Guitarist Uli Jon Roth joined the German heavy metal band the Scorpions before they were hugely popular. He left the band just as it started to become big. Now, he’s revisited those early days on Scorpions Revisited, a double album of 19 “re-invented” Scorpions tracks. The album came out digitally last month and arrives on CD next month. It features tunes such as “Catch Your Train,” a tune with wailing guitars and over-the-top vocals. He recently phoned to discuss the CD, which was recorded last year in the same hall in Hanover that the Scorpions used for the Scorpions rehearsals in the ‘70s.
Your career starts back in 1968. What made you first want to pick up the guitar?
Before I started playing the guitar, I was a massive Beatles fan. I loved the Beatles. I knew all their songs by heart. Our neighbors’ son had a guitar and had a band. It didn’t take me long to really want to play the guitar. That’s how it started.
Was it difficult to learn?
It was very, very easy. I was surprised. It felt like a miracle. I was able to play it right away. I was practicing diligently but progress was very quick. It just felt good. It felt right.
You joined the Scorpions as Michael Schenker’s replacement as the band was finishing a tour. What was that experience like?
It was through Michael Schenker. He left in 1973 to join UFO. Before he left, he asked me if I wanted to replace him in the Scorpions. This is how it started. Initially, I was a little reluctant because I had my own band but eventually I joined.
I think you were the one who convinced Klaus Meine to rejoin the band.
Sort of. He had been in the band before me and when Michael left the band, it split up and Klaus didn’t want to be in the band anymore. Only Rudolf [Schenker] was left. I convinced Rudolf that we needed to ask Klaus to return.
How much controversy did the band stir up with the cover of Virgin Killer?
Yes, there was some. I have to say in hindsight, it was a very big mistake. We shouldn’t have put that cover out. It was in the worst possible taste. The songs it originated from actually have a positive message and the title was satirical but the cover was just a display of bad taste. It didn’t get banned in Germany but in America they decided to change the cover. That’s good. The original was incredibly bad.
It’s like your Spinal Tap moment.
I don’t know about that. It was worse than that. I always cringe when guys who bought the original on eBay come proudly with the original for me to sign. I’m always cringing when I see it but I guess I have to live with it. The only redeeming thing is that I didn’t design the cover and had nothing to do with it.
What made you leave the group in 1978?I left in 1978 after five years. The reasons were purely musical. I knew it was a great band. I really enjoyed playing with them, but there came a time I wanted to do different music. The framework didn’t allow for that. I felt it was time to go my own way.
Do you feel like you missed out?I did miss out financially but I was relieved otherwise. I wasn’t happy toward the end. You have to go where your heart is.
What did you think of the music the band recorded in the 1980s?They had some great songs, particularly the later albums. The songs got better and better and that’s why they become so successful. Some of it I like a lot but not all of it.
Talk about Scorpions Revisited. What made you want to revisit the material?
It’s not my idea originally. It took me a little while to come to terms with the idea. Then, I began to realize it would be an interesting project and worthwhile. I embraced it wholeheartedly. I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot from that, to step back into my own shoes from when I was really young. It’s been inspirational. It’s the right thing to do. I’m happy about the album which comes out in March. I think we got it right, which isn’t always the case.
Your style of playing has changed since those albums first came out. What was it like to revisit the songs as a more sophisticated player?You’re right. It has changed. I had to dial back into my own past and reconnect to that. In the Scorpions they didn’t have flashy guitar runs and the classical aspect. I had to restrict myself somewhat. That was not a bad thing. It was very rewarding. It’s still ongoing because we’re playing quite a few of these songs live now. Next month, we’ll be in Japan recording a live DVD at the same hall where we recorded Tokyo Tapes.
Do you have any good memories of playing Cleveland?Yeah. I remember several of the shows. It was always a good, very responsive crowd. I think we had some good concerts and I’m looking forward to coming back.
Uli Jon Roth, Vinnie Moore, Black Knight Rising, Old James, Rick Ray Band, 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4, Agora Ballroom, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $20 ADV, $25, agoracleveland.com.