Interviews & Features
German icon celebrates past, forges future
By Gary Graff
March 17, 2017
Michael Schenker has been stinging us for about 47 years now. The German-born guitarist was a prodigy who recorded with older brother Rudolf Schenker’s band Scorpions when he was just 15 years old, bringing the world a, yes, stinging blend of riffing and shredding on his trademark Flying V guitar. Two years later Schenker was part of UFO for some of its greatest successes. He helped Scorpions break through to the U.S. with 1979’s Lovedrive album, and that same year he started his solo career, starting the Michael Schenker Group with a self-titled album in 1980, joining forces for a time with singer Robin McAuley for the McAuley Schenker Group and launching the all-star Temple Of Rock with fellow Scorpions alumni Herman Rarebell and Francis Buchholz in 2011. Schenker’s latest CD and DVD release, Michael Schenker Fest Live is a celebration of his career, a concert set from last August in Tokyo that comes out March 24 and reunites Schenker with MSG frontman McCauley, Graham Bonnet and Gary Barden. Schenker, who currently resides in England, has plenty of plans for the future still, but he doesn’t mind taking a moment out to celebrate his glorious past.
FGPO: You were so young when you started all this. What do you think when you look, or listen, back at that kid now?
Schenker: I think I basically had a lot of intuitive, subconscious guidance. I knew intuitively what I needed to do. When I was 17, I knew I had to stop copying anyone. I knew it was about pure expression. And that never stopped. For me the whole journey from then ’til here is the consistent development of the art of lead guitar playing — basically a path, a journey with nothing better or nothing worse. It all had to happen to get me to where I am today.
FGPO: Some consider you a kind of unsung hero in the rock and metal worlds. Would you agree?
Schenker: I feel like I created something that people liked and they copied it in the ‘80s, but it was never important to me to be the one that gets all the credit or gets all the money, ’cause that was never my agenda. My focus was always the fascination on the single string, what can you do with a single string? When you make that choice we open up the door to let people hear what we carry inside ourselves. That’s why it’s such a refreshing way of self-expression.
FGPO; Do you hear your influence out there?
Schenker: Sure. I remember my brother Rudolf called me up from America in the early ‘80s: “Michael, they’re playing your guitar style over here!” I didn’t know who Kirk Hammett was, but he was like: “Michael, this is incredible! It’s your guitar style!” He couldn’t believe it. I have no idea what I was doing; I was just being myself. It all happened unconsciously.
FGPO: Who were some of your influences and sources before you joined Scorpions, especially since you were pretty young:
Schenker: It was really when I was 14 that distortion came out, distortion with Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi, and Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. It was that rock sound with the distortion and what you can get when you just play one single string and get the feedback from the distortion of the amplifier. You can hit it more than once and do so many things with it. That really fascinated me, and I think that’s what you hear when we started Scorpions.
FGPO: You mention being copied by others. Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery or are you ready to smack somebody upside the head with a Flying V?
Schenker: When I worked in Germany when I was 15 and did the Scorpions album [Lonesome Crow], which I wrote most of the music and Scorpions credit themselves for it, for everybody. “I’m Goin’ Mad” was the first song I wrote when I was only 15 years old, but they credited it to themselves, being 22 years old. They took advantage of me then. But looking back on what actually happened, I was so involved in the music and didn’t care about all the business stuff, so ultimately people were ripping me off left and right. I didn’t get paid for anything ’til 1991. My brother ripped me off; He took my Flying V design, asked me if he could have it. I wondered why, but I said yes. Someone said to me: “You know you’ve been ripped off?” “Really? I’m quite happy. I have everything I need.” It was quite funny in a way, but the guy was right. There was money people were putting in their own pockets.
FGPO: Are you bitter about that?
Schenker: I’ve got quite a journey behind me, but it’s all good. It’s really amazing, you know? I won’t complain. When I left UFO after Strangers In The Night, I had tasted the top. I knew what it was like up there. I knew it wasn’t for me — the competition, the rat race, competing for fame. I was there. I tasted it, at least, and I’m grateful for it because I could make a decision. It made it possible for me to let go of it and just go to the land of freedom and peace, where I could experiment with music and do what I wanted without compromising, which was very important.
FGPO: You were a big part of Scorpions’ Lovedrive album, which was the group’s entree into the U.S. What led to your return?
Schenker: They asked me to help out after Rudolf found out I left UFO. He cried and begged me to be in Scorpions. Management wanted me to come. I said I’ll do it if I can become the sixth member of that album. That was their ticket to finally get to America. It was a big album for them, and they basically ripped me off…I started to investigate the Lovedrive credits, and I found out there’s no picture of me in there. And there’s an intro, 45 seconds of “Holiday” that sets up the song that I wrote, but they conveniently didn’t even mention that was my part. They used my name, of course, to promote this thing and they carried on using my guitar style and the way I write songs and my melodies and stuff like that. But they promoted that album as “Featuring Michael Schenker of U.F.O.” Somehow, for some reason Scorpions are obsessed with wanting to be the ones that created it all.
FGPO: On a happier note, Michael Schenker Fest Live is pretty special. How did that come together?
Schenker: Back in 2015, Temple Of Rock was invited to play in Japan, and it was the idea of the promoter to have Graham Bonnet open the show and maybe sing a couple songs with me. It occurred to me it might be great time on what other possibilities there might be, and I thought about who else could do it with me. So Graham, Gary and Robin came to mind. We contacted them and they were happy to hear about that, and then the musicians came to mind and we were moving. We started rehearsing and things started to snowball. I got an offer from Sweden Rock and then I had a call from Japan to headline the Loud Park festival and close one day as a headliner. But Scorpions were headlining the day before, and I can’t do that. That would be like setting me up. There’s too much bad experience, so I decline. My other promoter in Japan found out and gave me an offer to do Michael Schenker Fest in three cities, which was even better.
FGPO: It must have felt like your life flashing before your eyes.
Schenker: It was fantastic — the show, the audience couldn’t have been any better. Everybody was happy, we were all getting on extremely well, it was unbelievable with the three singers, just amazing and such a great chemistry. It was definitely a success and I’m very glad that I filmed all of that and it turned out so good. It ended up being a great project.
FGPO: And the Fest has actually taken on a life of its own as a concept, hasn’t it?
Schenker: Since the trailer [for the album] has been on the web site it’s just going crazy. We’re getting offers from all over the world. So it’s coming together and we’re booking these tours, Michael Schenker Fest with the three originals singers starting in July, and we’re going to do tours in the U.K. and Europe, Germany and France, and then next year in February and March so America. I’m just celebrating my life. After 40 years of AC/DC, I think people are ready to look a little deeper, so I just want to do as much as I can and focus on that, what I love most, and just keep bringing lead guitar playing to the next level.
FGPO: How about some new music?
Schenker: I wanted to do the next Temple Of Rock album in 2017. We did two studio albums and two live DVDs and four years of solid touring. I kind of feel like this two-year gap is better than overcrowding everything and maybe having too much put out in one go. Having said that, I might end up doing more than one thing at the same time, which I’ve done in the past. So I’m definitely looking forward to doing the third album so Michael Schenker’s Temple Of Rock can stand on its own two feet and Doogie [White] doesn’t have to sing my old stuff anymore, except maybe a few classics. So that’s something I’m going to work on, yes.
FGPO: Have you brought any new gear into the mix recently?
Schenker: No. I’m happy with what I have. I have my amp. I have my guitar. I just have a wah-wah pedal and some Boss pedals, one a delay Boss chorus, which I hardly play, and a tuner and that’s it. Everything’s pretty straightforward. It’s the playing more than the stuff. If you know what you can do and you know how you want to sound, once you find it you don’t fix it if it works.