Scorpions: Box of Scorpions

Box of Scorpions

Buzz-cut Alabamians spewing colored smoke from their whiz jets to the strains of ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane?’ What kind of countrified rube is still impressed by that?
— Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons

It’s easy to make fun of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” these days. After all, nobody did the goofy, sexist, over the top metal schtick as well as the Scorpions did. After a decade of ridiculous song titles (“Catch Your Train”, “Suspender Love”) and album covers ranging from the disturbingly misogynist (Virgin Killer, Animal Magnetism) to unintentionally hilarious (Lovedrive), the German metal pioneers reached the zenith, or possibly the nadir (it’s such a fine line) of hard rock inanity with “Hurricane”. Remember the video, with the balding, frizzy-headed singer Klaus Meine pursuing a scantily clad, post-apocalyptic uber-bitch, the band playing inside a circular cage surrounded by what looks like the cast of The Road Warrior rattling the flimsy enclosure? Now that was a rock video. And those lyrics: “The bitch is hungry, she needs to tell/ So give her inches, and feed her well.” Wha? And how, pray tell, does a hurricane “rock”? Twenty-one years later, as the song has gained new life on classic rock radio as 40 year olds revisit their rockin’ past, it’s certainly not hard to snigger at the entire idea of the song, but before you make fun of it again, listen closely. The song kicks some major Teutonic ass, with as masterful an opening riff as anything that came out of the 80s: “Dadada-dada-dada-da-DADA!” Most importantly, there’s the conviction with which the band plays… they mean it, in every double guitar harmony, every drum fill, every scream, every gloriously ridiculous line. They let you know the night is calling, that Klaus has to go. After all, the wolf is hungry, and that bastard runs the show.

As silly as they might have been, the Scorpions were a crucial heavy metal band in two respects. In the ’70s, along with Judas Priest, they helped pioneer classic European heavy metal, which blended melodic, operatic vocals with progressive song structures and inspired lead guitar work, predating the all too important New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Not only that, but in the early ’80s, they were one of the first metal bands to break through commercially in the United States during that decade’s metal/hard rock explosion. By 1984, the band would be one of the biggest rock acts in the world, but after one last gasp, in the form of the global hit, “Wind of Change”, grunge and alternative rock would take over in the ’90s, and the Scorpions would begin their steady decline towards self-parody. It’s a storyline not unlike that of other veteran metal bands, but it’s a fun one, and on the band’s first ever definitive North American anthology, we have a chance to revisit that story, both the great music and the, erm, not so great.

Box of Scorpions is a very faithful summation of the band’s 30 year history, as for the first time, the band’s complete discography is represented on the same compilation (they switched record companies in the early ’80s, creating the obvious legal difficulties). The set is neatly divided into three parts, chronicling their steady rise, their period of massive popularity, and their slow, painful fall from grace, but despite a weak third disc, it’s a remarkably enjoyable set.

Disc One focuses primarily on the band’s early period, between 1972 and 1979. Led by Meine on vocals, rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker, and young phenom Uli Jon Roth on lead guitar, the Scorpions’ sound centered around high energy songs with catchy hooks that served as a platform for Roth to let loose. Roth, who joined the band in 1973 (after Rudolf’s brother Michael left to join the legendary UFO), was an unabashed devotee of Jimi Hendrix, and his guitar work on the albums Fly to the Rainbow, In Trance, Virgin Killer, and Taken By Force still sounds stunning today. The propulsive “Speedy’s Coming” features some blistering work by Roth, while the great epic “Fly to the Rainbow” showcases his more subtle melodic touches, he and Schenker’s dual harmonies foreshadowing Iron Maiden’s trademark style. 1975’s “In Trance” has the band really hitting their stride, Meine’s smooth tenor offering a preview of the more melodic style they’d adopt in the ’80s, while Virgin Killer‘s intense title track and Taken By Force‘s adventurous “We’ll Burn the Sky” rank as two of Roth’s greatest moments with the band, as he adds a classical flair to each song, an idea that flashy virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen would go over the top with a decade later. Roth was a brilliant live performer, as the four selections from the Tokyo Tapes live album attest.

It’s the set’s middle section, though, that serves up the most immediately pleasing material. After Roth left to start a solo career, the Scorpions began to focus on more of a pop element in their music, while still retaining their trademark heavy style. The 80s incarnation of the band would be regarded as their classic lineup, with the songwriting duo of Meine and Schenker, as well as new lead guitarist Matthias Jabs, bassist Francis Buccholz, and drummer Herman Rarebell. Starting with 1979’s Lovedrive, the band would set their sights on America, kickstarting a remarkably successful and prolific period, as songs like the fabulous “Loving You Sunday Morning”, the instrumental “Coast to Coast”, and the tender ballad “Holiday” were tailor made for a hard rock scene dominated by the likes of Van Halen. After the breakthrough Animal Magnetism album (and the success of the great single “The Zoo”), the band struck gold on 1982’s Blackout. Meine’s future with the band was in serious jeopardy when he required vocal surgery, but when he returned to record the album, amazingly enough, he sounded even better. On Blackout, he takes center stage, his soaring voice carrying songs like “Can’t Live Without You” and the band’s first major hit single, the superb “No One Like You”. Meanwhile, the rest of the band sounds on fire on tracks like “Blackout” and the Judas Priest-like “Dynamite”. Blackout is widely regarded as the band’s greatest album, and for good reason.

1983’s Love at First Sting might have been a monstrous success, and justifiably so, but it marked the beginning of the end for the Scorpions. Yeah, you had the searing opener “Bad Boys Running Wild” (dig that insane solo intro by Jabs), the fiery road tune “Coming Home”, and the slick hard rock of “Big City Nights”, but what many fail to remember is just how weak the rest of the album was. The record’s two saving graces are the ubiquitous “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and the astounding, tender “Still Loving You”, arguably the only metal power ballad from the 80s in which you can actually hear passion.

The band continued to become gradually less relevant as the decade came to a close, something made painfully clear on the third disc. After an extended hiatus, the Scorpions came back in 1988 with the overproduced Savage Amusement, and aside from the decent “Don’t Stop at the Top”, it was little more than just another empty hair metal album in a scene overrun with them, the video for “Rhythm of Love” setting a new low for the genre. 1990’s Crazy World was more pop metal by numbers, its only saving grace being Meine’s impassioned tribute to a unified Europe, “Wind of Change”, as the single helped the album become the band’s biggest seller. The rest of the disc is overloaded with filler, reaching a disturbing low on “Mysterious”, from the failed 1999 alt-rock experiment Eye II Eye, and a disastrous version of “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, performed with disturbing bombast in collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic, made even more heinous by the presence of female background singers.

Of course, fans will always argue about what songs should have been included, but with Box of Scorpions, most fans would agree that the band focuses far to much on their later years, while such classic tracks as “The Sails of Charon” (from Taken By Force) and “China White” (from Blackout) were passed over. Still, despite its flaws, it’s easily the best Scorps compilation to date, offering a detailed look at each phase of the band’s long career. Yeah, they were always a bit on the goofy side (Meine often wrote lyrics with the help of an English-German dictionary, hence the dicey lyrical content), but in their heyday, they brought the rock like few others. Like Klaus says, if you like the rock ‘n’ roller (and admit it, we know you do), don’t be low, keep your own style, and catch your train. He’s speaking figuratively. Uh, at least I think he is.