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Heavy Metal Uber Alles: Martin Popoff examines the career of Germany's Scorpions

Martin Popoff is a busy man. Aside from his prestigious history as senior editor of Canada’s famed Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine, Popoff has, more recently, found the time to serve as an interview subject for Sam Dunn and Banger Films’ excellent VH1 Classic series Metal Evolution while continuing to pen exhaustively informative rock and metal books of his own, detailing the lives and careers of acts as varied as Deep Purple, Rush and Blue Oyster Cult.

Book cover for Martin Popoff's 'Top of the Bill'
Martin Popoff

One of the writer’s most recent tomes is Top of the Bill, an excellent critical appraisal of Germany’s Scorpions, a legendary metal act whose influence has permeated countless younger acts over the years. The band—always anchored by vocalist Klaus Meine and guitarist Rudolf Schenker and featuring such legendary co-axemen as Uli Jon Roth and Rudolf’s brother Michael—emerged from expansive, progressive rock origins to become one of the most popular Teutonic metal acts on the planet, a veritable blueprint for huge hooks, meaty riffs and brash, sometimes blunt visual imagery.

Popoff's book takes to task each Scorpions release, and features plenty of enlightening interviews with Meine, Roth, The Schenkers and more band members who contributed to a lasting legacy of classic Germanic metal. Martin Popoff took time out once again to speak with Cape Cod Rock once again shortly after the book’s publication to talk shop when it comes to the history of Germany’s beloved metal gods…Scorpions!

Was there any difference in writing this book on Scorpions when compared to other books you’ve written over the years?

Not really. I’d say that the approach was more or less the same, noticing I had a lot of interviews—some of them good, some of them pretty average, I suppose—but it’s a band which really captured my attention at least in a bunch of different eras, I realized I had a bit on them, and lo and behold, to my surprise there’s never been a Scorpions book! I used a lot of my own interview footage—otherwise I wouldn’t write a book on a band—but also used a lot of available press and then analyzed the heck out of each album and song!

You mention there hasn’t been a book on the Scorpions, and I think maybe we should talk about people’s perception of them, because I think many people just consider them to be “an 80s band,” without realizing that Scorpions had a career in the 70s, as well as a contingent of people who ONLY like the 70s era, and don’t care about the 80s work. Do you think that people might not expect a book on Scorpions because of a perception of them being “just an 80s hair band?”

Definitely, and it’s funny how you don’t make mention of the 90s or 2000 era, where even less people seemed to be paying attention! Really, it goes 80s, 70s, 90s 2000s as far as their place on the radar. They were a massive band in the 80s, no question about it, in the 90s they experimented a lot—some would say they lost the handle on songwriting or what to do with their career after getting that kick with the Crazy World album—and albums would become farther apart and more experimental. They didn’t want to be a “stupid heavy metal band” seemed to be the attitude; they really wanted to move away from that and start something fresh.

But you’re right, it was the 80s material which really took hold and what sustained them through the 90s and 2000s. Number one, they stayed in good shape, and remained a great live band. They had a career during the 90s and 2000s, but it was a live career. Along with someone like Iron Maiden and Deep Purple, this is a real world band that has a great respect for other people and cultures, going and paying attention to those cultures. They had a massive hit with “Wind of Change,” which signified the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I think most people realized that there was that 70s past to them, that they were a different band, and in some ways a more intriguing and creative band.

A lot of the big hits they played live came from that 70s era, with the obvious difference being that Uli Jon Roth was on guitar for much of that early period, as opposed to Matthias Jabs, who joined later. Uli’s done a great job of keeping artistically pure while staying in the limelight and being an approachable, nice guy who will do a lot of interviews, talk about this old material and play it live.

You mentioned their decision to try and escape the “stupid heavy metal” tag, which I think is a decision—some might say “mistake”—that many bands have made over the years, with it always ending up with them releasing some “triumphant, return to form album” after those records don’t sell or aren’t appreciated. Why do you think that bands consistent attempt to go this route? Obviously, to be creative must be a motivating factor, but why would you turn your back upon what’s made you who you are?

I’m assuming you’re referring to going the non-metal and experimental route, and I would hope that it’s with the good intentions of staying creative and being restless to try other things. You could consider it to be “growing up,” that you’re bored with a certain direction, and that there’s the downfall of critics claiming that you’re releasing the same album over and over again.

In the Scorpions’ case, I’ve a feeling it’s more driven by Klaus in this band, as he seems to be the creative spirit who wants to try different things, as opposed to Mathias, who’s somewhat of an Americanized, slightly poppy comparison to Uli, who was more into Hendrix. This is a band who wants to grow, I suppose. They got very huge doing what they were doing, but perhaps when a band gets so big and so famous—which the Scorpions did with the string of albums in the 80s which culminated with Crazy World in 1990—it probably does become a “what do you do from here” sort of situation. They had achieved all of their goals, and just doing the same thing to replicate that success may not be as important anymore, and perhaps you could get a bit full of yourself, thinking you CAN conquer these other worlds. It’s that ambition to conquer other markets and rub elbows with people at a different class of party.

I have a feeling that some of these guys feel that they’re just rock ‘n roll, heavy metal dogs and they don’t want to be looked down upon in terms of getting the respect of those who might be in their income bracket.

I suppose it all depends on how much you value that sort of thing, although I can understand not wanting to feel stagnated creatively. I can also sympathize with not wanting to be looked down upon, because so many metal bands are similarly viewed, even though their musicianship and song craft may be off the charts.

Exactly. We know that the musicianship level is amazing. That’s something which is a very objective and not subjective thing: we know that a lot of the most forward-thinking, heavy, hard and complicated playing does show up in metal. Metal is progressive rock, especially nowadays. It’s crazy. Any garden variety metal band—say a thrashcore band—has more going on in one song than our most lauded, complete Rush album from the 70s.

On a subjective level, this drives me crazy about putting down metal songwriting. Let’s compare Kiss, for example, a band who’s really put down all the time for having stupid “kiddie” songs. If the whole idea is to write hooks and have something poppy and memorable, then Kiss is all the bit as good as your Tom Pettys, Eagles’ and Fleetwood Macs, all these minimalist bands who aren’t doing anything different from Kiss day to day, song to song. It just drives me up a wall when the Eagles get respect and Kiss can’t receive the same respect.

Do you think there’s a difference between a band like Motorhead, who have continued to put out albums with the occasional acoustic or experimental song to switch things up a bit—while still enabling them to tour and make money— and an album like the Scorpions’ Eye II Eye, which is a really "out there" style of record?

Yeah, I think Motorhead is just trying to write the best songs they can using the musical language they’ve had forever, and I think they do a great job at it, but you’re right, an album like Eye II Eye will completely tick off your fanbase and it did, predictably so. I think what you’re getting at—and I agree with you—is that the Scorpions perhaps didn’t have the talent, craft, facilities and maybe even the foresight to craft a lot of pop properly. I think it was almost presumptive on their part that they COULD do that. Having said that, though, I think the writing on Pure Instinct [from 1996] is pretty good, even though it’s not a very heavy album.

I’ve always gathered that the Scorpions LIKED to rock, and enjoyed that aesthetic, so those later albums always seemed a bit forced to me.

I totally agree, and look at how MUCH heavy metal they’ve released over the years. Even some of the songs which we consider as semi failures from albums like Savage Amusement or Unbreakable prove that they can do some bad writing in both directions, but you’re right, I think the later creative mantle never fit them very well, did it?

Do you think that our aforementioned “lack of foresight” could be applied to the Scorpions being sort of “heavy handed” in their imagery, album covers and lyrics? They’re known for having—for lack of a better word—a very “German” sense of humor when it comes to some of their videos.

Yeah, they were loaded with clichés, and unfortunately it’s just coming from a non-standard western country. I think that sometimes if you’re not a British, Canadian or American band you might be lagging a bit, putting up those clichés and perhaps not making the best decisions.

We know they were ridiculed throughout the years for their lyrics, and rightfully so, because if you’re that big of an organization, you should have someone checking to make sure that the lyrics are much stronger than they really are, lying there on the paper.

God bless Herman [Rarebell, former drummer and co-lyricist] and those party lyrics, but the fact of the matter is, those should have received just as big a working over as the production with Dieter Dierks.

You bring up another good point with the hell they received as far as album covers go, but I think it’s more of a general one in that all of this stuff builds up that, “hey, we want to be perceived as smarter people know as we get older and enjoy life as rock aristocracy. We not just rock pigs.”

Do you think there was a definable separation of periods for the Scorpions?

I’d say at the beginning I’d group together Lonesome Crow and Fly to the Rainbow as the murky, Krautrock albums and In Trance up to Tokyo Tapes as the Uli period of classics. Once Uli leaves, I think there’s a period there which is interesting—and this is kind of their “golden period,” in a way—because the next three or four albums are all very good, and very different. Lovedrive is a non-commercial heavy metal album which is a lot more straight-forward than its predecessor Taken By Force.

I’ve always thought that every song on Animal Magnetism is heavy, but not crazy heavy, in this middle, calmly rocking zone; all really good stuff. Once we get to Blackout, it’s an album most would pick as one of the band’s greatest; a more rocking and higher IQ version of Love at First Sting. Whereas Love at First Sting is being the “dumbed down album,” their British Steel, Blackout has a really nice blend of super capable stadium rock, brightly recorded, but also enough of that German heavy metal to make it the hit it was.



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