Friday, June 18, 2010
Scorpions- Blackout (Mercury, 1982)
A little-known fact about me is that I have never ridden a bicycle. Many find this hard to believe. What did a kid do in an early ‘80s summer without a bicycle? Could he exist? Could he enjoy a proper boy’s life? What did he do all day? Well, I can tell you, precisely, how I spent the typical summer day of 1983. Out of bed around noon – eat breakfast and watch MTV, hoping they’d maybe play something by Judas Priest or Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark”. Go listen to heavy metal records. Play the radio. Go to the pool. Have dinner. Play more records. Read the Daily News sports section. Watch the Phillies game. Watch Carson and Letterman. Fall asleep listening to the radio. Lord knows if I’d had a bicycle, my life might have turned out far differently. I might now be a doctor or lawyer. I probably wouldn’t be blogging about old records at age 39. I might be the kind of guy who does things, like fishing or camping or tinkering with cars. But then again, maybe I would have gone out on my bike and gotten abducted by pedophile clowns, never to be heard from again, and you, dear reader, never would have been reminded how awesome Teenage Fanclub was. You just never know. Charles Foster Kane had Rosebud to remind him of his idyllic childhood. Me, I’ve got a Scorpions LP.
Blackout might not be the greatest album I bought during my middle school metal phase, but it’s up there. And more so than any other record, it represents my entry into full-fledged heavy metal fandom. I bought it after the last day of school, 1983. I had just completed sixth grade. I felt free, elated, eager for summer and all it had to offer. Already a fan of AC/DC since Grade Four, I was itching to get into metal so I could be just like those cool-ass delinquent degenerates at school who wore Iron Maiden t-shirts and rocked jean jackets even in the May heat. My first attempt to make myself a metalhead was a massive flop: a purchase of Van Halen’s Diver Down, which was WAY too tame to satisfy my pubescent power chord bloodlust. But on my second swing, I hit it out of the park. Blackout was everything I desired, and then some. A couple weeks later, I’d walk into Listening Booth at the York Mall and buy Quiet Riot’s Metal Health and Def Leppard’s Pyromania. My conversion was complete.
Blackout was the last album Scorpions did before they went full-on mainstream. It almost always works out that a band’s best record is the one prior to its commercial breakthrough. It’s on this type of release that you can usually hear a group flirting with the qualities that eventually garnered it widespread popularity, yet without losing the edge that made it a cult band in the first place. That is most definitely the case with Blackout. The hook-laden choruses, slick production, and penchant for power balladry that would pay off a couple years later were already in place, but Blackout is a really fucking HEAVY album. It’s balls to the wall thundering metal music- melodic, yes, but metal nonetheless. And when you’re 12 years old and yearning for that sort of thing, nothing’s better than guitars heavy enough to floor skyscrapers and drums pounding so hard that you can feel it in your bones. Changes were happening to my body – I was becoming a man and living under the influence of unprecedented hormonal surges. That Blackout provided the power, aggression, and alpha male swagger I subconsciously craved is quite a testament to its metal credibility. That it still sounds awesome 28 years after its release, though, is even more impressive. Love at First Sting, sellout or not, remains a worthy listen, and 1980’s Animal Magnetism is kind of a classic. But Blackout is the best Scorpions album, or at least the first one I’d buy if I were you.
Sure, sure, sure: you could argue that 1970s Scorpions, with guitar virtuoso Urich Roth on lead, was the band’s strongest, least cheesy incarnation. But I like a little cheese – not a lot, mind you, but just a little, enough to make it fun, and it was ‘80s Scorpions that really embraced the rock god mythos – right down to the spandex pants, powerhouse twin Gibson guitar assault, and woman-objectifying music videos. Matthias Jabs, Roth’s replacement, was a less studied, more “rock” player, and his blistering leads are all over Blackout, perfectly complementing Rudolf Schenker’s blazing, wall-shaking riffs. The album storms out of the gates with the monster title track, so fast and furious that it could have been a Motorhead song, diminutive singer Klaus Meine summoning the vocal power of a giant. It’s a sonic kick in the teeth, pure and simple, and for sure the 12-year-old Josh Rutledge had never heard anything this hard or heavy on record before! Superb power ballads “You Give Me All I Need” and “No One Like You” (a top 70 hit in the States) let you catch your breath before “Now!” and “Dynamite” blast your ass into next week, giving way to the almost power pop of “Arizona” and the Zeppelin-esque epic sprawl of “China White”. These dudes had the formula down pat – the just-right mix of full-throttle rockers and hard-hitting (check out the solo on “No One Like You”!) ballads, with a little classic rock grandiosity to ice the cake, all of it tied together by big hooks, triumphant guitar wanking, and a charismatic front man. Apparently the songs on Blackout were demo-ed while Meine was recovering from throat surgery, and Don Dokken of all people actually filled in on vocals! No disrespect to Dokken, but it’s fortunate that Meine recovered. Blackout would not have been the same without him!
We all know what happened to Scorpions after Blackout – three million copies sold of Love at First Sting, a top 40 hit with “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, a clichéd mega live album, a slow decline culminating in the embarrassing political ballad “Winds of Change”, a return to a “heavier” sound on the poorly-received Face the Heat, a clichéd collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic, a clichéd unplugged album, an obligatory return to form on 2004’s Unbreakable, and, currently, a “farewell” tour that is expected to last through the year 2013. All told, Scorpions have been it for an incredible 45 years (41 with Meine on vocals), released 18 studio albums, and sold over 150 million records. Not many bands in the history of rock can boast that kind of longevity. And even if the Scorps have been past their peak for decades, their output as a whole is pretty underrated. Blackout can rightfully be called a classic of heavy metal. It still holds up today while so much of what seemed killer back then now comes off dated and laughable. Why? The songs were great, and it really fucking rocked. That’s the secret recipe for good music. I knew that when I was 12. Why do so few bands get it these days?
Posted by Rutledge at 10:58 AM