Interview/Feature: Michael Schenker Fest LIVE in Tokyo (Interviews with Michael Schenker, Gary Barden, Robin McAuley & Ted McKenna)

By Cameron Arndt,
Tokyo show photos by and © Emili Muraki

‘You know, the Japanese people they understand the art of lead guitar playing and pure self-expression – and of course Scottish and English people understand, that’s where it comes from. There’s people all over the world who understand what I’m doing, but the commercial ‘wide mass,’ they don’t understand. But over 40-50 years I think people have been educated and they have started understanding more and more and I think they’re ready to hear something deeper and more detailed. So I’m back and that’s what I do for them’ – Michael Schenker, Feb 2017.

On March 24th, Michael Schenker releases the fantastic Live CD/DVD package ‘Michael Schenker Fest LIVE Tokyo.’ Recorded at the Tokyo International Forum in August 2016 it finds the German axeman performing a career-spanning set-list to an ecstatic crowd, packed into a top class arena. Even better is the band Schenker has put together for this project, for the Michael Schenker Fest is no ordinary show. He’s reached back in his career to the early days of the Michael Schenker Group (MSG) and brought along original singers Gary Barden and Graham Bonnet, as well as Robin McAuley from the later McAuley-Schenker Group. Not only that, the backing band includes original MSG bass player Chris Glen, early drummer Ted McKenna, and McAuley-Schenker guitarist/keyboard player Steve Mann, making for a very special line up indeed.

Read our review of the CD/DVD here!

The Idea

Michael Schenker is on good form as I talk to him on the phone a few weeks ahead of the release of the Michael Schenker Fest set. Ironically, he’s on his way to Scotland to hook up with Chris Glen and Ted McKenna for further rehearsals and is amused when I tell him that’s where I am right now.

Over the last several years he’s had great success with his Temple Of Rock project, fronted by Scots singer Doogie White, and before that joined forces again with Gary Barden for a reunion of the original MSG partnership. Something he’d never done, however, was play with all the original band members – nor had he ever toured with second MSG singer Graham Bonnet – and he explains how the idea for this ‘festival’ of his music took shape, ‘It started two years ago with the Temple Of Rock, we had a promoter in Japan who suggested having Graham Bonnet open the show for MSG and then get Graham to sing a couple of songs with us. So we did that and I realised “wait a minute, I’ve been playing my past music with different singers all these years, maybe it’s time to invite all the original singers from the 80s and do a show together!” So that’s what I did and that’s how we got to this point.’

With many past members of the group and a rich history to draw on, he had to come up with a suitable format to best represent his music, ‘I had to figure out, kind of contemplate, who would be suitable for this. It’s really nice because, by having Steve Mann there – who connects with Robin McAuley – and by having Chris and Ted – who are the original Assault Attack rhythm section with Graham Bonnet, and also the original rhythm section for MSG with Gary, after Cozy Powell, it kind of looked perfect. So that was a good start and we just went from there!’

Schenker went ahead and contacted the other musicians he had in mind, all of whom seem like they were immediately taken with the idea. In a dryly witty, but enthusiastic, exchange via email, Gary Barden describes the project, ‘Michael’s the ‘great thinker’ and has come up with a very novel idea, of getting the singers and the best ‘twins’ rhythm section together to relay his past works, up to date to now, and celebrate them.’

Robin McAuley was immediately excited at the prospect of the Schenker Fest, ‘For a number of years I’ve always done a track on different CD’s by Michael’ he tells me, speaking from his home in Las Vegas, where he currently appears in long running stage show, Raiding The Rock Vault. ‘There was always speculation that there would be a McAuley-Schenker Reunion. So, I had an email from Michael’s management company to see if I’d be interested in doing Sweden Rock last year, and they told me that the whole concept was to bring Gary and Graham, and myself, and I thought “oh my god!” you know? “When are you ever gonna get an opportunity like that!” and so I jumped at it. I’m a big fan of Graham and Gary – you have to consider the fact that I’ve been singing their songs since 1985 – so to have an opportunity to share the stage with them, and then to bring in Steve Mann from the McAuley Schenker period, and Ted and Chris. I went “oh my god, this is just the coolest idea!”’

A couple of weeks earlier, I had sat down with Ted McKenna in his favourite Italian Café in Denistoun, Glasgow. We discussed all aspects of his storied career (which we’ll feature in a full article in the near future), but particularly focused on this new project with Schenker. For him, it came as something of a surprise, ‘It was kind of out the blue really’ he admits, ‘last year I heard from him and he just said would you like to be involved because he wanted to kind of put all the original people together, and the three singers. So it was a bit of a showcase of his whole career. Which is what’s quite sellable about it, I think.’

With all of the musicians involved in various other projects, and living in different parts of the world, it wasn’t the easiest thing to put together. McKenna remembers the run-up to the show as ‘Hectic! Very hectic!’ They had very little rehearsal time before the first show, which was at the 2016 Sweden Rock Festival. A big challenge for the band was pulling together music from all the different eras, some of which they were familiar with, and others less so, ‘There was a hell of a lot to do’ McKenna continues, ‘we had to rehearse songs that Chris had played with Cozy Powell, which I then played with Michael when I joined, and then we were rehearsing songs that we’d never done live, that we recorded with Graham, and then we were doing songs that neither Chris nor I had played from Robin McAuley’s time. Initially we were rehearsing just Chris and I, and Michael, and it’s hard to rehearse tunes without a lead vocal. You can get the groove right but the arrangement is more difficult. Then Steve came over and we rehearsed with him for the day. The first gig we did was Sweden Rock, which was REALLY being thrown in at the deep end because we were playing, literally, with three new singers who’d we never played with all together.’

The show itself follows a broadly chronological progression through MSG’s history, with a few Scorpions and UFO cuts thrown in for good measure. Schenker explains why, ‘I’m combining everything because the Michael Schenker Fest means also my past, you know, all of my work. That includes UFO, Scorpions and MSG as well and so I kind of try to balance between the three things, between the stuff I want to play, and stuff from the UFO days, and make sure that I combine it in a balanced way, that it flows well.’

Robin McAuley is at pains to credit the guitarist, ‘Well it’s full marks to Michael. He put the idea together, he put the set order together. Michael thought how best to cover all three phases with three singers. So Gary usually opens, then Graham comes out for his set, then me, and then we usually close, like on the DVD, with Doctor Doctor. We usually cover the UFO stuff and then everybody’s out there together… just like a big Broadway performance!

The Original MSG ERA

Cover art from The Michael Schenker Group (1979)

Schenker founded the Michael Schenker Group in 1979 after his legendary stints in The Scorpions and UFO. He discovered singer Gary Barden after hearing a demo of the singer’s previous group, Fraser Nash, and they went on to record The Michael Schenker Group (1980), mostly with session musicians. For the second album, MSG (1981) the first full line up was in place, featuring Chris Glen, Cozy Powell, and Schenker’s old UFO colleague Paul Raymond on guitar/keys. After recording the iconic live album, One Night At Budokan (1981), Barden was briefly replaced by Graham Bonnet for the third studio album, before returning for the subsequent tour. Throughout the years since the singer and guitarist have worked together many times, notably reuniting with Glen and McKenna for the In The Midst Of Beauty album and tour in 2008.

The second album was titled simply ‘MSG’

For many, Barden is the definitive MSG singer, something that doesn’t surprise Ted McKenna, ‘Gary’s voice on the very first MSG album was incredible. He was just a natural for the band I think, the identity of the band at the time was really strong.’

Barden and Schenker hail the crowd in Tokyo in 2016.

‘It’s dead easy working with him’ McKenna continues, ‘We’ve played together so much. A lot of the situations like that you just slip back into the routine again. You know, you slip back into the person you were then. The same jokes – though I’ll leave the jokes to Chris, he always tells the same ones! So yeah, it was pretty straightforward, Gary was very enthusiastic about coming back and working with us again. I think he felt really comfortable with the old rhythm section.’

The vocalist concurs, ‘I would never change those ‘Two Scottish Bastards’ for anything! They are the ‘Ultimate’ rhythm section you can trust, and can also feel up your backside! With a few nods and winks, you’re in safe hands!’

On the DVD, Barden sings five stone-cold classic MSG numbers, and is clearly enjoying himself hugely. I wonder whether a short set like this is, however, a little frustrating, given the huge amount of material the band have recorded together and the fact there are certain tracks that ‘must’ be played. Barden doesn’t mind, ‘Schenk and I play what the fans want to hear, they’re paying good money to hear these songs.’

So are there any numbers he’s rarely played with Michael that he’d still like to do live? Sure! ‘Tales of Mystery, Looking for Love, Red Sky… oh my god, you want more? Something I can take a breath in… Gypsy Lady etc… Maybe I’d I fancy a bit Funk, Jazz and Blues along the way as well, with a bit of Mozart and Bach chucked in – which I’ve just noticed after all these years Michael actually plays, I think he was born a little too late!’

Assault Attack

Assault Attack, 1982

Former Rainbow singer, Graham Bonnet, was brought on board in 1982 and recorded the Assault Attack album with Schenker, Glen, and McKenna. A heavy, almost progressive rock masterpiece, it’s a favourite of many fans. Bonnet’s stint was short lived, however, as McKenna relates, ‘Graham left the band before we’d even started touring. We did one show, in Sheffield, which was a warm up for the Reading Festival – we were top of the bill on the Sunday – and we played this on the Friday. So Chris and I had to drive down from Sheffield to London and-‘ he knocks on the table with a wry grin, ‘”Gary… what are you doing on Sunday, you fancy playing Reading?’”

When asked about what happened with Graham, Schenker puts it succinctly, ‘He was on stage 15 minutes and then I look up and he was gone!’ Those days are long gone though and everyone’s older and wiser, ‘it’s all fun now!’ the guitarist laughs.

Graham Bonnet and Michael Schenker: Live at last!

For fans these new shows, and the ensuing DVD, are a chance to see something unique that quite easily may never have happened. Bonnet himself seems to delight in the opportunity and turns in a storming performance, ripping through the punishing title track from that lone studio album, and following up with a grand, sprawling Desert Song and exultant Dancer. The band likewise relish the opportunity. ‘I’m really happy we’re involved because – apart from anything else – we’ve got to play songs that we recorded with Graham Bonnet that we never ever played live’ McKenna confirms, ‘It was a shame that we never got the best out of what some people consider to be their favourite album, Assault Attack. I loved the production on it, loved the drum sound. Martin Birch made a great job of it. So I thought it was such a shame we never got to tour it to any extent, really.’

When asked what tracks he particularly enjoyed playing this time out, it’s the Bonnet era that figures most prominently, ‘Oh yeah! Desert Song and – we didn’t actually do it on the new CD but it’s on the Assault Attack album – Broken Promises. Most of the songs on that album were great and we might even do more of them once we settle into it. Assault Attack itself! I was just thrilled to play Assault Attack live. It was the first track we recorded, and I hadn’t played it since 1981! I thought “can I still do this?!”’ He laughs and taps out the thumping opening drumbeat on the table, confirming he very much can still do it – as if the live shows and the DVD weren’t proof enough!

The McAuley-Schenker Group

Perfect Timing: The first McAuley-Schenker Group album, 1987

For the third segment of the new show, Schenker has shifted along the MSG timeline a little, and brought in Robin McAuley. The two joined forces originally in 1987, after Schenker caught McAuley performing with his previous band, Grand Prix. Feeling that the material they were writing was very strong, the group was rechristened the McAuley Schenker Group, preserving the branding of the initials, but showing the faith they had in the new line up. The three records they released have a somewhat more commercial sound – although tracks like the pounding, epic Save Yourself, performed on the new release in spectacular fashion – highlight the hard edge to their melodic rock. Nevertheless, the band had had to move with the times, as McAuley relates, ‘A lot of people say that this is such a different phase of the MSG and I think that, what a lot of the diehard MSG fans didn’t understand, was that when we recorded the first album, it was now the hair metal 80s and MTV was the place to be. It was kind of force-fed on you, you know? But I can tell you right now that when Michael and I started writing we really were not thinking ‘this has to be top 40, MTV, this has to be this…’ we had a bunch of ideas, we had a 4 track and we’d stick down a bunch of ideas everyday.’

McAuley-Schenker, 2016

It was, however, a successful period for the band, particularly in America, and they released three albums over a five year period – there’s plenty of gems in there and it’s well worth tracking down Perfect Timing (1987), Save Yourself (1989) and M.S.G. (1992). McAuley feels there’s still plenty of interest in music from that time period, ‘I’m not surprised at all that inside the last ten years bands like MSG, from that era, are out touring and doing good business because there’s a whole bunch of new fans that just can’t get enough of the 80s type music, they just can’t – and as long as they want to hear it, we’ll keep playing it!’

On the new release, along with three McAuley Schenker tracks, McAuley sings a few UFO numbers, something which he’s always enjoyed, ‘Yeah! Who doesn’t love the UFO stuff? Strangers In The Night (1979) has got to be one of the best live albums, period. I love that band. It’s such a trip, singing UFO tunes.’ He’s equally happy to get the chance to properly play with the Glen/McKenna duo, relating his first encounter with them many years ago, ‘I’ve known Ted and Chris since my Grand Prix days and, ironically, when Grand Prix recorded the Samurai record we were actually at Inverness Studios and Ted and Chris arrived at the studio one night because MSG were thinking about recording there and they came in and… oh my god, we had so much fun with those two guys! Then they left the next day!’

The Run Up

Back in 2016, the new version of the MSG did a number of shows before filming the DVD in Tokyo, kicking off with a slightly problematic experience in Sweden, ‘It was a very difficult gig’ McKenna remembers, ‘for me it was incredibly hard because we were working with an unknown monitor guy, a new crew. So I was basically just asking for vocals and guitar in my monitor. It was such a mush I couldn’t hear a thing. It was like jumping off the diving board before you knew if there was any water in the pool! So that was a really hard one.’

McAuley agrees, but he thinks it worked well overall, ‘We had some sound issues because you don’t get sound checks and all of that, we had one day rehearsal and we had never really run the show down prior to that. But it was awesome! Despite the sound issues it was awesome and everybody was really stoked and pumped on the whole idea.’ The response to the show was certainly positive, and with further gigs booked in Prague and Barcelona a promoter in Japan found out about them and, Schenker says, made an ‘immediate offer.’

Schenker himself is playing at the very top of his game these days. His guitar work across the DVD – including three instrumental showcases as well as his stunning, trademark extended solo in UFO’s Rock Bottom – is simply spellbinding, and his colleagues are full of praise, ‘Michael’s in a really good place at the moment’ McKenna muses, ‘I’ve worked with him for a long time and I think he’s so focused on his career at the moment, and it shows. He’s playing better than I’ve ever heard him playing.’

McAuley is certainly in agreement, ‘He’s on fire! I think he’s having more fun than he ever did – I know I am because all the pressure’s off! It’s time to go out and play the songs, and have a great deal of fun doing it and you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Michael smile so much! He even sings along with some of the tunes which is great, you know?’

Lead singers are, of course, notoriously unruly, and stereotypically egotistical. So wasn’t three of them sharing the same stage just asking for trouble? Not a bit of it, says Gary Barden, ‘the situation with ‘sharing the spotlight’, was very simple, we are professionals. We love Michael’s work, we’ve been through our ups and downs with the guy, and we now appreciate the time that was lost. Now we want to give back so much, not only to ourselves, but to Michael and the fans – the very same reasons we started on our quests with him. I’d met Robin very briefly in the Chrysalis Records Office, we had a quick chat – he was with Grand Prix at the time. Graham, who I treated as a God in my head – thanks to Rainbow’s Down to Earth (1979) record – we’d never met, but, hey, we’re English. No probs there!! WE ARE MUSICIANS, well and true!’

McAuley also had no problems with the set up, and was in fact delighted to get the chance, ‘I think it’s a great thing because, there’s so many of us and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t share the same stage and… if you have an ego you should leave it at the door because there’s no place for egos. All of that’s childish stuff, that’s for somebody who hasn’t been around the block as many times as we have and, for me, I consider it a huge honour to be out singing with Gary and Graham and we have an absolute blast. It’s just that much fun!’

Japan

MSG’s iconic live album, 1981

The band are of course no strangers to Japan, having toured there many times and recorded the classic live album, One Night At Budokan, in Tokyo in 1981. Schenker speculates as to why the Japanese fans have such a strong connection to his music, ‘When I started playing and made my first record, age 15, with the Scorpions, Klaus [Meine, Scorpions singer] and I made it possible for them to do their first recording and it got internationally recognised because of Klaus having a great voice, and I was only 15 and a talent on lead guitar. So when I left and went to UFO and started to do well with them I took the Scorpions with me – when I moved to England the Scorpions automatically became promoted by my move. I was building up to the Strangers In The Night album and they could stick a ‘Michael Schenker from UFO’ sticker on the Scorpions Lovebite album. For some reason I never made it to Japan all this time – and by ’81 I was already recording for 11 years and so I guess there was a lot of excitement going on there – and a lot of waiting! – so eventually I showed up and it was absolutely crazy. It was like a bomb that exploded!’

Gary Barden also remembers their first trip to Japan as special experience, ‘When Cozy, Chris, Paul, Michael and myself played there in ’81 it was ‘Beatle Mania’ you couldn’t leave your room in the hotel’ he says, and has a theory on why their popularity is still so high there today, ‘I think the same fans that came then are either very happily married with two kids etc (or not!), and they still appreciate Michael’s works. It’s been implanted in their DNA, I think I saw some of their kids in the audience as well.’

Japan clearly remains a particularly significant place for the MSG, and the band are full of praise for the arena and the crew there, ’The venue was incredible’ says McKenna, ‘as you see on the clip that promotes the DVD. They do a good venue in Japan! The Japanese crew are amazing, really on the case. All the equipment, the PA, everything’s fantastic there. I think they use a few of the same guys that we knew when we toured in 2008.’

As for the show that was recorded for the DVD,Oh, it was fantastic!’ exclaims Schenker, ‘It was actually all pure fun, you know? Everybody was happy and having fun and the audience were great. The exhibition forum is an amazing place and then in Sapporo and Osaka the people were so loud you could almost not hear what you were playing! It’s fantastic.’

The early jitters from Sweden were largely forgotten, ‘By the time of the last show in Japan I think we’d got the measure of it and it was relaxed and starting to cook’ McKenna reckons, ‘Tokyo was good, I mean, other people and those who saw us will be the judge of course! No matter how you feel about your playing on anything, it’s the vibe that comes off the record that matters. When people hear it, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to sound exciting. I’m sure Michael’s playing will be fantastic on it anyway!’

It wasn’t all plain sailing however, ‘Osaka was great’ says Barden, ‘though we didn’t know if Graham had made it to Japan, until the last minute. Bullet train to Tokyo, no time for Hotel, straight to gig, rehearse, then angles for lights cameras, action. No time for shave, hair wash, you know prima donna shit!  Cher and the girls never had this problem!!!’

He continues, ‘Personally, Sapporo was the gig we should have recorded, 2,500 crammed in to the rafter’s (my birthday by the way). Thank you Michael, very kind! When the band kicks in, it just gets better! Three gigs are not enough, Michael likes to continually get better at his art and god bless him, he puts his heart and soul in to every detail before the show and tour.’

During our chat, Robin McAuley had mentioned that the DVD was currently showing on a big screen in Tokyo – with sound. Even for someone with such an illustrious history, Schenker seems a bit taken aback by this fact, ‘Yeah, someone told me  they’re showing it on the Yunika Building – like the New York central square – on the big screen they’re play 25 minutes of the show for the next month or so. It’s amazing!’

*Videos by Yae Kasama, used with kind permission.

The Future

With the first run of dates proving so successful the band are much in demand – something that is sure to increase when the DVD is released. There are, therefore, already more shows in the works, as Schenker explains, Yeah, we are planning for it. We’re doing Bang Your Head Festival, co headline with Vince Neil, in Balingen, Germany and then a festival in Madrid as a headlining gig. Then in October we have been offered the UK, and Spain and we’re working on France, Germany, and other countries around Europe and in America.’

McAuley is certainly up for continuing and is enthusiastic when pushed on the possibility of UK dates, ‘Yeah! I personally would love to tour Scotland and England, it’s been forever! Last time I did it with Michael would be on the Whitesnake tour, if my memory serves me correctly, and before that it would be in my Grand Prix days at the Glasgow Apollo. I believe that’s not there anymore but that was such a great rock n roll venue. So I would love to, I hope it happens. I get a lot of requests on Facebook asking are we coming to the UK and I just straight away say ‘yes, of course we are!’ I don’t have any dates but I’m coming with or without the band! Ha!

© Emili Muraki

The project has taken off so much that it’s become the guitarist’s sole focus for the time being, ‘Yes, I’m just doing this. The Michael Schenker Fest is a big undertaking and it takes longer than I thought to get it together as a tour.’

There will, however, most likely be more work with Temple Of Rock before too long, ‘Oh, I love Doogie! Doogie’s a great singer and it’s fun to play with him, we have a great chemistry so I’m looking forward to doing an album with him again – I think it looks like it’s going to be 2018 for that.’

‘Other than that you know I just want to celebrate my life and celebrate the era of handmade rock, you know? People are dying, left and right, like the flies, so I better get a move on and do as much as I can before things are over. Who knows how much longer the original players are all around? I think it has been such a great era that we need to celebrate it, I need to celebrate it, and I need to emphasise that music, you know? Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, that kind of a sound will be gone, those people. Sooner or later it’s over and then it’s only available on record and DVD. So I want to play live and do as much as I can, record as much stuff as possible before I go.’

MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST “LIVE” TOKYO
FEATURING THE ORIGINAL MSG VOCALISTS
GARY BARDEN, GRAHAM BONNET AND ROBIN MCAULEY
Released Friday 24th March 2017
Available on 2CD, 2CD+DVD combo, LP, DVD, Blu-ray, Digital
ORDER ON AMAZON NOW!

OTHER LINKS:

Michael Schenker Official Website
Michael Schenker on Facebook and Twitter

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