Greek History: The Scorpions do MTV Unplugged in Athens

July 8, 2014
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It’s hard to say goodbye. It’s especially hard after 50 years. So that’s why you have to cut the Scorpions some slack for the fact that they’ve been on their current farewell tour since 2010. After all, they have fans all over the globe, and they want to try to see them all before they call it quits. In a career as long as theirs, there’s not much they haven’t done. Sold-out tours? Check. Hit records? Check. Fans rocked like hurricanes? Duh. But one thing the Scorps had not done is a show on MTV Unplugged. Acoustic-themed gigs are not exactly a new thing for the band. They did their album Moment of Glory in 2000, where they performed their hits with the Berlin Philharmonic, and released Acoustica the following year, and that very well could have been enough. When the offer came in to do the iconic MTV show, however, it seemed like it could be one more feather in the cap of the great German rock band. But founder Rudolf Schenker and longtime cohort Matthias Jabs didn’t want to simply rehash what they had done on Acoustica. If they were to make this work, they would need to reimagine their hits, dust off some B-sides, create some new material, and unearth some obscure gems in order to give Scorpions fans something really memorable. And it wouldn’t hurt if the concert could be recorded in an amazing, gig-of-a-lifetime setting.

Well, that’s exactly what they did to create Scorpions MTV Unplugged in Athens. They crafted a killer set with all-new arrangements and set up in Greece’s Lycabettus Theater, a 50-yearold open-air venue with a view of the Acropolis. Schenker and Jabs made their way through 25 tunes, many of which were in new and different tunings from the originals, and some of which had never been performed before. The two spoke at length from Germany on the day of the release about the album, the history of the band, and what the future might hold.

How did this DVD come to be?

Schenker: Well, 2013 was supposed to be a year for us to relax after three years on the road. But when the phone call from MTV Unplugged came, it was a pretty easy decision, because Unplugged was something we hadn’t done in our career. They offered it to us in the ’80s, but we could never do it because we were on tour or making a record or whatever. So we really wanted to do it, but at the same time we knew that we had already done an acoustic album. We knew this had to be different. We spoke to our producer guys, Mikael Nord Andersson and Martin Hansen, and they said, “We went through your material and there are a lot of songs you could do that aren’t on Acoustica.” Matthias, Klaus, and I met with them, listened to the catalog, and found a lot of stuff that we thought could work. We didn’t want to just replace heavy guitars with acoustic guitars. We wanted brand new arrangements, including open tunings, 12-strings, percussion, keyboards, making songs faster, making an acoustic guitar orchestra, all of that. And we told MTV, “We don’t want to do it in a studio. We want to do it in Greece, in this amphitheater under the Acropolis. Let’s not do it in front of 250 people. Let’s do it in front of 3,500 people.”

Jabs: We definitely didn’t want to do the same songs from Acoustica over again. We had to choose songs we hadn’t done in an acoustic setting or songs we’d never played live or write some new ones. We didn’t even want to do “Rock You Like a Hurricane” or “Still Loving You” at first. In the end, we did them because the record company and the fans really wanted to hear them. But the basic idea was to do something out of the ordinary and not repeat ourselves.

Talk about the arrangements. “Sting in the Tail” has a Cajun feel, “Can’t Live Without You” is a blues shuffle.

Jabs: I was the only one from the band who went to Stockholm, and I arranged the tunes with Mikael and Martin, our producer friends. Some of these things were done at breakfast in the studio in Sweden. We jammed on “Sting in the Tail” over coffee. We had a few ideas for “No One Like You,” and the one on the DVD is my idea. For “In Trance,” we started tuning things down to D and then to dropped-C. Slowly but surely, we put the set together, and it was about two and a half hours of music. We knew we needed to keep it interesting. I planned right away to have four acoustic guitar players: Rudolf, myself, and two others, probably Mikael and Martin. It turned out that we ended up with five players—two songs had six guitar players—and then we added other instruments. We were very experimental, adding more instruments, like violin and mandolin, and then harp and Dobro, because we wanted different sounds for every arrangement. Toward the end we had a relatively complicated setlist with a lot of different tunings. Everybody had a guitar change between almost every song. I think we had 56 acoustic guitars onstage, not counting the mandolins or other instruments.

What were some of the instruments you played?

Schenker: It’s funny. Over the years I have asked Gibson to make me a Flying V acoustic guitar, and they always said yes but somehow they didn’t do it. The guitar tech who works with Matthias came to me once and said, “Are you interested in an acoustic Flying V? You should talk to Boris Dommenget.” I met with him and he makes very good guitars. I got three 6-strings, one 12-string, and a doubleneck acoustic Flying V from him. When I was at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt in 2013, I kept running into Henry Juszkiewicz. He’s a very good friend who I’ve known since the early days when he was taking over Gibson in 1987. I said, “Henry, we’re doing MTV Unplugged in September. I had to play Acoustica with a non- Gibson Flying V acoustic. I want to play a Gibson.” He said, “Rudolf, I will make it happen.” So he arranged it. Normally Gibson is very slow, but I got two Flying Vs in no time. So, I played those, and it was a lot of fun because one of them had the Robot tuning system on it, which is great. It was invented by a guy from Hamburg. It sounds fantastic and works perfectly.

Jabs: When I was arranging in Stockholm, I had Martin guitars around me and I fell in love with them. I used Martins exclusively for the show, and we used L.R. Baggs pickups because they sound great and they don’t leave their mark. You can remove them and there’s just a tiny little hole under the bridge for cables. I played a Martin 000-42 a lot. That’s a guitar you can use for anything, and it’s especially comfortable for leads. It helped that a lot of songs were tuned down to D, so I could bend strings easily. I also played one of the special Martin D-180s. Last year was the 180th anniversary of Martin guitars, and they made very few of these D-180s to commemorate it. I got number six, and I got it just in time for the show. It sounded perfect right away—which doesn’t happen with acoustic guitars all the time. The system we played through was custom built by this guy Skrydstrup. He builds amps and speaker cabinets and makes switching devices that make no noise. He also makes the Rolls- Royce of acoustic preamps. It sounds fantastic. It’s the closest to, or sometimes even better than, a microphone.

Do you guys play differently together on acoustic than on electric?

Jabs: Electrically, we’ll do our wall of sound on tunes like “Blackout” or “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” We play the exact same thing, apart from a few fills I might be doing. In some songs we play something completely different. The most important thing is that it sounds like a unit, that the song is interesting, and that the guitar arrangement is interesting. As far as the groove, Rudolf has a different technique in the right hand. I play my strokes up and down the whole time. He plays a lot of downstrokes.

On this DVD, everybody plays something completely different in order to create the big picture. The acoustic guitar is a totally different instrument. First of all, acoustic guitar means no excuses. It’s in your face— you make a mistake, you can hear it. On electric guitar with a not-so-clean sound, you can sometimes hide a little bit or slide into something. You try not to, but when it happens it’s not so obvious. Acoustic guitar is much more percussive and dynamic. Therefore, if you play with a pick you better play it softly because too much attack will kill the sound on an acoustic guitar. If you use a pick, don’t use one that is too heavy. I play more with my fingers than I ever did before because you get a much better sound for single notes and arpeggios.

Rudolf, any advice on rhythm guitar?

Schenker: First of all, my advice is to find your style. Create your own style. There’s always the possibility of using the guitar in a different rhythmic way. That’s the most important point. If you don’t try to play your own way you will always sound like somebody else.

What about songwriting?

Schenker: Don’t rehearse too much. By rehearsing too much, you lose the sensitivity of creating songs. If you rehearse too much, you go into a routine, and a routine is the worst thing you can do for composing. That’s the reason why there are so few guitar players who are technically great and also great composers. There are a few. Eddie Van Halen is one of them. Jimmy Page is one of them. Even if some of his lead guitar playing wasn’t super technical, he was always very creative.

There’s a long history to this band, with four great guitarists.

Jabs: Rudolf founded the band in 1965. Doing the math, that means next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Scorpions. So maybe if we do some shows next year it would be a good idea to get everybody who ever played with the Scorpions onstage, because they’re all part of that 50-year history. I remember a gig in 2006 or 2007 or something. I was sitting with Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth after the show. We hadn’t seen each other for quite some time and we looked back on the Scorpions history. We realized that Michael was in the band from 1972 to the end of ’73—almost two years. Uli was in the band from ’73 to ’77, so let’ssay five years. I’m in the band for 35 years and Rudolf next year will have been in the band for 50 years. It’s really incredible.

So this farewell tour has been going on for a few years. Are you guys really saying auf Wiedersehen?

Schenker: We never wanted a situation where we announce a farewell tour, and then four years later we’re announcing another tour. So we’re doing some projects like this MTV thing. We will do a cinema film, about the history and the spirit of the Scorpions. We’ve done nearly everything in our career. Whatever else comes up that we find interesting— apart from another world tour, that is—we’ll do it and have fun.

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