my stuff usually would be a riff and a bridge and a chorus, but not necessarily a complete, ready song.

Songfacts: Is it true that the UFO song, "Lipstick Traces," you played that whole song with your feet?

Schenker: I was about 18 years old and I don't know why I was thinking or what I was thinking. I don't know. Maybe I was thinking, "I wonder if I can play with my feet?" And so I was just wondering if it was possible. [Laughing] So I started playing "Lipstick Traces" with my feet, and I went, "Wow, it is possible." I played it to Andy.

But then I decided, "I think it's better if I just focus on playing it with my fingers. It's easier." [Laughs]

Songfacts: So the actual studio version is you playing with your fingers, right?

Schenker: Absolutely. Yeah.

Songfacts: I'm glad that I had the opportunity tonight to ask you that, because I've always been curious about that, if you were playing with your feet or your fingers!

Schenker: Yeah. I didn't in the studio, no, no. The studio was with my hands. It was an experiment.

One of Schenker's most underrated solo efforts is 1982's Assault Attack. The dearth of accolades is not due to the quality of the material (as evidenced by such stand out tracks as "Dancer," "Desert Song," and the title track), but rather, as Schenker explains, because the album was not properly supported by a tour - singer Graham Bonnet exited the band after a single performance. MSG then welcomed back the man that Bonnet had replaced, Gary Barden, who would remain with the band for two more albums - Built to Destroy and Rock Will Never Die - before he exited as well (and later rejoined in 2008).
Songfacts: I've always thought that one of your must underrated solo records was the album Assault Attack. What are some memories of working on that album?

Schenker: Well, Assault Attack was basically the time after Gary Barden. Peter Mensch was managing me. He suggested I should have a different singer, so that's what he confronted me with. And so, who? He came up with David Coverdale and Graham Bonnet. And I decided Graham Bonnet. I think also it had to do with Cozy Powell, because he had joined the band, too, and maybe he would prefer to have a different singer.

So somehow we ended up with Graham Bonnet and we did the recording with Martin Birch, who was doing Iron Maiden at the time.

When we had our first concert in Sheffield, Graham got kind of... weird. And that was it. It was like 15 minutes of life with Graham Bonnet, and that was the end.

And then two days later we had a concert in Reading, a headliner at a festival, and we asked Gary to help out. So then I carried on with Gary and I kind of slipped from Peter Mensch, and then I did a last album with Gary in '83, Built to Destroy, and Gary was actually not doing very well anymore. And then Chris Glen, the bass player, he kind of disappeared. I said to myself, "It was time for something new."

Songfacts: I recently interviewed Graham Bonnet, and he expressed hope that one day you and he would work together on some new music together.

Schenker: Oh, yeah. You know what, it would be interesting to see if we can put something together live, because Assault Attack never got toured. It was an idea if Graham was well enough and the opportunity and the moment in time would allow something like that to happen, it would maybe be a creative thing to do. But at this point we never quite got to it.

Songfacts: I would love to hear those songs performed live with Graham singing.

Schenker: Yeah. But we haven't gotten to it actually being possible yet.

Songfacts: Is it true that you were asked to try out for the Rolling Stones back in the '70s?

Schenker: Yeah. When UFO invited me, I came over. I was only over in England for a few months and then I get a phone call from someone asking me to audition for The Rolling Stones. I was very, very scared. [Laughing] I called my brother and told him and said to him, "What shall I do?" I was very nervous about it. I never called back and I left it.

I had joined UFO, I'm 17 and very shy and very sensitive in a country without any knowledge of English. It was quite a big step already. So when that came my way, I remembered images of The Stones in the paper. First of all, Brian Jones had just died. And then I saw pictures of The Stones looking at each others' lice. I mean, like, in the hair, looking for lice! The whole image that The Rolling Stones had, I was scared that it was a dangerous thing to be with them.

UFO and Great Britain was a step that was big enough at that point in time.

As explained in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, the state of 'Smith in 1979 was quite dire. Guitarist Joe Perry had left the band, and Steven Tyler's drug abuse was out of control, leading to a bad case of writer's block. Eventually, Jimmy Crespo took Perry's place, and soon after, Rick Dufay replaced the group's other guitarist, Brad Whitford. This left Tyler, bassist Tom Hamilton, and drummer Joey Kramer as the only original members left in attendance. By 1984, Perry and Whitford rejoined and have remained with the band ever since.
Songfacts: Did you also try out for Aerosmith a few years after that?

Schenker: Yeah. That was when I was finished with UFO and Peter Mensch started managing me. They flew me to New York just to see what the Aerosmith situation would be like, with Joe Perry not being there.

I went there, but we never really got to play, because Steven Tyler wasn't in any good shape. I was sitting for five days in a hotel, waiting. I wasn't in the best shape myself, and so it never really got to anything, other than when I started my first songs for the first MSG album [The Michael Schenker Group], I actually went in with Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton after that time, because Steven Tyler went to a hospital and he disappeared. I was getting ready for a solo album, and Joey Kramer and Tommy Hamilton, they wanted to do the rhythm section. So I went to Boston and we started to rehearse, and then Steven Tyler got better and they started Aerosmith.

Then I got my next lineup with Denny Carmassi on drums and Billy Sheehan on bass. That lasted for a month. I almost got Geddy Lee and Neil Peart to help me out on that - we talked about it and they almost did it. We knew each other from the UFO days. We toured a lot together. And then I ended up with Mo Foster and Simon Phillips, who was with Jeff Beck.

Songfacts: How close did you come to joining Ozzy Osbourne's band after Randy Rhoads' death?

After Schenker decided to opt out of his tryouts for Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Ozzy, all three acts managed to find suitable replacements and carry on. For the Stones, it was Ron Wood. For Aerosmith, it was Jimmy Crespo. And for Ozzy, it was Bernie Tormé (who was soon replaced by Brad Gillis).
Schenker: That was around '81. Graham Bonnet just came over and we started writing and doing things, and then I get a phone call in the middle of the night from a very devastated Ozzy Osbourne telling me what happened [Rhoads was killed in an airplane accident, on March 19, 1982]. I said, "Okay, it's the middle of the night. I'll let you know, but I have to speak to Peter Mensch" and so on. And then I had to look... I was tempted to do that, but at the same time I was in the middle of doing Assault Attack and it was going to be the second album with Cozy Powell. We were getting ready, and I had to look at my situation.

Then I heard some crazy stories about Ozzy dragging people across the stage by their hair and stuff like that. And then some other horror stories that didn't sound too good. I was tempted to do that, but something tells me, you know what, Michael, first of all, the Scorpions, my own brother, he asked me to play, to help the Scorpions and to join them and tour with them. And I couldn't do it because I'm not made for copying people. I love to invent things, to express myself, and so my vision is a different vision. Sometimes you have to battle a little bit with your true vision and temptation.

Same with Aerosmith: It was a good thing it didn't work out, because again, I would have not enjoyed myself. I know that. At the end of the day, I said, "I can't do that." It came to the point when I stretched it for so long that I think Cozy Powell took it over and told them, "He's not going to do it." And that was that. It was a very strange situation.

April 16, 2014
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Comments: 3

  • Byron Johnston from Mazatlan Sinaloa MexicoGood info, enjoyable, inspiring.
  • Pieter from NaplesGreat sequence of coincidences- typical for Schenker and his music. I guess he just managed to live without compromises- and a truly brilliant guitarist-especially between 1978-1983.
  • Tom from LondonFascinating stuff - never knew about a lot of that! Brilliant that he's still going with so much enthusiasm. A true rock legend, a brilliant, unique guitarist as well.
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