Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Legend of Uli Jon Roth and The Scorpions

"Just before he left the band, Michael Schenker asked me, in fact, to join The Scorpions. He told me what was going on with the UFO thing, which was supposed to be a secret. Then Rudolf Schenker rang me a couple weeks later, and said 'Did you know Michael has left the band,' and 'We've got this gig lined up, would you like to fill in?'" ~ Uli Roth

And so it was that Uli Jon (Ulrich) Roth joined The Scorpions, and in four short years the guitarist created a legacy that still dominates any discussion of what has been an incredibly varied, and productive career. In those years (1974-1978), Roth recorded five albums with The Scorpions, and arguably created a genre of rock guitar known as shred. This last comment may raise the hackles of fans of Blackmore, Page, Schenker, Beck, and Iommi, but Roth brought to the table some skills that none of these greats could quite claim.

Uli Roth took the Stratocaster and Marshall sound of Jimi Hendrix and injected it with a sense of precision, daring, and technique that had not previously been demonstrated. His speed was unparalleled, his knowledge and use of theory unique to the world of hard rock, and his whammy bar histrionics set the stage for Edward Van Halen.

Speedy's Coming was the first song on Fly To The Rainbow, Roth's first album with the German rockers in 1974, and never had any guitarist introduced himself in such an auspicious manner. He begins every solo and fill with almost unbelievable violent tremolo bar work, performing huge dives, and shrieks only to follow them with fiery licks - all while keeping the guitar in tune, a trick unheard of in those pre-Floyd Rose days. Even Ritchie Blackmore rarely played with this amount of fury, and passion.

Two songs later, Uli sings and plays his first recorded composition, Drifting Sun.Roth sings terribly. Terribly beautiful - like some of the great singers - like Dylan, and like Hendrix. The man is a visionary poet, delivering his deeply spiritual and philosophical poems over some of the most adventurous post psychedelic rock ever laid to wax. Drifting Sun is equal parts Bob, Jimi, and King Crimson. Roth successfully marries All Along The Watchtower to 21st Century Schizoid Man, while simultaneously taking the art of rock guitar to a new and exciting level.

Uli Roth, "Thinking about the early days, it may be interesting for you to know that on a recording one gets no sense of the sheer volume at all, and it is actually and most definitely not an accurate representation of what the whole thing sounded like in real life. It may amuse you to know that during Scorpions days I always played with cotton-wool in my ears, both on stage as well as in rehearsals. I call that particular line of fire the “death ray”, because it is just that – the tone has little sideways bloom, but is thrust directly forward like a sharp laser beam."

Eddie Van Halen began playing covers of Speedy's Coming, and Catch Your Train before Van Halen the band had a set full of originals to call their own. By 1975 The Scorpions were doing big business across Europe (co-headlining with KISS), and debuting in England at the Cavern Club, most famous for being the Liverpool home of The Beatles. The band released their third album (their second with Roth), In Trance, which became RCA's best selling album in Japan that year.

In Trance was a departure from the band's psychedelia tinged prog/metal - the arrangements were simplified, and the hooks became catchier. However, that is not to say that in any way the band stopped progressing. In fact, this is the album in which Uli Jon Roth stepped up to write six of the album's ten tracks, including the LP's opener, Dark Lady. If you were to put this album on and not be impressed by the sheer force, and propulsion of this magnificent chunk of rock, your sanity may be questionable. This is about as exciting as rock gets. It screams, it howls, it shouts, and Roth is playing like he's being chased by the devil, though I suspect the opposite is true, and Ulrich has Lucifer on the run here. His playing is startlingly complex, and his audacity is stunning - he fearlessly performs stunts that still have my jaw dropping, more than 35 years later. Malmsteen never got this exciting, not even close - no question that Yngwie is a remarkable instrumentalist, but his playing exhibits none of the daring on display here.

Roth on technique versus soul, "Sometimes it is important to devote time to technical aspects - and to do this intensely - but this shouldn’t be one’s main focus for long – only for as long as necessary. To concentrate mainly on the technical aspects of one’s music making can become like a mechanical drug for some people. They become addicted to technique and in some respects hide behind it – to cover up a lack of musical depth or substance by fast, slick flurries of meaningless notes. There is a huge difference between playing fast runs that are dictated by finger reflexes and by those which have musical meaning, quality, and weight. Melody is usually the first victim of this approach – rhythmical precision and clarity of phrasing and expression are often next on the list. For a lot of players this habit can easily lure them into a trap that they may find hard to escape. The problem with this way is that there is very little connection with the deeper layers of music – with the inner content; there is a lot of musical activity, business – but very little of substance is actually being said, and achieved. Concentrating mainly on technique can lead to a musician’s alienation from the essence of music, and the player is then trapped in a perpetual scraping of music’s surface level, which means he is stuck in an immature state of musicianship and never gains any deeper insights."

Here's Uli on his equipment during this period:

1) The guitars were not modified in any way except for the heavy duty tremolo system.

2) My picks tended to vary – very early on I used Fender medium, but soon I started using stronger plectrums such as Joergensen Heavy, which I played for quite some time. The picks I use nowadays are even heavier.

3) My string gauges have always varied, but I have always favored heavier bass strings. The top-string during Scorpions was always an 008. The B probably 011. The G was 015 – the others varied a lot.

During Electric Sun I played heavier strings in general – on the ‘Earthquake’ album they were quite heavy with probably a 052 bass string and an 011 top-string. For the 'Fire Wind' album I went to slightly lighter strings with a 009 at the top – then I started favoring 014 G strings, because I preferred the sound.

4) The Roland 301 Echo only made an appearance just before Tokyo Tapes – I didn’t use echo before then during Scorpions days. (I did use it before Dawn Road, though). Whatever echo you are hearing on those albums was created in the studio.

5) I did have quite a few effects lying around and used them now and then – but not very often during ‘serious’ or melody driven leads. Here is what I can remember: I had an Electric Mistress Flanger which I used on a couple of occasions. The Univibe made its first and, I believe, only appearance on ‘I’ll Be Loving You Always’. I used a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face during ‘Fly To The Rainbow’ at the end of the song. This was also used at the beginning of the track ‘Earthquake’. The ‘Polar Nights’ lead sound was played through a Roland Jet Phaser, which you can also hear at the end of ‘Enola Gay – Hiroshima Today?’ The Wah-Wah pedals tended to be Vox Cry Baby. I played most of my leads through it back then in order to achieve a more singing tone, but onstage it tended to be very piercing and extremely loud, which is why I always used cotton-wool in my ears. I don’t use these piercing sounds any more, nor do I use cotton-wool, but against the drums these brutal, relatively thin sounds were cutting through better.

6) My main Marshall amp was always the same: 100 Watt Super Lead Tremolo from 1972. To this day I have not found a better one for my needs, although I have other Marshalls which sound great, but this one gives me more magic."

In Trance also signaled the beginning of a heavier straight forward hard rock attack, mostly coming from the riff rich guitar of Rudolf Schenker. Songs like In Trance, Top of the Bill, and Robot Man placed The Scorpions directly in the sights of the more commercial ears of Western Europe, and music fiends in America, who were starting to take notice of this Teutonic super-group. Unfortunately, due to a lack of faith in their commercial potential, The Scorpions with Ulrich Roth never stepped foot on American soil.

It was around this time that The Scorpions, and Uli Jon Roth came to my attention. As I recall, I was 16 years old, and had only just discovered the music of UFO, and the guitar wizardry of Michael Schenker. This discovery had truly shaken, and changed my world. Having previously delved into the typical American diet of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, this new style of German hard rock guitar took me by force, challenging  not just my musical skills, but my intellect, as I had to absorb not just a new style, but a new language. It took some time, and I vividly recall my first listen to the band's fourth record, Virgin Killer.

Highly controversial for its cover art (over which the band had no control, and little say), Roth had this to say about the cover, and the title track, "Looking at that picture today makes me cringe. It was done in the worst possible taste. Back then I was too immature to see that. Shame on me—I should have done everything in my power to stop it. The record company came up with the idea, I think. The lyrics incidentally were a take-off on Kiss, whom we had just supported on a tour. I was fooling around and played the riff of the song in the rehearsal room and spontaneously improvised 'cause he's a virgin killer!' trying to do a more or less way-off-the-mark Paul Stanley impersonation. Klaus immediately said 'that's great! You should do something with it.' Then I had the unenviable task of constructing a meaningful set of lyrics around the title, which I actually managed to do to some degree. But the song has a totally different meaning from what people would assume at first. Virgin Killer is none other than the demon of our time, the less compassionate side of the societies we live in today—brutally trampling upon the heart and soul of innocence."

My considerations at that point were more in trying to assimilate this new information. Guitars had never sounded like this to my ears, and the band's Germanic vocalization took some getting used to, something I am infinitely glad I was able to do. As recently as today, a friend has said that Klaus Meine's voice, "sounds like someone is sticking a broken wine glass in my ear." Well, not everyone likes Dylan, either. And Klaus Meine's wonderful voice is a walk in the park when compared to Uli's singing. Again though, you must be able to see through your conditioning to accept the voice of any true artist's soul.

Virgin Killer is Uli Jon Roth's greatest contribution to the history of rock guitar. Every song is a tour de force of incredible six string heroics, and from beginning to end, Uli is covering new territory, and expanding his virtuosic palette.

Pictured Life has Roth playing dizzying, fast cascades of notes interspersed with silky bends, and as is often the case, sees him harmonizing with himself throughout. Doubling lines, creating tension with tones, and always managing to do it within the composition - never sounding forced, or out of place, it is Uli's musicianship and taste that keeps his sheer musical muscle from being overpowering.

The next song on the album, Catch Your Train is a Roth classic. It's not hard to see why a young Van Halen set this as his six string high water mark. Throughout the entire song, from the feedback drenched intro to the horrifyingly fast fills, and solos, Uli Jon Roth again makes the case that in the year of our Lord, 1976, he is probably the finest practioner of rock and roll guitar on the planet.

Uli on Eddie, "I cannot really comment with authority on Eddie Van Halen’s playing since  I have only heard brief snippets here and there, but never an album. The band actually came onto the scene at a time when I had lost all interest in listening to hard rock, which is why they passed me by. Maybe I should check them out. From what I have heard, Eddie played with emotion and conviction, I thought."

Jimi Hendrix has always loomed large in the artistry of Uli Roth. Roth obviously absorbed everything Hendrix did, and while you certainly hear the influence, it is especially apparent when you hear the guitarist slow down, and play softer, more emotional material. Yellow Raven the last song on the Virgin Killer album is perhaps the finest example of the German paying homage to his American forefather. And while it's the song's sultry rhythms that evoke the memory of Jimi, Uli's leads and fills are his unique brand of soulful bending, and masterful flights of fretboard fire that mark this as his own. The ending coda is superb in both composition, and execution, and stands as one of the finest fade outs in all of rock's recorded history.

By 1978, The Scorpions had spent many years, and traveled many thousands of miles establishing their brand in the world of rock and roll, but what had emerged was a coin with two very dissimilar sides. One side had the catchy metal riffs of Rudolf Schenker, and the other featured the more cerebral contemplations of Uli Jon Roth. It was a stew that served the hardcore fan such as myself very well, but confused the more casual listener, and left both sides somewhat dissatisfied.

Uli Jon Roth on rock, "The truth is that I have never loved rock music and it was never close to my heart, but I have always been fascinated by some of its aspects and   certain possibilities or characteristics which I saw of artistic value for what I wanted to express. This is still the case. When I was in the Scorpions it was a distant dream for me to be able to do one day what I can do now. My playing in those days reflected early projections of that dream to the best of my abilities – but back then I felt extremely limited by so many things. Today I don’t feel limited anymore – I feel free and at peace with what I do – at least most of the time, but there is always room for improvement, and I do enjoy the journey.

"Back in the Scorpions days I also didn’t like the sound we created – I found it too mechanical and lacking mystery. But I felt the same with regard to many, probably even most bands – I think I also rebelled against certain formulas.

"In those days I really felt that our sound was too plain and also too brutal – lacking warmth. The recording process was too casual and we never explored anything in terms of  sound. I clearly remember that I was usually highly dissatisfied with the results. I think we could have done it so much better – even at that time, but we were never in a studio I liked or had sufficient time to really get to grips with things.

"I know that there are many who don’t share these feelings of mine regarding those early days, but I think I do hear things differently from a lot of people – not necessarily better, but certainly from a very different angle."

By now, the magic had waned, and The Scorpions had become Uli Jon Roth's job. So, how do you think the maestro decided to handle matters? By recording two of what are still considered by most hard rock guitarists, and serious listeners as a couple of the genres finest records.

First came Taken By Force, this version of the band's final studio album. The disc includes just three tunes written by Roth, Your Light, a typically spiritual number in the tradition of Roth's balladry, the shred guitar classic, The Sails of Charon, and the prophetic, I've Got To Be Free, which features lyrics that state his case for leaving the band very bluntly, with lines such as: "I'm not your Bugs Bunny, and you're not my wife..." However, Roth's playing on the album is superb. He may have considered it a job now, but it was a job he performed as few could.

The album contains two of Roth's finest guitar moments, those being the whole of The Sails of Charon, and his epic soloing on the Monika Danneman penned, We'll Burn The Sky. Both are sublime examples of the finest, fastest, and flashiest rock and roll guitar playing.

Though Roth disagrees, I find his playing on this record to be as good as any he had done to date. His soundscapes on several tunes are as expansive as any, and his lead playing is fiery and inspired. Once again, album cover art became an issue (the original cover featured children playing with weapons in a graveyard). On this, Roth states their case with his usual elegance:

"I think the original idea was children playing with guns at a military cemetery  in France and some people found that offensive. I don't think it's offensive because I think it was actually a quite a good image because it puts war totally into perspective, very often it is young people, eighteen, nineteen , going to war that don't fully understand life. When you're fifty you  don't fully understand life, but these guys then have to shoot other people simply because someone tells them to do it for their country. Politicians are sometimes also children with guns, in all periods of time a lot of politicians are far too trigger happy and war too easily becomes an "easy solution", whereas for me it should never be a solution, there should be no war in the first place. Maybe every once in a while a country may need to defend itself, I understand that, but in general if you consider that there are over a hundred wars raging in the present day on this planet alone then it's just sheer lunacy and always the tool of the Dark Side. Usually bad things come from war, very few good things, but sometimes good things come from bad things, that's true, nothing's that black and white. It's always the wrong solution to kill people."

As you can see, Uli Jon Roth is as good with language, and with his thoughts and philosophy as he is with an electric guitar. He is an artist who lives his art as much as he has ever performed it.

Tokyo Tapes. Uli Jon Roth's final recording with The Scorpions. I could write another lengthy article just on this record, perhaps the greatest live document laid down by any rock guitarist, but I won't. I will simply tell you to listen to it. To listen to this album is to realize why the legend of Uli Jon Roth's work with The Scorpions still stands as the template for much of the heavy music that has followed.

tony conley

The quotes used in this article come from Uli Jon Roth's website - questions asked by fans, and answered by Roth. I have attempted to use them in proper context, and with original intent and meaning intact.

1 comment:

crusheverything said...

Wow, what a great article, Tony! I wrote a similar piece in 2001 that touched on many of the same aspects of Uli's amazing artistry. I've always straddled a line regarding Uli; on one hand, I think it's a crying shame that he's not a household name, as I feel he's the greatest rock guitarist of all time, while on the other, I'm happy not to share him with the mainstream, as his music is too deep and meaningful for today's shallow, 140 characters or less society to truly understand or appreciate, anyway.
Through the write-up I did, based on a 2.5 hour phone conversation with Uli, I was fortunate to meet him and see him play live many times. He's as genuinely warm and intelligent as one would hope and always shows his appreciation for his fans. When his Metamorphosis cd came out, I had trouble purchasing it through his website (Visa was not allowing overseas purchases online at the time, due to widespread fraud). Uli found out and mailed me a signed copy with a note thanking me for my many years of support. Who does that?! I even got to play his #1 sky guitar a few years ago!
Anyway, yours is my favorite Uli article I've ever read, including my own - thanks for putting it out there and keep cranking the Uli tunes, brother!
Chris Yancik
Thomaston, CT