Skip to main content

The curious story of Krokus: drugs, fistfights, and the very end of the road

Krokus in 1984
Krokus in 1984 (Image credit: Paul Natkin )

"Reaching the top is difficult but, let me tell you, staying there is much, much tougher,” says Chris von Rohr. As a co-founding member of Krokus, a band who, despite being from the rock’n’roll backwater of Switzerland, attained platinum-selling status in the 80s, von Rohr knows more than most about determination and persistence. 

Krokus defied the odds to create some of the finest hard rock of that decade and enjoyed a very brief spell at its summit, although a combination of ego-mania, over-zealous management, fast living and creative burnout caused them to slip back down the ladder. 

Perhaps more unlikely still, the band members, now older and wiser, have buried their differences and reconnected as both musicians and friends, and following a twilight-years renaissance are about to write the final chapters of an extraordinary story with a dignified and satisfying farewell. 

“When Fernando [von Arb] and I recall those days, we wonder: ‘What the fuck happened? Were we really that off the rails?’” von Rohr says with a laugh. “There were times when I could only shake my head at the kindergarten behaviour,” says von Arb. “The combination of the success and white powder just wasn’t a good thing – snowstorm alert!”

Krokus formed in the town of Solothurn in 1975, and von Rohr named the band after travelling past a field of the colourful flowers (‘Krokus’ is the German spelling) due to the name including the word ‘rok’. Over the coming years the unusual moniker would become a source of delight to the British music press, who filled their boots with geographical and horticultural puns, with story headlines including ‘heavy petal’, ‘Alp is at hand’ and even ‘Basle brush’. 

“Nobody was waiting for a bunch of rock’n’rollers to come out of the land of cheese, watches and banks, but music is a universal language and we simply followed our dream,” von Rohr says. 

The band’s early years can best be described as confused. A trio of albums released between 1976 and ’78 – Krokus, To You All and Pain Killer – revealed little discernible direction. 

Nobody was waiting for a bunch of rock’n’rollers to come out of the land of cheese, watches and banks

Chris von Rohr

“We had begun as a quite prog-rock-style, experimental band,” explains von Rohr, who started out as the group’s drummer before switching to lead vocals for To You All, which introduced guitarist von Arb. “Gradually we emerged from the primal soup and began to build something that fitted us far better.”

And yet uncertainty lingered. In some territories Pain Killer was titled Pay It In Metal, and depending where it was sold it came in one of five different covers. The time had come for some clarity and a real sense of purpose. “The Scorpions had made us realise that the music didn’t need to be so complicated,” von Rohr says. “Simplicity without banality was the key.”

Although an able frontman, von Rohr was not the singer Krokus needed. While the search began for a specialist lead vocalist, von Rohr and von Arb hunkered down to write a set of tunes to either make or break the band’s dreams.

Each was painstaking demoed, fine-tuned and, where necessary, torn apart and rebooted before being laid down with their new singer Henry Fries. But then disaster struck when, with the album ready for release, the news that Fries was abandoning Switzerland for a new life in Italy dropped on them like a bombshell.

For his replacement, Krokus sought out Marc Storace, a Maltese native, who they’d seen with a rival Swiss band named Tea. After quitting Tea, Storace had moved to London to form a group called Eazy Money, whose track Telephone Man was included on the second volume of the NWOBHM sampler Metal For Muthas. 

By day he had a steady job announcing flights at Gatwick Airport. “Tea had made such strange music, but Marc’s voice was brilliant,” von Rohr enthuses. “We wanted someone to hit that third octave, who could sing high but without forcing it. He took a lot of convincing to move back to Switzerland, and also to sing the music we were making. In the beginning at least [the relationship] was tough and there were a lot of fights.” 

“Eazy Money had been about to sign a deal with Chrysalis Records and they wanted to send us to America to tour with Genesis, so joining Krokus meant abandoning two and a half years of work,” Storace explains now, citing the dexterity of Krokus guitarist Tommy Keifer as a deciding factor. 

“He was playing like a god,” Storace says. “What Tommy did on Fire and Tokyo Nights are two of the best guitar solos ever. I remember telling my wife that this was a band that could keep me in work for the next decade,” Storace continues. “And without sounding boastful, I like to think my vocals were a part of taking things to the next level."

Confirming the faith of all concerned, the fourth Krokus album was greeted by a wave of enthusiasm in the summer of 1980. Almost overnight Metal Rendez-vous transformed a group known only by an elite few into the name on the lips of your average headbanger. 

From the surging, fist-in-the-air strains of its opening anthem Heatstrokes to the super-hummability of Bedside Radio and the hard-edged boogie of Back-Seat Rock ‘N’ Roll, here was an album full of unpretentious swagger, understated melody and delicious brutal force. Noting the similarity between the voices of Storace and AC/DC’s Bon Scott, Sounds magazine’s Paul Suter called it “a total blood-boiling, skull-crushing metal tour-de-force”. 

An eye-catching Krokus logo would soon adorn the backs of hoards of denim jackets the length and breadth of Britain. And yet although Metal Rendez-vous came close to perfection, there were minor flaws. The cover art of a car accident was as cheesy as it comes, and some abysmal lyrics slammed home that English was not Krokus’s mother tongue. For example, what the heck was a ‘streamer in the night’? 

“Okay, it’s a very good question, and you got me there,” von Rohr says with a laugh. “Look, Fernando and I wrote that album with guitars and a Swiss-German-into-English dictionary,” he continues amiably. “We went with what sounded good and fitted the music.” 

Another song, Tokyo Nights, told the tale of coming off second-best to a Japanese female (‘The Geisha girl she was too hot for me/I tried to wake up unsuccessfully’). “There are no regrets at that, it was just meant to be a fun song,” von Rohr says with a smirk.

The elephant in the room – that Storace’s voice made Krokus sound like AC/DC’s Swiss cousins – was noted by journalists and fans. And although only the media had a serious problem with that, it would dog the group for their entire career. 

“Some of our stuff was close to AC/DC, but we also had songs like Fire, Screaming In the Night and Winning Man that were totally different,” argues von Arb. 

“We took those comments as a compliment,” von Rohr says. “But Krokus also did ballads. Compare the two bands all you like and you’ll only get half of the truth.” 

In an early example of a tendency to say dumb things, back in 1980 Storace told Sounds: “People are comparing me to David Lee Roth and Bon Scott, but I’ve never been influenced by [either of] them. I couldn’t whistle one note of a Van Halen tune, and AC/DC never turned me on.” 

Nevertheless, Krokus installed Mark Dearnley, fresh from working on AC/DC’s Highway To Hell, as a co-engineer for their next record, and the results spoke for themselves. Hardware was the group’s first album to chart in the UK, and it fell just short of the US Billboard Hot 100. 

Timing-wise, with the NWOBHM in full flow, Krokus could not have been better placed, and on successive tours rose from topping the bill at London’s Lyceum to headlining Hammersmith Odeon.

“I’ve always been an Anglophile, I had read the English music papers like Sounds and Melody Maker, so when Krokus made a connection with British audiences it was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” von Arb says. “We loved the place, even if the weather was shit, the people sometimes a little bit unfriendly and the pubs always shut too early.” 

“I was living in Putney and married to an English woman at the time,” Storace recalls fondly. “In some ways I almost felt British.”

It was while recording their sixth album, at Battery Studios in London in 1981, with co-producer Tony Platt (another collaborator with strong connections to AC/DC), that Krokus actually met their ‘rivals’. Angus and Malcolm Young were working on For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), the band’s second record with singer Brian Johnson, and were running out of time. 

Krokus agreed to an overlapping of studio time so that the Youngs could complete the job. “There was no tension between the two groups of musicians – certainly not from our side,” von Rohr recalls. And yet history suggests some resentment from AC/DC, who vetoed having Krokus on the bill when they headlined Monsters Of Rock at Castle Donington in 1981. 

“We had been told that we would be playing Donington, and then that we were not because AC/DC’s management didn’t want us,” Storace told Sounds the following year. “And then it was that it was AC/DC – the band – who kicked us off. It showed that they were worried we might have been too strong to have us play before them. And obviously I like the sound of that.” 

It has long been rumoured that Storace’s reluctance to audition as a replacement for Bon Scott might explain the schism, although he now clarifies: “There was no direct communication, just an invitation from the same light and sound company shared by both bands. I was happy with the way things were going for Krokus; promoters wanted us everywhere, and I didn’t want to live in Australia. At the time, AC/DC were pretty much on the same level as us, and when they lost Bon I considered that put us ahead of them in the game – though not in any spiteful way.”

AC/DC were about to deliver another kick in the teeth. As Krokus prepared to release an album called Long Stick Goes Boom, the title track of which was set to begin with the sound of a cannon being fired, word arrived that AC/DC had had the exact same idea with For Those About To Rock. “A photo shoot for our cover had already taken place in Solothurn, with the band surrounded by those ancient weapons,” von Rohr says. 

Somebody had to back down, and Krokus reluctantly obliged, and retitled their album One Vice At A Time. Featuring backing vocals from newly appointed Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson on its track I’m On The Run, One Vice took Krokus to a new level in the United States. This was due in part to their inspired remake of the Guess Who’s 1970 hit American Woman

However, on subsequent albums the cover versions had a negative effect. “When I was with the band we always tried to improve the song and play it the Krokus way,” von Rohr explains. “I would never have allowed those versions of [Alice Cooper’s] School’s Out [The Sweet’s] The Ballroom Blitz, because they were completely shit.” 

Their next record, 1983’s Headhunter, which included a revision of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Stayed Awake All Night, quickly became the biggest Krokus album so far. It also remains von Arb’s favourite by the band. 

By now Krokus were wooing the US market, where they gigged with the likes of Rainbow, the Pat Travers Band, Judas Priest, Rush, Van Halen and Gary Moore. Behind the scenes, though, some worrying issues were festering. Their new manager, Butch Stone, was working the band like dogs – von Rohr claims that they hadn’t had so much as a week off since Metal Rendez-vous. More damaging still, Storace’s ego was spiralling out of control.

Things came to a head in 1983 when, thanks largely to their singer, the band were thrown off one of America’s biggest hard rock tours of the year, opening for Def Leppard who were riding the new MTV wave to break big with Pyromania

On the first night, although Krokus were warned to stay off the headliners’ scaffolding and ramps, Storace did exactly what had been forbidden. At the next show, he repeated all of Joe Elliott’s stage raps from the night before, so when Leppard played it appeared they were ripping off their support act. And after Butch Stone boasted to a journalist from Circus magazine that Krokus were blowing off the headliner night after night, fisticuffs ensued. 

“It became very ugly, and when our manager punched the drummer [Leppard’s Rick Allen], naturally we were dumped from the tour,” von Rohr recalls with discernible regret. “It’s still hard for Marc to look back [at what happened], because he knows he was being a jerk.” 

“All of a sudden a section of the stage was gaffer-taped off,” Storace relates, with the shame of a drunk who has embarrassed themselves at a party. “Butch encouraged me to break those rules: ‘Don’t listen to them [Def Leppard], listen to me. I’m your manager’. The scuffle was like something right out of the Wild West.”

As 1983 drew to a close, Krokus were still living the rock-star dream. Chris von Rohr remembers most of the band being content with “girls, joints and lots of beer”, but also admits that “there was cocaine around. We had too much success and there was too much of everything.” 

Time was running out for von Rohr, who Stone had identified as a trouble maker, and when the guitarist gave a tell-tale interview to a leading Swiss newspaper, in which he spilled the beans about life on the road, the bullet arrived. 

“What happens in Las Vegas should stay in Las Vegas,” von Arb explains. “In those days, like others in the band, I was quite a party animal. If a journalist writes a wild story about a touring band, that’s one thing. But when a member – and one who isn’t that much into partying – runs to the papers it becomes something else.” 

“Maybe doing that interview wasn’t too clever,” von Rohr agrees. “But looking back, Stone knew I was the only person dangerous to him. Here’s the thing: even at the height of our success, the band members didn’t earn more than two or three thousand quid per month. I was starting to ask why, and he began dissing me to the rest of the guys.” 

In fact, von Arb had been considering quitting Krokus, but von Rohr’s dismissal changed his mind. “I felt that the core of the band – Chris and I – had already broken apart,” he states. 

For von Rohr, who went on to discover and produce another Swiss hard rock band, Gotthard, his getting sacked wasn’t as disastrous as it first appeared. Sadly, Krokus only became more and more tepid. 

“Had I stayed, we would never have released those bullshit albums The Blitz [1984] or Change Of Address [’86],” von Rohr seethes. “Three years later, Stone told me: ‘If I had known what you bring to this band I would never have fired you.’ But it was too late. When credibility is gone, facts don’t matter.” 

“Chris von Rohr was the line of consistency that ran through the best records we ever did,” Storace acknowledges. “Sacking him was a big mistake.” 

When Fernando von Arb is asked how he felt when the wheels came off for Krokus, he replies simply: “It felt like shit.” 

“Things went wrong not just musically but also visually,” Storace says. “We were forced to polish up our entire act, because times were changing. Everybody was trying to squeeze singles out of us, when we had made our reputation as an albums band.” 

After Krokus invited von Rohr back into the line-up in 1988, they managed to create a decent enough record in Heart Attack, although as he points out: “The band was falling like a rock from the sky. Everybody was fried. And when Fernando walked out the rest of us followed him.”

In the late 1990s, Fernando von Arb put together a von Rohr-less line-up that was fronted by ex-Persian Risk and current Nazareth singer Carl Sentance, but the album they made, Round 13, flopped. 

At the start of the current millennium, von Rohr and von Arb began to meet regularly for tea and conversation. During one such get-together, von Rohr says, the pair realised that “the soul of Krokus was so low that we asked one another whether the band really deserved such an undignified ending”. 

In 2007, having spent time exorcising the issues of the past, Krokus reunited for a Swiss TV show, and went on to record couple of original albums and a covers set. 

“We didn’t approach things like Metallica did with Some Kind Of Monster,” explains von Rohr, “but gradually there was an appreciation of what had gone wrong, and the parts played in it by each of us. When you’re younger, egos are different. Ageing and having families brings acceptance of the strengths and weaknesses of others. That was very rewarding.” 

At 2019’s Sweden Rock Festival, Krokus and Def Leppard also buried the hatchet over their fallout on the Pyromania tour. “I apologised to Joe Elliott, who hugged me and said that all of those problems were in the past,” Storace says with a smile. 

Despite having developed a new, younger audience as well as winning back much of their original following, in 2018 Krokus announced a farewell world tour, Adiós Amigos. Chris von Rohr swears that unlike so many of their counterparts such as Mötley Crüe, for Krokus there will be no U-turn. 

“Playing heavy metal is different to the Rolling Stones – it should be an act of force,” he says. “It also requires a decent level of health, and as a band we are now heading towards our seventies. We want to end our career on a high so that people remember the best Krokus that they ever saw. 

"A lot of bands are still out there for a pension plan or to put their kids through college. We don’t want to end up like that. Unlike some of our idols, I would rather end things too early than too late.” 

As things stand, having waved goodbye to their homeland late last year with an emotional sold-out show in Zurich (“For just the second time in my career I found myself shedding tears on stage,” Storace admits, “there were also a few hankies out there in the audience”), Krokus are set to perform their very final show at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles on October 10.

The band were also due to support Saxon in the UK in March, but the shows in London and Manchester were postponed until September in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. “We would love to go out as headliners in the UK,” enthuses van Rohr. “We don’t have to finish in LA. In some ways I would prefer for it to happen in good old London.” 

Watch this space.