Fans of metal and hard rock lucky enough to attend the US Festival over Memorial Day Weekend in May of 1983 were witness to a dream bill that in the minds of many still hasn’t been topped. “Heavy Metal Day” featured performances by Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, the Scorpions and a memorable headlining performance from Van Halen.
Naturally, there were a few bumps — the Clash were headlining New Wave Day, the first day of the three day festival and they were ticked when they found out that Van Halen was getting paid twice as much as they were paid, which caused a bit of drama between the two camps. But Van Halen allegedly helped to generate some additional drama on Heavy Metal Day that could have ended badly for both sides.
The Scorpions were set to go on right before Van Halen’s scheduled stage time. The German hard rockers had a big entrance planned — a fleet of fighter jets would fly over the festival followed by a giant pyrotechnic explosion from the stage and then the band would take the stage. Allegedly, someone in the VH camp decided to meddle with the Scorpions’ plans.
“It was unbelievable. It’s dangerous — normally, [planes] are not allowed to fly over a lot of people,” Scorpions guitarist and founding member Rudolf Schenker recalls during a recent phone conversation. “With 325,000 people, I mean, that’s really a risk. You know, in England, a major kind of plane show, a plane crashed into a heavily loaded street with many cars and many people died. Van Halen found out that we wanted to make a big start and they went to their air connections and tried to interfere, so that’s the reason why our announcer was [almost] burned, because the [explosion] came a little bit too early. It was a dramatic thing, which in the end, was very good. It was a fantastic start for this kind of big festival, no question about it.”
A few years later when the two bands toured together on the Monsters of Rock festival in 1988, Schenker admits that the subject never came up.
“You know, what can you say? First of all, we did our show and after that we left by helicopter, because you know, when the last event would finish, there will be a lot of people [leaving],” he recalls. “In this case, the helicopter had to leave very fast. We never talked about it. We played with Van Halen together on the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988 and it was a great possibility to ask them, but we had [such] a great feeling [touring] together, that we were afraid to ask them about that.”
That’s just one of many tales told in Forever and A Day
, the documentary about the band which will be in theaters in October. The film charts the incredible 50-year history of the group, one which Schenker himself has been a part of since day one.
“You know, you have 50 years and you’re going into the details and you know, you find so many things,” he says. “But I think the woman, Katja von Garnier, the director, she did a very good job as a woman, seeing behind the macho mask and getting the sensitive side of the rock band and really [captured] what we were. We were a bunch of good friends, traveling around the world as a gang, building bridges between different generations, different religions, different philosophies and different continents. I think that came across.”
The anniversary was something that almost slipped by Schenker, who was knee deep in a planned farewell tour with the group that continued to get extended with additional dates and events. He was looking for an old demo cassette at home during a break in the touring and found an accounting book that his mother had given him.
“My mother made a book when I was visiting my parents and needed money for buying equipment,” he explains. “My mother said, ‘You know, you have to pay the money back, because you have to appreciate what your father gave to you.’ This book started actually in September of ‘65. I told [the band], “Hey, look here — 50 years.’ Of course, our manager immediately said, you have to make this anniversary party. So that’s the reason why we came from the farewell to this tour, because to celebrate this kind of career, it’s a must.”
The farewell tour and a pivotal appearance on MTV Unplugged
, filmed in Athens, Greece helped to turn the tide on the group’s plans to hang things up. They saw audiences each night that were filled with younger generations that had never seen the band and realized that they still had a lot of ground to cover. They had plans to finish a batch of songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s and release them as an album, but as the touring continued, that plan changed too.
“We [decided that we had to make] this album [Return To Forever
, which came out earlier this month] sound new,” Schenker says. “Getting into the DNA” of the older material came in handy as fuel for the fire that also helped to influence the writing of the new songs. “It’s really good to have this material already, because it’s a part of the history, Looking back and seeing the weak parts, [we were able to] repair the weak parts, by fixing a few choruses that weren’t strong enough and then the songs became as strong as they would be on Blackout
or on Lovedrive
or stuff like that.”
“So in this case also, we involved very much songwriting-wise, the career from the Scorpions [when it came to the new material], like ‘We Built This House on Rock,’ that’s the history of the band, that’s the way that we came out of Germany and [began] rocking the world and [later] the times changed, grunge and alternative came, the wind was blowing in our face,” Schenker says.
Having a great producer team in Mikael Nord Andersson and Martin Hansen helped too.
“Mikael was growing up in north Sweden and became a big Scorpions fan by buying the album In Trance
,” says Schenker. “He and Martin gave us great inspiration by going back to the roots but with a twist, a twist which really sounding this album more new kind of. We now have so many young fans in the audience, because they’re seeing on YouTube what we do on stage and they are listening to the stuff and they’re feeling very much rocked by our music and by our performance. We made a great [connection] between the old material and the new material.”
Fans will be able to see that connection for themselves this week when the Scorpions return to Cleveland for their first show in the area in several years. They’re touring with an arena rock-worthy stage production, and the show will showcase material from the new album, their biggest hits and also a smattering of rarities from the earlier years of the group. With 50 years of history, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but you can be sure that the ‘80s hard rock legends are ready for the challenge.
Scorpions, Queensryche, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-622-6557. Tickets: $37.50-$85, livenation.com.