Why Michael is still rocking all over the world
German-born guitar god Michael Schenker was just 18 when he was asked to audition for the Rolling Stones. But he never bothered to call them back.
Newly arrived in England, the teenage Schenker had just joined rockers UFO after playing in his brother Rudolph’s band The Scorpions since he was just 15 – and he admits the prospect of joining the Stones terrified him.
He laughs: “Only the year before I looked in the paper about the Rolling Stones and they were the biggest thing all over, and I got really scared!
“I asked my brother what he thought and he said, ‘You have to make a decision.’ So I never even bothered to call back. For me, UFO was enough.
“Rolling Stones was far far too high up there for me as a very sensitive young boy and fragile – I was scared of them actually.”
It was brother Rudolph who inadvertently started Schenker on the path to his destiny. The guitarist recalls: “He was 16 and I was nine when he got his first guitar. So one morning, I woke up and there was a guitar standing in the room – and I was not allowed to touch it!
“But of course, when everybody was gone, I was tempted. And the moment I touched the guitar and I hit the strings, I immediately realised that this is amazing and there must be more to it and so I went straight into it and I developed very very quick.
“I was totally fascinated by the fact that you press the string, hit the string and it makes a different sound, and it did different things depending on how you hit it, what you did with it. It was just very very fascinating.”
Rudolph formed the Scorpions almost the moment he acquired the guitar. Michael grins: “He couldn’t even play and he already had a band. His vision was to make one of the biggest bands in the world, that was his vision, and my vision was to become a great guitarist.”
He made his debut with his brother’s band just two years later, aged 11.
He remembers: “They played somewhere and I ended up jamming with them for the first time.
“My parents came with me and dropped me off and watched and so on.”
At 15, he played on their debut album, Lonesome Crow. But Schenker was already longing to come to England where he felt the rock scene that he loved had its roots.
When the Scorpions toured Germany with UFO, he found himself filling in for guitarist, Bernie Marsden, who was stuck in England thanks to a passport problem.
He impressed and they asked him to join. He says: “I was very much into all the great rock guitarists and rock bands of the late 1960s which came from Britain, most of them.
“I was developing so fast but there was no audience here in Germany, it was all disco, and there was no management. Everything was very lame over in Germany, and I had always told my brother that if anybody asked me from England where all of this was coming from, I would go there because I just wanted to be with people in a country where people are into this kind of stuff.
“We were touring with UFO and I had to help out because they didn’t have their guitarist. So the only way was to have me play with both bands for a couple of nights until he would turn up and that’s what I did.
“And that’s when they decided to ask me to join. Of course, I was ready to do that immediately.”
But first, he made sure the Scorpions were OK. He says: “I remember Uli John Roth, seeing him when I was 14 years old, he perfectly copied Alvin Lee from Ten Years After and Jimi Hendrix so I felt good having that kind of replacement. So I got in touch with him and he took the offer and so he joined Scorpions and I went to join UFO.”
Schenker made his name in UFO – and the Stones weren’t the only ones to come knocking. Schenker says: “I was asked by Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter, and Deep Purple – so many people.”
But, in the end, his greatest days were spent in his own Michael Schenker Group, and he admits he finds it difficult to be part of a band, disliking the crushing schedules and preferring to lead.
This, he says, is why, having returned to the Scorpions for their Lovedrive album in 1978, he then left midway through the tour. He says: “That’s when I knew I cannot do this. I need to express myself. I cannot just learn other people’s songs or be in a machine of tour and album, tour and album.
“I wanted to experiment musically at my own pace and I didn’t want to be part of a system, back and forth. I just wanted to be free.
“And I realised actually every time I got asked, like if it was Ozzy or Aerosmith, I was very tempted to do it but last minute, I pulled out. I said, ‘This is not for me because you end up in the same situation.’”
Schenker has reunited with UFO several times over the years, each time producing a new album. But their relationship was always turbulent and he finally walked away after a disastrous reunion tour in 2001.
He recalls: “I had a problem with (bassist) Pete Way. He was drunk all over the place onstage and then I had enough and I got drunk too and then I made a fool out of myself in Manchester and it all collapsed.
“The tour got cancelled and then half a year later, Phil called me up and said, ‘Michael, I need to carry on working. We need the name UFO,’ – because I was half owning it.
“He wanted the name back so they could continue working. I didn’t want anything to do with them any more because it was all too corrupted. So I just gave him the name and blessed them and that’s what they did ever since.”
He is amazed to find himself a hero to many of the world’s greatest rock guitarists. He says: “I never really focus on that kind of thing. For me, it was purely fascination with a single string and enjoying the discovery.
“And then someone knocks on my door and says, ‘We have an award for you.’ Or they would say, ‘You are the favourite guitarist of Slash or Metallica or Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, etc etc.’
“I disconnected from the scene for many, many years and I had no idea. So it was a kind of a surprise - actually, a shock! Obviously, it’s the icing on the cake for me.”
Schenker hit hard times early this century. Divorce and management problems derailed his drive, but he now feels the tough times made him stronger. He says: “I went through some very hard times in 2001, 2002. Divorce, family problems and I was surrounded by some very weird people.
“But if it doesn’t kill you, it can make you stronger. We have to work hard to overcome and this gives us wisdom to learn more about life.”
But he now feels back to his best, and he has reunited with two of the Scorpions – drummer Herman Rarebell and bassist Francis Buchholz – for his latest outing, Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock, which comes to Preston’s 53 Degrees on Thursday July 19.
Also in his band is former Rainbow vocalist Doogie White, and Schenker says it’s a winning combination.
He says: “It’s really good. We just did two months of touring and every concert was a success and so there were lots of happy people and it’s just wonderful. You play the most known songs, and the set-list is about 20 songs, and it’s like one song after another, people are really happy. And we are very happy performing it.”
Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock is at 53 Degrees on Friday July 19. Tickets are £22.50 on 01772 893000.