A Gibson Thunderbird slung low. Too low, really, but no one cared, least of all the man wielding it, galloping around the stage like some kind of coke-fuelled maniac – which he was – flaying the watching hordes like he was the best bass player in the world, which, to many, he also was. That was a generation ago, when Pete Way and his band, UFO, plundered their way through Europe and America on a diet of drugs and debauchery, leaving as their legacy some of the finest melodic rock music of that era, albums which still sound good today.
Peter Frederick Way is 63. He is no longer a member of UFO. The band have gone one way. He’s gone another. They speak all the time, he says. Phil Mogg, the singer, is his best mate. In a recent interview drummer Andy Parker revealed how much the band missed him. Pete’s doing his own thing now; a solo album called Walking On The Edge, produced by famed rock console-tweaker Mike Clink, which would have been released this year it if hadn’t been for a battle with prostate cancer. Thankfully, he was given the all-clear in July.
Pete was a late starter on the bass guitar. “I was 15 when I started,” he says. “I’d picked up an acoustic guitar a few times but I didn’t stick with it. In 1966, when I was 15, I met Mick Bolton [original UFO guitar player]. I wanted to be in a band with him, so I took up the bass. It looked simple, and it was loud. I liked that.”
It took him five years to get anywhere near proficient. He used to spend entire days in guitar shops on the old Tottenham Court Road, playing basses he couldn’t afford, watching other bassists and copping the best bits of their techniques. “Back then, everyone played with their fingers,” he recalls. “So that’s what I did. My right hand style came, as much as anything, from those days in the guitar shops, watching the other players, copying them.”
These days, he plays with his fingers and a pick. “I always did, although not everyone knows that,” he says. “‘Let It Roll’, for example [from UFO’s 1974 album Force It] was done with a pick. Ron Nevison [former UFO producer] always encouraged me to play the way I wanted to play, but for that one, he specifically asked me to play with a pick. He wanted that harder, cleaner sound. I used Dunlop medium gauge picks. I still do.”
Looking back on those albums, it’s hard to pick a favourite bass-line, he says. It’s almost like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. “Oh man… now you’re asking. I like ‘Love To Love’. I love what Michael [Schenker, guitarist] plays on that song. I remember him saying to me in the studio, ‘You play something else, something higher.’”
“We did that a lot. I’d play around and find a counter-melody, something that would complement what Michael was playing. It was all about the song, what was best for the song. Always. That’s how I stumbled across that climbing counter melody.”
He adds: “I like ‘Lights Out’. It’s not particularly hard to play, but it’s powerful. I like ‘Cherry’ [from the 1978 album Obsession]. People still ask me to play ‘Cherry’. I’ve heard a few other bassists play it, and they play it wrong: you need that D string throbbing in the background as you play the melody high up on the G string.”
It’s a riff Steve Harris has used as the template for a dozen or more Iron Maiden songs. “Haha, well Steve used to come to see us a lot in the early days,” says Pete. “He’d be down the front at the old Marquee. He said nice things about me, and I think it’s fair to say he didn’t just take the stripey trousers as an influence.”
Do you like his playing? “Well, yeah. You always know it’s him, don’t you? He has an immediately recognisable style. I’m not overly keen on the clicking, the fret buzz, but that’s part of his style, it’s part of his rhythm. He’s a good bloke, Steve. I like him.”
In the early days, as Pete became more accomplished, picking up licks from John Paul Jones, Roger Glover and Geezer Butler, so did his gear. “I always used Marshalls. As I got more money, I’d stack them up like Lego, all these 4×12” cabs, through 100 watt heads – loud, but with a bit of growl, you know – until someone at Marshall noticed and started giving them to me.”
In the studio, he used a little Ampeg combo. “It was Boz [Burrell, of Bad Company, who died in 2006], God bless him, who turned me onto that. It wouldn’t have been loud enough to play a pub, but it had this really sweet sound. I did most of the UFO albums with that.”
Phil Mogg bought Pete his first Thunderbird. “I had an old Fender Precision at first. And then I saw someone playing a Thunderbird and I knew I had to have one. It just looked so fucking cool, you know? You couldn’t get them in the UK. Phil went to America to do some interviews and I said: ‘If you see one of those Thunderbirds, get me one’. And he did. He bought one in New York.”
That was it. It was a marriage made in rock heaven. For the next 20 years, that’s virtually all he played. Few bassists did more to elevate the profile of the Thunderbird than Pete Way. “I used to hear people saying, ‘Oh, the neck is too thin’. Man, I loved that thin neck. I never got neck dive either. If you get neck dive, it’s your bass telling you that you need a longer strap. You’ve got play it down there.”
He was lucky, he says, because Gibson used to give them to him – “which was great” – until, one day, they just stopped. He doesn’t know why. He just knows they stopped. They stopped giving Michael Schenker Flying Vs, too.
“I suppose they had other young up-and-coming bass players they wanted to give them to. I don’t know,” he muses. “Washburn used to give me basses and then they stopped, too, although I know why that was. I used a Washburn at the end of a show. I’d throw ’em around and smash ’em up a bit.
“One night, we had a gig in Chicago and the chairman of Washburn came to see us with his son. It got to the end of the show and I smashed one up and, of course, he saw it.” Pete was never sent a Washburn again.
Today, Pete has an eclectic collection of basses. Old Gibson Thunderbirds; a couple of Fender Precisions; three or four bespoke Ibanez basses, based on the T-Bird but modified for him at the Ibanez factory in California; and an Epiphone Thunderbird. “I bought it from a guitar shop. I thought it was nice. I was a bit worried about the pickups – I wondered if they’d be as powerful as the Gibson – but I figured: ‘Well, if they’re not, I’ll change them’. I took it into the studio and it sounded beautiful. I’ve still got it. I’ve used Warwicks in the studio, too.”
He doesn’t practise much, he admits, but, then again, he never really did. “We played, man. We learned our trade on stage. There were times, if I’m honest, when I was perhaps a little bit worse for wear on stage, but I swear to God, I knew those songs so well, I could have played them with one hand tied behind my back. I could have played them with my eyes closed, lying down.”
Isn’t that what you occasionally did, we remind him?
“Yeah, haha! I always used to play ‘Rock Bottom’ lying down. That was Michael’s song. I’d find a space just far enough away from Andy Parker’s bass drum and lie down. Leave him to it.”
The showmanship, the tight pants, running around with his shirt off: it was never an act, he says. “It was just natural. I was excited. The music made me want to run around. Steve Harris would tell you the same thing. The only time it was ever a problem was if I stood in front of Phil when he was singing or if I trod on Michael’s pedals. He didn’t like that.”
He concludes: “I like watching bands with energy. I like to see a bass player who means it. That’s always been more important to me than the number of notes he’s playing.”