The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part Two: Scorpions (post-1993)
I’m finally back with the next installment of The Metal Pigeon Recommends, a recurring series that I launched late last year with ten song look at Falconer. I know… it’s been awhile, and I’m going to try to not have as long of a gap in between future installments. So in case you need a refresher on what this is all about and don’t feel like clicking that link, I’ll pull a quote from that inaugural installment that spells out my intended goal here:
This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration and motivation in writing this blog, that being the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them.
I recently had drop in my lap a copy of the newest live album by the Scorpions, their 2013 MTV Unplugged CD/DVD combo recorded live in Athens at the Lycabettus Theatre. It was an interesting release, with atypical track listing, featuring re-workings of some of the band’s classics, deep album cuts, along with a few new songs. I’m not trying to sell you on it… its worth checking out on YouTube or Spotify, but some of the re-workings through “cajun” or bluesy-country filters weren’t entirely successful. Also there’s simply no way you can convincingly deliver “Rock You Like A Hurricane” in an acoustic setting, as the lyric “the bitch is hungry… so give her inches and feed her well” certainly demands a massive wail of amplification behind it (if only to sonically mask its oblique misogyny). It was however cool to hear Klaus Meine deliver some songwriting anecdotes behind hits like “Big City Nights” (it’s what came to their mind when seeing the Tokyo skyline for the first time), and “Passion Rules the Game” (about Las Vegas apparently), and the documentary included within got me waxing nostalgically about the legacy of a band that is often misunderstood and very overlooked.
I’m not naive enough to suggest that the Scorpion’s golden 70s/80s era is not recognized as classic by rock and metal fans/media around the world, because it clearly is —- but what’s overlooked is just how incredibly deep and rich the band’s latter day studio output has been. And by latter day I’m not referring to the early nineties Crazy World album with its monumental hit “Wind of Change”, and the beautiful “Send Me an Angel” —- nor am I including their 1993 Face the Heat album (for all its relative lack of success, it’s videos were on MTV a lot). For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing specifically on the Scorpions’ studio output from 1996 and onwards. These include ignored albums like 1996’s Pure Instinct and 2004’s Unbreakable, and much maligned efforts like 1999’s Eye II Eye. Mainstream music press coverage during the majority of this era had disappeared for the band in all but the most steadfast of markets (mostly in Europe and Asia), and even the rock/metal press tended to take only glancing listens at the band’s new music during this time. Its unfortunate because what most people thought of as irrelevant new albums by a band entering its dinosaur period were really interesting, albeit admittedly flawed albums by a veteran band aware of their strengths, yet keen on experimentation. There were also gems aplenty on all these releases, but if you’re wary of diving in blind, let me shed some light on this particular era of the Scorpions nearly fifty year career by spotlighting the following ten cuts, done so in the spirit of the wonderfully goofy title of their 1989 greatest hits album, The Best of Rockers ‘N’ Ballads:
Wild Child (from 1996’s Pure Instinct)
Behold the flat out greatest Scorpion’s “rocker” of the 90’s, and one of two tracks from 1996’s flawed Pure Instinct album that would fit right into a classic Scorpions playlist. The primary riff at work here is so perfect, so colossal in all its hard rock majesty, that I’d rank it up there in their top five riffs of all time —- a bold claim I know! Maybe its that the riff is actually introduced via bagpipes to start the song, those celtic tones setting our expectations for something epic. Rudolf Schenker uses the riff as a bookend of sorts to introduce and finish verse/chorus fragments, in effect making the riff into a motif. He and lead guitarist Mathias Jabs use tense, sharp picking to complement Curt Cress’ huge, tribal drums in the verse —- before splashing out in semi-restrained fashion for the chorus. Meine’s vocal delivery here is molded after classic Scorpions cuts, with short, angular verse phrasing followed by an arcing display of melodicism in the chorus. You’ve heard this pattern on all their greatest hits (the rockers I mean), and there are few better than the songwriting duo of Meine/Schenker at crafting these adrenaline pumping anthems.
The subject matter he’s singing about should be fairly obvious, with all his bawdy talk about complaining neighbors, burning beds, and Sunday mornings. Speaking of which, notice the specificity of the day of the week and time of day in relation to the lyric “God knows what life will bring / This Sunday morning… without a warning” —- Meine’s no fool, the very suggestion that this salacious tale he’s telling us about occurred during church hours automatically makes it saucier. How much Catholic guilt has this song caused? How many future Catholics were conceived while this was playing? On a Sunday morning no less?! I don’t often comment on songs pontificating about this topic, for obvious reasons really, there’s only so much someone can analyze lyrics about libido and carnal hunger, but I’m a fan of word play and clever turns of phrase. That’s the difference between “Wild Child” and a lyrical clunker like “Rock You Like A Hurricane”, whose lyrics were penned in large part by ex-Scorpions drummer Herman Rarebell. No offense to Rarebell, but the lyrics on that song read like a really bad, nonsensical piece of erotic poetry. Meine (who’s written his share of bad lyrics) at least employs a small measure of artistry when he tries hard enough, no matter the subject matter, often to spectacular results as on the admitedly overplayed but still gorgeous “Wind of Change” (because “Let your balalaika sing / What my guitar wants to say” is still one of the greatest lines in rock history).
Where the River Flows (from 1996’s Pure Instinct)
It was the spacey, jangly, odd man out on an album full of rather typical Scorpions “rockers n’ ballads”, a not-quite-a-ballad but not a rocker either that was ushered along by some unusually vague and dreamy lyrics. It would be unfair to cast aspersions on what exactly the Scorpions were trying to accomplish with “Where the River Flows” —- was this their attempt at generating an alternative rock friendly radio cut? Or was it instead an oddball deep album cut that some beleaguered record exec with few ideas on how to market an aging German hard rock band to an indifferent American market decided to release as a single? I’m betting on the latter, as this was actually the fifth and final single to be released from Pure Instinct, a shot in the dark at getting the album some airplay, and indeed, I have a very clear memory of staying up late one night listening to the radio on headphones (so the parents wouldn’t hear) when the Scorpions made a RockLine appearance in part to promote the release of this very single. Its worth noting that in 1995, a year prior to Pure Instinct’s release, the alternative rock band Collective Soul scored a number one modern rock single with their own song called, you betcha… “Where the River Flows”.
All that extraneous info aside, this was an unexpected highlight of an admittedly average album, its lilting, chiming refrain seemed to share something in common with a nineties streak of spiritual optimism found in bands like The Cranberries. Part of that is owed to the loose strumming of a jangly acoustic guitar alongside cleanly plucked electric tones, but I think there’s something within the songwriting and lyricism itself that is more of a culprit. Meine’s lyrics are at once an embrace of the mid-nineties social idealism prevalent during the time as well as a throwback to their 70’s Uli Jon Roth hippie-kissed Fly to the Rainbow era, particularly through the contrast of life as “bleeding” in suburban/urban environs when compared the idyllic pastoral of setting of a house down by a river. Its all a metaphor of course, for the urge to remove yourself from the dreary, mundane reality of everyday life to a place you romanticize in your memories of childhood. Its about finding a way to mentally bring yourself to that safe space, where “dreams are never ending” —- a sentiment that is further reinforced by carefully juxtaposed minor key verses followed by major key refrains. And while the original album recording is good, I find that the version recorded for their aforementioned MTV Unplugged release is far superior. Harmonica, slide guitar, accordion, harmonized backing vocals and a complete acoustic guitar approach give the song a loose, alt-country feel that brings to mind a rustic Ryan Adams track. I love this particular version so much that I posted its video in lieu of the original studio version, but go ahead and give both a listen to compare.
Eye to Eye (from 1999’s Eye II Eye)
Ah yes, Eye II Eye, the band’s infamous attempt at creating a “pop” album. Torn apart in the rock and metal press upon it’s release and even regarded as a discography eyesore in retrospect by largely everyone, I will contend that despite its misguided and ill executed approach, this album had a couple of hidden gems worth taking note of. While awkward experiments like “To Be No. 1”, “Aleyah”, “Priscilla”, and the truly baffling “Freshly Squeezed” presented a forced, late-90’s funky electro-pop influence that seemed as foreign to our German rockers as a bowl of borscht, the album was stocked with ballads that were more in line with the band’s comfort zone. I have a soft spot for songs like “What U Give U Get Back” (despite its juvenile misspelling) where the band utilizes some veteran R&B singers like the talented James Ingram and Siedah Garrett to spectacular effect —- particularly towards the end where their voices tend to take center stage in accenting runs over Meine’s lead vocal. I also like “Obsession”, despite its woeful electronic drums (why would you do that with James Kottak available?), and the simple piano ballad “A Moment in a Million Years”, which for all its lack of electronic production noise seems oddly out of place.
As mildly enjoyable as those few ballads are, they’re overshadowed by the album’s one truly great (okay, near-great) song, the title track “Eye to Eye”. Its a ballad that eschews traditional romantic subject matter, instead serving as an emotional tribute to the memory of Meine and Schenker’s fathers. Both of them had passed in the time leading up to the recording of Eye II Eye, and so amidst all the confusion and self-aware bidding for late 90’s marketability, the Scorpions managed to deliver one of their most personal songs to date. I’d love to hear the band do a live, even acoustic version of this tune someday (missed opportunity with the MTV Unplugged it seems), because the electronic drums and looping sound effects are a bit of a shame. They’re distracting noise to the realization that there is a genuinely well written composition at work here. The verses are subdued, sombre meditations on the transience of life and loss, and the most telling lyric is epic in its implied meaning, “When you came home the war was over / So many years before my time / I was so proud the day you told me / You haven’t hurt anyone”. Meine was born in Hannover, Germany in 1948 in the shadow of World War II; his father as you can probably gather, was a soldier during that conflict. Speaking to Cyril Helnwein (son of Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, who did the album art for Blackout), Meine and Schenker both reflected on growing up in post-war Germany:
Klaus Meine: We were definitely aware of the past. In the 50s and 60s
they had this German “hit music” in Germany and the music we were
inspired by was English and American music. After the war there was a
kind of depression in Germany and the sad past with the holocaust was
something that were always aware of. We see ourselves as a sort of
musical ambassador to Germany, showing people that Germans can also
bring something positive into the world.
Rudolf Schenker: Due to Germany’s past we were plagued by a shadow of
guilt and we grew up without patriotic pride. We were careful to
present ourselves in a positive way when we were in other countries,
and to musically turn around the German picture and show people that
not only war but also good music can come out of Germany.
I find it interesting that there’s a shade of German guilt that seeps through that lyric, whether or not Meine intended it that way. The Scorpions were never the most autobiographical of bands, choosing instead to follow a tack similar to that of Def Leppard, whose own Joe Elliot was open about the narrative content of his band’s songs being largely fictionalized. I’m hard pressed to think of another Scorpions song that was about the real feelings of its songwriter, not just the imaginary perspective of a faceless narrator.
Maybe I Maybe You (from 2004’s Unbreakable)
This gem of a ballad was somehow sandwiched into the middle of Unbreakable, which after the critical and commercial failure of Eye II Eye was the band’s over-correcting attempt to get back to their rockin’ roots. I say over-correcting because while there’s some decent stuff on the album in the way of “rockers”, so much of it seems forced and as equally contrived as Eye II Eye’s worst “pop” moments were. Take the album opener “New Generation”, where not even a fairly decent riff could salvage the banal lyrics in the refrain (I’ll spare you). There was another decent ballad on the album called “She Said”, while not entirely inspired, it did have something pleasant in the way of melodies. But its “Maybe I, Maybe You” that gets my nod for being the standalone highlight of the album —- and its inclusion was a bit of a head scratcher as its actual composition predates even the 1999 release of Eye II Eye. Speaking of composition, the music for the song was actually written by Anoushiravan Rohani, the celebrated Persian composer and pianist, who said that he specifically crafted the melodies with Meine’s vocals in mind. As a result, the song is a sparse piano ballad with echoing, gorgeous keys, and plenty of space for Meine’s meditative lyrics to float over the top.
As far as comeback albums go, Unbreakable was only successful in the band’s strongest territories in Europe, Greece, and various other overseas locations. But “Maybe I Maybe You” seemed to have a successful run of its own as an album cut that was never promoted as a single. If you do a search on YouTube for the song, you’ll find the usual plethora of fan made videos for it cut to collages of romantic or spiritual imagery (one of whom has garnered over 2 million views, amazing numbers for an album cut), but you’ll also find a surprising number of “covers” done on central European “American Idol” television programs. Yes programs —- plural. I’m not kidding, this song is seemingly the ballad of choice for male crooners hoping to win X-Factor Ukraine, among other such competitions (I found one contestant actively seeking to emulate Klaus Meine’s look right down to the kangol hat!). There’s some oddities in the YouTube search as well, such as a music video for a cover done by a group calling themselves the Russian Army Choir (I’m suspicious since their uniforms in the video look like rentals from a costume shop). Its all a little perplexing to an outsider like myself, but its symptomatic of the band’s international success —- it didn’t matter if Unbreakable bombed in America, clearly it did well in other places.
The Game of Life (from 2007’s Humanity: Hour I)
What if I told you that the Scorpions recorded a quasi-conceptual album about a dystopian/post-apocalyptic future after a war between machines and humanity —- would you believe me? Well if you already knew about Humanity: Hour I’s origins then I suppose you would, but this must be some far out info for those of you were in the dark about this. Its a real thing, but don’t expect it to be a concept album in the vein of Operation: Mindcrime or Scenes From a Memory. I called it quasi-conceptual in large part because only the first song of the album, “Hour I”, sets the conceptual backdrop for the rest of the album, which are largely songs devoted to familiar Scorpions topics of romance, loss, and self-motivation/inspiration. What’s interesting is that the rest of these independent album tracks are colored in different ways by the futuristic/apocalyptic theme created by “Hour I”. Take “The Game of Life” for example, where lines that might’ve been considered over-dramatic in another context such as “In the game of life we live and die / Another breath begins / Another chance to win the fight”, now have an added gravity because you’re imagining the narrator and whomever he’s singing to running for their lives through a ruined urban wasteland.
I like that imaginative effect, and while its not always entirely successful (as “rockers” like 321″ which lyrically would fit on any Scorpions album), it does go a long way in giving the album a darker, more moody feel. This is also propelled along by Schenker and Jabs detuning their guitars for the majority of the heavier songs, and “The Game of Life” is no exception. This is an urgent, tension fueled gem of a song with an excellent chorus that is almost Bon Jovi-ian in its “us against the world” angst. The pop factor that makes it work so well is the elephant in the room, because while the Scorpions certainly know their way around writing catchy hooks, the songs on this album are co-written with professional songwriters Desmond Child (who headed up production on this album, and whose storyline served as it’s inspirational jumping off point), Marti Frederiksen, and oddly enough ex-Hooters lead vocalist Eric Bazilian. The presence of professional studio songwriters might put you off instinctively but hey… good songs are good songs no matter where they come from, credibility be damned (plus its not like the Scorpions’ didn’t co-write on them).
Love Will Keep Us Alive (from 2007’s Humanity: Hour I)
This is a lush ballad delivers one of the more striking pieces of lyrical imagery on the Humanity album —- the idea of a romance set against the backdrop of utter devastation (sort of like Neo and Trinity in The Matrix… right guys? Guys?). Call me mushy but I really like stuff like that, and its a rare Scorpions ballad devoid of heavy guitars. The verses are delicate and soothing, with Meine’s pre-chorus bridges serving as a melodic highlight: “I can’t love you if you won’t let me… / If you need me, you know I’ll come running”. Yes its all terribly sappy and as sentimental as a Nicholas Sparks novel, but what sells it are the spectacular vocals by Meine and Jabs’ almost melancholic electric guitar work that floats over the top of ultra-clean acoustic strumming. The post-solo middle bridge at 2:50 onwards is the most sublime moment, as Meine’s vocals go higher up the scale only to have everything but the acoustic guitar drop off to give him a near a capella moment —- awesome stuff, more of that please. There’s also something very spiritual in the chorus’s titular lyric of “Love will keep us alive”, a messianic note in its urgency and self-belief, and when its followed by “Even the darkest night / Will shine forever”, the sentiment shimmers with an indefatigable hopefulness.
The Cross (from 2007’s Humanity: Hour I)
Alright I know the list has been ballad heavy, but you knew that walking in right? Well here’s some much needed metallic, hard rockin’ relief in the form of one of the Scorpion’s heaviest (and best) songs of all time. The riffs here are straightforward but meaty, and brimming with a surprising amount of crushing aggression. The heaviest come as a mid-chorus/post-chorus bookend to Meine’s pissed off refrain “I’ll nail you to the cross / The cross I’m bearing” — whoa, Klaus… everything okay there? This is an unusually complex song for the Scorpions in terms of lyrical perspective, because quite frankly I don’t know what the hell is going on. If you try to dissect these lyrics, its simultaneously a song about a deceptive, possibility adulterous romantic partner; or its about the narrator’s relationship with organized religion —- or from a “Why didn’t I take the blue pill?” perspective, its a dialogue between the human narrator and his sentient, robotic overlords! Scheiße! The structure of the lyrics is such that one explanation cannot fit for the entirety of the song, so its a bit of all three in the end.
To make things even more nutty and awesome, Billy Corgan drops in for an incredibly epic guest vocal. His lines are simple, “I believed in love / I believed in trust / I believed in you / You became my God”, but they’re echoed by backing female vocals put through vocal filters to make them sound downright angelic, which only serves to heighten the tension produced by Corgan’s solo passage. Okay, first things first —- its awesome that Corgan somehow made it on a Scorpions album. As the story goes, he was in the same recording studio complex working on what would be the Zeitgeist album (his Smashing Pumpkins “comeback” album) when he heard that the band was in the same building and freaked out (he is a Scorpions fan, once even covered “The Zoo” live). The Scorpions subsequently learned that he was a fan and extended an invitation to lay down a guest vocal for “The Cross”. Schenker in particular was driven in getting Corgan on the album, being a Smashing Pumpkins fan himself, as he personally took Corgan out for a meal one night. Its really one of just a few times where a classic rock band has partnered up with someone from the alternative era, the subtle irony being that had this collaboration been suggested in say 1993 instead of 2007, the media would’ve had a field day. The end result was that it made an awesome song even better.
Lorelei (from 2010’s Sting in the Tail)
You keep your trap shut about the ballads, because this is —- I’m going to say it —- a contender for the best Scorpions’ ballad of all time. Its like this eternal Street Fighter-esque battle has raged for years between “Still Loving You” and “Wind of Change”, and finally “here comes a new challenger”! From the band’s supposedly final studio album —- the rather great, classic-era-emulating Sting in the Tail, this decidedly European sounding power ballad mixes brushes of folk balladry with classic Scorpions motifs in a warm toned envelope of great melodies and Meine’s best singular vocal performance in a decade. I loved this song from the first moment I heard it and keep revisiting it over the years to such an extent that its confirmed its evergreen status by holding up to hundreds of repeat listens. This song is ultimately brilliant because of the summation of its parts but take particular note of just how masterful Meine’s vocal melody is —- he could carry this song a capella. His lyrics depict the narrative voice of a sailor who encounters the river spirit Lorelei (the myth is actually tied to a real place) and suffers heartbreak and regret at succumbing to her enticements. A friend of mine who is by no means a Scorpions fan LOVES this song, in particular for Meine’s emotive wail on the lyric “What kind of fool was I?”. When this is played on road trips, massive hand gestures accompany our miming along to that lyric —- I’m quite relieved that I can’t provide you with a visual representation.
Turn Me On (from 2010’s Sting in the Tail)
Ah its an old school rocker, in the vein of “Wild Child” but more accurately in the spirit of those classic cuts off Blackout, and Love at First Sting. The band made no secret of their desire to emulate their classic 80s period with Sting in the Tail, and it was a far, far better attempt than the undercooked Unbreakable, in large part due to the presence of light-hearted, fun rockers like “Turn Me On”. It doesn’t take much to absorb the subject matter at hand here, this is purely a song about rockin’, the art and act of; but the lyrical phrasing in the refrain during “If you wanna feel the sting / Coma coma coma come on! / Come on baby shake that thing!” turns an overused lyrical topic into a playful and visceral slice of rock n’ roll. There are a lot of good uptempo songs on this album, the lead off single “Raised on Rock” comes to mind immediately, but it had to explain its motivations, whereas “Turn Me On” harkens back to the mindless (I say that with the best of intentions) lyrical perspective of other adrenaline fueled rockers like “Blackout” (you look at those lyrics and tell me whats going on there). In a way “Turn Me On” is the one song off this album that could’ve easily fit into the tracklistings of those early 70s/80s classic albums; its primal and basic in the way those songs were in all their unspoilt glory. By the time the Scorpions released Savage Amusement in 1988, their English had improved to the point where their lyrics reflected a higher level of sophistication (to great results for sure, but they lost their lyrical naivete).
The Best Is Yet to Come (from 2010’s Sting in the Tail)
I love this song, and while I’m aware that some may find its lyrics cloying and perhaps dare to use that horrible c-word adjective, I contend that “The Best Is Yet To Come” might be the best of all the post-1993 Scorpions songs. It occupies potentially hallowed ground, as the last song on the tracklisting of the band’s final studio album. This band started in 1965, released their first album in 1972 and continued on to span nearly five freaking decades now (a factoid too surreal for me to process); they broke down barriers behind the Iron Curtain, and wrote an anthem that defined one of the most important events in world history. And in 2010 they were finally closing the door on the studio album portion of their career, and this bittersweet, emotive gem was to be the swansong. Its unclear as of right now whether or not the Scorpions will create any more studio records, but whether they do or don’t, this song resonates as sort of a spiritual closure for Meine, Schenker, Jabs and company as well as Scorpions fans in general.
The lyrics are self-explanatory, but there are some rather beautiful sentiments expressed, such as in the bridge where Meine seems to speak to his fans and for them at the same time: “And how can I live without you / You’re such a part of me / And you’ve always been the one / Keeping me forever young”. The vocal melody drives the song, and its flat out flawless, and even playful at times such as during the refrain with its “Hey ah hey oh!” shouts. There’s another excellent moment when Meine sings, “How can we grow old / When the soundtrack to our lives is rock n’ roll?”, and you realize this is being sung by a guy who is sixty-two years old. I got to see the band live on their subsequent farewell tour at a stop in San Antonio. They were as energetic, fired up, and into it as I always imagined they’d be live. I remember them playing this song that night as well, and at that very moment, reflecting on how lucky I was to catch them before it was too late. I also thought about how it was a shame that for most people in the States, this band ended after “Wind of Change”, and the stark contrast between the perceptions of an indifferent popular culture, and the reality of a band’s actual day-to-day, year-to-year situation. The Scorpions never ended after 1993, they continued to release records, went on tour —- granted, most of it was international, but they carried on. Bands don’t end just because people stop paying attention to them, nor do they stop being great.