Start a revolution: The Scorpions help bring down Communism

Herman Rarebell talks about his life in heavy metal

By Peter Lindblad

The Iron Curtain lifted ever so slightly in the late ‘80s to allow The Scorpions access to a Soviet Union empire that was in the death throes, only it didn’t know it yet.

Herman Rarebell
With a wary eye, the Kremlin coldly and dispassionately watched as the hard-rocking, hard-partying Germans from the other side of the Berlin Wall performed to massive, rabid crowds across the vast Communist empire.

Something about The Scorpions’ wolfish mix of searing power chords, piercing guitar solos,  polished pop-metal hooks, and liberating, often animalistic lyrical philosophy – not to mention their sexually provocative album covers – tapped into a growing desire among Soviet bloc youth trapped under the thumb of repression to experience the freedom of the West. Herman Rarebell, the Scorpions drummer at the time, could feel that a revolution was coming.

“When we came to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1988 [their concert in Leningrad marked only the second time a band from the West had played there, Uriah Heep being the first], it was communistic,” remembered Rarebell. “And a year later, we played the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival together with Jon Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue … it was a big thing. And we got invited that night to the first hard-rock concert in Moscow, and you could feel the wind of change actually in the air and on a night in November of the same year, the wall fell down. And we had an invitation six weeks later to go and see the most powerful man in the Soviet Union, [the last General Secretary of the Communist Party] Mikhail Gorbachev. A few months later, after that, the complete East could come into West Germany. They could live like us; the days of Communism were finally done.”

History will credit Ronald Reagan and perhaps other political figures with exerting so much international pressure on the crumbling Soviet Union that it had to “tear down that wall.” But you could make the argument that it was The Scorpions, in particular, and other monsters of heavy-metal that had more to do with fomenting the wave of dissent that overwhelmed authoritarian Communism and knocked down that damnable Wall than Reagan ever did, as Rarebell was to find out later.

“Nowadays, yes, we felt that we were responsible for it, especially the song ‘Wind of Change’ was on all the news at the time, and also you know, Gorbachev, President Gorbachev, called us,” related Rarebell. “He made a joke about it. He said, ‘What was the biggest mistake the United States did?’ Well, we said, we don’t know. He said, ‘Well, they let The Beatles in in 1964. That was when rock and roll took over.’ And he said, ‘My biggest mistake was when I let you guys in.’” (laughs) Gorbachev was, perhaps, only half-joking. The Soviet government actually took The Scorpions very seriously.

“I mean, I don’t want to compare us with the Beatles, but with the Soviet Union, probably we did a lot of things, because when we played the year before [1988], in Leningrad, we sold out 10 shows with 20,000 people each night,” said Rarebell. “So they came from all over, because [it was] first planned [we would play] five shows in Leningrad and five shows in Moscow. But it was so close to the First of May, so they thought there would be revolution in Moscow. They said you couldn’t play there. And they said, oh, now you have to play 10 shows in Leningrad, which you know is now St. Petersburg.”

Paranoia was running rampant within the Kremlin, and like many Soviet citizens, the Scorpions had the feeling that the walls had ears and eyes. “It really was strange then,” said Rarebell. “All that you knew was you had the feeling they were watching you. Maybe there were hidden mics in the room. It felt like being in one of those [spy] films, you know, like an old James Bond [movie]. I’m sure until this day that they went through my clothes and looked at stuff.”

The government had good reason to worry as it turned out. Rarebell witnessed firsthand how hungry young Russians were for freedom and what impact the Scorpions’ performances were having, even though, as Rarebell admitted, they were not a political band.

“I remember when we played the stadium in ’89 at the Moscow Music Peace Festival, they put in the middle of the stadium about a few hundred soldiers there to take care and control of the people there so they didn’t riot,” said Rarebell. “But the soldiers themselves were throwing up their hats and singing along with the songs in Russian. Then I knew something was going to happen. They were singing along to ‘Blackout,’ they were singing along to ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane.’”

And it wasn’t like state-sponsored media was blasting Scorpions tunes across the platforms it controlled. Kids discovered Scorpions hits like “Loving You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” in other ways.
“When we came there in 1988, we were aware that there must have been a huge underground population playing the music, from one tape recorder to the next tape recorder,” said Rarebell. “All of the radio stations played it. I know that ‘Loving You’ became a big hit before. This is probably how they became aware of the band – ‘Loving You’ and ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane.’ Those were the songs that were played there, and then somebody underground spread more. And more people heard the music. Suddenly, we were very popular in the underground, which is huge there. And suddenly all of our concerts were sold out. And yet, we were going to the #1 position in Moscow and I remember [going] to the record companies and [asking], ‘How many records did we sell?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we don’t know yet. We have to see.’” (laughs) There’s no control, no nothing, and there was nothing you could do about it. It was just on the radio you hear ‘Loving You,’ and the record company tells you we haven’t sold any records.”

Information about record sales in the Soviet Union was sketchy, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the Scorpions were more popular than Lenin there. When Rarebell, born in November 1949 in Saarbrucken, Germany, was banging on his mother’s pots and pans as a young boy, such a situation would have been unthinkable. By the age of 12 or 13, Rarebell had graduated to drums.

“Well, basically, I was attracted by physical fitness, you know,” said Rarebell. “And banging on the drums and going around the house and doing all this, this was like the perfect instrument in order to get out all my aggression and my youthful power. It was just … I tell you, it felt immediately right. And I always had a good rhythm feel. This is basic to have as a drummer, you must feel the rhythm. If you don’t have that, the whole instrument is pointless.”

There was nothing “pointless” about Rarebell’s early training. His first band was the Mastermen, “ … which was a school band, which was when I was around 14. And we played basically on the weekends, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, being in pubs, you know, playing in gasthauses, as we say in Germany, where we played like four sets a night, 45 minutes, 50 minutes, that kind of thing.”

At age 17, Rarebell joined his first professional band, Fuggs Blues. “We played in Germany the American airbases for the American soldiers,” said Rarebell. “And basically, what we did there was also four sets a night of Top 40 material. In those days – this was ’68, ’69 – we played songs like ‘Wipeout,’ for example, you know, Sam & Dave’s ‘Hold On, I’m Coming.’ We played Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe,’ stuff like this. So for us, this was perfect training to get the necessary routine for me as a drummer; playing every night, four sets, it gives you a perfect routine.”

Now well-drilled in keeping time, as any drummer should, Rarebell set out to make his mark on the world. At about age 18 or 19, Rarebell told his parents he wanted to study music, and then, he went to England to try to catch on with a heavy-metal band. Opportunity didn’t knock right away. “Of course, reality came and after my money was gone, I was a gardener, a taxi driver, a barman, until finally I became a studio musician and got into this thing,” said Rarebell.

Meeting Michael Schenker, then in UFO, changed everything. “One day he said to me, ‘My brother is coming over here looking for a drummer,’” said Rarebell. “It was in the spring of ’77. So I went to an audition. They had probably 40 or 50 other drummers. And we each had to play three songs. Then the famous ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ came. I thought I’d never hear from them. The next day, they called me and said, ‘You got the job. We want to take your drums to Hanover, from London to Hanover. I said, ‘Well, hang on. I have to talk to my girlfriend first.’”

Ironically, Rarebell had gone to England only to find himself in a German band, and now, he was heading back home. It’s funny how things work out. Still, even though this wasn’t exactly how Rarebell planned it, he had stumbled upon the group of individuals who were going to make all his dreams come true.
“Well, we had the same tastes,” said Rarebell. “I remember when I met Rudolf the first time, in the speakeasy together with his brother, we talked about music. So we were on the same wavelength. We both grew up with bands like the Kinks, Yardbirds, later on Led Zeppelin – the kind of music we wanted to do. We could feel it, you know?”

There were lingering apprehensions, though. Living in England, Rarebell was a regular in the London club scene from the end of 1971 to the spring of 1977. One of those establishments was the famed Marquee Club.
“It was a club, but the atmosphere there was unbelievable,” said Rarebell. “I mean, I saw Hendrix there, I saw Taste there, I saw The Who there … imagine, a small pub like this, you standing directly in front of them.”

With room for about 300 customers, the Marquee was not the biggest of venues, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in star power. Even the Scorpions played there … lots of times, even before Rarebell joined up. He saw them when guitar wizard Uli Jon Roth was in the band and Rudy Lenners was The Scorpions’ drummer. Rarebell cops to not being very impressed.

When asked what he thought of them, Rarebell responded, “Terrible. I said to myself, ‘Half of them are playing like Uriah Heep, and the other half plays songs like Jimi Hendrix.’ I said that to Rudy. He looked at me like I was coming from the moon. I said, ‘You guys have no direction. One guy plays like Hendrix, the others play like Uriah Heep. You don’t have in mind what you want to do.’ And as you know, a year later, Uli left to make Electric Sun and go this Hendrix direction, and the Scorpions took Michael Schenker and went on to do melodic hard rock.”

And the rest is history. It wasn’t long before Rarebell found himself assuming a key role in the band. For one thing, he spoke the best English of them all. So, understandably, he was tapped to provide some lyrics on the first album he recorded with the band, 1978’s Taken by Force.

“Rudolf asked on the first album when we did the song ‘He’s A Woman, She’s A Man,’ do you have an idea for the lyrics?” said Rarebell. “And at the same time, we made a visit to Paris for promotion, and I remember we drove around Paris, of course, at night, as a young man driving a car, we ended up in the red light district. And we looked at all those beautiful girls, as we were passing by, Rudolf said, ‘Oh, look at this beautiful girl there.’ So, I said, ‘Come on, drive over.’ So he drove over, put the window down, and this girl came nearer to the car and she put her head into the car and she said (in a deep, manly voice), ‘Hi, guys. Just wanted to tell you I’m a guy.’ So, we were all like shocked. But I went back to the hotel room and wrote my first lyrics then, ‘He’s A Woman – She’s a Man.’ I remember that.”

Following a tour in support of Taken by Force, Roth left the band, the classic live album Tokyo Tapes serving as his farewell. Free to pursue a new, and more commercially viable, path, the Scorpions, with new guitarist Matthias Jabs in tow, the Scorpions created their landmark LP Lovedrive. Michael Schenker returned to the band briefly during the recording of the album, contributing to three songs.

While tracks like “Always Somewhere,” “Holiday” and “Loving You Sunday Morning” cemented a formula of charged-up rock and tender ballads that the Scorpions would utilize to reach great heights in the world of heavy metal, Lovedrive was also remarkable for its suggestive album cover. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time the Scorpions would stir up controversy with their album art.

“This was a very famous album cover [the creation of Storm Thorgerson of the design firm Hipgnosis],” said Rarebell. “It showed a woman sitting in the back of a car with a man, and on her breast was chewing gum. Of course, this is ’79 now. This cover was banned immediately … it became gold immediately, because everybody went out and bought it. I mean, Playboy made it cover of the year, and that [resulted in] even more copies [being bought], and then the music and the cover together, you know, did the rest. This was basically the first gold album we had in America and a breakthrough, the Lovedrive album. But the next one was just as provocative; it was the Animal Magnetism art, which everybody said, ‘Oh, this girl is kneeling down giving the guy a blow job.’ And we always answered, ‘Well, this is your dirty mind.’ You know, we see a girl looking as a dog.”

1981 saw the release of Blackout, which continued the Scorpions’ string of hit albums as the band overcame the throat problems, which eventually required surgery, of singer Klaus Meine. Featuring the title track, “Dynamite” and “No One Like You,” Blackout expanded the Scorpions’ mass appeal. They played Day 2 of the US Festival, performing in front of 375,000 fans. But the Scorpions were only getting started.

In 1984, the band unleashed Love at First Sting, the LP that made the Scorpions international superstars, thanks to the behemoth hit “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” Once again, the Scorpions courted controversy with the Helmut Newton photograph of a man kissing a woman while stroking her tattooed thigh that graced the cover. But nothing could derail the Scorpions after “Rock You Like a Hurricane” slammed into the shores of America, the post-coitus afterglow of its lyrics crafted by none other than Rarebell.

“I wrote the lyrics for that, and I’m very happy about that, obviously, you know, because when I get my publishing, I can see how many times the song has been played,” said Rarebell. “It’s ridiculous. I can tell you it’s played all over the world, as we speak right now, it’s probably on somewhere – at least 100 or 150 times every day.

As for the inspiration for the lyrics, it’s pretty obvious where they came from.
“Well, this is where the timing hits, because the music and the lyrics [came together],” said Rarebell. “As you can imagine, ‘ … it’s early morning and the sun comes out. Last night was shaking and bloody loud.’ What would that be, huh? ‘My cat is purring and scratches my skin. What is wrong with a night of sin?’ Of course it was about sex, where you get up in the morning, her room is smelling of love and sex, and you open up the curtains and the sun comes out. We’re sitting down, immediately, and I wrote those lines. And this is basically a song, you know, about the wild ‘80s, because you know, in those days there was no AIDs. It was party time every night, and this is what happened. That’s how the song was created, the lyrics at least.”

Hits flowed from the double-platinum Love at First Sting, with “Bad Boys Running Wild,” “Big City Nights” and the ballad “Still Loving You” all finding chart success, thanks to the series of MTV videos that accompanied them. In the aftermath, the Scorpions released the too-slick pop-metal disappoinment Savage Amusement in 1988. Though some fans were turned off by the record, the Scorpions’ juggernaut rolled on, as the band made that fateful Soviet Union tour that may have helped changed the Eastern European bloc forever.

They rebounded with Crazy World in 1990, as the Scorpions changed producers for the first time in years, losing “sixth Scorpion” Dieter Dierks and welcoming Keith Olson. Thanks to “Wind of Change,” Crazy World put the Scorpions back on top of charts around the world, the song’s hopeful socio-political message striking a chord with music fans everywhere. The sting of the Scorpions was being felt everywhere, and the band helped Roger Waters perform The Wall in its entirety in Berlin. Within the Scorpions’ ranks, however, things were about to change.

Veteran bassist Francis Buchholz left after touring for Crazy World, and after a series of lukewarm records, Rarebell departed in 1996 to start a record label. Interestingly, it was Rarebell who became the first Scorpion to venture out on his own and do a solo record while still with the band, 1982’s Nip in the Bud.

In 2010, Rarebell, recording as Herman Ze German, his longtime nickname, offered up another solo LP, Take it as it Comes, along with an engaging audio book, “My Life As A Scorpion.” Since leaving the Scorpions, Rarebell has involved himself in various interests, including art and humanitarian efforts in addition to music ventures. Now in his early 60s, he shows no signs of slowing down.

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