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A clarion call of singeing guitars, an overture to introduce the world to the original titans of Teutonic steel. As the sting fades a taut single chord fills the ear, stiff and unyielding like strumming an elevator cable. Throbbing bass and flat drumming. Whispered vocals, nudging and drawing you into a seamy underworld. A deafening cacophony of guitars bursts out of the verse, and Klaus Meine gets anthemic as the rest of the band finally breaks free, changing up the beat and unleashing a flow of steely leads. Fuzzy Frampton-worshipping talk-box solos.
That's it. Take simple base elements like this, roll twice and you come up with "The Zoo", a sparse wisp of a track, a song as much about silence as regal riffage. The track isn't ornate, isn't progressive metal-changing magic, isn't the biggest hit in Scorpions catalogue. But this song... this song is important for so many reasons and on so many levels.
The 70's catalogue of Scorpions in an enviable one, a streak of frighteningly prescient records that would subtly rip and tear at metal's very fibres in the wake of Priest's godlike re-engineering of the genre. The contributions of Scorpions are key, but they have never and probably will never achieve the recognition they deserve. There's always been something a little bit silly about Scorpions, a little bit charming, a little bit hard to really take seriously in a way that Priest in all their juvenile fixations were emphatically not. Scorpions were, not to put too fine a point on it, too German.
Everything that they did was filtered through a garbled translator, all of their intentions to tell the same testosterone drunk tales of badassery and horn-dog odes of the fairer sex coming from the lips of a first-class screamer with a strange accent and a backwards way of using the English language. Even as one enamoured by their chock-a-block speed metal science, "Robot Man" and "Steamrock Fever" will never quite be enjoyed without a slight chuckle, a touch of pandering 'you go guys!' as I marvel at their naiveté.
It didn't help matters when they began to aim for American audiences. Unlike Priest who just had to relent and completely sell-out what made them awesome and write a pop tune or three, Scorpions had to overcome the initial hurdle of their native tendency to butcher the English language as well as the crap production values offered by their new label Mercury. Admittedly it didn't help that the band's first American releases were a rather awkward transition from their previous metal mavens, a spiky mix of American A.O.R. stylings (tell me "Loving You Sunday Morning" doesn't have that taste) and thinned out KISS with only sporadic hints of their former mastery to completely avert disaster.
"The Zoo" is the first time, and probably the only time, where Scorpions got to be cool. There's a smoky swagger to this track, a come hither grin, this sense of strident confidence that speaks of experience, that these guys are the kind who have all the connections and know every back alley in the bad parts of town. Here, within these brief five minute confines, Scorpions were no longer the 'Fez' of the metal world. There's an instant connectivity to this thing that transcends language. The city is the same everywhere when you come right down to it. There are places to go to get your rocks off, grimy places with neon lights where the men are jackals and the women are pieces of meat, where the only thing that flows more free than the liquor is left wasted in latex coffins dragged from a hooker's hungry depths.
I mean, face it folks, Klaus Meine is a dork. His garbled salutations are the stuff of legend ("Hallow Amereeca, aye ahm Klaus Meine and ve are zha Scahpeeons!"). Here though, its like he put on a pair of sunglasses (at night of course), shrugged on his leather jacket and decided to play tour guide to the slums. His vocal performance is playful and mature in a way he rarely gets to show, seeming to taste each word and have fun with it, submerging himself into the character of the ultimate barfly. Listening to this song I can almost see him walking down glistening city sidewalks through the exhaust of idling autos, striding and spinning and grinning with the visceral joy of being alive, but always remaining jaded and detached from the hustle and bustle of the zoo around him. He's merely reporting what he sees, but always with an aside for the captivated listener, taunting and cajoling and even titillating. "You wanna be excited, Jim?" says Meine as he catches that feral lust in your eye when you look over the goods on display. The fuzzy licks just accentuate the sleaze, the sonic equivalent of cigar smoke exhaled at a high stakes card table.
This song works so well because Scorpions don't force it. The song flows easily, moving naturally through its various motifs with a suave grace so unlike their usual puppy-like desire to please you, your party animal friends, your girlfriend, your mom, and every other conceivable audience. Where Scorpions are usually marked and indeed hampered by a childish enthusiasm for making music people will like (a habit which dragged them into inconceivably awful records from roughly 1988 on), "The Zoo" lets the audience come to it, drawn by fascination with that infectious jagged guitar riff and those big empty spaces.
Even for those who have no interest in the wild side of life, "The Zoo" has a certain animal magnetism to it. Just lay back and immerse yourself in it. It's probably more satisfying than drowning your sorrows in filth, and you're less likely to catch something.