Lookin' back on ASSAULT ATTACK
Ye Olde Metal was cooked up to pay respect to some great hard rock or heavy metal records from the past, albums that may or may not have been big sellers, but given the rapidly passing years, deserve another look. It is essentially an extended review with additional commentary from one (or more) of the dudes involved in the process of assembling the slab at hand. Enjoy...
After a second record that stumbles and bumbles its way to barely classic, Michael Schenker does a line-up shuffle once more, most significantly adopting ex-Rainbow belter Graham Bonnet and studio legend Martin Birch to provide a one-two punch that would make Assault Attack the punchiest album from the band (well, it's only loosely a band) to this day, more that two decades later.
"Well, he's a very talented guy," muses Graham Bonnet on producer Martin Birch. "It was the first time I had met him and it was the last time I ever saw him. I was at his house for awhile when we were doing the album, because we had to do a lot of the old songs for live gigs; I had to listen to all the old Michael Schenker albums. Martin is a very good producer and a very musical guy. I got on with him very well. We had a lot of fun messing around in the studio, probably too much time wasted with silly English songs, instead of getting on with the recording. He would go, 'Oh, can I come and sing that with you Graham?' But eventually we got through it. But after that, I think he went with one band, signed up with them to record with them and nobody else. They said, we want you exclusively to be our producer and not go anywhere else. That was the story I heard. Whether it's true or not, I don't know." That exclusive client would appear to be Iron Maiden, for which the man known for knob-jobbing heavy classics for the likes of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, would work through Fear Of The Dark.
But before we get to production, a change of drummers would take place. "That was one argumentative afternoon in London when we were rehearsing," recalls Bonnet of that fateful day when the very opinionated Cozy Powell would be ousted. "Something happened, I don't know. I wasn't there. They were rehearsing and there was an argument between Cozy and Michael. Drumsticks were flying and whatever else and he upset Michael very, very badly. Michael ended up in tears. I remember being told by some of the guys, who said 'Michael is crying, he's so upset about it.' And Michael said, 'I can't work with you anymore Cozy.' And that's when Ted McKenna (Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Rory Gallagher) came in. It wasn't because Cozy wasn't playing good or anything like that. It had nothing to do with his talent, because the guy is brilliant. It was just a personal conflict between the two of them."
"We all lived in this house in London when we were making that album," continues Bonnet, "all of us together, Cozy Powell, Michael Schenker, Chris Glen (note: also a SAHB alumnus), the bass player, and I. We all lived in this house with a couple of the roadies. It was unbearable. Every day would turn into an argument because we all got on top of each other. Everybody was up at different hours of the day, and it was a stressful time."
Michael, in his inimitable cut-and-paste manner, sums up the writing of the album this way. "They were all just written at the same time. That whole album was done at the rehearsal studio. I actually had an argument with my girlfriend, and I moved into the rehearsal room and I would sleep there and write, sleep and write, sleep and write until it was done. So it was basically all about that. When it was done, then the singer came in and it was done from there."
"Michael's a very private person, I know that," ventures Bonnet, when asked to provide a psychological profile of the enigmatic Mr. Schenker. "I know that if I would go into the room when he was getting stuff together with his guitar, he wouldn't hardly talk. He'd always be miles away in another world. I remember that. And most of the time totally on his own - he's very much a loner - or with his girlfriend at the time. Because that was what was happening and he was very much into her. You know, apart from being in the studio, I never really saw him very much. It was just basically when we were recorded and going through ideas for songs. As I said, I think he's a very private person. He's got his own mind. Sometimes he's hard to understand, probably because he's a Kraut (laughs). Because he's German. He has a different way of looking at things. He says, 'I'm very serious about this.' Yes, he's very serious. Sometimes Cozy and I would make jokes, and he wouldn't get them. But as I said, he seems very private. He thinks a lot."
Another stumbling block with respect to constructing this third MSG album was the perhaps overlooked fact that "the singer" had never written lyrics, or indeed melodies before. I say overlooked, because the following comment from Michael seems to indicate he thought that Bonnet was up to his elbows in the writing of Down To Earth. Not true, as Roger Glover had done all that previous to recording, not to mention having auditioned around 80 singers for the tough Rainbow post.
"I don't know what happened with Graham," is Schenker's bemused, but not derogatory summation of events more than 20 years after the fact. "I don't know how he was writing songs with Ritchie Blackmore. I don't know what is different. But when he was in my surroundings, when we worked together, he was kind of unusual. He was almost like shy or embarrassed to come up with anything; it was very strange.
So I was just kind of... you know, I'm not much of an outgoing person myself. I'm pretty shy myself, so having two shy people sitting there, not knowing what to do... but I kind of started to get into his frame of mind, to try to loosen things up. I don't know, it was the most unusual situation (laughs). I don't even know if I should talk about it. I think I have in the past. He just needed... you know when you get into new situation, and people kind of feel that the ice is not broken? I guess maybe my music was written already and I confronted him and put him on the spot. Maybe that's the way to put it. Maybe he was put on the spot.
Because I had everything ready, and now I put the tape on to tell him to do something with it, and maybe I would have liked to do it myself, to be honest, if I think about it now. Basically I was expecting him to come up with something for me, which is an unusual thing in itself. Yet he did, finally. He came up with stuff. But he couldn't make up words; he wasn't comfortable with just improvising words, just for the sake of finding melodies, for the riffs that I was writing and so on. So I suggested to him, just pick up this magazine and read something out of it. And that kind of made it for him. He used it as a tool, and at that moment, he went bang bang bang. So I guess it was a good thing in a way."
An accurate depiction? "I don't know; I can't remember," answers Graham. "I just know he was a bit worried about getting it all going because as I said, he didn't know how to write any lyric in good English. And when I did finish, I know he was very pleased with what I did, what I came up with in the end. It turned out okay."
Backing up, Graham tells the tale from his side of things. "Well, it was something I had never done! With Rainbow, for instance, everything was... apart from some of the melodies, all of the words were made up by Roger Glover. He wrote all the lyrics. And I had never really done any songwriting as such. I remember one day rehearsing with Michael and he said to me (in a German accent) 'You have to write some words, Graham. I don't speak English very good and I can't write words very well. And you have to come up with melodies.' And I said, 'You show me where the things go, and I'll try my best.' So I just sat down for a few weeks and it was a learning experience, to try and do words. Because as I said, I had never tried it. All the songs I had recorded in the past were written by other people, such as The Bee Gees in '68, etc., so I basically would just go to the studio and sing the song. Whereas now, I had to put the song together. It was a bit of a puzzle because a lot of the arrangements were very long. Some of the songs went on for like ten minutes and I'm going, well, where the hell does the verse go?! You know, there's a lot of guitar playing (laughs). Where do I fit my bit in? So I had to go through things with him. We had to edit a lot of the songs down, because we would just keep playing and come up with a new bit for a new song. And like I said, sometimes ten, 15 minutes long, 20 minutes long, and so we'd have to edit them down. And I think Cozy helped with that. He would say, 'This is way too long, Michael; where is Graham going to do anything on these tracks?' So Cozy helped cut them down so I could fit in my words. And I just sat down with like a newspaper or something, to try to find a subject, or magazine, just to get a subject for a song. Because I didn't know where to start. And then after awhile I thought, oh wait a minute, I don't need to sit with a newspaper. It just kind of came. And I thank Michael for that, for forcing me to try something I'd never done before, which I didn't really think I could do very well."
After the communal experience in London, the band was off - with Ted, not Cozy - to pastoral France to begin recording. "This is something I could never understand," laughs Bonnet. "People always want to go to remote haunted mansions to make albums. And you end up being really kind of bored and not knowing what to do. And there's a little village nearby with about 12 people living in it. Everybody thinks it's good to have loneliness and quiet, to compose music and record. But I find the opposite. I need a break to go into a city, and go around the stores or something. And after awhile we all became like that, in France. It got like, well, what are we going to do today? We're going to go down to the local little bar and sit there all afternoon. And so what happened was, we went to Munich, to the city, and we recorded the rest of the album actually in a city setting, which is much better because you could get out and see people, rather than just each other all day."
As an aside, I wanted to clear the rumour I had heard in a few places that Graham performed his vocals in his God-given birthday suit, no bonnet, no nothing.
"No (laughs). If I did, I can't remember. I usually take my shirt off. That is one thing I do do, and undo my pants. Because you can breathe a little bit more with your fly open (laughs). That's probably about as far as I got. They might have fallen down once or twice; I don't know. I guess stories get exaggerated a little bit. But I would always take my shirt off, because I would get hot or whatever. Yeah, I like to be relaxed, but probably not that relaxed (laughs)."
And while we're on the subject of singing, I asked Graham if he does anything to keep his voice in such great shape. At the time of this interview, Graham was 55 years old, still playing the clubs in America, bigger places in Europe, and planting vocal performances all over records year to year, month to month.
"No (laughs). I'm terrible with that. I never practice any vocal exercises or anything like that. I just hope for the best and go on. I think that... not that I'm Pavarotti, but he says the same thing. He never rehearses. One of my friends, Don Airey, he played with Pavarotti a few months ago, and he said he never warms up at all. He says he just goes on and it comes out, hopefully. Hopefully it comes out and it's still there. I'm a bit like that. I'm very lazy, I think, in that respect. So I never rehearse, as such."
"No," exclaims Schenker, with a laugh, when asked if Assault Attack's lead single, the shamelessly poppy 'Dancer' was written to be a hit single. "I mean, never, ever have I written a song looking for a hit single. Never, ever in my life. And I wouldn't even know how to do that because I'm not an expert in writing for singles and I don't even know what it takes to write one. But it was just one of those riffs that was there, and it just turned out to be a little more memorable and commercial than any of the others."
Michael indicated that I would have to ask Graham if the lyrics were directed that way, and after a pretty emphatic yes, Bonnet goes on to explain the song's lyric.
"'Dancer' was basically... that was one where I DID read the newspaper. I read a newspaper article about Toni Basil, the choreographer. It's about her, basically. I met her back in the '70s when she was working with Cassius Clay, as he was then, and she had a group of dancer called The Lockers.
And I came to America with a girlfriend of mine and she was doing this show called Lampoon, which in fact, got cancelled because the magazine said you can't use our name. The magazine people were going to sue if the show went on the air. And that's when I met her and I thought gee, these guys are great dancers and I talked to her a bit, and she had worked with David Bowie. And like I said, she opened... Cassius Clay, as he was then, he was boxing, and these dancers would go into the ring and dance with her. And so I thought, what an interesting person. And we talked for a long time and I saw this article about her and later on she made a record, which was that 'Mickey' record that she made, and it's kinda funny. So I wrote that about her."
But if 'Dancer' was this record's somewhat rankling 'Since You Been Gone', it is side two opener 'Desert Song' that is considered the album's classic. Graham's band still plays it live, and besides 'Dancer', it is one of his favourites of the album, his thinking aligning with that of the fans.
"The 'Desert Song' tune was the first lyric I wrote; in about 10 minutes, I think. Because it was written in the rehearsal room. And I remember Michael saying to me, 'We don't have any words to this. Just write anything.' And I just started to wander off into this thing about being in the desert; camels and all the rest of it (laughs). And I just kind of drifted off into my own little world and we came up with it that evening, rehearsing. But it's basically about people going through the desert on camels. It was kind of a silly thing. It was kind of like, add water, and there's your lyrics."
"I still like 'Assault Attack' very much, but people always come up with 'Desert Song', notes Michael, agreeing that is a fan favourite. "I was never too keen with the vocals on 'Desert Song'. It was to dragging for my liking. But people keep coming up to me and saying, 'Desert Song', 'Desert Song'. But for myself it was 'Assault Attack'."
Michael is also a fan of the album's instrumental, 'Ulcer'. "Yes, I like that instrumental very much, which was supposed to be a vocal song. It was kept to do at the last moment, and Graham did not know what to do with it. I mean, he had absolutely no idea. So Martin said, 'We have a song, but we can't make a song with vocals, so we have to turn it into an instrumental.' So I went up into my hotel room and it was already the mixing period. And so in one afternoon I created that instrumental, and it just turned out to be one of my favourite instrumentals. And I can't really even play it live because I find it too difficult to perform live to get it as good as I did it on the record. Because it has the double bass drum and it has lots of overdubs on it. And I feel that live, I either want it the way it was on the record or not at all."
'Rock You To The Ground' is another highlight of the record, with its hefty heavy metal stripper vibe. It's bluesy, but more so, it's metal. Graham is manic on it, putting in a powerful vocal that seethes with passion. "It was just a basic rock tune," recalls Graham. "No particular influence. I just started writing and stuff came out that sounded right with the melody. And it sounded tough. Use tough words. If it means nothing, use words that sound tough (laughs). That's what I remember about that."
Elsewhere, 'Broken Promises' pulses slowly but muscularly to a rock solid Chris Glen bass line. 'Searching For A Reason' works off a bit of a gallop, but the melody is both poppy and mournful at once. Very Rainbow-like. And maybe the album's heaviest track is 'Samurai', an even more Rainbow-like track than 'Searching For A Reason', given the former's sweeping gothic melody.
In closing, Graham expresses fondness for the record. "I'm very proud if that album. The tracks are very different from each other. I like the way Michael plays. He's a very different composer; he's got a very unique style. He's not like your regular so-called heavy metal guitar player."
"Chris Glenn, very solid," offers Michael, summing up the quality of the album's short-lived line-up. "Ted McKenna, a little bit more jazzy at times, but also he can be very solid. He was very good on that Assault Attack album, and Martin Birch, he was very good with his production. And actually it was the most liked album when it comes down to the opinion of musicians. Most musicians like Assault Attack better than any other MSG albums, vocally, in terms of the guitar playing, production, everything."
Post-album came touring. Or did it? For this hopeful, well-regarded line-up, it was emphatically not to be. Incredibly, Graham would not last a single gig with the band.
"That was a terrible day," recalls Bonnet with a palpable shudder. "I'll never forget it, and nobody else will either (laughs). It was one very stupid afternoon in the pub and then having a bit too much of this and a bit too much of that. Michael was doing some stuff as well (laughs). And there was an argument in the dressing room before we did the show. He wouldn't let me in to get some stuff I wanted. He had my jacket in there or something silly. 'Fucking let me in! Let me in. I want to get my clothes out, you know?' And he said no, piss off. 'Oh, okay.' And this was just before the gig and so, I just got pretty loaded, to be honest with you. It was a stupid mistake, which I hope I never do again. It was awful, just dreadful. I had all these songs to sing, which I didn't know very well. And I had put them all out on pieces of paper - old Michael Schenker stuff - all along the front of the stage and the crowd pushed forward, and all the papers were scattered and it just screwed me up. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know where I was or anything. It was bad. Because we were supposed to do the Castle Donington gig a few days later. I apologized to them profusely. I was like, 'Oh God, I'm really sorry.' And they reckoned that I couldn't do the gig that was coming up, Donington, the Monsters Of Rock thing. And I'm like 'No, I can do it!' And my manager said, 'No, they've fired you. You've got to go back to Los Angeles.' And that's what I did. It was horrible. It was an awful time."
Martin Popoff, Ye Olde Metal 2004