"Ozzy called asking me to help him out because Randy Rhoads had died. I asked for a private jet so he’d turn me down": Michael Schenker on UFO, Scorpions, and snubbing The Rolling Stones, Ozzy and Thin Lizzy

Michael Schenker studio portrait
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Guitarist Magazine)

In early 2020, Michael Schenker received an email out-of-the-blue from a stranger, offering to reunite him with a historical artefact long considered lost, the skeleton of a guitar hand-crafted by Schenker as a teenager.

“It’s unbelievable!” Schenker exclaims. “At school, when I was 14, we had a workshop class, and I decided to build a guitar. The body was triangular, so it looks basically like a Flying V. I’d never seen a Flying V at that age, but I must have had a premonition that a guitar looking like that would be important in my life.”

Important too, for the development of hard rock and heavy metal. In the 1970s, after being poached by UFO from Scorpions, his older brother Rudolf’s band, Schenker and his iconic white Gibson Flying V electrified the rock scene on a succession of superb releases, from 1974’s aptly-titled Phenomenon through to 1979’s Strangers In The Night, arguably the greatest live album of the decade, before storming out of the band. 

In the years that followed, Schenker declined invitations to join Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Thin Lizzy and Aerosmith, opting instead to follow his heart by leading his own band. His journey forth has been far from easy, with addiction, mental health problems and anger management issues derailing best laid plans, earning the Sarstedt-born musician a reputation as a maverick, mercurial talent, but more than  50 years on from joining Scorpions as a 15-year-old guitar prodigy, Schenker’s fire for music remains undiminished. 

Given the free-flowing nature of his playing, it should come as no surprise that Schenker is a challenging interviewee, prone to careering off-topic for five minutes at a time, particularly if said conversational joyride might affords an opportunity to verbally mow down his older brother, with whom Michael has a relationship best described as ‘complicated’, but over the course of a two and a half hours conversation, his memories are rarely dull. 


What was the first piece of music that truly connected with you?

Well, my brother Rudolf is six and a half years older than me, so whatever he was listening to – Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Rolling Stones – automatically I heard too. I think the first song I learned to play on guitar though was Hippy Hippy Shake by The Swinging Blue Jeans. 

From day one, Rudolf was obsessed with becoming famous, while I wanted to be a musician. He once told me a story about an Elvis movie where Elvis’s character had a blonde younger brother. Apparently, the dark haired brother, played by Elvis, became a star, while his younger blonde brother got nowhere and died. I was thinking, “What’s the message here, Rudolf?”

Were your parents musical?

My father used to play violin, before we were born: he actually used to earn money playing it in the street. I’d hear him playing and say, “That sounds like someone standing on a cat’s tail!” But he always had a smile on his face when he played, and that passion was nice to see. My mother had fun playing our small piano, and my parents both loved waltzes, so they were always dancing. The first song I wrote, In Search Of The Peace Of Mind [which appeared on the debut Scorpions album, Lonesome Crow], is actually a waltz. When people ask me where my classical influences come from, I always think I must have absorbed the music as an embryo.

You were nine when you began playing the guitar which Rudolf received for his 16th birthday: what first attracted you to the instrument?

Our bedroom was full of Rudolf’s posters of musicians with guitars, so I was always curious. Plus I was hearing The Beatles and the Stones for this first time, this wild, crazy music from England that was making girls scream and cry, so when there was a guitar standing in the room, of course I was going to touch it. I immediately had a connection with it, and wanted to experiment. I wasn’t learning chords, or learning from a book, I was experimenting by playing one note after another on a single string, and I just went from there.

What can you tell us about your first band, The Enervates?

I was 11-years-old, and Rudolf told me about this band in Sarstedt that needed a guitarist, and said, “If you want to join them, I can connect you.” So I did. We played hit parade music, anything that was on the radio, and performed anywhere people could dance. My first time on stage though was actually with Scorpions, when I was 11. 

I fell in love with Hank Marvin, and the music of The Shadows, so my first performance was jamming Shadows songs with Scorpions. A few years later, when Rudolf moved to Hanover for work, he met a band called Cry, later Cry Express, who were pretty professional, even though they were also really young, just my age, and they needed a guitar player. So then I played with them for a year, until Rudolf decided I was ready for my next big step. 

Did you have any reservations about joining Scorpions when he offered you a role in his band?

Well, you have to understand how it happened. Klaus Meine was Rudolf’s favourite singer in the neighbourhood, and he understood that with Klaus and I alongside him, he had a chance to break through. Rudolf used me to get Klaus to him, because Klaus wanted to play with me. Klaus and I had started Copernicus with the drummer from his old band Mushroom [Mike Grimke] and the bass player from Cry Express [Holgar Twelve]. We were playing Rory Gallagher, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin songs, and because Klaus had such a great voice, we sounded really professional and powerful. 

Scorpions played right next door to us in the rehearsal space, and they were still playing dance music, but Rudolf could hear how great we were. So then he sent his bass player into our room, and he said, “Hey, Klaus and Michael, do you want to jam with us?” I can’t believe that Klaus and I just said, “Oh, okay!” but we did, and left the other two guys sitting there! 

It was exciting for me because the Scorpions rhythm section was incredible, they were a step ahead of anyone I’d played with. Rudolf was more a manager than a musician, a business man in musician’s clothing, and he had a vision of how things could work out. So basically we never went back to Copernicus. I was Rudolf’s tool and slave, he took advantage of me to get what he wanted.

The first Scorpions album, Lonesome Crow, was recorded in just one week, with Conny Plank. What do you recall about the making of that record?

I remember that I wrote all the songs but they were credited to the whole band. I wrote In Search Of The Peace Of Mind, and after that, I just kept writing: some of my pieces ended up on Fly To The Rainbow, the second Scorpions album. The first album was made quickly, and my guitar playing was pretty raw, but I think with Klaus and myself, you could hear the potential from the start, and Scorpions started getting international attention immediately. 

The two years we toured with that album were fantastic and fun, I remember us drinking and singing Beatles songs as we drove around in a VW bus, and every day I learned something new. During those two years Rudolf and I were closer than we ever were again.

Scorpions supported UFO in Germany in the summer of 1973, and you stepped in to help the English band out for a couple of shows when [fill-in guitarist] Bernie Marsden went AWOL. What did you know about UFO at that point?

I knew nothing. But I learned that they already had a few hits in Germany – Prince Kajuku, Boogie For George and their cover of C’mon Everybody – and they didn’t want to cancel the tour when they couldn’t find Bernie. They looked like rock stars, they were very charismatic and very good-looking. Phil [Mogg] was a bit distant at first, but Andy [Parker] was really outgoing and Pete [Way] was a very sweet person. 

At 16 I was very good at copying music, so Pete took me into the bathroom and showed me their setlist, and somehow I managed to learn the whole hour-long set in one evening and perform on-stage with them that same night. I played two shows with them before Bernie turned up, and they were obviously very impressed with my playing.

What offer did UFO make to lure you to London?

I can’t really remember. But about one month after the tour they contacted me and asked me to join. I’d always said to the Scorpions, “If any band from England asks me to join, no matter who it is, I’m doing it.” No-one in Germany understood what I was doing, and the scene was lame. I said to Scorpions, “Sorry guys, I told you I would do this,” and I left. It wasn’t so much about UFO, it was about the opportunity to play in England. I wanted to develop and go to the next level. I was full of energy and ideas and I wasn’t afraid of anything.

UFO in 1976

UFO in 1976: L-R Danny Peyronel, Andy Parker, Phil Mogg, Pete Way, Michael Schenker. (Image credit: Jorgen Angel)

Just 17-years-old when he relocated to London, Schenker’s songwriting and virtuoso playing lit a fire under UFO, who’d freshly inked a major label deal with Chrysalis. Jettisoning their original bluesy, ‘space rock’ sound, the Londoners were reborn as a stylish hard rock band, gaining a whole new audience with the Schenker-penned singles Doctor Doctor and Rock Bottom. Phil Mogg and Pete Way, avowed piss-takers and never men to adhere to Basil Fawlty’s ‘Don’t mention the war’ maxim, christened their new recruit, The Blonde Bomber.

The British music press were fascinated, charmed and bemused in equal measure by the shy teenage hero, and as his bandmates mischievously fed stories of his idiosyncratic behaviour to their mates in the ‘inkies’, Schenker acquired a second unwanted nickname, ‘Mad Mickey’. The union of the brash Londoners and their talismanic guitarist was always destined to end in tears, and it did, after just five years, but not before Schenker’s precocious ability had inspired the likes of Steve Harris and Kirk Hammett to form their own bands. He’d be back.

What did the guys in UFO do to help you settle in London?

They were good about making me feel welcome. I lived with Phil at first, in his place in Tottenham. Then I moved into a house in Palmers Green with my girlfriend Gabi, with a very nice Greek family. I think our rent was £16 a month. I met Gabi when we were both 16, and we’d already lived together in Germany, so we had one another for company. 

I’d only been in that house for maybe four weeks when my landlady told me there was a phone call for me, and this guy said, “Hey Michael, would you be interested in auditioning for The Rolling Stones?” I went, “Pardon me?” I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “I’ll call you back!” without asking for a number or anything. I called Rudolf and said, “You won’t believe what just happened! What should I do?” He said, “It’s your life, you have to decide.” 

I decided there was no way I could do it. I remembered seeing a photo of the Stones in a German magazine, looking for lice in each other’s hair, and I thought, “I’m not joining a band like that!” I barely spoke English, I’d already moved to a new country to join a new band, and that was a big enough step, I felt.

What do you recall about the making of the Phenomenon album?

Most of the songs on the album started as my instrumentals. Phil would hear me play, and go, “Wow, this sounds great, but can you take out the lead guitars and just leave the chords so that I can write melodies for the vocals around them?” There were a lot of jokes in English that I didn’t understand – Andy Parker used to say, “Michael, if you knew what we were saying, you wouldn’t want to be in the band anymore!” – but that actually helped, because I couldn’t chat, so we had to focus solely on the music, and let the music do the talking.

UFO had a reputation as a band who liked a drink and liked a party: was that an atmosphere in which you felt comfortable?

I enjoyed a beer, and we often loosened up for rehearsals with a pint or two, but I never really drank at home, or I didn’t drink much before gigs, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform. I mainly drank to ease my stage fright. I was very shy and sensitive and easily intimidated when I was straight, so alcohol helped. 

My favourite thing was going to see bands with Gabi. We’d go to the Marquee and then the Speakeasy and come home at 4 or 5 in the morning. We were young and living in this amazing new city, and it was exciting to go out and discover all these brilliant guitarists playing all over London. 

You once told me that when 1977’s Lights Out album became a hit, you got scared, and that’s when being in UFO stopped being fun for you. Famously, you disappeared for a while, with UFO telling the press you’d joined [religious cult] The Moonies. What actually happened? 

Yeah, I felt I was going to be trapped, to be pressurised into writing more hits, and have to be touring all the time, and therefore drinking all the time. I said to Gabi, “Let’s get out of here, I don’t think I can handle this.” I sold everything and we went to the south of France and bought a couple of mopeds and then went to Barcelona, where I used to go with my parents as a kid, and spent a few months by the ocean. 

After a while we decided to go back to Munich to get an apartment, and I realised that I was in all the German newspapers, reported as missing. When we moved in, the receptionist in the building said, “You know your mother is very worried about you?” 

I thought, “Oh shit!” I contacted her and she was like, “Michael! Where have you been?” I said, “Oh, we had a big hit, and I couldn’t face the pressure of being famous.” I’d always played guitar as recreation, I didn’t like having expectations put on me. All the ‘Michael Schenker is God!’ stuff just freaked me out. 

After your break, you returned for 1978’s Obsession

Yes, Pete Way talked me into it. Because of that time away I felt rejuvenated, I came back with a new energy. It was almost like I’d forgotten all the thing I hated. We were living in America and relations in the band were good, and on that album we had another successful radio hit with Only You Can Rock Me. And then, of course, we went on tour and recorded two shows [in Chicago and Louisville] for what became Strangers In The Night

When we were mixing that album, the arguments started again. They wanted to use one version of Rock Bottom, but I played much better on the other night, and as it was my song, I thought I had the right to insist that we use that version. In fairness, [producer] Ron Nevison was looking at the bigger picture, the sound of the whole recording not just my guitar solo, but being a passionate guitarist, I was pissed off, and tired of not being listened to. 

Phil had already punched me in the stomach at the end of the Obsession tour, and I’d always told him if he hit me I would leave, so between that and the argument over Rock Bottom, I thought, “I don’t want to go any further with this.” It was time for me to make my next step.

Which of the UFO albums you made is your favourite?

That’s such a hard question. For me, it was all about development, so with every album I thought, “Wow! That was amazing!” I know that Phil expected No Heavy Petting to do really well, but Chrysalis didn’t support it and it somehow got lost… maybe it was the monkey on the album cover! Working with Ron Nevison on Lights Out was amazing, but the focus that he and I had on that album wasn’t matched by the others, they were just having a laugh. Ron got the very best from each of us though and put it together in a way that was truly remarkable.

Post-UFO, you returned to Scorpions to record the Lovedrive album. Did that feel like a comfortable fit?

No. Rudolf knew that I was the ticket for Scorpions to break in America, because I’d written a hit album with Lights Out. I tried to fit in, because my brother cried on the telephone after the first time I left, and he begged me to help me again. But I knew I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t stay. I couldn’t face telling them, I just had to run away, I was too shy. I knew if I tried to talk to them they would try to seduce me into staying, so I had to run so far away to where they couldn’t find me. 

Rudolf was so disappointed. But I had left UFO for a reason, and here I was doing the same shit again. Why? I had my own vision, and I’d experienced enough fame at that point to know what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I didn’t need fame or success, I wanted to be an artist. But then [manager] Peter Mensch was waiting for me and he threw me straight back into the machine! I thought, “This is crazy! What am I doing here? I just ran away from my own brother, and now I’m back in the same situation!” From 1978 to 1980 I was in limbo-land, in transition. It wasn’t a good time for me.

You had offers to join Thin Lizzy and Aerosmith in 1979. Did you take either of those offers seriously?

I was friends with Phil Lynott, but I didn’t want to join Lizzy. With Aerosmith, I got as far as rehearsing with [drummer and bassist] Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton in Boston. At the time, Steven Tyler was in hospital, and I remember [rhythm guitarist] Brad Whitford coming into the room, being shocked at seeing me, and running out again, saying, “Fuck!” I think he went to see Tyler in the hospital and said, “Michael Schenker is trying to steal our rhythm section! You need to do something!” So they decided to carry on Aerosmith without me.

Michael Schenker onstage with MSG

Michael Schenker onstage with MSG at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois, November 28, 1980  (Image credit: Paul Natkin)

Determined to forge his own path, Schenker re-emerged in 1980 with his solo debut, The Michael Schenker Group. In Armed And Ready and Cry For The Nations he had arena-ready anthems, while the jaw-dropping instrumentals Bijou Pleasurette and Into The Arena were reminders of his prodigious compositional talents. 

Holding a band together, however, would prove impossible for the highly-strung guitarist. Vocalist Gary Barden departed after two albums, to be replaced by Graham Bonnet. The ex-Rainbow man was out on his arse within 12 months, effectively sacking himself after whipping out his penis on-stage and slagging off his bandmates during a cursed warm-up show for a Reading festival headline gig, at Sheffield Polytechnic on August 26, 1982. 

By 1986, Schenker reconfigured the band as the McCauley Schenker Group, with former Grand Prix frontman, Irishman Robin McCauley, at centre-stage. Once again, snatching defeats from the jaws of victories became something of a band trademark.

Let’s talk about the formation of the Michael Schenker Group. What was your initial vision for the band?

Well, the original line-up was me, Billy Sheehan, Denny Carmassi [ex-Montrose] and Gary Barden, but I was really untogether, and that fell apart: basically I lost the whole band. As I said, 1979 was a difficult year, and I needed to sort myself out. Then Peter Mensch wanted Mutt Lange to produce our album, but I didn’t want to sound like AC/DC, and we argued over that. 

Mensch also kept talking about working with David Coverdale, and we actually wrote one song together at his apartment, but of course Coverdale didn’t want to leave Whitesnake, he wanted me to join him. So then Gary came back and Mensch found Mo Foster (bass) and Simon Philips (drums) and off we went. 

I thought the songwriting was really good on that first album, but it could have been more powerful. I liked working with [Deep Purple bassist] Roger Glover, but his production wasn’t as deep as what Ron Nevison might have done, and the rhythm section, while brilliant players, were lighter than what I wanted.

With the MSG album, the band’s second recording, you scored Top 20 success in the UK and Japan. Was that a happy time for you?

Making the album, I wasn’t in a great place, mentally, and I think [producer] Ron Nevison wasn’t either. We ended up going to Montserrat to record, but we spent too much time messing around, and basically treated it like a holiday. The songs were very good, Gary and I wrote them in [rehearsal studio] John Henry’s in London when we were completely straight, but we got less focussed in the studio. 

Things were happening so fast. Suddenly we’d a live album to record, [1982’s One Night At Budokan] and by the time it was released Graham Bonnett was in the band, and he was autographing album sleeves for a record he wasn’t on! It was all a bit confusing. And then I got a phone call from Ozzy Osbourne in the middle of the night, stuttering, asking me to help him out because Randy Rhoads had died in that plane crash.

But you said No…

I loved Sabbath, and I should have been delighted to join – I instantly had visions of Ozzy dragging me across the stage by my hair - but a voice in my head said, “Michael, follow your vision.” I’d left UFO and Scorpions because I didn’t want to go any further with the fame thing, and I wanted freedom and peace, so I felt it would be crazy to join. 

Ozzy knew that I was Randy’s favourite guitar player, so he thought I’d be the perfect fit, but it wasn’t the right time: we were already rehearsing the Assault Attack album with Graham Bonnet. The only way I could think of getting out of the Ozzy gig was by making outrageous demands, so that’s what I did. In his book [I Am Ozzy] Ozzy said I asked for a private jet, and that’s true, but it was only so that he’d turn me down.

Graham Bonnet came in the Assault Attack album, but left within the year. What went wrong between you two?

Nothing! I liked Graham. I think he was a little inhibited because in Rainbow Ritchie [Blackmore] was in charge, and Russ Ballard was writing the hits, so I think Graham didn’t have as much writing experience as I imagined. But he came up with some great melodies. We went to the Château d'Hérouville in France to record, and the album was good. 

One odd thing I remember is that Graham liked to sing naked from the waist down, he thought it helped him hit the high notes, so poor [producer] Martin Birch had to stare at his bits while recording the vocals. But yeah, I never had a problem with Graham until he freaked out on-stage and got his cock out. I turned around and he was gone! Thankfully Gary [Barden] came back in, after being dumped, and we had a very happy Reading festival audience.

You started the ‘90s playing with Contraband, with members of LA Guns and Ratt and Vixen. How did that band come about? Was it always intended as a one-off project?

What happened was that Robin McCauley and I moved to America. We had one song, Anytime, on Save Yourself, which was almost a big hit, but we had a bad TV appearance which destroyed everything. 

For some reason, our management, Left Bank, decided we had to wait six months to record the next album, and so while we were doing nothing, Warren DeMartini asked me to help out with Ratt when they had problems with Robin Crosby. I went on tour with Ratt and recorded an MTV Unplugged session with them. Then Left Bank were putting together this supergroup Contraband, and they asked me to join. That band was really interesting, but [guitarist] Tracii Guns and [vocalist] Richard Black had a chemistry problem, and so it just fell apart.

You disconnected from the mainstream music business for a while after that, and made the Thank You album as a completely independent release. Was that liberating?

Totally. I’d wanted to disconnect in 1979, but Peter Mensch kept me in the game for another 10 years. I knew that I was getting ripped-off by everybody and so I thought I might as well do things myself, for myself. I used the last of my money to record Thank You myself as an acoustic instrumental album for my hardcore fans who’d supported me over the years, and ended up becoming rich off it. 

I toured America on a Greyhound bus, and knocked on radio station doors, offering myself for interview, and 80 per cent of them opened their doors to me, and let me talk and play songs from the album. When I came back home, I was rich, and there were so many orders for the album. I had a house in Mexico, another in Phoenix, land in Hawaii… everything I wanted.

It was something of a surprise then when you returned to UFO in 1995 for the Walk On Water album. What made you go back?

Phil Mogg came to me in Los Angeles, completely destroyed and sick, and begged me to help him re-establish UFO. I said, “Phil, you’re sick, so first of all you need to get better. If I do come back, there has to be certain conditions too, because I’m not going to build this up again to see it destroyed again.” I wanted the old band reunited, a proper record label, Ron Nevison as a sixth member, and I’d get 50 per cent of the name, so that he couldn’t abuse me again. 

Around the same time I had an offer to join Deep Purple, so I wasn’t desperate, I had options. Walk On Water was a bloody great album, seamless from where we left off with Strangers In The Night. It was amazing. But then Phil wanted to be in charge again, and finally old problems resurfaced. We did two more records, but after {2002 album] Sharks it was time to move on again.

Michael Schenker Group, 2022 version

Michael Schenker Group in 2022: L-R Steve Mann, Barend Courboi, Ronnie Romero, Bodo Schopf, Michael Schenker (Image credit: Tina Korhonen)

It’s a tribute to Schenker’s charismatic personality and charm, that after years of chaos and uncertainty, Gary Barden was able to return to the band for a four-year-stint in 2016, and he's still working with Robin McCauley. Both are singers he has dumped in acrimonious circumstances more than once in the past. Meanwhile, Graham Bonnet was welcomed back for Schenker’s Resurrection (2018) and Revelation (2019) albums, both released under the group name Michael Schenker Fest. 

The band marked the guitarist’s 50th anniversary with a series of shows in 2020, and two more Michael Schenker Group albums have followed, 2021's Immortal and the following year's Universal, both featuring former Rainbow frontman Ronnie Romero.  

Today, Schenker is only looking to the future. 

“After I restarted my career with [2008 album] In The Midst Of Beauty, there was no turning back, and I shot up in the sky like a rocket,” he says, deadpan, insisting that he’s enjoying life now “more and more.”

“There is no bigger reward than experience,” he says. “I’ve had unbelievable things happen in my life, and because of that I’ve got the kind of knowledge that I never had in the past. I’ve been gifted insight and revelations and understanding and new ideas. I’m in an incredible place right now.

"I hate the word pride, because pride is connected to ego, but I’m happy where I’ve ended up. And I’m very grateful that I can call crisis a teacher. I’ve had slaps in the face, but I’m still here, still growing and still learning.

"The older I get I seem to be doing more. I’m sure there’s going to be challenges ahead but I’m ready for whatever life throws at me. I have no fear."

The deluxe edition remaster of UFO's Lights Out is released on February 2, and is available to pre-order now. Michael Schenker Group play Barcelona Rock Fest in July. 

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.