Serendipitous Encounters

with the genius of Uli Jon Roth

Picture courtesy of Andreas Lawen (original at Wikimedia)

We have a fundamental fascination with chance and yet we are confused by it. The instinctive and the rational forces in our minds which so often collaborate to help us in our endeavours, suddenly turn against each other when it comes to reckoning chance. We feel that hard work gives us but modest success which we cannot risk throwing away to chance, and yet that only good luck can give us the glory. The higher the stakes the stronger is our aversion to leaving things to chance, and the stronger is our desire for good luck. But when the stakes are low and we unencumbered by the weight of expectations, it is then that chance has a way of surprising us and making our lives richer. It was through just such a happenstance that I discovered the genius of Uli Jon Roth.

It was the mid-90s before I had started my undergraduate studies, when I felt that I needed to develop my own distinct taste in music. In a time in India when private broadcasters got slots on FM for the first time ever, my musical interests were kindled by the newly launched radio station in Mumbai, 107.1 FM. As I started sampling music in a conscious way, for the first time in my life, I got hold of a tape of the Scorpions, Best of Rockers ‘n’ Ballads, from a friend. I got hooked to the songs on that tape. As an added bonus, I discovered like many teens before me that when I turned up the volume, I was usually left alone to listen to it. Naturally, I wanted more. I went to three different shops in Dombivli where I lived which had even a semblance of a Western music section. In the third one, when I had almost made up my mind to buy something else, I found the Scorpions.

I bought two tapes, Best of Scorpions and Best of Scorpions, Vol. 2, partly to use one of the tapes to hide the risqué album cover of the other one. The songs on these two albums were nothing like those on the first tape I had got from the friend. I was a bit disappointed but found the music still loud enough that the trick with the high volume continued to work. After listening to the two tapes repeatedly, getting past the unfamiliarity with the sound, and finally starting to hear the different instruments in that album, I discovered the guitarist, Uli Jon Roth. The tapes were a compilation of songs from four studio albums by the Scorpions, Fly to the Rainbow, In Trance, Virgin Killer and Taken by Force and a live album, Tokyo Tapes. To me, Uli Jon Roth was a potent musical force who could play the best guitar solos in all of the (admittedly little) rock music that I had heard until then. I became a fan of the guitar as an instrument and of Roth as a guitarist.

In fact, after listening to these two tapes, the original greatest hits compilation did not feel so special any more. Upon comparing the band personnel in the liner notes of the Best of Rockers ‘n’ Ballads (released in 1989) with the Best of Scorpions (released in 1979 and 1984), I was shocked to find that Uli Jon Roth was not with the Scorpions any more. The few of my friends who were getting into rock or metal music at that time had never heard of Roth. Blackmore, yes. Page, yes. Clapton, sure. Hendrix, of course. But no Roth. This was a time when I hadn’t even heard of the Internet. So there was really no way to learn what Roth was up to. It all lent an incredible air of mystery to this amazing guitarist.

As I was to find out later — on the Internet which by now I had discovered — Roth had gone off to chart his own path. First there was the Electric Sun which featured Roth trying to create music inspired by his hero Jimi Hendrix fused with the fundamentals he had learned from his Western Classical music training. Then Roth entered a phase of musical exploration where he wanted to introspect and find a new kind of music. He went back to Western Classical music and worked further on designing a modified electric guitar, his invention, the Sky Guitar. He perfected compositions for it and released an album called The Transcendental Sky Guitar where he played classical compositions and his own on the sky guitar. All the while, he continued to make guest appearances on rock concerts. Owing to their lack of popularity, these recordings were not available in any of the local music stores in India. Even with the proliferation of music on the Internet around 2000–2001, I could never locate the Electric Sun or the Sky Guitar anywhere. With no way to get hold of these recordings, I moved on and enjoyed the musical largesse that my college campus had to offer, what with so many senior students with very sophisticated and evolved tastes in music.

And so it was. The music landscape kept changing so much and so quickly — from a few stores with meagre Western music sections where I grew up, to much better availability of CDs, to lots of free music of questionable origin, to paid and legal downloads, and finally to unlimited streaming. My life kept moving on too, through undergraduate studies, graduate school, employment, fatherhood and so on. My musical tastes evolved as well, as I started getting more and more into jazz. Through all this, I would remember the name, Uli Jon Roth, from time to time. I would check out Roth on the Internet, listen to some of his audio clips when available (or videos on YouTube more recently), marvel at his enduring genius and that was that. This was until recently, when I decided to look for Roth again.

In December 2016, Roth released an album called the Tokyo Tapes Revisited. Roth went back to Japan in 2015 and recorded at the Nakano Sun Plaza, the same venue where he and the Scorpions had recorded the original Tokyo Tapes back in 1978. After nearly four decades of his own circuitous musical journey, Roth decided to go back and reprise the same set which the Scorpions had played there. 37 years ago. The same songs which I had heard in the Best of Scorpions in the mid-nineties — songs which I strangely remember in a great amount of detail, despite not having heard them in a long time. Unlike a jaded rock band on a reunion tour where the music struggles palpably to keep time and tune, Roth sounds better at 60 than he probably did in his 20's. Supported by a dynamic vocalist in Nathan James, and an able and talented crew in Niklas Turmann (guitar), Corvin Bahn (keyboards), Ule Ritgen (bass), Jamie Little (drums) and David Klosinski (guitar), if you have any shred of doubt, Roth really kills it in the Tokyo Tapes Revisited.

It is a strange feeling for me. The mysterious guitarist who I discovered by chance and did not even like in the beginning, whose name never rang a bell in so many conversations I had with so many music lovers, whose trajectory I kept watching from a distance, has just gone on a nostalgia trip of his own and reprised the music he played decades ago. It is a kind of closure — a completion of the orbit. Maybe it is chance, but maybe it is not entirely unforeseeable in the shrinking world we live in. In the words of a wise friend who refused to say goodbye when we were graduating from college, “Life is long and the world is small. There is every chance we will meet again.”

(Visit my website to read the original and many more stories!)