Monday, February 20, 2006

Random Rock Star Moment #13: Uli John Roth

" That crazy Rock 'N Roll band is spinning in your head.."

When most people think of the German band Scorpions, it's their Arena Rock incarnation of the 1980's and 90's that comes to mind. However, the Old School knows that the Scorps were a different and superior band in the 70's when Uli John Roth was their lead guitarist.

The original incarnation of the Scorpions was defined by Uli, who (like Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple / Rainbow) was profoundly influenced by Classical music. Also, the band's lyrics at that time tended to be more introspective and intelligent compared to the Arena Rock hits of later years:

Scorpions 1976: "Sweet are the days..Intoxication. Crow-black the nights caging my mind behind the wall..." (from 'Pictured Life')

Scorpions 1984: "Out in the street... The dogs are on the run, the cats are all in heat..." (from 'Bad Boys Running Wild')

Listen to any of the Uli Roth-era albums (1974-78) and the band you'll hear is nothing like the 'Rock You Like A Hurricane' Scorpions. Uli brought a Hendrix-style virtuosity to the Scorpions lineup. He was a complete Hendrix disciple and even lived with Hendrix's girlfriend Monika Dannemann for many years. After Uli left the Scorpions, they morphed into the Arena Rock act that conquered America (and the world) in the 80's. Although Umlaut did follow the band during its rise to popularity, the Arena Rock Scorps eventually lost me.

The defining moment of my disinterest in the Scorps came in 1985 when they played a huge outdoor show at Oakland Stadium (the day was highlighted by Metallica's first U.S. stadium appearance..). The Scorps had just put out the World Wide Live album and dammit if singer Klaus Meine didn't say the EXACT between-song banter before the EXACT same songs as he did on the live album!! Can you believe that?! I couldn't. We ended up leaving early and I've never seen the Scorps again.

Click HERE for the Scorpions' tourist guide to Alcatraz, San Francisco.

Anyway, back to Uli John Roth: Long story short, Uli put out a couple of solo albums in the early-80's. Uli's solo material can be politely described as, uhh, eclectic... and... ambitious. A friend of mine traveled to England in 1982 and managed to meet and stay with Uli. This inspired me to write Uli a fanboy letter since his version of the Scorpions were profoundly important to me.

Some months passed and then a package from England arrived in my mailbox. When I saw the return address I almost screamed like a little school girl. It was from ULI!

Besides a handwritten letter he also sent an autographed promo photo, an autographed promo sticker for his latest album, an autographed guitar pic, AND a broken guitar string. How Guitar God is that?!

I misplaced the guitar string over the years, but everything else has remained treasured memorabilia in the Umlaut Archives.

After that Music Geek moment, Uli didn't make his first visit to San Francisco until almost 3 years later. Unfortunately, he played a dubious show at Wolfgang's on Columbus Avenue. Uli's solo material can be politely described as, uhh, eclectic... and... ambitious.

At his S.F. debut, Uli's musicianship was great, but also derailed by his backing band. The band included a nightmarish troupe of singers, led by Nicky Moore (Trivia: In 1982, Moore replaced Bruce Dickenson in the band Samson when Dickenson left to join Iron Maiden..). It was sort of like that scene in This Is Spinal Tap when they resurrect 'Jazz Odyssey'.. Still, when Uli slammed through a couple of old Scorpions classics (I forget which ones right now) it made up for the lame backing band.

Umlaut's old friend Ian was also an Uli Geek. Click HERE for his memories.

For the record, Umlaut's favorite Uli-era Scorpions album is Taken By Force and my fave song is 'We'll Burn The Sky'. Uli's discography with the Scorpions is:
  • Fly to the Rainbow (1974)
  • In Trance (1975)
  • Virgin Killer (1976)
  • Taken by Force (1977)
  • Tokyo Tapes (1978)
When I listen to those old Scorpions albums now I get a profound sense of going back in time. I guess they remind me of those innocent salad days when the songs seemed almost alien because they were so different. Those Uli John Roth-era Scorps albums opened my mind to Classical music in the same subversive way that Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple / Rainbow) did. Subconsciously the seed was planted in my head that other types of music could be just as mind-blowing as METAL. Of course, I didn't embrace that open-mindedness until years later, but it all makes sense to me now.

"Into the rock through walls of red dreams.. Pictured life from yesterday.."

On Sept. 10, 2005 Uli performed with the Scorpions for the first time in 27 years (!) in Colmar, France as part of their encore. The setlist: 'In Trance', 'Pictured Life', 'Kojo No Tsuki', 'We'll Burn The Sky', and 'He's A Woman, She's A Man'. Pretty amazing IMO.