To the average rock listener, if you ask them about the Scorpions, chances are they are familiar with the group’s most commercially successful period (1982-1990), when they scored such hit singles/videos as “No One Like You,” “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and “Winds of Change.” But to long-time fans, they know that there is a whole golden era of the band which remains woefully overlooked – the 1970’s.
It was during this decade that two lead guitarists – Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth – were part of the band (but never at the same time), and one the strength of such classic headbanging tunes as “Speedy’s Coming,” “Virgin Killer,” “The Sails of Charon,” and “Lovedrive,” helped lay down the groundwork for the German group’s big commercial breakthrough in the 1980’s.
Much about this era remains a mystery…until now. The new book, ‘German Metal Machine: Scorpions in the ’70s’ (by little old me, Greg Prato), is the first to ever focus solely on this period – for which past Scorpions members were interviewed (including Schenker and Roth), as well as renowned admirers of other bands, while a foreword is provided by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. And it turns out that none other than head Smashing Pumpkin, Billy Corgan, is a long time Scorpions fan – as he recounted for the book. Below are a few Billy excerpts.
Billy on how he first discovered the Scorpions:
I think they were sort of just getting success in Chicago on the radio with songs from ‘Lovedrive.’ Chicago was weird in that we had very strong radio for those type of bands. Chicago is one of the first markets that broke the Scorpions – the same with Rush. Actually, it’s funny – the same label, Mercury.
So I remember hearing some songs, liking them, and then a friend of mine had a bunch of their albums on import – the ’70s stuff. And I didn’t like it at first. It wasn’t like, “This is great.” My friend was trying to explain to me that there was this history before Michael Schenker, or he’d been in the band and then was out – what kids would talk about in basements back then. So I remember not liking the ’70s Scorpions much at all. I was more into the pop-y, later Scorpions.
It wasn’t until I bought ‘In Trance’ at a thrift store for a buck. I remember putting it on, and “Dark Lady” was the first song I heard. Sometimes, you just have the right song, the right day, the right stereo. I cranked it up, and I was like, “What the fuck is this guitar?!” I never put that piece together – maybe my friend didn’t have that album. And suddenly, I found myself obsessively listening to that album. Then I was like, “Who the hell is Uli Jon Roth, and how come I’ve never heard of this guy?”
And then you’d look and see that he was singing some of the songs, and you’re like, “Oh…he can’t sing.” [Laughs] And I knew who Klaus Meine was at this point, because it was probably getting a little bit more in the ’80s. So it was kind of that weird thing, because from the perspective of 1984, Klaus Meine is this big singer, and I’m thinking, “Why did the other guy sing, when he’s a smoking guitar player?” I couldn’t put those pieces together at all. It made no sense in sort of “reverse engineering” – and no ability to Google and look something up. So that started this romance with the ’70s Scorpions.
Discussing the Scorpions’ music:
I tend to gravitate toward when bands get their act together. I think ‘Virgin Killer’ is an album when they’re still trying to figure it out. I think when you get a little deeper in the Uli era, when you get to ‘Tokyo Tapes,’ that’s where they’re really starting to come together and you start to hear the shades of the band that went on to be a big “MTV band.” Because it’s not the best comparison, but the Scorpions are a little bit like a blues band, in that their formulas are really, really simple. Melodically they’re complicated, but their formulas are really, really simple.
And every album, they seem to refine that formula in a way that’s almost hard to distinguish, because it’s more subtle changes, and I do think – from my own experiences – probably the amount of touring that they did had a lot to do with it. They’d write an album like ‘Virgin Killer,’ go out and play it on the road, and go, “OK, if we do this a little bit different, and do this…” I think consciously or subconsciously would infiltrate their thinking on subsequent albums.
Which is why I think in a way, the Scorpions flew under the popular radar for so long – because there isn’t really that one definitive ’70s album. There isn’t really that one definitive ’70s body of work – when you compare it to when they get huge. Like, I recently listened to ‘Love at First Sting’ – there’s like, five fucking hit songs on the thing. That’s when it all really comes together. That’s a ten-year journey that they were on. I think what makes the Scorpions cool from a “rock n’ roll listener point of view” is because you know they had the success later on, when you go back into the ’70s catalog, you can kind of go looking for those pieces that made them stand out later.
And also, you can kind of play a “What if?” game. Like, “What if Michael Schenker had stayed? Would they have been as pop-y, or would they have been bigger in a different way?” And I did see the Michael Schenker Group in I think ’82 and the Scorpions in ’84, so I did get to at least see them in “the prime years.” And even though I didn’t see Michael in the Scorpions, I kind of saw what he brought to the table. I had some sort of understanding. And then when I got to know Uli, and ask him all those 10,000 fan questions.
The Scorpions’ influence on a specific Smashing Pumpkins tunes:
Definitely “Dark Lady” [was an influence on Smashing Pumpkins]. The intro and the vibe is very reminiscent of a song we have, called “Tarantula.” We named it “Tarantula” in ode to the Scorpions.
Read another excerpt here.
Ordering info here: