|UFO/Heavy Metal Kids|
O2 Academy, Bristol (Sun 25 Mar)
There are two things every rock trivia freak knows about the Heavy Metal Kids. First, they take their name from 'Nova Express' by William S. Burroughs and don’t actually play heavy metal. Theirs is more a snotty, punk-anticipating take on hard rock. Secondly, they've been fronted by two actors: the late Gary Holton of 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' and, erm, John Altman – aka 'Nasty' Nick Cotton from Eastenders. Phil Lewis of L.A. Guns has filled in occasionally since then, but for what must be the Heavy Metal Mature Gentlemen's first Bristol gig since the 70s, they're fronted by… well, nobody really. Guitarist Justin McConville steps up to handle lead vocals. He does his best with a voice that's made for backing vocals, but there's a conspicuous gap where the brash and gobby frontman should be. Still, it's a strong set with all the, ahem, 'hits' ('Chelsea Kids', 'She's No Angel' etc), while the none-more-punk 'Delirious' reminds us that Johnny Rotten meant what he said when he reportedly told Holton: "You've been ripped off, Gary. How does it feel?"
The international chart success of UFO's 20th studio album, 'Seven Deadly', seems to have taken everybody by surprise – not least the band themselves. But their steady return to form and consequent concert attendance boost is just another chapter in a remarkable story that really deserves to become the subject of a documentary. From swinging 60s space rockers (the name comes from the groovy London club of that era) to arguably the best hard rock act of the 70s, with one of the greatest live albums of all time ('Strangers in the Night'), to decline into alcoholism, junkiedom and ever-shrinking audiences at shambolic gigs whose only attraction was in guessing who'd fall off the stage or prove too incapable of playing – it's been a long, strange trip for Britain's most debauched rockers, who were eventually reduced to performing in front of just a few hundred people at the Bierkeller. They didn't all make it back. Just search for Pete Way on YouTube to see the current sorry state of their co-founding bass player. But while 'maturity' is a word one hesitates to use in connection with UFO, Phil Mogg has been quietly underlining his status as one of this country's most over-looked songwriters on a quartet of excellent albums beginning with 2004's 'You Are Here'. It's perhaps surprising how many of his recent downbeat lyrics address themes of mortality. 'Rock Bottom' and 'Only You Can Rock Me' these songs ain't – though obviously UFO will not be allowed to leave without playing those too.
So having pulled an all-ages audience, including nippers so young they can only have seen a sober UFO, the band drop a very welcome surprise. Rather than building the set around 'Strangers in the Night', as they have done for the last 30 years or so, they load the first half with recent material. Plenty of songs from 'Seven Deadly' get an airing, including the bracingly hard rocking 'Fight Night' and surprisingly vitriolic standout track, 'Burn Your House Down'. Even 'Venus' from the mediocre 'Walk on Water' album sounds reinvigorated. Unlike, say, David Coverdale, whose voice has been reduced to a rasp in recent years, Mogg's increasingly sonorous vocals sound richer and deeper than ever, while guitar whizzkid Vinnie Moore has been assimilated into UFO far more effectively than Steve Vai ever was into Whitesnake. The big crowd-pleasers inevitably follow. "We're going to bugger off after this one," announces Mogg, his between-song digressions sounding, as a pal rightly points out, remarkably like Bill Nighy (they're almost the same age, fact fans). But they've got to do 'Doctor Doctor' and 'Shoot Shoot' yet. It's the law. "For a moment then, I thought [drummer Andy] Parker was going to get the drugs out," Mogg quips before the encore, adding wistfully: "I suppose those days are gone for good now." (Robin Askew)
Copyright Robin Askew 2012