Skip to main content

How Germany took on the world of heavy metal and won

Scorpions, Doro Pesche and Accept
(Image credit: Icon and Image/Fin Costello/ Paul Natkin)

Umlauts, gothic script, a guttural diction… let’s face it, no country on earth is more suited to bonding with the legions of metal than Germany. The country has a tradition for over-the-top operatics – the great composer Richard Wagner could have paved the way for Deep Purple – and epic, demonic literature – Goethe’s Faust might have become the blueprint for Black Sabbath. It was inevitable that there would be a Teutonic affinity with loud guitars, dark lyricism and theatrical power. 

“Germany was perfect for heavy metal,” says Stefan Kaufmann, former drummer with Accept, one of the country’s most important metal bands. “Although we always sung in English, the German language and heritage was very hard, and gave us a natural affinity with that sort of music.” 

When asked when heavy metal actually started, Scorpions rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker responds: “To me it was about 1979, when we did our Lovedrive album. Before that, as far as I’m concerned there was an English band called the Heavy Metal Kids, but no actual metal style. It all happened at the end of the 1970s, and we were so pleased to be part of it.” 

Until the arrival of thrash metal in the mid-1980s, Germany was really the only nation outside of the UK and the US that was able to generate internationally credible metal bands. Even the Japanese couldn’t compete. But with the arrival of the Scorpions, followed by Accept, Fargo, Bonfire and Holy Moses, there was a definite metal scene, rivalling the krautrock one that had pioneered so much in the fields of electronic and industrial music. 

“You could say that we all grew up in the Krautrock scene,” claims Kaufmann. “All of the big bands really began there, and then developed. Listen to the first Accept album (Accept, 1979), and it’s not metal at all. We had the right sort of instruments, but our roots were different. It’s only with our second record (1980’s I’m A Rebel) that we started to become a proper metal band."

Alt

It all really began with the Scorpions, of course. They were formed in 1965, as something of a beat group, by rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker, and the arrival of vocalist Klaus Meine four years later gave the young hopefuls shape and focus. 

“When we kicked off, the whole of Germany was only into krautrock. Everywhere we went, that was the only thing people would know. You had to fight very hard to get noticed,” says Schenker. “That’s why we went to other parts of Europe, like Belgium, Holland, France and England. But there was also another problem for German bands. That is, promoters only wanted to book English bands. They never wanted to have local groups. 

"I remember there was a club in our city, Hannover, where musicians always got together and talked about what they’d been doing. One time we went on tour around Germany, so disappeared for a while. When we got back, people were asking: ‘What happened to you? Where have you been?’ They were amazed when I said we’d been doing gigs, because all of them thought it was impossible. It could be done, but it took a lot of effort and talking to promoters to get shows in Germany.” 

“There’s a simple reason why bands like the Scorpions and ourselves became so successful outside of Germany,” reveals Kaufmann: “There was nowhere for us to play in our own country. Seriously, there wasn’t a club scene as such. So we had to go to Scandinavia, France and the UK. And it was only when we did well there that Germany took any notice. 

"The same with the Scorpions. Until they released the Tokyo Tapes live album in 1978, no one here took any notice. But once it became obvious that they were massive elsewhere, the German fans paid attention.” 

The real breakthrough for the Scorpions came when they lost a key member of the band: teenage guitar prodigy Michael Schenker (Rudolf’s younger brother). In 1973, London band UFO arrived for a German tour, with the Scorpions due to support. Unfortunately, UFO’s guitarist Bernie Marsden had passport problems, which meant he missed the first handful of dates. So UFO borrowed the young Schenker – and kept him. 

“Do I think that Michael playing with UFO helped us? Definitely,” confirms Rudolf. “He became a guitar hero, and everybody loved the way he played. So when we came to England, there were UFO fans who’d turn up to see what we were like. I suppose it was a key point in our history. But we also had other musicians who became fans. When we played the Marquee Club in London during 1976, one guy got up on stage, grabbed me and said: ‘I fucking love your band.’ That was Gary Moore. And he helped to spread the word about us.”

In Germany, though, it did take a long time before the Scorpions were accepted, at least by the media. 

“We had a good fan base,” says Schenker. “But the magazines didn’t like us. Eventually they started to warm up, but only after they realised we were getting all of this attention elsewhere, and they were missing out. It was the Lovedrive album that proved vital for the Scorpions, though.”

Released in 1979, Lovedrive marked the arrival in the Scorpions of guitarist Matthias Jabs, from another promising German band, Fargo, who replaced Uli John Roth, the man who had taken over from Michael Schenker. 

I wanted to go in a different musical direction to the rest of the band,” explains Roth of his departure. “And the only way forward was for me to leave.” 

“Until that point we hadn’t discovered ourselves,” believes Schenker. “But when Uli went, we lost the Jimi Hendrix influence, which was holding us back, and finally got our direction. Having Michael guesting on the record also helped. He was a big star at the time. But this wasn’t just about us making the big breakthrough. It was the moment when German metal was born.” 

The Scorpions were the most important homegrown band in the history metal, and their success immediately inspired a new generation of hopefuls. By going for a global audience, bands such as the Michael Schenker Group, Warlock, Helloween and Victory began to emulate what the Scorpions had already achieved.

The huge talent of Michael Schenker – arguably the most creative musician ever associated with German metal – was always dogged by a brittle, unpredictable, occasionally self-destructive personality. 

Having walked out of UFO in 1978, and briefly lent his talents to the aforementioned Lovedrive album, Schenker put together his own band, and for a while enjoyed considerable success, before his darker nature took hold and threw him into an ongoing mental whirlpool. But the Michael Schenker Group (1980) and M.S.G. (1981) albums still resonate with fans across the generations. And he’s still among the elite archetypal guitar gods.

Formed in 1982, Warlock were fronted by Doro Pesch, who quickly gained a cult following as much for her looks as for her powerful voice. Their proto-thrash approach, though, reflected a tougher musical style. But Warlock never managed to break out of those underground chains. 

“When we started I have to say that there was a real feeling of excitement, because metal was truly catching on,” recalls Doro. “But more in the rest of Europe than in Germany. Warlock played across the continent, and we all felt part of a growing movement. But Germany was about a year behind everyone else. You see, we had the bands, but not the infrastructure to make things happen. I think that was important, because it meant so many German metal bands went overseas to play, and it gave us an international outlook.” 

Oddly, Doro insists that being a female in a metal band never caused her problems in her native Germany, whereas female band members in America and the UK felt the hot breath of sexism. “I can honestly say that I was accepted from the beginnings of Warlock. To our fans at home what mattered was the music and whether you were passionate about it. 

"Those were amazing times, though. There were a load of young bands coming out of Germany, and realising that we could make our impact in other countries without any prejudice against your nationality.” 

Helloween might have begun around the same time as Warlock, but quickly expanded their sound from thrash beginnings into a beast that effectively posted the power metal revolution. Allied to Iron Maiden’s management, the two Keeper Of The Seven Keys albums in 1987-8 looked certain to propel them to a level on a par with the Scorpions and Accept. But losing key member Kai Hansen (who wrote all of their most memorable songs), and then protracted label problems scuppered that potential. 

Victory were founded from the ashes of Hannover’s Fargo, who’d fallen apart after Jabs’ defection to the Scorpions. Led by bassist Peter Knorn (now a successful manager), they had a multinational approach, with an English guitarist (John Lockton) and an American singer – former Ted Nugent band vocalist Charlie Huhn. A definite melodic hard rock attitude helped to get them attention in the US, but it never quite translated into significant sales, even though they had the patronage of Rudolf Schenker, and a major manager in David Krebs who also looked after the Scorpions in the 80s. 

Of course, the biggest problem faced by German bands at the time – and still is, to some extent, although Rammstein's later success suggests otherwise  – was a massive cultural chasm dividing them from both America and Britain. Particularly when it comes to a sense of humour, as Schenker readily accepts. 

“I have to be honest,” he says. “Germans have no humour at all. We don’t understand what that means. And I’m sure the Scorpions seemed funny to English audiences when we first came over. It took me a long while to understand what English people find funny. But now I think I appreciate it a lot more. Working with English roadies for so long helped. However, German fans are very different. You notice it here. They don’t find anything about heavy metal remotely amusing. It’s all very serious for them."

In the 1980s, German fans always stood apart from the rest, because of severe mullet mania, ill-fitting stripey trousers and moustaches obviously nurtured away from sunlight. They looked a ludicrous tribe, but their dedication to the scene was unquestionable. Yet, Schenker feels the Scorpions suffered a lot in the 1990s from that diehard mentality.

“In America, radio stations might have played ballads like Wind Of Change, but also our harder stuff such as Rock You Like A Hurricane. So we’ve always been known as a heavy band. But in Germany the only songs from us you’ll hear on air are the ballads. Consequently, for a time we were known as a pop band. That made it tough for us, because a lot of German fans didn’t want to know about the Scorpions any more. In the typical way we have here, they just turned their backs on us. 

“I suppose it comes back to Germans being rigid,” he continues. “It’s part of our heritage, and can be heard in our language. It was only after we played at the Wacken Festival in 2006 that metal fans realised we could still rock very hard.” 

Doro, though, feels that the loyalty of her German following has helped to sustain her. “It’s true. Once German metal followers love you, then they love you forever. But that’s also the case I find of metal fans everywhere. I believe now that what counts isn’t your nationality, but a commitment to the music.” 

Today, the scene that existed when the Scorpions and Accept were dominant has changed, but not by much. And it all comes down to the influence of one band, and one album. 

Iron Maiden’s second record, Killers [1981], defined the whole scene,” says media commentator Goetz Kuhnemund. “For German metal fans it’s the most important album of all time, and really says everything you need to know about our music.”

The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock Presents... Heavy Metal, in 2007.