When the Scorpions last played the United States three years ago, the band was enjoying the biggest success of its career with "Wind of Change," a power ballad swelling with peaceful hopes and dreams for a world emerging from the Cold War's lingering chill.
But as the veteran German heavy metal group toured during 1991, singing about geopolitical shifts in Eastern Europe, a different wind was starting to blow fiercely from the Pacific Northwest.
The dark, glowering grunge-alternative rock of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and their cohorts was sweeping out of Seattle, changing a hard-rock landscape that had long been dominated by old-school metal bands such as the Scorpions, which typically served up celebrations of rock hedonism and strutting exclamations of prowess.
As a couple of Scorpions song titles put it, they were "Bad Boys Running Wild," who wanted to "Rock You Like a Hurricane." Cries of anguish and alienation were not their style.
Now the grunge-led shift in rock's jet stream has turned the weather a bit chillier than the Scorpions might like. Sparked by "Wind of Change," the band's 1990 album, "Crazy World," sold 7 million copies worldwide, a career peak. But the current album, "Face the Heat," quickly melted from the charts following its release last fall.
Klaus Meine, the Scorpions' singer, has been at this since 1971. He is not panicking; nor does he see the dominance of grunge as a reason for his band to adopt new styles.
"I think all the established bands get hurt, more or less, when there's a change," said Meine, a small man with a large voice that will be a-wailing as the Scorpions play tonight at Irvine Meadows.
"But the Scorpions never jumped on any trends," Meine added, chatting over the phone from Beverly Hills recently in good, accented English--the lingua franca in which the Scorpions and most other European rock bands write their songs. "We do what we do. We saw, in our career, many waves come and go. (The ascendancy of grunge) doesn't mean the Scorpions go on stage with shorts (on) now."
Meine, 45, doesn't see alternative hard rock as a threat: "I like some of the stuff because it's really rough, and very close to the street. It's just real people playing music. I like the new Alice in Chains album, and Stone Temple Pilots is one of my favorites.
"I'm sure the next wave, the next trend, will be around the corner," he said. "Word is out (that) grunge is dying. Whether you call it grunge, hard rock or heavy metal, the great bands will survive, like always."
Besides Meine, the Scorpions' lineup includes co-founder Rudolf Schenker on rhythm guitar, long-term members Herman Rarebell and Matthias Jabs on drums and lead guitar, and a new bassist, Ralph Rieckermann, who joined in 1992 after Francis Buchholz, a Scorpion since 1974, was fired in a business dispute.
If the Scorpions have avoided jumping on a new bandwagon, Meine notes that neither do they want to stand still.
"After the huge success of 'Wind of Change,' we wanted to make an album that's more on the hard side," he said. "We wanted the rock fans to know that the Scorpions are still a rock band and were far away from retiring in ballad land."
"Face the Heat" has a couple of good-time rockers on it, as well as another idealistic state-of-the-world anthem in "Under the Same Sun," the band's new single. But it also has several stormy numbers inspired by lyricist Meine's outlook on troubling events in the post-Cold War world.
"Wind of Change" imagined old, historical hatreds as "distant memories . . . buried in the past forever." But in the opening lines of "Unholy Alliance," a dismayed Meine watches the rise of neo-Nazism in his homeland:
It came crawling up from the ruins of the past
And I just can't believe my eyes
It wears the same old face we thought was dead and gone
Forever buried by time--
"You have to get over the past," Meine said, reflecting on a key dilemma of today's Germany. "But as you see right now, this whole Nazi movement came up in the last few years. It's just a minority of people, but we can't deny it's still there.
"I think it's important to do something about it. Especially as Germans, we can't ever let this happen again," he said. "Other German artists write about it and make really clear statements (against hatred), which is very good."
Meine, who joined Jabs in an acoustic version of "Wind of Change" at a large anti-Nazi rally in Frankfurt in 1992, cited the release of the film "Schindler's List" as a positive development in helping Germany come to terms with the Nazi past.
"I haven't seen it, but I would love to see it," he said. "It seems like everybody's very touched by it. The young generation in Germany must see this movie. It's sad to see there are young kids out there who believe in the lies of the past."
With new songs such as "Unholy Alliance," "Under the Same Sun," "Alien Nation" and "Ship of Fools" all dealing with the precarious state of the world, the Scorpions have moved far from typical old-metal themes of revelry and us-against-the-adults teen bonding.
On their most recent albums, both Aerosmith and Van Halen, two other still-popular holdovers from the 1970s, have taken similar steps with socially aware songs that depart from their customary hard-rock hedonism.
One could speculate that it's a calculated way of keeping up with hard rock's angry young vanguard, but Meine says that his band's newfound seriousness is simply a mark of maturity and a natural reaction to the times.
"In the '70s, a lot of stuff was written out of fantasy land," Meine said. "Scorpions are not a political band, but it's the '90s, and the Scorpions are not a nostalgic kind of band.
"You're growing up as a person, you're growing up as a songwriter. 'Wind of Change' proved to me that it's important to write songs that matter, that come straight out of the heart. There's nothing wrong with saying, 'Let's party,' but when you're past 40, you don't want to make a fool out of yourself. You can't just say, 'Hey, let's chase chicks around.' "
* Scorpions and King's X play tonight at 8 at Irvine Meadows, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. $18.50 to $28.50. (714) 855-6111.