How a Scorpions power ballad struck a chord for freedom

How a Scorpions power ballad struck a chord for freedom

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay. 

Along with the requisite rush of Lou Reed-related articles that came out following his recent death, this curious bit of history was resurrected: how, in the ’60s, Reed’s transgressive music with The Velvet Underground helped inspire a young Czech named Vaclav Havel to become a musician. And then to become a writer. And then to become a dissident. And then to become the president of the liberated, newly formed Czech Republic in 1993. Havel—who in the late ’80s had played a central role in his nation’s nonviolent protest movement, the Velvet Revolution, reportedly named after The Velvet Underground—met Reed in the ’90s, and he asked him, “Did you know that I am president because of you?”

Like Havel, the members of the veteran German rock band Scorpions grew up in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. The Scorpions, though, were on the Western side. Formed in 1965, the group tried out various versions of psychedelic and hard rock before settling on its signature sound, a snarling yet anthemic heavy metal that rocketed Scorpions to mega-stardom in the ’80s. In essence, Scorpions were the German Judas Priest: an “overnight” success that had been decades in the making, and a group that maintained most of its integrity and edge throughout the glammy, hair-metal ’80s. From vein-bursting fist-pumpers like “Rock You Like A Hurricane” to growling ballads like “Still Loving You,” Scorpions ushered out the ’80s as a metal legend.

But things were changing. Metal was on its way out, soon to be supplanted on the charts by alternative rock and grunge. And the Berlin Wall, that most vivid symbol of Soviet repression, began to crumble in 1989, two years after Ronald Reagan had delivered his famous speech commanding Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Make no mistake: Scorpions were not a political band. The most incendiary statement the group had ever made was in 1976, when its album Virgin Killer caused an uproar due to its cover art: a photograph of a naked 10-year-old girl. This is the band whose admittedly amazing 1980 hit “The Zoo” contains the lines, “We eat the night / We drink the time.” These were not deep dudes. But in 1991, frontman Klaus Meine and crew decided it was time to take things down—and up—a notch. They released “Wind Of Change.”

Like freedom riders galloping through the billowing mists of a fog machine, “Wind Of Change” is unabashed in its desperate grasp at epic. From Meine’s wistful whistling to his lyrics about soldiers in Gorky Park, it’s a sing-along anthem advocating brotherhood, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s rendered in broad strokes, simple phrases, and huge hooks. And like its accidental sister song from 1991, Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now,” it was a blatant, achingly earnest attempt to wring some attention out of the fall of the Berlin Wall by a band that had previously shown about as much political consciousness as The Troggs.

“Wind Of Change” appeared on Scorpions’ November 1990 album, Crazy World (which is being given a deluxe reissue this month in Europe, where the song was even more popular than it was in the States, where it reached double-platinum). From the title, the album may seem to be a statement about all the conflicts and sociopolitical upheavals going on at the time, from Perestroika to the Gulf War. Really, it’s about Scorpions’ own world, one that had revolved for so long around riffs and riches. Like Soviet-style communism, mainstream heavy metal was disintegrating. It had little to do with Nirvana or R.E.M., though; like the USSR, heavy metal had long ago sown the seeds of its own downfall. Founded on noble principles of egalitarianism, it had grown bloated and corrupt. The everyman who should have been liberated was now back at the bottom of the social order, a mere cog in a machine. Standing in line all day for Scorpions tickets wasn’t too far removed from standing in line all day for a loaf of bread.

But the muddled message behind “Wind Of Change” only makes it better. As a slice of power-balladry, it’s pure cheese, right down to the keening vocals and sweeping solo. But if Scorpions felt their own world of rock ’n’ roll excess slipping away in the face of all these flannel-clad dissidents, they managed to infuse that mix of confusion and hope into the music. After all, if Eastern and Western Berliners could come together after generations of separation, couldn’t, say, Pearl Jam take Scorpions out on tour? Not that Scorpions needed that kind of boost in 1991. But the writing was on the wall. Sure enough, the band’s fortunes plummeted greatly in the ’90s, although it has since soldiered on with all the dignity and ass-kicking that befits a group of Scorpions’ formidable stature. In the new alt-rock order of the early ’90s, it was hip to have a conscience—so Scorpions grew one. And it paid off.

In 2011, Scorpions marked the 20th anniversary of Crazy World—and the 80th birthday of Mikhail Gorbachev—by performing “Wind Of Change” for the former Russian president during a gala celebration at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Hosts Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone presented the band. Backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Meine and company turned their song into a piece of pomp and circumstance—which, by that point, it had legitimately become. The band of bawdy Germans who had once put a bare-chested fourth-grader on the cover of one of their records had found a far more effective—if far less metal—way to capture the hearts and minds of the world. Maybe the razing of the Iron Curtain doesn’t owe as much to Scorpions as it does to Lou Reed. But give the group a little credit. In the midst of a crazy world that saw the end of Europe—and heavy metal—as they knew it, they were able to keep on whistling.

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