In 2010, German rock band the Scorpions released what was supposed to be their final album and embarked on a farewell tour. Five years and three “farewell” tours later, they’re ready to rock the Barclays Center (like a hurricane) on September 12 as they celebrate 50 years as a band and the release of one more “final” album, Return to Forever.
Founding guitarist Rudolf Schenker, now 67, insists the band truly has been trying to call it quits, but the public won’t let them. “We took this serious,” he says of the prior farewells, “because we didn’t want to go onstage too old, or with half-power. But what we found out, when the farewell tour ends, [was that] we have lots of fans…and the majority of these fans are between 16 and 28. [A] brand-new generation. Also, we found out on this tour how much the people like our music and what it means to them that we play and that we’re still around.”
Speaking from his studio in Hannover, having just returned from judging a fireworks competition in Berlin, Schenker betrays a high-wattage enthusiasm that outshines his heavy accent. “We want to leave, but nobody let us go,” he explains. “So that’s a good thing. That’s a good situation.”
According to his memoir-cum–self-help book, Rock Your Life, Schenker decided at age fifteen that he wanted to be a writer. (“Ich möchte Schriftsteller werden,” he told his mother.) His mom pointed out the impracticality of this, given that his father was an engineer, a “man of logic.” Ironically, within two years, young Schenker had refocused his sights on a profession of equal if not greater improbability — rock music — and, in 1965, started the Scorpions.
“I was not a fan of German music, Schlager music. Terrible,” he recalls over the phone. “When I heard [for] the first time Elvis and Little Richard, I said, ‘This is my music.’ It was not the time for me to start playing guitar because I didn’t like to be alone onstage, but when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came, they inspired me. I said to myself, ‘Yes. That’s what I want to do: four or five friends traveling around the world and playing music to all the people.’ ”
In the mid-Sixties, half of Germany lived under Soviet rule, but the whole country lived in the shadow of World War II. By 1982, when Schenker had already penned some of the Scorpions’ most enduring hits, he resolved to play in Russia someday. “You know from the history, the Germans in the end of the Second World War were going into Russia,” he says, explaining his desire to change the Russians’ perception of his country. “Here’s a new generation growing up from Germany. They’re not coming with tanks and making war. They’re coming with guitars and bringing love and peace.” As self-appointed cultural ambassadors, the group became the first German band to perform in the Soviet Union, doing so in 1988. The following year, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Scorpions commemorated the event in their 1990 song “Wind of Change,” described by Schenker as “the soundtrack of the most peaceful revolution on earth.”
There’s some kind of rock ‘n’ roll poetry in this elevation of a simple song to a more universal message. Here’s a band whose album covers have depicted a man pulling bubblegum off a woman’s breast (Lovedrive) and the ass-view of a guy in jeans with a kneeling woman (and a doberman) gazing up at him imploringly (Animal Magnetism). It’s not profound stuff. But then there’s the haunting “Still Loving You,” a perfect power ballad if there ever was one. There’s the legacy of two former guitarists who’ve passed through the Scorpions’ ranks — Uli Jon Roth (a legend in his own right) and Michael Schenker (of UFO, and Rudolf’s younger brother) — whose contributions added extra musical heft to the records on which they appeared. There’s the fact of over 75 million albums sold worldwide and tours touching every continent save two (and they may yet make it to Australia, says Schenker). And then there’s the footage of the Wall coming down, set to a whistled melody. Somewhere along the line, this group, who write lyrics in their second language, became bigger than just a rock band. They’ve become a symbol of international goodwill.
“We always were trying to build bridges between a generation,” Schenker says, “between countries and different parts of the world, different philosophies. And we always tried to really be ambassadors, to show the people music is something very important, and it can bring people together.”
The sentiment is decidedly more hippie than hair metal. (The Scorpions sometimes get unduly lumped into the latter category because of the decade in which they peaked, but they never wore enough makeup or had hair big enough to warrant it.) While other stadium-rock groups fizzled in the Nineties during the rise of grunge and alternative, Schenker says the Scorpions never had to fight those trends, because they had cultivated such a massive fan base in Russia and Asia. The bridges they’d built kept their career alive.
And so, half a century past the genesis of the band, a world of fans will not let them stop making music. For now, that suits Rudolf Schenker just fine. In his words: “We want to play everywhere where electricity is.”
The Scorpions play the Barclays Center September 12. For ticket information, click here.