Coming back to the Scorpions after the fun of discovering their weird psychedelic side with Fly to the Rainbow I skipped ahead a bit to see what fourth album Virgin Killer had in store. By this time they had already started to hone their songwriting into the tighter, more streamlined commercial approach that would rocket them to stardom in a few short years. Having started their path with with third album In Trance (sadly one I don’t own…yet) I was eager to check out if Roth’s guitar was still as frenetic and alight as my first exposure. So let’s dive into Round 2 of Chris reacts to a virgin listen of Virgin Killer and see what hits, what misses, and where I’m left standing with the Scorpions’ 70s output.
“Pictured Life” immediately feels like a Scorpions song…it has all the earmarks of their later hits. Those power chords that start and stop on a dime, Meine’s vocals so up front, harmonized beautifully on the chorus. And of course those guitar breaks. Although it feels a little to these ears that Roth is restrained a bit but being as far out there as on the earlier stuff, every lick and solo is alive with a fire that brings into focus just how vital he was to the band and these songs. The sheen of the production is noticeable: by this time they were working with Dieter Dierks, who would guide them on all their albums up to and including 1990’s Crazy World.
There’s a bit more rock and roll fury on “Catch Your Train”, and I love hearing the crack in Meine’s voice. Roth is at this point just pouring litter fluid on every note. I was really hoping this post wasn’t going to be simply another love-fast for the man’s playing, but he’s incredible on this song. Lyrically Scorpions have never been the most subtle or nuanced of bands (let’s not even go into the controversy of their ill-advised covers) but as a good old-fashioned hard driving rock song this is a classic.
Track 3 and we’ve hit the signature porto-balled with “In Your Park” and it’s perfectly fine – you can see how they would take this song and make subtle shifts in the template for future hits like “Still Loving You”. The main thing I come away with hearing this is the nasal honk of Meine’s voice really standing out for the first time on a Scorpions song. I remember as a kid singing along to Scorpions songs and never really knowing there lyrics, but nailing that weird honk that is such tenet of his vocals.
“Backstage Queen” is exactly what you think it’s about, so let’s instead focus once again on how great the guitar breaks are. One thing I’m starting to notice here is how much in the background the rhythm is. There’s not nearly as much emphasis on the bass lines: a signal of how the band would proceed to refine their sound to the essence of what we now come to think of as a Scorpions song. I dig it, but honestly the quick sheen and polish job leaves little in terms of lasting impressions.
The first side of Virgin Killer ends with the title track, and my attention is instantly brought back: this is a searing rock track that refuses to let up. No surprise this track was penned by Roth – it’s essentially a showcase for everything that makes him special. Time may ultimately be the virgin killer, but it’s hard to decipher from the ridiculous lyrics which I still find endearing. This song is over way too fast – I know at this point the band is really shooting for brevity and punch but I could definitely have taken another 4-5 minutes of explosive riffs and solos.
Side 2 keeps the Roth train rolling with “Hell-Cat” and besides writing and taking the lead vocals, you can hearing the IMMENSE Hendrix influence shining through. The hard panned rap vocals are both hilarious and perfectly in keeping with the man’s weirdness, and holy crap but the man can definitely channel Jimi in his playing. It’s great to see that the Scorpions hadn’t completely abandoned their weirdness, even if they relegated it to the second side of the album.
At first I thought “Crying Days” was going to be another standard ballad, but the weirdness continues: it sounds angry…angular and broken before going into its admittedly more sedate verses. Searing guitar leads keep the song from becoming pedestrian and overly maudlin. The ominous “ahhhhh” that pan between the channels really bring a spooky vibe to the song, along with the striking flat fifth (I’m guessing) chords. Side 1 may have the blistering rockers, but I’m definitely favoring the more adventurous vibe Side 2 is bringing to Virgin Killer.
Wow…this side is really the Uli Jon Roth Show, and I am totally down for it. “Polar Nights” continues the Jimi Hendrix worship, and I’m laughing even as I can see why ultimately the band opted (without Roth) to go in a more commercial direction. Too bad, but this is a blast. I’ve completely come around on Roth’s raspy strained voice because it accompanies some truly killer music. You also really get to hear Francis Buchholz let loose on bass, working some great rhythms with drummer Rudy Lenners. It’s always great to really hear the whole band let loose, and I think listening to Virgin Killer that’s one of the things missing from some of it – that sound of an entire band coming together and just ripping it. It’s here in spades though on “Polar Nights” and I can see why a lot of people like to imagine what it would be like if Roth had stayed with the band…
Virgin Killer ends with “Yellow Raven”, and although it’s a Roth-penned tune Meine takes the vocals, and this is how I like my Scorpion ballads. Roth can’t keep things normal, so you get some fantastic harmonized solo breaks that keep the song from feeling too monotonous. Great closer.
Poised on the brink of their imperial rock phase (thanks Eirk for the phrase) I find myself increasingly taken with this era of the Scorpions. Virgin Killer works well in every facet: from the more straight ahead rock numbers that would come to define their sound for decade to come, but also in the unbridled bizarre explorations into the nuttier corners of the genre. I’ll most likely be coming back to the band soon, but for now this was a great introduction to the Roth era.