Steppenwolf have a new compilation, The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection, out this week from Real Gone Music. (Buy it from Amazon.) It includes the A- and B-sides from every single they released between 1967 and 1972, plus several by frontman John Kay as a solo artist. There’s one exception; the full nine-minute album version of “Monster” is included, because Kay thought the single edit was a total botch. The package includes liner notes by Kay, discussing each song and the history of the band in detail. It’s well worth any fan’s money, and actually serves as a great introduction to one of the most underrated/unjustly forgotten bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Nobody cares about Steppenwolf. Even I don’t care about Steppenwolf, and I love Steppenwolf! Go figure. Talking about the band, not the book. Does anyone even read the book anymore? Any misunderstood 17-year-old geniuses crying into their Hermann Hesse, or do they go straight to Ayn Rand these days? I remember, years ago, seeing the movie version of the Hesse book, starring Max von Sydow as a slightly sadder version of Max von Sydow, and it choked me up thinking that my fate might be his. The character Max plays, not Max himself. I would love to be Max. You know his life was a smorgasbord of wistful Swedish erotica. No, the character in the movie/book is a sad loner who makes stuff up in his head so that he won’t kill himself. Which is about where I was at when I was 19. Too close to home! Which is why sad would-be geniuses move on to Nietzsche, hoping some of that will to power jazz will rub off on them. Or they did when I was a kid anyway. They’ve got Grand Theft Auto for that now. Which is evolution if you ask me. Bumping off virtual hookers is probably an improvement on William Vollmann-esque dweebs writing sub-Bukowski “poetry” and English majors hanging around old man bars trying to soak up the pain.
Steppenwolf, the band, were named by producer Gabriel Mekler, so I don’t even know if the band were Hesse fans. I’m guessing ‘Wolf mastermind John Kay was more of a triumphalist in nature, being a former Prussian war refugee who crawled on hands and knees as a child to Germany, only to wind up playing the same clubs in Canada as Rick James and Neil Young and hooking up with ace beat group the Sparrows and moving to Los Angeles and winding up part of Lou Adler‘s empire-building roster on Dunhill Records and experiencing world-wide fame and adulation. No, if he had been a Hesse fan, he would have lived out his life in rural Canada, running a Zamboni endlessly over blood-streaked ice.
Steppenwolf were the Sparrows. Or Sparrow, as they were called in their last pre-fame incarnation. And if you want to know the history of that band, you will have to visit the Canadian Beat Group Hall of Fame or read a special feature in Mojo or something. It’s a long story. Do they even make Mojo anymore? They stopped making the stores that sold that magazine, so I haven’t seen it in a while. Are they still running in-depth features on Ride and Pulp? Ha! They’ll never give that up, will they? In Mojo‘s alternate universe, those Britpop bands were great and worth lionizing in perpetuity, and in my fantasy world, Steppenwolf get a little more respect from non-motorbike enthusiasts.
But why would I care what other people think about a still arguably legendary band that has the same sort of hard rock and metal pioneer status as Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly? A band that has spawned 40+ years’ worth of biker bar bands and freedom rock-loving hooligans spilling beer in their name? And I even admitted that I don’t care about them! I’ll tell you why. Because I’m from America and I take things for granted. It’s called “received wisdom.” It’s nice to step back from the madness and actually take a minute to assess the situation. If you hear that Steppenwolf were a band of seedy, buffoonish, plodding exploito-hippie opportunists long enough, you start to believe it. Despite the fact that I know this to be a fallacy. Despite the fact that I have enjoyed their albums for years and have always admired their proto-punk lyrical content and actual musical abilities. Well, that’s what can happen to you if you live in this country long enough. Up is down and Steppenwolf are a dumb, blues-defiling, third-rate version of the Doors. I, personally, like to think of them as “the evil Doors.” The Doors were choirboys in comparison, at least image-wise. Jim Morrison was the pink picture of health next to the skulking shadowy Prussian form of John Kay. The Lizard King also sounded like a church choir soloist in comparison to Kay, who often sounded like a lion who had swallowed a snake or perhaps a snake wearing the skin of a lion and pretending to be a lion long enough to sneak up on a pride of lions and eat more lions, or maybe some hybrid snake/lion creature in the guise of a wolf.
Fallacy number one: Steppenwolf were “dumb” and “plodding.” Not true. Just listen to them. They favored slow and medium-tempo blues-rock, and they looked like missing links, but these were not dumb people, and any band with Jerry Edmonton on drums is not a plodding band. The smartest thing John Kay ever did was stay friendly with the two smartest Sparrows, Jerry Edmonton and his brother Dennis, the two Sparrows who were the brains behind the smooth beat pop and garage rock that that Canadian band created before Kay joined and added his bloozy touch.
Jerry Edmonton is one of the most underrated drummers in rock. He’s a pleasure to hear live and in the studio. Funky (and dare I say tasteful) and powerful when he needs to be.
Dennis Edmonton changed his fake name and became MARS BONFIRE, possibly the coolest fake name of the 1960s. He wrote songs for the band all the way up to 1975’s Hour of the Wolf, and Jerry was the one constant in the band from 1968 until the last of the band’s ’70s albums, Skullduggery. Kay and the two brothers from Canada are the only fake names you have to remember when it comes to Steppenwolf, if you ask me. (Kay was born Joachim Fritz Kravledat. Not to be outdone by fellow war refugee, Canadian transplant via Germany, and Sparrows and Steppenwolf bandmate Nick St. Nicholas, who was born Klaus Karl Kassbaum.)
On the other hand, fuck it, what do I care what people think of Steppenwolf? Mojo magazine! I haven’t read that thing in years. I’ve got a beef with a ghost of an idea of a magazine. Though they were the kind of magazine that would think nothing of churning out 20 pages on the late-’60s work of those funereal death trolls the Bee Gees. Talk about plodding! (Meanwhile, I would totally read 20 pages on those death trolls. I’m a sucker for that shit, and the pictures are always so cool in British mags. You end up not caring that you’re reading about the Band for the zillionth time.)
I honestly think that John Kay‘s greatest strength was also the reason why he is dismissed by people who only hear “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Born to Be Wild” on a car radio twice a year. He sounds (and looked) bad for you. Unhealthy. Unclean. Ragged and raw. Nasty. Which, correct me if I’m wrong, was the allure of rock ‘n’ roll once upon a time. I think he’s a great blues singer. Or a great garage rock singer singing the blues, anyway. Much better than Morrison, whose whole stately pre-Raphaelite goth thing kinda got in the way of feelings associated with the blues. There are moments where John Kay effortlessly slips into Howlin’ Wolf voice a la Captain Beefheart, and it’s a lot more fun to listen to than most ’60s-era blue-eyed blues-breaking projects.
It didn’t help that Steppenwolf were signed to a cheap-ass label, Dunhill, and then equally cheap-ass ABC after ABC bought Dunhill from Lou Adler. Dunhill had no hard rock presence or expertise with hard rock before signing the band. Lou was a smart dude, no doubting that, and he could bully something on to the radio with the best of them. And there is plenty to like about Dunhill in general in a minor way. He made two hit-making groups out of thin air, the Mamas and the Papas and the Grass Roots. Neither would have existed without him. The label put out a ton of singles that would make one of the most bonkers ’60s boxed-sets known to man if anyone were ever crazy enough to compile it. And I’ll definitely vouch for Hal Blaine‘s quickie albums, as well as the albums Dunhill released by Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Birtha, Grapefruit, Smith, Colosseum, Jamme, Magna Carta, Shango, Atlee, Bush, Van der Graaf Generator, Noah, Giorgio Moroder, Genya Ravan, and Sonoma. Well, the Sonoma album has one killer breakbeat anyway. But it’s so killer the album is worth owning. With some caveats, I would say it’s safe to avoid Dunhill albums by Bobby Whitlock, Dennis Lambert, Wings, Bangor Flying Circus, Rejoice, Bob Siller, the Artie Kornfeld Tree, Cashman & West, Richard Landis, and Kracker. The Gayle McCormick album on Dunhill should have been amazing, but the label toned her down and wouldn’t let her rock out, the bastards. And Three Dog Night were Three Dog Night. Steppenwolf producer Meckler had his biggest hits with that band.
The less said about how ABC Records ran their business the better. Let’s just say that John Coltrane and a whole lot of other people deserved better posthumous treatment. Dunhill was in business to make money for Lou and his partners, and he took his payday from ABC and started Ode, which at least had the decency to put out cool records by Spirit, the Comfortable Chair, Africa, Cheech y Chong, and Gene McDaniels with all the Carole King money they were swimming in. Dunhill, Ode, and the bigger ABC were all labels—if you collect records—where you definitely want to get first pressings of the original albums, because everything in their catalog put out after the fact was done as cheaply as humanly possible without the records actually being made of mud, apple cores, and old Chinese newspapers. Which they totally would have done if they could have figured out a way to do it. Dunhill had Steppenwolf tour and record six(!) albums in three(!) years. If you as a label are comfortable with that, then quality isn’t your first concern. Which is why it’s so surprising that only one out of the six is a serious misfire. Wait, make that two out of six, I forgot about For Ladies Only. Okay, I admit it, For Ladies Only was pretty dumb. I don’t know what they were thinking…In theory, a rock album with women as the subject matter doesn’t have to die on the vine just because you make the centerpiece of your album cover a huge gatefold photograph of an actual car shaped like a penis, but song titles like “Black Pit,” “Shackles and Chains,” “Sparkle Eyes,” and “Jaded Strumpet” kinda leave the benefit of the doubt out on the street with the penis car. Steppenwolf’s debut was actually owned by kid sisters, but their primary audience quickly became the kind of people you didn’t want your kid sister anywhere near. But, hey, how about that 1968 debut…
Steppenwolf’s S/T debut has a big sound. Overdriven, overloaded, distorted, drums crack and smash. It sounds great! Not Blue Cheer big, but in the Vanilla Fudge vicinity. And bands ever after would clamor for that sick sound. Palestinian-born producer Gabriel Mekler does a helluva job. When Meckler would take his Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night money at the turn of the decade to set up his own label, Lizard Records (a cool Clydie King album, a very cool album by Paul Humphrey & the Cool-Aid Chemists, a halfway decent album by Nolan Porter notable for having Little Feat as Nolan’s backing band, a worthwhile southern-tinged hard rock album by Jamul, and a decent hard rock album by Steppenwolf-wannabes Frantic was the extent of the Lizard discography), the ‘Wolf would simply turn to their engineer—and owner of the LA studio they had always used—Richard Podolor to produce their future records. They didn’t lose a step, and it’s why their sound stayed so amazingly consistent for the five long years that they churned out the thud. And I lied when I said that John, Mars, and Jerry were the only ‘Wolf members worth remembering. Goldy McJohn (surprise, not his real name) and his mile-high Afro, and more importantly his swirling crystal ship of an organ sound, are part and parcel of the band. Even after he left the band. Plus, he brought unhinged R&B energy back to the organ after that Sunday-school teacher Ray Manzarek tried to noodle us to death with his Easter brunch jazz. Goldy rocked that shit.
There are five choice cuts that are reason enough to buy the album. You get a credible and danceable cover of Don Covay’s “Sookie Sookie.” Even John’s Prussia-by-way-of-Canada accent turning “Sookie” into “Suckie” can’t kill it. (Don Covay was from Orangeburg, South Carolina, and one month after Steppenwolf’s debut hit record shops, Orangeburg saw some of the worst protest-related violence of the ’60s. Three people were killed and dozens injured during a protest at a whites-only bowling alley, and if the Orangeburg Massacre isn’t better known it’s because Neil Young never sang about it and because it happened in South Carolina near a historically black college that you’ve never heard of. And because you get all your news from Neil Young.) You get deep guitar heaven on their cover of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” You don’t get Hoyt Axton on their cover of Hoyt’s anti-dope epic “The Pusher,” which is a plus in my book, as I could never handle his hyperbolic vocal delivery that always sounded to me like Jeremiah the bullfrog had escaped Bobby Bland’s mouth and jumped into Burl Ives’ mouth and started ranting about heroin and other simple country pleasures. (I can’t take Dave van Ronk either, for the record. Strenuous dudes make me sweat.) Plus, there were three very simple rules to follow. Don’t get the thing wet and don’t feed it after midnight ain’t fucking brain surgery. Poor Gizmo, that sad motherfucker. Plus, you get the everything you know is wrong punk attitude of “The Ostrich,” which lyrically is pretty much exactly, word for word, every punk song I loved in the ’80s by all my favorite Brit anarcho-ugly bands. America is doomed. Steppenwolf never tired of this message.
The only thing I have to say about the Mars Bonfire-penned magnum opus “Born to Be Wild” is this: In 1968, after the debut had dropped like a loud stinky bomb into the laps of America’s children, but before “Born to Be Wild” had blown up or reached iconic status a year later via the Easy Rider soundtrack, John Kay is on stage at the Fillmore West, and before they do the song—it should be noted that Steppenwolf is a band with a fairly tortured history of lawsuits and royalty outrage and hiring and firing—he mentions that the single is getting some attention and that it was written by his old bandmate Mars Bonfire and then…he tells them to go buy the Mars Bonfire album on Uni that features Mars’ version of the song! Have you ever heard of such a thing in all your life? In the music business? Ever? Is this the act of a devious man? There is love in the room between those two guys, that’s for sure. And not only that, he also tells the crowd to go buy the new album by T.I.M.E. (Trust In Men Everywhere), a group started by ex-Sparrow Nick St. Nicholas! What a guy! Maybe they were both backstage. Anyway, I thought it was cool. And as much as I like the first Mars Bonfire album, his version of “Born” doesn’t have Steppenwolf’s power. And, it should also be noted, if you are going to buy a T.I.M.E. album, make it Smooth Ball, their second album from 1969 and not the debut that John Kay would have had you buy if you were at the Fillmore that night in 1968. Almost everyone in T.I.M.E. would end up in Steppenwolf sooner or later. That Fillmore show rocks bells, by the way.
So, apparently, even though I’ve never really thought about Steppenwolf, I have a lot of thoughts about Steppenwolf? Who knew? They were always just a part of the hard rock air that I breathe. I don’t question shit like that. It would be like questioning a fucking flower. And if the lyrics of a ten-minute song like “Monster” will always speak to the 16-year-old Crass fan that lives inside my decrepit body, so be it. Oh, and those lyrics boil down to: America is a monster that must be killed. Pretty groovy stuff for 1969. Not that it did a lot of good. Hardcore Steppenwolf fans either died listening to Steppenwolf records or they grew old and currently bore the shit out of me in my used record store and go on and on about all the Bang & Fuckin’ Olufsen audio gear they used to own and all the records they used to have but that they got rid of decades ago. Plus, hardcore Steppenwolf fans secretly must have hated the band, judging from the used vinyl copies I’ve seen over the years. Yeah, there are “party” records that get played relentlessly and left out on the floor to be stepped on by drunks, but Steppenwolf records were defiled beyond belief. Hacked at and stabbed and gouged and viscous Breaking Bad liquids spilled all over them. Those damn Canadians hit a nerve! The band died in 1972, and then they came back, and then they went away, and then they came back again, and god help us they are probably out there at a county fair as I speak, and John Kay is saving elephants with his non-profit foundation and Gabriel Meckler died in a motorcycle accident in 1977 and Jerry Edmonton died in a car accident in 1993 and Rushton Moreve (fake name), Steppenwolf’s original bass player, died in a motorcycle accident in 1981, but here is all you really need to know:
The second Steppenwolf album, The Second, is just as good as the debut. “Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam” is one of my favorite songs about what an asshole America is. Also, thanks to Rushton Moreve, the instrumental section of “Magic Carpet Ride” invented Krautrock. Also, the suite that is “Lost and Found by Trial and Error”/”Hodge, Podge, Strained Through a Leslie”/”Resurrection” is one of the best progressive rock/funk experiments of 1968. And lastly, in the song “Tighten Up Your Wig” they totally admit in the song, by name, that they stole the whole thing from Junior Wells. Beat that, Led Zeppelin!
At Your Birthday Party is just all wrong. But in a fascinating burnt-out hippie trainwreck kinda way. The label wouldn’t pay for the finished artwork, the producer (Meckler) actually stood in for the guitarist who left the band (Monarch) for the cover photo and nobody even noticed! And the biggest hit on the thing was written by John Kay and Dave Grusin! Go figure. Not recommended. And yet…intriguing.
Monster is my favorite Steppenwolf album. It sounds so great. Is it dated and kinda corny and is there an instrumental entitled “Fag” on it? Yes. But don’t let that stop you. It’s a trip. And if you aren’t a Jerry Edmonton fan after hearing this record, then you are just not Wolfpack material. Jesus, yes, they call their fan club the Wolfpack, I don’t work for these people…
Their fifth studio album, the aptly titled Steppenwolf 7, includes the songs “Ball Crusher,” “Foggy Mental Breakdown,” and “Earschplittenloudenboomer.” I love this album. Larry Byrom from T.I.M.E. is on lead guitar (and why not?) and it’s some of his best work. 7 also includes the excellent and blissfully Hoyt-less “Snowblind Friend,” one of Axton’s ten best drug songs, and it should have been a huge hit. It’s akin to John Kay’s ’70s solo work, which I won’t go into here or we will all go snowblind. Last but not least is the killer “Hippo Stomp,” which is about how America is a big fat hypocrite and not to be trusted in any way, shape, or form.
You should never listen to For Ladies Only. I listen to it occasionally and then I take long hot showers and I still can’t seem to get the stench off no matter how hard I scrub.
Please do listen to the 1974 comeback album Slow Flux though! It’s a terrific slab of ’70s heavy stuff. “Children of Night” is one of my favorite ‘Wolf songs. It’s about how Woodstock was a lie and America is doomed. Steppenwolf kinda invented ’70s hard rock in 1968, so it seems perfectly natural that they could run the actual ’70s with the same iron, uh, wolf fist. An essential album for ’70s rock fans.
1975’s Hour of the Wolf is not essential. And it’s more laid back. But I enjoy its even simpler simple pleasures. Plus, it has the Mars Bonfire gem “Caroline (Are You Ready for the Outlaw World)” which has to be the best Beach Boys song title that never was. The album is a pop move of sorts. There are saxophones…
All is right with the world, though, on 1976’s Skullduggery. A fat and funky production with lots of hired hands on board. It opens with a nice Jerry Edmonton breakbeat and it’s smooth sailing all the way after that. John Kay doesn’t write a word on the album, but he’s in fine voice. He’s still in fine voice. You know, for a dude with a Steppenvoice. The 1968 debut opened with Don Covay’s ode to Sookie, and Skullduggery ends with “Lip Service,” a funky disco instrumental that I swear to God in heaven Don Covay himself would dig in a big way. It’s that cool.
And that’s it. You’re on your own when it comes to the ’80s and beyond. I hope this has been helpful.
—Scott Seward sells records. When you’re in Massachusetts, or on eBay, buy some.