Had Scorpions not become one of hard rock’s most enduring global forces, guitarist Rudolf Schenker would have taken himself down a much different, yet nevertheless high-voltage career path.
“My mother wanted me to have a real job, as a power electrician,” the Hanover, Germany-born rhythm guitarist recalls with a laugh. Schenker adds that his mom just wanted him to have a more grounded backup plan in case Scorpions, the group he began in 1965 when he was still a teenager, didn’t pan out.
Though Schenker did manage to find work as a tradesman for a few years, a heart-to-heart with his dad ultimately convinced the guitarist to follow his dreams and focus on music full time.
Nearly 60 years later – racking up countless world tours and millions of album sales along the way – there’s no question Schenker made the right choice. In an abstract sense, though, you could argue the famously Flying V-toting guitarist has been working as an electrician all this time.
Fittingly enough, Schenker’s affably getting into all things Scorpions over Zoom while sitting beneath a coterie of V’s hanging in his living room – from see-through, cherry red acrylic beauties, to his iconic, black-and-white signature Gibson.
He reveals that he spent the early months of the pandemic at home adding anecdotes to the recent, German-language reprint of his 2009 autobiography, Rock Your Life.
The past couple of years also found him and the rest of Scorpions – longtime lead guitarist Matthias Jabs, vocalist Klaus Meine, bassist Pawel Mąciwoda and drummer Mikkey Dee – hunkering down in Hannover’s Peppermint Park studio to record their 19th full-length, Rock Believer, adding 11 Marshall-cranking anthems to the group’s crunchy canon.
Both projects act as testaments to Scorpions’ impressive multi-decade run. While the book finds Schenker waxing nostalgic on band history and mega-hits like Rock You Like a Hurricane and Winds of Change, Meine’s lyrics throughout Rock Believer coyly hint at the massive, stinger-sized imprint they’ve all left on each other.
It’s been seven years since the act delivered their Return to Forever, making this the longest wait between Scorpions albums yet. More often than not, it’s been rhythm riffer Schenker that got the ball rolling on new material, but this time around Meine kick-started the creative process after sending Schenker the lyrics to Rock Believer’s celebratory opening track, Gas in the Tank.
A palpable charge of excitement took hold of Schenker as he read over the lyrics, which have Meine gassing up his friend in the first verse by dubbing him a “king of riffs” with a particularly rowdy flair (“Move your fingers up and down the fret / The V is flyin’ without a net”).
The vocalist then playfully challenges his bandmate to give him “a dirty riff” that proves they’re still in it for the long haul (“There’s gotta be more gas in the tank”).
Meine’s gambit worked – contrary to the old saying, flattery will get you somewhere. Schenker confirms that Meine’s words jolted him toward laying down the tune’s core melody of power chords and a certifiably fist-pumping chorus hook.
“This time around it was fantastic for me – I could give the words a lift,” Schenker says. “especially when you have lyrics where you’re remembering [good] times – festivals in America, and knockin’ them dead. We’re saying ‘This is our history; that was our way of living [and it was] unbelievable!’ I put that energy into the music.”
While it’s notable that Rock Believer arrives 50 years to the month of the band’s hard-boogied 1972 debut, Lonesome Crow, stylistically Scorpions’ latest appropriately hews closer to the chunkier, if hook-laden metal they’ve honed since Jabs joined up for 1979’s Lovedrive.
Even beyond Meine giving his bandmates a knowing wink through his lyrics, Rock Believer is a determinedly self-referential album for the quintet. There are implicit shades of China White to the grimy and gain-singed, slow-stomp approach of Rock Believer’s “Seventh Sun.”
The up-stroke plinking of Shining of Your Soul flirts with the reggae/rock hybridization Scorpions had delivered on Lovedrive’s Is There Anybody There, though this latest rocksteady groove takes on an eerie flavor due to Jabs’ minor key waggling.
Even Rock Believer’s Klaus Voormann-designed album cover, a close-up shot of someone screaming through a crimson veil, references the same kind of visceral, fever-pitch yell a figure gives on the cover to 1982’s landmark Blackout. As they enter their seventh decade of activity, Scorpions fully embrace their hard rock heritage.
Schenker admits, however, that there was a period in the mid Nineties where Scorpions had contemplated their direction as they were playing Eighties-styled metal in the post-grunge era.
A turning point came at the dawn of the 21st century as they worked on their Moment of Glory album with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Revamping old pieces with seasoned classical musicians revealed that Scorpions’ bedrock was likewise “timeless.”
Since then, they’ve gracefully leaned into their legacy status, with Rock Believer continuing to both honor and tweak the band’s DNA. “After a while, everything comes back with a twist,” Schenker suggests of the balance.
Naturally, one of the bigger plot twists to the making of Rock Believer was the Covid pandemic. Initially, Scorpions had planned to record in Los Angeles with producer Greg Fidelman (Slipknot, Metallica), but cross-continental travel plans were canceled as the pandemic worsened.
Though the band and Fidelman had attempted to work remotely via Zoom, Scorpions quickly realized that having Fidelman on the other side of an iPad screen rather than the control room was less than ideal.
Ultimately, they opted to track at Hanover’s Peppermint Park to co-produce the collection with engineer Hans-Martin Buff. Scorpions had previously been to the studio for 2004’s Unbreakable, which happened to be bassist Mąciwoda’s first album with the group.
Understandably, Schenker explains that the sessions provided some relief for the group as they contended with the pandemic (“Outside was craziness; inside it was ‘music, music, music.’”).
Jabs added in a press release that being in a close-knit studio bubble juiced the energy of the sessions, and strengthened the brotherhood of Scorpions. “Everything felt like it had in the 1980s, when the five of us rocked together, [hung] out at the corner pub in the evenings and [talked] about our music.”
It all made for a prolific stretch of music-making, with the band tracking upwards of 20 new songs. Though they’d considered releasing a double album, Rock Believer was trimmed to 11 songs – five bonus cuts were added to the deluxe edition.
Despite Schenker’s hefty arsenal of Flying V’s, he notes that he’d cut most of Rock Believer with an old ’58 V he’d got off German guitarist Alex Conti – Eric Clapton had apparently also been interested in buying the electric guitar before Schenker secured it for his collection years ago.
Jabs, for his part, played it looser, bouncing between a Bigsby-mounted ’59 Les Paul, a ’58 Les Paul, a ’55 Les Paul Junior, an old Strat, a few Explorers and the Telecaster he’d played on Winds of Change.
For guitar amps, Scorpions laid down a good chunk of work using a collection of vintage Marshall heads maintained by Jabs’ guitar tech, Ingo Powitzer. “We tried all our equipment from the Eighties – the Marshall stacks, all this equipment – to find that original, old Eighties sound,” Schenker confirms.
Though he was dialing into old-school tones, Schenker was locking into a newfound groove alongside Mąciwoda and Dee. While Dee has been hitting the skins for Scorpions since 2016, Rock Believer marks the first time the band have put the former Motörhead drummer’s determined thud to use in the studio.
This inspired Schenker to really dig into his rhythm playing, delivering dirt nasty downstrokes and palm-muted chugs at a furious clip on tempo-pushers like Roots in My Boots.
“We were working close together, pushing the beat further rather than playing laid back. That gave the songs another kind of spirit,” Schenker explains, adding of the organic drive of Scorpions’ current rhythm section, “The latest albums in the world, they’re mostly based on sound design. Because of Pro Tools, you bring in a riff, you [play to] a drum machine, and later on you put [real] drums on it. That’s not the way you create great songs – you have to feel it! It’s like a body. You have to get the body in the right position, so that’s what we did when we were playing [at Peppermint Park].”
Since Schenker was tightening up his muscular rhythms, Jabs lets loose with a series of brawny leads. The two guitarists go for a tandem approach on bonus cut When You Know, but it’s Jabs alone that delivers the roadhouse slash-and-burn on Knock ’em Dead, or the furiously ripping scale-climb on Roots in My Boots.
While Schenker has dropped some important solos throughout Scorpions’ career – that’s him wailing on iconic power ballad Winds of Change – the band’s principal songwriter lovingly ceded the bulk of Rock Believer’s lead duties to his bandmate.
“It’s important for me that everybody’s happy,” Schenker says, adding of his trust in longtime riff partner Jabs’ personal touch, “When I see that Matthias is already playing the right lines, I don’t want to interfere.”
Fifty years have passed since the release of Lonesome Crow, more than 40 since Scorpions locked into their signature sting. It’s clear at this point that the group are metal lifers – rock believers, if you will.
It’s been a minute since Schenker was a Hanover electrician dreaming of blasting the masses with a high-voltage dose of heavy metal, but some things never change.
“I see myself in the way that I [was playing] the Flying V already, and I see myself in the way that I had a goal and went for it. The result is what we have now.”
- Rock Believer is out now via Spinefarm.