The German port city of Hamburg — a town whose rock’n’roll history includes the early, raw club shows by The Beatles — hosted a young, homegrown band called Scorpions in October 1971, when the group was holed up in Star Studios working on its debut album, Lonesome Crow.
During those sessions, guitarist Rudolf Schenker and frontman Klaus Meine talked about business and ambition with the band’s producer, Conny Plank. “He wanted us to be signed by his music publisher,” recalls Schenker. “And I said, ‘No, this deal is not international enough for me. We want to play all over the world. We want to play in America.’ And [Plank] was laughing like crazy.
” ‘Keep on dreaming,’ ” he remembers the producer saying. ” ‘There’s no chance.’ “
Plank had a point, Schenker concedes. “There was no German band before who became successful in the United States.”
Scorpions — which Schenker formed 50 years ago in Hanover, Germany — did indeed break out of its homeland to become successful in the United States and around the globe, with multiplatinum sales, top 10 hits on the Billboard 200 and a legacy as one of the best live metal bands. On Sept. 10, the group opens the North American leg of its 50th-anniversary tour in Boston, with a new album, Return to Forever, set for release the next day. Yahoo Live will stream the group’s Brooklyn show at Barclays Center on Sept. 12.
Scorpions have sold 7.4 million albums stateside since 1991, according to Nielsen Music, and been certified for 10 million sales by the RIAA. In its 1980s heyday, the band sent three albums into the upper reaches of the Billboard 200: Blackout (No. 10 in 1982), Love at First Sting (No. 6 in 1984) and Savage Amusement (No. 5 in 1988).
Songs like “The Zoo,” “Still Loving You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” (No. 18 on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs) are enduring rock radio hits — and favorites of would-be rockers playing the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games. Their song “Wind of Change,” released in the wake of the fall of Berlin Wall, became an anthem of the end of the Cold War.
When Roger Waters staged Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1990 near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Scorpions joined the ensemble, which included Bryan Adams, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Sinéad O’Connor.
Scorpions already had established their reputation as a live act through constant touring and high-profile bookings like the US Festival in 1983 (staged by Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak near San Bernardino, Calif.) and Van Halen’s 1984 Monsters of Rock tour.
“To really get the band, you need to see them live — still,” says Eddie Trunk, syndicated satellite radio personality and host of VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show. “Their energy and the ability to play — and how good they still are — is pretty remarkable.”
Fifty years – “it sounds so damn old!” says the 67-year-old Meine with a laugh. He has been with Scorpions since 1969. “But then you join this exclusive club of bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beach Boys — still around and still doing great. All the highs and lows, we’ve weathered the storms.”
Schenker formed Scorpions after becoming smitten with the early rock of such stars as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino: “all the rock gods,” he says. He already was thinking about becoming a musician, and when bands like The Beatles, The Stones and other British “beat groups” began using Germany to hone their acts, the fledgling guitarist had a vision for how to make his rock’n’roll dream come true.
“In my naivete, I thought about four or five friends traveling around the world making music,” says Schenker. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
He borrowed money from his parents and was the band’s original lead singer for a time, playing “more of a psychedelic” style until the influences of acts such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin led Scorpions in a heavier direction. The group made its mark first in Germany, mixing original material with covers and building enough of a reputation in its homeland to court an offer from Hamburg-based Brain Records.
But global ambition — and Germany’s own history — shaped the band even before those first recording sessions, according to Meine.
“Our generation in Germany had nothing to be proud of in our own country because of the Nazi years,” the frontman explains. “Our parents’ generation went to war with the whole world. Growing up in that kind of climate, when rock’n’roll came up — Elvis, Little Richard — it was, ‘Wow!’ We didn’t understand a word, but we got the message. This was our way to get out of that dark history.”
Scorpions played their first U.S. shows after the release of their second album, Fly the Rainbow, in 1974 and hammered away until 1979’s Lovedrive broke through in Germany, the United States and other territories. Animal Magnetism reached No. 52 on the Billboard 200 in 1980. The group’s top 10 streak on the album chart followed throughout the ’80s, driven by rock radio play and videos in heavy rotation on MTV.
“We were very carefully watching all these acts we were playing with — AC/DC, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith, and we noticed that [stagecraft] was a very important part of the American market,” says Schenker, who has presided over 29 members who have gone through Scorpions’ ranks. (Second guitarist Matthias Jabs has been a mainstay since 1978, while bassist Pawel Maciwoda and drummer James Kottak complete the current lineup.) “So we tried to create our own style, not only in our music, but also in our live show.”
The ’80s hot streak also was “about partying,” adds Meine. “It was about excess. All those bands on the road living on the tour bus six, seven, eight months at a time — it was a crazy rock’n’roll life. You had to find the power and strength to say, ‘OK, this is enough now.’ “
Scorpions also found a way to survive rock’s alternative and grunge movements that pushed aside many ’80s hard rock hitmakers. The group concentrated on other global territories — notably Asia — and experimented musically on albums such as 1999’s Eye II Eye.
The band did stage a Final Sting farewell tour in 2011 and 2012, but the retirement proved to be short-lived. Scorpions quietly decided to keep going. In 2013, they released the well-received MTV Unplugged – Live in Athens.
“We thought we’d stop on a high note, but it went so well, it was so successful, and it seemed like people wanted more Scorpions,” Schenker says now. “We thought, ‘We still love doing this. Let’s keep going.’ “
The group does have the luxury of being circumspect about its future — what Meine likes to call “the next 50 years of Scorpions.” The new Return to Forever album features both fresh songs as well as older material from the vaults, and Scorpions have North American and European tour dates slated into March 2016, with Asia and South America also on the schedule.
“Our record company asked us for two new albums, but we said that we don’t want to commit to anything yet,” says Schenker. “We want to play, we want to do this [50th anniversary] party, and we’re not looking longer than 2016. Then if something outstanding comes, why not?”
To which Meine adds, “There are no plans, no predictions anymore. We’re happy we’re still this global band, and we have a chance to play so many places around the world, like we were dreaming about in those earlier years. It’s a huge privilege, and we love it.”