Stuck between Phil Collins and Midge Ure

Dave Woodhall talks to UFO singer Phil Mogg.

Formed in 1969, UFO are still performing their brand of classic rock to appreciative audiences. Ahead of a date at Birmingham Town Hall we caught up with their legendary frontman Phil Mogg.

May as well start with the inevitable opener. What are you up to now?

“I’ve just had a bit of a break between work but we’ve got plenty of dates coming up in the summer. I’m just going through the set list actually and wondering what we’re going to play. We’ve got a bit of choice but we’ll certainly be doing a few off the new album of covers.”

Tell us about that one.

“It’s things like the Yardbirds Heart Full of Soul, the Doors Break on Through and we’ve done The Pusher, the Steppenwolf song. It’s a bit eclectic. It’s going to be released at the beginning of the winter. What the Americans call the fall.”

There was talk a couple of years ago that you’d be touring the Strangers in the Night album. Is that still on?

“We’ve kicked it around a bit but apart from one tune we do the stuff anyway. Sometimes things are best left alone, they don’t come out as well as they should.”

And you’d have to bring back a few old faces such as Pete Way. Talking of which, how is he now? Does he still live in Birmingham?

“I know he had his biography out and I hope I’m not in it but he seems to be okay. I don’t really know what he’s up to now but he lives in Eastbourne.”

You certainly got through some personnel during your years together – starting with Larry Wallis, Bernie Marsden and then through Michael Schenker, Paul Gray and Jason Bonham to name a few. Playing in UFO seems to be some sort of graduation ceremony for rock musicians.

“We’ve had a few. It’s a bit like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, maybe not as many as him but there’s been a number. Apart from Pete going we’ve had a stable line-up for a while now. Nine years I think it is; we’re coming up to gold watch time.”

Talking of time, it’s always seemed that UFO wrote songs that had to wait years until their time came. Doctor Doctor for example, released in 1974 and a hit five years later.

“When that stuff came out we put a lot of work into touring, getting our name known, and that helped enormously. We had fans coming to see the band and then they’d buy the records. I think when Doctor Doctor came out it sold about 32 copies; I could have sold more by walking down Oxford Street but we kept plugging away.”

And you ended up headlining Reading in 1980.

“A long time ago…”

You didn’t just appeal to traditional rock fans at the time. You had a bit of street cred amongst people who might not necessarily have had long hair and been into lengthy guitar solos. I can remember a big debate in Sounds, I think it was, between your fans over whether you should have appeared on Top of the Pops or not.

“We did have a crossover audience. We toured America at that time with AC/DC and Cheap Trick, we didn’t just get the straight metal fans. Top of the Pops was fun, and it’s not often you get a chance like that, with all the shenanigans. On the one show we were between Phil Collins doing In the Air Tonight and Midge Ure doing Vienna. We didn’t stand a chance. It would be good if we had a show like that now because I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Ed Sheeran getting about sixteen songs in the top twenty, blimey.”

It’s a sad reflection that of your old mates such as Phil Lynott and Lemmy, you’re one of the few survivors.

“Yes, there was a big clearout in the last year or two. I check the obituaries in Classic Rock and I haven’t been in there yet.”

You must have played Birmingham plenty of times, but mainly at the Odeon in your heyday. Now you’re back at the Town Hall.

“The last time we played Birmingham Town Hall was in 1978. We did the Odeon a lot but we haven’t played Birmingham for a while.”

There was a story that one night at the Odeon you had a silver belt stolen when somebody got on stage and took it from you.

“Yes, I got it back eventually. There was a great deal of honesty in those days, or maybe someone woke up next morning with a hangover and a new silver belt. It had sentimental value, but I don;t know what happened to it. It’s like sunglasses, they go.”

You mentioned the album. what else are you up to?

“We go from Birmingham, then Blackburn and a few more dates in the UK then we’re touring Europe doing the festivals and we’re with Europe. Then we’re over to American playing with Saxon.”

Now there was an interesting case of a band who seemed destined for more success than they ended up having. One minute they were bigger than any of their contemporaries, but they got no bigger and Iron Maiden became the biggest band in the world.

“It happens. There’s no guarantee of getting bigger all the time. Who’d have thought Rush would suddenly get huge or ZZ Top, who were going for fifteen years doing the same thing until it became mega. Beard power, that’s what it is. It can be a fickle business.”

Which means that in the near-fifty years you’ve fronted UFO, you must have done something right.

“I certainly never expected to still be here, carrying on and performing. You have to approach it as enjoyment anyway. Stop fighting with everyone and enjoy it. If you’re squabbling and fighting and you have all the tension that goes with that, you might as well give it up. These days the band haven’t got the energy to fight”

There must come a time when you know the pressure’s off to sell more albums than you did last time, to sell more tickets on this tour than on the last one. It seems to me that you can either accept that and go with what you have, or get bitter that you’re no longer fashionable and as popular as you used to be.

“That’s a nasty little hole to fall into and I know what you mean but I’m not going to go down there. I still feel privileged that we’re still allowed to play and people come along to watch us.”

UFO play Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday 27th July. Tickets

Cover pic: Frank Schwichtenberg