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Fifty Years In, The Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker Takes Us Back To the First Sting

The German hard rock lifer talks krautrock, chemistry, and the Beatles on the eve of the Scorpions' 50th anniversary.
September 10, 2015, 8:18pm

Photo by Oliver Rath

Scorpions are celebrating fifty years—that’s fifty years. Guitarist Rudolf Schenker formed the band in 1965 in the small town of Sarstedt, Germany not far from Hanover, just a few years after those lads from Liverpool hit American shores. It’s sort of hard to wrap your head around it, considering that the Scorpions didn’t release their debut LP, Lonesome Crow, until 1972, or see major success in the States for another decade after that.

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The band is currently touring in celebration of this most august of milestones, and also have a new record out called Return to Forever. A new documentary on the band entitled Forever and a Day will makes its way stateside this month, too, but I wanted to go back to those early days when the band was a group of young mop tops pilfering Stones and Beatles riffs (not to be confused with Manchester, England’s Scorpions who had the hit “Hello, Josephine” in 1965), before going on to make their own.

Noisey caught up with Schenker to talk about life in post-war Germany, the early days of rock'n'roll, and how the Pretty Things showed him the way of the riff.

Noisey: What was the music scene like in Sarstedt when you started? Was there a music scene?
Rudolf Schenker: I hated German radio, because there was no rock'n'roll on the radio. When my parents went to go dancing, I had the radio for myself. I was looking always into these kind of short-wave and mid-wave radio stations, and I was ending up in radio Montecarlo [Italy] and some of this pirate radio. So I was creating my own music scene in my mind. In Hanover, there was, of course, Top 40. Bands were playing on the weekends. And, of course, I always went there to see what kinds of bands were playing, and how they played, and what I could learn from the guitar playing.

And how did you become part of that?
When we first started playing… OK, first of all, I was into rock'n'roll—Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis—and for me it was more fun to be an only singer with a backing band. Everything changed when this Britishw wave with Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds came in. My feeling was that, here are four, five friends traveling around the world and playing music—I will do the same. That was, for me, the momentum to look for people I can play music with.

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Of course, the first songs we played were by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and also the Pretty Things. I became a big fan of the Pretty Things because they were more dirty than the Rolling Stones. I started with the drummer, who was a neighbor, and then we got other musicians into it. Everything was really a little bit amateur status until I found Klaus in 1969. In Klaus I found somebody who had the same dreams as me. And we started writing our own songs.

Now obviously, Scorpions didn’t release their first record until 1972. Are there any recordings prior to that?
Of course! In those days we did a lot of recordings, especially my father, who came with us in the early days. When we formed the band, nobody had a driver’s license. So in this case my father was so friendly—first of all, he was spending money so we could buy our equipment—but also he said, “All right, when you need someone to drive, I’ll drive you guys.” He was recording a lot of stuff when we were doing cover versions. There are tapes lying around. I’ve had no time so far, and I can’t find someone who is trustworthy enough to go into the library and get something together. We also have some old recordings from somebody else, but the technology in the studios was so bad that we didn’t even bother playing them to other people.

It came to the point in 1971 when I ran into [producer] Conny Plank (who’d later work with Kraftwerk on their classic 1974 album Autobahn) at a studio I’d booked because we had an offer to do the soundtrack for a film called Das Kalte Paradies, which was an anti-drug film. He said, “Hey guys, I want to produce you.” That was the beginning—from then nearly every year we did an album.

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Tell me about growing up in post-war Germany, and how that influenced your music.
When Germany became a more krautrock country, we didn’t want to play krautrock. We already decided early on that we wanted to sing in English and play international music. I did the management in those days, and I pushed to get into international markets like France, Holland and Belgium. This, actually, was good for us to deliver the music we were going to play. It got to the point where we got very good reviews from France, from Belgium, and also from England. And the German media started thinking, “One moment, is this the Scorpions? The Scorpions from Germany?” And it was the German Scorpions.

What led you to eventually start playing the riff-heavy rock you’re best known for?
I really like the Beatles, no question about it, because they’re a fantastic band. On the other hand, they are too clean for me, too nice, too poppy. The Rolling Stones—this type of music was a little bit more dark, it sounded dangerous, and it was more how I was feeling. That’s the reason why I believe in the beginning we played songs by the Pretty Things—I played the riff from “L.S.D.” and other riffs from the Yardbirds. I loved to play the songs with guitar riffs. My brother Michael grew up with me, and I turned him on to music, and he also liked the heavy kind of sound—that’s the reason he joined the Scorpions and later went into UFO.

And how did meeting Klaus Meine in 1969 change things?
That’s the good thing about how Klaus and I came together. Klaus’s voice is very nice, and he came from a different background. He was a big fan of the Beatles and bands like the Bee Gees. So when we came together we somehow found a way to make it work. And that was the basic idea—to have a good guitar riff and a good vocal line. With Uli Jon Roth, he was more of a Jimi Hendrix fan, and we had two different styles—the Klaus Meine-Rudolf Schenker sound, and the Uli Jon Roth sort of Jimi Hendrix kind of sound. And later on when Uli left the band, we really found our style.

Which record from those early years do you think really captures the Scorpions sound?
I think Lovedrive is actually the one that really had the signature Scorpions sound. And it was also a big success around the world. It went to number 55 immediately in the American charts. It went into the English charts, the German charts.

The Scorpions has a slow progression toward success—I mean, you didn’t really hit it big in America until Love At First Sting. Do you think the band could’ve lasted it wasn’t for the chemistry?
We really celebrated the 80s very much, with all of the touring—it was a fantastic time. It shows that when you really build up slowly, you can work on your chemistry. That’s what’s important—the chemistry in a band. Scorpions were a gang.

Mark Lore is looking back to the days of yore on Twitter - @thedaysoflore