The Agit Reader

UFO and Saxon
Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia, September 26

October 10th, 2017  |  by Brian O'Neill

Less than two miles away, legendary post-punks Wire were in town. This created quite the conundrum for maybe nobody but me, having grown up on a steady diet of anything loud and riffy. It was a somewhat agonizing choice but the decision was made in pure Spinal Tap fashion: there was one more. Classic band, that is.

The reference is apt for Saxon (pictured top), as director Rob Reiner, considering the early NWOBHM stalwarts quintessential metal lifers, joined the band on the road while researching the flick. The debauchery he saw and the stories he heard all found their way into the infamous mockumetary. Yes, that includes the cucumber-as-trouser-snake scene that was modified for the big screen.

It’s 2017 and we’re a few decades past, yet Saxon are still consummate purveyors of all things that rock. Mini drum solo? Checked off during “This Town Rocks,” the second song. Seemingly earnest appeals to the local populace? Check. Vocalist Biff Byford name-dropped “hoagies” and wistfully recalled playing the Spectrum. The arena was torn down years ago, so the band persevered in the more “intimate setting,” as he called the Theatre of Living Arts.

An all-killer, no-filler hour-plus wall of solid rock spanning the nearly three-decade history of the band? Check. Biff handled the usual cries of song titles from the crowd by offering choices, which meant that we heard “Heavy Metal Thunder” instead of “Motorcycle Man” because of the crowd’s full-throated vote. And then he literally ate the playlist when he heard cries for a song that wasn’t on it. “Strong Arm of the Law” was what the audience wanted, so that’s what we got.

He also declared it Friday (it was actually the very un–rock & roll day of the week Tuesday) so nobody had to go to work tomorrow, which is the most metal excuse you could ever give your boss for calling off after rocking out.

UFO (pictured above) doesn’t have to worry about making up excuses to get out of work anymore having reached retirement age. The two original members anyway; drummer Andy Parker is 65 and frontman Phil Moog is pushing seventy.

Moog did make some concessions to age. It would be impossible not to. Dressed head to toe in black, he looks like a kindly vicar you might see feeding birds in Hyde Park. Newer songs from the last studio release, 2015’s A Conspiracy of Stars, didn’t match the speed and fury of the material from the band’s heyday that still gets classic rock airplay, but even the hits were more lumbering and deliberate than the original recordings that got Judas Priest to stop listening to Wishbone Ash and invent modern metal.

What remained, though, was that voice, as powerful and distinctive as ever, the one facet of the show seemingly impervious to the effects of time. The chugging chorus of “Lights Out,” from the band’s 1977 album of the same name that gave the original punks something truly epic to rebel against, was as exhilarating as power ballad blueprint “Love to Love” was supple.

More than any other classic pre-metal band—even the mighty Sabbath—UFO was the biggest influence on thrash metal. This was mostly because of guitarist Michael Schenker, who used riffs as the building blocks for whole songs. His replacement, neoclassical six-string slinger Vinnie Moore, has actually been in the band about as long as Schenker spent with them, having continuous service since 2003. He is talented enough to make it all look and sound effortless. His treatment of Schenker’s material was reverent with the exception of the exceedingly long solo played during “Rock Bottom.” He overtook the whole middle section of the song with his modern theatrical axe-slinging, showing off all of his skills and making the Guitar World readership in the crowd drool on their shoes. That track and encore “Doctor Doctor” both exemplified what Metallica (and every other young metaller) looked up to in the early 80s. It’s the riffs, pure and simple. And the slower renderings of the tracks gave them an even more sinister edge. It’s fair to say UFO has lost a step, but they never lost the plot and it looks like they never will, God bless ‘em.

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