Interview and Photos: Adrian Hextall
London, early morning, coffee and a chat with one Michael Schenker. Love him or cross the road to avoid him, there’s no denying that he is one of THE guitarists to define the rock music scene over the last 40 years. His playing has graced albums from Scorpions, UFO and of course his own MSG.
Lately, a spark of genius has seen him pull all of his MSG vocalists together and perform as Michael Schenker Fest. A second album Revelation is out now and we thought we’d have a chat with Michael about it. We managed about 10 minutes before heading off course into a hurricane, with Michael providing some insight into his colorful past…..
AH: If we could start straight with the new album, and specifically the single, very autobiographical it seems with the lyrics.
MS: Yeah. And it wasn’t my idea to write about myself. But Michael Voss was a Michael Schenker fan, ’80s fan, Graham Bonnet fan, Gary Barden fan.
He is the one that knows everything about us. And I always say he is the man for the job anyway, for Michael Schenker Fest.
I started to know him through Gary Bardon when we split up. Gary Barden thinks of Michael Voss. And then when I did my first Temple of Rock Albuis always inspired. I think he’s already singing in his head as I’m playing and he’s already doing his thing, his work, you know? How can you be that ready, coming in the next morning to go through it all?
AH: He must hear something in your music?
MS: He gets inspired on the spot. He is very good at that. And so, I decided that four songs needed to be done with all singers this time. And we ended up with three, but Rock Steady was actually a song, that almost didn’t make it on the album because it was quite different in the beginning.
I thought, wait a minute this is not Michael Schenker at all, and I kind of kicked things out. I think the lyrics were not exactly the same at the time either. But Michael readjusted things too. So sometimes it can happen. One of the reasons why I thought maybe it won’t make it on the album was because somewhat my filing system went to 14 or 13 years old and there was a bit Rolling Stones type of thing going on, I thought maybe I should invite Ronnie Wood because I wanted to have guests on this album.
Ronnie Wood — He is a Michael Schenker fan. He introduced his whole family and friends to me 10 minutes before I did Hammersmith in the early 80’s. He came in my dressing room and said, “Hey, Michael. Here is so and so. Let me introduce you to my family and everybody.” I was like, “What’s going on here?” And he went out and signed autographs and told people that he is a friend of Michael Schenker. It was incredible. I met him again when I got the awards, he was there, and everybody was there. I kind of actually joking a little bit about it, like Mike Santoro also lives in Barcelona and so does Ron. And I said to Santoro “just knock on his door and ask.” We have this piece of music that is very suitable for him and bring Mick Jagger with you, with him! [laughs]
MS: But then Ted McKenna died, you know? And we scrapped all the guest musician ideas and so we carried on that song. It’s kind of psychedelic. The psychedelic parts became a little bit more psychedelic. I put the slide guitar in, we kicked some of the bulk of the vocals sounds. There was some stuff that didn’t make sense.
MS: Plus, the song didn’t sit right, but eventually it developed into, “Wow, this is a fantastic song.” It has that party thing where everybody wants to sing with it?
Even I do it, you know, “Hands up– [singing]” it’s really good, actually. It grows on you, actually. Some people who are real hardcore Michael Schenker fans will think ‘what is this?’, but I bet you they will get it eventually.
It will grow on them, you know, and the good thing is that because there’s a psychedelic part in there, and that is also quite a sophisticated solo, or whatever you want to call it, that balances it all out. It kind of sums it all up in my life to the point where I end up working with Michael Voss. Of course, I knew immediately when the song spoke of a rock star with a guitar in his hand that was about me. I didn’t follow the rest of the lyrics because I never do. But that’s what Michael Voss did. It was actually pretty clever that he did that. Because in the midst of Michael Schenker Fest, and he is a fan, I think he imagined me. I mean I don’t know what the lyrics really say. But I think it’s from the perspective of Michael Voss, what he imagines how my life has gone.
AH: From a teenager to now.
MS: Yeah, from his point of view, how he thinks it would have happened to him, and so some words I catch, like, “we got to have faith” and stuff like that. So he kind of tried to get inside me. And think of what does it take to be so patient and keep going? And regardless of the disco– of being surrounded by disco music, and trends and stuff like that, you know?
AH: Stick to the art.
MS: Just stick to your vision, and what you love doing, you know?
And actually, Nuclear Blast. I picked that song as the first single. And the head of Nuclear Blast, Markus Staiger, he sent me personal email said that “I’m in love with this album.” I mean, that was great. And then Simon Phillips when he did his drum parts, he sent a message to Michael Voss saying, “Tell Michael Schenker he is so fucking great.”
AH: Quite right too. And now the one thing I actually wrote down, because of the way you’ve got the first single, this track feels like it could be the opening song on Schenker The Musical.
MS: Absolutely. Because it’s an introduction. After that, some work on the Mad Axeman and the development of MSG.
I think many people actually have written about me when they joined the bench. I just assumed, because Robin [McAuley], sometimes he comes to me on stage as if he is trying to give me a hint, “This is about you.”, but I never asked him, you know?
AH: Could well be, I like that. Now, of course, the list of singers that you have when you’re performing on the album as well. It does actually read like somebody’s dream list of singers they would have wanted to work with throughout the years. Either your choice of vocalists is second to none, or the stars have aligned at the right times. because it is some list, isn’t it?
MS: I was looking for an unknown singer, of course, not for a rubbish singer, when I left the scene after [UFO’s] Strangers in the Night, when I had tasted enough fame and then made the decision to get out of the limelight. Be a bit more experimental with my music, not under pressure, write when I want to write, record when I want to record. But Peter Mensch was the one that kept it alive. He kept me in the scene for another 10 years. He wanted me to make a record with Mutt Lange. And I said, “No, I don’t want to sound like AC/DC” and stuff like that. Even though we played AC/DC’s Highway to Hell to open our live show.
[Pauses] So I was looking for an unknown singer. I wanted to be out the spotlight, I haven’t found somebody easy going, no ego, no famous big voice kind of guy and Peter Mensch found this tape with Gary [Barden] singing on it. And I was very happy with that low voice, bluesy, warm vibrato and feeling, really great. He didn’t sing very well on the Built To Destroy, but that was my fault. I pushed him high. I pushed him out of his range. Out of his good part, I actually pushed him into the bad. It was a really bad choice. I take the blame for that. But Gary has a beautiful voice in the mid-range, it’s just fantastic.
And then Peter Mensch wanted just what I didn’t want, like somebody who was already famous with a brilliant voice and really insisted on having David Coverdale. And Coverdale and I actually had already sat together because Peter wanted me to move into his house. He wanted to manage me. I lived there [with Mensch] for three years or two years.
And so [Peter] wanted me to have Coverdale. I know that Coverdale wanted Chris Glenn [bass] as well. And I said, “I’m not gonna ask Coverdale to join MSG. And so, I said “I go with Graham Bonnet in that case” and, but Peter didn’t like the idea with Graham Bonnet. So, we had a very big difference of opinion and so that’s actually when we split up, Peter Mensch and I.
But we got Graham and Cozy [Powell] was still in the band. And then at that period………
Michael pauses at this point, trying to consider the question we left behind (about the new album and lead track) and says, in a deluge of past memories that then start to flood out like a fractured dam wall:
MS: The interviews are great because it reminds me of things I never really thought about for some years. At that point in time. I got asked by Ozzy Osbourne and by David Coverdale, indirectly, for Peter Mensch. And we had Graham Bonnet, and we started Assault Attack. So all of that happened at the same time. So when Ozzy asked me to join him, Cozy said, “You can’t do that we’re doing Assault Attack now and we are blah blah blah.” Then David Coverdale thing came about and somehow at the end, the person who said you can’t do that. He actually, I think he got approached by David Coverdale from behind like, “Hey come on Cozy join Whitesnake.” And so I think he joined Whitesnake and so we’ve got Ted McKenna in. And the thing with Ozzy is like, I was tempted to do it. But I have to remember the times why did I just leave UFO? I could have just carried on with UFO would have been the biggest band in the world. One of the biggest bands in the world or help the Scorpions get to the same level that would have easily been achieved too.
So why should I join Ozzy? I just made a conscious decision to go low key.
MS: So I had to figure out how to actually sabotage myself to make that temptation become not a temptation. So I just said to myself, “Just ask for the impossible he will say.” You know?
MS: And I did.
AH: And he did.
MS: And that was it. Done.
AH: And it made it a lot it easier.
MS: Yeah, it made it a lot easier. And so we carried on with Graham and then of course. It was a musician’s favourite, Assault Attack with Martin Birch who was the main producer. In the meantime, we also got the silver disc for the Budokan Album. And then we had to get Gary back, then we did Built to Destroy, self-produced. Actually it is a very big album in Japan but probably because of the melodies. The melodies were good but I pushed Gary too high. It’s just a shame that that happened that way.
AH: And then, of course, you got to Robin as well?
MS: Yeah. And then I wanted– and then we kind of– things kind of ended. And then I wanted to experiment with a 50/50 partnership. I never had that experience. Robin was the best voice that was available during the auditions and it somehow–
AH: And the name fits.
MS: I discovered the M “McAuley” wait a minute, we don’t even have to look for a new name, you know?” If I’m willing to put Robin first, and is Robin okay with being first, which I doubt that he had a problem with that.
MS: So, we called it McAuley Schenker Group, that way we can keep MSG, and so we did.
When we did the Japan Tour, I recall the promoter asking if we would be okay with having Graham Bonnet as the opening band, and then sing with us. That’s when it clicked… “I have performed the most popular music of Michael Schenker with all these different singers, but not with the originals together.”
So we called up everybody and they were happy to do it, the musicians too. Everybody was happy to do it. I realized, much later, I had so many lineups, which was based on, I had to let people go because the decision I made was not a money-making situation. I was always experimenting.
AH: Yeah. But if you hadn’t experimented, hadn’t left UFO, if you hadn’t left Scorpions, we’d have never ended up with these MSG albums presumably.
MS: Yeah. Exactly. And if I would have stayed with them — who knows if I would still be alive. Yeah. Anyway, we are here based on all the choices that were made. Remember, I jump-started UFO twice, we took them from a psychedelic band into a rock band, and then I jump-started them with [1995’s] Walk on Water when Phil [Mogg] had completely destroyed UFO and was begging me to help him refuel them.
And I had an MSG deal from Japan a really big one. And I turned that into a UFO deal. I said, “Okay, I’ll help you Phil, but to make sure you’re not gonna be destroying UFO again, I take 50% of the name.” And he agreed with that.
Because that was the chemistry and we did. But once everything was done — He was so sick, and he had paranoia, he thought people were trying to attack him and stuff, he was really, really, really low. But I lifted him out of that with my help and he was looking really well again, and he was very healthy. Everybody was happy in the studio. And then we went on the road and… after three months, he started wanting to control everything again. And so we went like this “in and out, in and out in and out” until 2000. I was so annoyed and I wanted to show the band that “why is everybody relying on me, everybody can do what they want, screw around. But if I screw around, everything falls apart.” And I wanted to demonstrate that, I did, I started to screw around. It was a stupid thing to do. But I didn’t know what else to do because I was very angry with Pete that he was doing all of this dampening my strength coming so close, obnoxious, totally– without—I was totally stupid at that point, uncontrollable………
AH: And then the people that will suffer are the fans that are at the affected shows..
MS: Yeah, terrible. And then, in 2002, I get a phone call from Phil Mogg, “I need the band name back, I need to work, I need to earn money”. And I said like, “Okay, Phil, I’m done with UFO you can have to name back for free.” He’s now a proud owner, again, of a brand name that I created, you know? The same with the Scorpions. And so what my point is, I’m happy. Phil should be happy. Scorpions should be happy because it all worked out perfectly.
But what they don’t see is they [The Scorpions] looked at me as a sabotage person, as if I wanted it all for myself. Quite the opposite. I wanted to be out. Many people were so angry with me in my middle years because they wanted to work with me, but I wasn’t interested. The people got very annoyed and angry. “If I can’t have him, nobody will”, they tried to trash me, slander. They made up false stories. My brother [Rudolf] was asking me if he can have ‘Coast to Coast’ all for himself. Okay. I said, Okay, I’ll give it to you as a present. Can I use your black and white Flying V guitar design? Why does he want to be me? Why does he want my image? “Okay, go ahead”. Then he dyes his hair blonde. His name is Schenker. I didn’t join the Scorpions after Lovedrive. And America was so excited to have them come over, then they left my picture out. I had a contract with them as the sixth-member for the album……, breach of contract. So, by leaving my name– my face out, Rudolf was able to fabricate an appearance over there as if nobody is missing.
AH: As if it was you.
MS: Nobody is missing. Nobody’s missing. The black and white guitars is there. He’s playing Coast to Coast, no name of Michael Schenker being the writer. He’s playing the Introduction of Holiday, no name, that I wrote the Introduction of Holiday. So, it was all his. And he used that for the next 30 years or whatever, decades. So basically, I knew he needed that success. But I don’t really like that he did that sneakily, because he also distorted my image especially in the Chinese market, and that came much later. So, years later, they probably don’t even know who I am, because of the distortion. They have no clue, they think it’s all Rudolf and Russia came in 30 years later, but I’m telling the story now. I suppose my main message is that I made the decision not to be there. I should have no problem but I supported Rudolf’s success because I only found out about these things in 2015. When I left the scene, I never looked back, I never followed anything, I never looked if there was a picture. I wasn’t interested, I had so much– I had a real big hustle, getting away from the Scorpions. I played with UFO and I wrote the first hit in America with Lights Out. It became the first hit for UFO in 1976 when I was 21, in the United States. And so then Only You Can Walk Me was the next one and then we did Strangers in the Night. The Scorpions were doing very well, they wanted me to join them, but I didn’t. And they were so disappointed, they were forced to lie and make a fabrication about me. Rudolf had free reign in the US until 2015 when I recognized what really happened. I discovered all of it– credit and this song Coast to Coast I gave my brother is a present, and this is all not right. And they insisted that “Holiday was my song.” And they insisted on all of these things. I said “forget it guys, you know, do your own thing. I’m not interested”, you know? I did think …”you sneaky little–” But the main thing is, though, I am happy for Rudolf that he achieved what he so desperately wanted. You know, I’m six and a half years younger than him. I never wanted. I never asked for success. I never asked for anything. I never expected anything. I didn’t compete with anybody. Nothing. I just had fun playing music and I mean playing guitar. And when I ended up with Strangers In The Night, people actually started to say to me, “Michael Schenker is God” and I had no clue what was going on. In ’91 Rudolf calls me up from America and says, “Michael, they all play your guitar style here in the states, this is unbelievable.” And so that’s how I slowly started. I developed all of this unconsciously, I had no clue but I understand today why that happened because I paved the path for Rudolf. And I didn’t need that I designed something in the 70’s that was used in the 80’s. I’m hanging off everybody’s Platinum albums than anybody because they all used what I designed in the 70’s. Most of them……………………
AH: It’s got to be a nice feeling, isn’t it?
MS: Many of them. Yeah, of course, today puzzle all make sense. I see a picture and then because it took Klaus and Rudolf until they were 33 years old to play in the States for the first time. I played in the States for the first time when I was 19. And I’m six and a half years younger than him. So he is the older brother, it must have been pretty frustrating for him. That’s what he wanted, and I had it when I’d never wanted it, you know?
A fascinating insight into the mind and history of Michael Schenker. His new album, Revelation contains tracks with all of his former vocalists and sees Ronnie Romero just the ranks of the amazing singers Schenker has worked with over the years. Is he a God? Well, the album cover contains a painting of Michael being crucified on his signature Flying V guitar…. you decide.
1. Rock Steady (feat. Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley & Doogie White)
2. Under a Blood Red Sky (feat. Doogie White)
3. Silent Again (feat. Robin McAuley)
4. Sleeping with the Light on (feat. Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley & Doogie White)
5. The Beast in the Shadows (feat. Graham Bonnet)
6. Behind the Smile (feat. Doogie White)
7. Crazy Daze (feat. Gary Barden)
8. Lead You Astray (feat. Robin McAuley)
9. We Are the Voice (feat. Ronnie Romero)
10. Headed for the Sun (feat. Gary Barden)
11. Old Man (feat. Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley & Doogie White)
12. Still in the Fight (feat. Graham Bonnet)
14. Armed and Ready (Live)
15. Bad Boys (Live)
16. Rock Bottom (Live)