We’ve discussed the precarious nature of the rock band replacement frontman before, but sometimes it’s not just the criticism of fans, the desire of bands to reunite ‘classic’ line-ups or simply a lack of compatibility that scuppers the chances of a new lead singer. Sometimes, the new boy can bugger it all up by himself, and few singers have managed to do so with such spectacular immediacy as Graham Bonnet when he brought his brief involvement with the Michael Schenker Group to an end on his very first gig.
Some background first, for those unfamiliar with the British metal scene of 1982.
The Michael Schenker Group was the vanity project of the former Scorpions and UFO guitarist, who was inexplicably popular in the early 1980s. Starting out as a solo project, MSG evolved into a ‘real’ group – admittedly one consisting of hired hands – with the second album. A hugely popular live album recorded at the Budokan in Japan telegraphed the band to the upper echelons of the metal scene, and a decision was made to capitalise on this success by pushing the band to the next level – which meant replacing vocalist Gary Barden with someone ‘better’ – which seemed to translate into ‘someone more famous’. Band manager Peter Mensch wanted David Coverdale, whose Whitesnake project – while popular in the UK – had failed to crack America and who might well have been looking for an excuse to shut it down and move on, but Schenker was perhaps wary of hiring the former Deep Purple frontman who was arguably more famous and successful than he was. His choice was Graham Bonnet.
Bonnet was, at that time (and still now) best known as the man who had replaced Ronnie James Dio in Rainbow, helping take the band away from the sword and sorcery style of the Dio years into a more commercial pop-metal sound in 1979. He was an unlikely metal singer for the time – short-haired, given to wearing suits and by his own admission, more of an R&B singer than Rock God who had recorded Bee Gees sound and been married to actress and pop star Adrienne Posta. But he had a powerful voice suited to classic rock operatics, and while the purists were appalled, the newly mainstreamed band had two big hit singles – Since You’ve Been Gone and All Night Long – that set the scene for the rest of their 1980s output. But his time with the band was short, lasting just one album before he moved on to a solo career. He had another hit single, Night Games, but by 1982 was open to offers.
Schenker’s insistence on Bonnet saw Mensch sever his connection with the band, and before long Cozy Powell – who had worked with Bonnet in Rainbow – and keyboardist Paul Raymond had also left. We shouldn’t read too much into this – the band were employees rather than equal members after all, and Powell in particular rarely stayed with any project for long. But this meant that the band was now made up entirely of unfamiliar faces, and fans were particularly horrified at how Barden had been brutally ousted, especially as he had also been Schenker’s co-writer on the songs featured on the previous two albums and therefore seemed an integral part of the band. Metal fans still looked at Bonnet with some suspicion – image mattered more back in 1982, and many still looked at his time with Rainbow as a sell-out by the band. While Rainbow fuhrer Richie Blackmore might have been the person responsible for that, Bonnet – with his pop star image and admitted disinterest in heavy rock – seemed easier to blame somehow. Rainbow was, at least, a traditional rock band rather than a NWOBHM act, which Schenker’s band seemed more a part of (even if the band leader was a German who had been around since the mid-Seventies).
Schenker and his new band pressed ahead with the third MSG studio album, the awkwardly-titled Assault Attack. Despite production by Martin Birch, the album was a generally lacklustre effort (complete with a dismal cover) and fans inevitably blamed Bonnet, who had replaced Barden as co-writer as well as singer. In truth, MSG was never more than a second-division band who had somehow or other become flavour of the month in metal circles, with forgettable songs and a live show that had to stop every few minutes to allow another Schenker guitar solo (I had a schoolmate who was a big fan, and so was dragged to the 1983 shows – and they were terrible). It’s entirely likely that their third album was always going to be the start of a decline that saw the band fizzle out.
And so we come to August 1982, when the new version of MSG had just issued the single Dancer – which fans seemed decidedly split by – and had a prestigious slot at the Reading Festival lined up in order to both introduce the new singer and plug the new album. To warm up for the show, the band played a gig at Sheffield Polytechnic the day before as part of a council-promoted event with cheap tickets. At which point everything went terribly, terribly wrong.
Bonnet, perhaps feeling nervous, had spent the whole day drinking with rock star chums after arguing with his new boss, and by the time the gig was due to start, he was in no fit state to impress an audience of cynical fans who didn’t even want him to be there in the first place. Having had no time to learn the old songs, he had taped the lyrics to the monitors – but as the crowd surged forward, the lyrics were torn off. The audience started to shout “fuck off” at Bonnet, and – perhaps unwisely – he rose to the occasion and swore back. Then – and things become a little vague at this point – he seemingly fell into the crowd and, on the way back to the stage, managed to burst his trousers open. Like all good rock stars, Bonnet wore no underwear, and Little Graham popped out, a moment of exposure that Bonnet foolishly decided to make a part of the show, waving his penis at the audience while still shouting abuse at them.
Now, there’s a time and place for drunken rock stars waving their cocks at audiences, but a gig by very serious and self-important guitarists on the verge of a big show is probably not it. As his performance entirely abandoned attempts at singing and instead degenerated into drunken abuse and willy-waving, Bonnet was ‘helped’ off stage by band members, who then struggled through a few instrumental numbers before winding the show up early. Any disappointment from fans at the curtailed performance was probably mitigated by the knowledge that they had just seen a thoroughly unique experience (one that, in those days before camera phones and social media, was sadly never recorded).
Bonnet was summarily fired the next morning. To the delight of fans, Barden was reinstated and chortled “surprise, surprise – you didn’t expect this, did you?” as he stepped onto the Reading stage. It was a short-lived triumph for the singer – there would be just one more MSG album before Schenker packed it in. Bonnet would go on to form Alcatrazz and then had a variety of short-lived projects.
But time and money are great healers. In 2016, Bonnet joined the other former MSG singers in the Michael Schenker Fest – an event with the guitarist reliving the glory days of his band – performing a few songs on a Japanese tour that was later expanded to other countries and live album a year later. This time, he managed to keep his trousers on.