Scorpions guitarists Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs visited Billboard on Sept. 11 as the German metal band was beginning the North American leg of its 50th Anniversary World Tour. The group was in town to perform at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — another bragging right for the band’s heavily notched belt. It’s an accolade also worth savoring in light of the fact that if Scorpions had stuck to their plan of retiring after their 2012-11 Final Sting Tour, the group wouldn’t be celebrating its golden anniversary as an active band.
However, after seeing audiences’ enthusiastic response to the tour, and getting the offer to do an MTV Unplugged concert in Athens — the first open-air show in the franchise’s history — the band changed course.
“It’s like [you’re at a party], you want to leave the room, [and people say], ‘No! You can’t go. Come here. Oh, come on, come on,’” says Schenker. “So, we had the same feeling in this case.”
It’s also hard to walk away when the band still loves making music and its songs have made a worldwide impact. In the United States alone, it has sold 7.4 million albums since 1991 (per Nielsen Music), and the RIAA has certified it for sales of 10 million. But even with the passion to create still burning, surviving an ever-changing music business for five decades isn’t easy, especially when Scorpions have weathered multiple lineup changes. (Schenker is the sole member who has been there since the start, while Jabs has almost 40 years’ tenure.) And the group knew that when it formed back in 1965, it was facing the sins of Germany’s fathers in the wake of World War II.
“We feel like bridge builders between generations, between religions, between different systems,” explains Schenker. “We always welcomed all of them, because we said in the beginning when we went into foreign countries … we wanted to show them the Germans were not coming with the tanks and making war. There is a new generation growing up; they’re coming with guitars, bringing love and peace. And that I think is a very important, strong message, which is also important for what we as musicians and as a band [have been] doing these 50 years.”
While Scorpions’ music is famed for the attitude of its dual-guitar sound that made songs like “Big City Nights” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” radio hits, its 1990 power ballad “Wind of Change,” with its message of peace and vocalist Klaus Meine’s melancholy, whistled intro, embodies Schenker’s philosophy. Inspired while the act visited Russia to perform at the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, “Wind of Change” was a surprise international hit that became affiliated with the end of the Cold War due to its accompanying music video including images of world conflict and the Berlin Wall’s rise and fall. Its global theme touched a nerve in people everywhere—and even won Scorpions an audience with Mikhail Gorbachev, then-president of the Soviet Union, after the band translated the song’s lyrics into Russian and donated the recording’s proceeds to a Russian children’s hospital.
“We were greeted by him and his wife, and there was media all over the place,” recalls Jabs of the experience. “I remember we did the photos and everybody filmed, and it was like one movement of [Gorbachev’s] hand, and the place was empty in like a minute. Then we had an hour with him to talk, just this and that, with a translator of course, and then he got a call by Monsieur Francois Mitterrand, the president of France at the time. But it was a very nice moment, and we’ve met him again and again. We even played for his [80th] birthday [gala in 2011] at the Royal Albert Hall in London.”
Another reason Scorpions still have plenty of sting left in their tail is because Schenker never lost sight of his dream: making music for a living. “When I was 24, I think the [band’s] first album came out, Lonesome Crow. People came and said, ‘Rudolf, how are you? What are you doing? You still doing music? Oh, stop dreaming’ … But in the end, I didn’t,” he says. “Find people that have the same dream you can build a friendship with. Out of that—the energy, the force—where there’s a will, there’s a way.”