One of my earliest impressions of the power of rock ‘n roll was the gatefold sleeve of the Scorpions’ 1985 World Wide Live album: a fisheyed photo, taken from the stage, of a crowd that extended literally as far as the eye could see, flanked by a year’s-worth of Scorpions tour dates, many from countries that I didn’t even know had stadiums to fill.
Today the Scorpions, a veteran German melodic metal quintet best known for their melodramatic power-ballads (and a run of tasteless, Spinal Tap-inspiring album covers), are a charming, knowing anomaly in their approach to creating music. Four decades into their career, they recorded their new album, Humanity – Hour 1, "in the style as if the music industry was still in the ’80s," according to lead guitarist Matthias Jabs.
"We went over [to Los Angeles], spent almost four months working with the most expensive, and we thought the best, people for us," he explains, in a Teutonic timbre seldom associated with rock & roll. "You know, the hotel costs in L.A.–need I mention more–for the whole band and crew . . . It was a very expensive production and basically, with today’s situation, we knew we can never get that back, unless we have a big hit off the album. But we still wanted to do it though because whatever we do we try to do it with quality and style. There’s no way we would go ‘let’s record an album with our laptops in the basement’–we would never do that."
It’s these single-minded high standards–not to mention some deft songwriting, Klaus Meine’s acrobatically emotive, distinctively-accented vocals and some unusually tuneful guitar histrionics–that propelled the Scorpions to global success in the ’80s and, against the grunge tide, made them perhaps unlikely survivors into the ’90s (mostly thanks to ubiquitous 1990 ballad "Wind of Change") and beyond. Though cell phone / Zippo-raisers like "Wind of Change", "Holiday" and "Loving You Sunday Morning" have paid the Scorps’ bills, those of a more metallic leaning get into a dandruff-dispersing frenzy over their more adrenalized ’80s staples like "The Zoo" and "Blackout".
While all but absent from American airwaves these days, the Scorps still boast impressive people-pulling power: on Saturday they headline Universal City’s 6000-capacity Gibson Amphitheatre; the day after my chat with Jabs they played a 15,000-seater in Detroit; they’re household names in much of Asia (they stopped counting after their recent "best of" album went 20-times platinum in Thailand); and play to vast, rabid crowds in Latin America.
"The more south the better for us," Jabs laughs. "Most of the people don’t know we are German, in the beginning . . . even in America they thought we were British, because we had this accent!" In another decidedly, but deliberately, dated move, the Scorps enlisted songwriter Desmond Child (best known for writing ’80s hits for the likes of Bon Jovi and Aerosmith) and his team to co-write both music and lyrics for Humanity–Hour 1 (yes, a concept album of sorts).
"In our history we haven’t [worked with outside writers] too often," Jabs explains. "Most of the songs until the late ’80s /early ’90s were just written by band members . . . but if you’ve been together for as long as we have then it’s an advantage to get some outside creativity, because you’re inspired in a different way by someone who doesn’t know you so well."
Unusually for bands of their ilk and age, the Scorpions have retained their most recognizable members: the classic "frontline" of Jabs, Meine and founding rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker (now augmented by drummer James Kottak and bassist Pawel Maciwoda). And while Humanity has its cringey throwback moments (including, seriously, a refrain of "3-2-1, are you ready to rock?" in a song called, err, "321"), it’s harmlessly listenable and sounds like a real band who’re still trying.
"The fans are usually very conservative–they want you to sound like you sounded back in 1980! We realized that we couldn’t make a step left or right–or one step maybe, but not more than one," says Jabs, referring to the decidedly mixed response to 1996′s softer Pure Instinct collection and 1999′s pop/techno-tinted Eye II Eye.
But after fifteen studio albums, why even created another (money-losing) album at all?
"First of all we are still touring a lot and enjoy playing on stage the most," says Jabs. "For us it’s very important to refresh our live set. We have so many songs to choose from so we can alter the set list all the time. We all know we have to play the big songs, the classics, fans obviously expect that, but to refresh our live set and play a couple of new songs–that is something we are all really going for."
With all due respect–’cos Humanity – Hour 1 really is a solid effort–a Scorps show today really is all about their enviable back-catalogue of robust, hairbrush-microphone sing-along’s, executed with rare precision, pride, and a welcome sense of pre-Cobain showmanship.
The Scorpions play Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City this Saturday; and Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio this Sunday.