The glory years of the Canadian/American giants Steppenwolf – repackaged
Release Date: 29th October 2021
Label: Esoteric Recordings
Formats: 8CD Boxset
It is, perhaps, difficult, from the vantage point of late 2021, to envisage quite how huge the Canadian/American rock band Steppenwolf were, during their glory years – the period captured by this new deluxe boxset from our friends at Esoteric/Cherry Red Records. Sure, there are probably very few amongst us who haven’t heard Born To Be Wild blasting out from a pub jukebox, a bikers’ café, a television advert or a movie theatre at least once a month since Easy Rider started its never-ending circuit of showings back in July 1969 (Hear Steppenwolf in the movie’s opening credits here.).
But Steppenwolf were no one-hit wonders. They sold over 25 million records, all the albums included in this fine new set achieved Gold status and, on the hit singles front, had a further twelve successes – Magic Carpet Ride, Rock Me, The Pusher, Monster, Snowblind Friend and Screaming Night Hog amongst them – to accompany their ultimate biker anthem. And, of course, both Born to be Wild and The Pusher were selected for inclusion on the Easy Rider soundtrack. You may have forgotten Steppenwolf now, but there was a time when they were ubiquitous!
And now, Esoteric/Cherry Red have compiled the eight albums that the band released during their halcyon 1968-1972 period plus 26 bonus tracks drawn from non-album singles and mono mixes into a single set. It’s the usual deluxe package that we’ve come to expect from Esoteric/Cherry Red. Each of the eight discs comprises an original album, supplemented by ‘A’ and ‘B’ side (mainly) mono mixes of contemporaneous singles, and each disc comes in a reproduction cover in the original artwork. For the record, the albums included are: Steppenwolf, The Second, At Your Birthday Party, Early Steppenwolf, Monster, Steppenwolf Live, Steppenwolf 7 and For Ladies Only. And, of course, there’s the usual comprehensive booklet, packed with photographs, album information and Malcom Done’s detailed band biog notes. It’s a package to behold!
The Steppenwolf story started in Oshawa, Ontario in 1964, with the formation of a beat outfit called London Jack and The Sparrows. At various times, John Kay, Jerry Edmonton, Nick St.Nicholas, Goldy McJohn and Michael Monarch (all of whom were to feature in classic Steppenwolf line-ups) as well as Dennis Edmonton (who, under the nom-de-plume Mars Bonfire was to be the author of Born to be Wild) all passed through The Sparrows’ ranks. The Sparrows relocated to San Francisco in 1966 and made some minor waves on the Haight-Ashbury counterculture scene but, frustrated at failing to secure a record deal, decided to call it a day in early 1967.
However, a hook-up in late 1967 between Sparrows’ former rhythm guitarist and vocalist John Kay and ABC Dunhill Producer Gabriel Mekler led to a request that Kay re-form The Sparrows under the new, more contemporary name, Steppenwolf (Mekler was reading the 1927 Hermann Hesse novel of that name at the time.) Kay duly rounded up McJohn, Monarch and Jerry Edmonton and, by placing a trade advert, found bassist Rushton Moreave, and Steppenwolf was born.
After a false start and with huge help from engineers Bill Cooper and Richie Podolor (who became the band’s engineering partners throughout the entirety of their ABC Dunhill years) the band’s debut, eponymous album quickly emerged in January 1968. Spurred on by the success of its first three singles, A Girl I Knew, Sookie Sookie and, particularly, Born to be Wild, the album, which reached number six on the Billboard Chart, propelled Steppenwolf into the big league. A welcome supplement to the version of the debut album that forms Disc 1 to this boxset is the eight mono cuts of the ‘A’s and ‘B’ sides of each of their early singles, including those chart-breaking hits.
It’s worth, at this point, pausing to consider the influence that Born To Be Wild has had on popular culture over the years. For a start, the song is popularly credited with the introduction of the term Heavy Metal to music although, taken in its lyrical context: “I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racin’ with the wind….(etc)” it’s clearly a reference to a motorcycle rather than ear-shredding riffing – and the term Heavy Metal also pops up in William Burroughs’ 1961 novel The Soft Machine so perhaps the Steppenwolf link to the genre is more tenuous than is often assumed. Whatever. What is certain is that the song’s inclusion in the Easy Rider soundtrack gave it a cachet it retains to this day and places it well ahead of Bat Out of Hell on every biker’s favourite playlist. The song was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 as one of the singles that shaped Rock and Roll and, most visibly to many around the globe, it’s provided significant sales pushes to Volvo and Suzuki. But as I’ve already indicated – Steppenwolf had lots more than Born To Be Wild in their arsenal.
Steppenwolf’s second album (imaginatively titled The Second) was released in October 1968. Despite a lie-up change (bassist Rushton Moreave was replaced by ex-Sparrows man Nick St.Nicholas) and flashes of “second album syndrome” during recording, The Second was eagerly anticipated and out-performed its predecessor by reaching number three on the chart. It’s certainly a great album, with tracks like Tighten Up Your Wig, Spiritual Fantasy, Don’t Step On The Grass, Sam and, above all, the hit single (and title to this boxset) Magic Carpet Ride all going on to become staples of the Steppenwolf repertoire.
Times were very different in the late 1960s and I never cease to be amazed by the speed at which bands would fire out new product. Steppenwolf were no exception, and their third album, At Your Birthday Party, saw light of day in March 1969, just five months after The Second. Harder rocking than its predecessors, At Your Birthday Party was another big success for Steppenwolf and spawned yet another huge American single hit, Rock Me along with other tracks that were to become live favourites such as It’s Never Too Late and Jupiter Child.
Perhaps the frenzied recording activity of 1968 and early 1969 represented too much of a drain on the band’s creativity because their next album, released in July 1969 (again – just four months behind its predecessor…) was a live album, recorded way back in May 1967, when the band were still called The Sparrow. Titled Early Steppenwolf, the album is a collection of mainly bluesy material and is notable for the inclusion of a side-long jam based around The Pusher, for the first appearance of a version of Bo Carter’s Corrina, Corrina on a Steppenwolf album and for Mars Bonfire’s (composer of Born To Be Wild – remember?) presence in the band’s line-up on guitar. The continuing popularity and importance of Steppenwolf in 1969 was demonstrated by the fact that, despite what could be considered as a desperate cobbling-together, the album still reached number 29 on Billboard’s album chart.
Steppenwolf’s continuing popularity and importance was further emphasized when the band were invited to appear at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. It was an invitation that the band declined; John Kay takes up the story: Prior to the offer coming in, we’d said ‘no more festivals.’ With the exception of the two I can think of that we did play – The Miami Pop Festival in December 1968 and the Newport Festival with Jimi Hendrix in June 1969, both of which were handled and organized well, [festivals tended to be] just chaotic. At this juncture we were headlining arenas and playing to 20,000 people and in control; things ran on time and they were right, [whilst] at massive festivals, it turns into mismanaged chaos.” So Woodstock, and a potential appearance in the movie, was declined. For better or for worse. And it’s a decision that John says he’s never regretted.
Internal frictions within Steppenwolf had led to the departure of lead guitarist Michael Monarch after the release of At Your Birthday Party and a new guitarist, Larry Byrom, was drafted for the band’s third album release of 1969, Monster, released in November. Monster was my own personal introduction to Steppenwolf and, as such, the album holds a degree of sentiment for me. John Kay, Steppenwolf’s principal lyricist, was, like much of young America in 1969, becoming increasingly politicized. Recent events including the Kent State campus shootings, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the confrontations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention had turned the streets of many US cities into riot zones and, on Monster, Steppenwolf show their colours vividly.
Listening again to Monster, for the first time in almost 50 years, I’m pleasantly surprised how well it’s withstood the ravages of time. The music still sounds fresh – a mixture of hard rock, soul and even touches of gospel – and the lyrics, particularly those of the epic title track, that take on such subjects as state surveillance, Vietnam, the draft, America’s relationship with the rest of the world and police violence, remain surprisingly relevant today in the wake of Trump, Afghanistan and George Floyd. Monster contains some powerful music too – Draft Resister is still highly listenable, as are Move Over and Power Play – respectively the ‘A’ and ‘B’ side of the album’s offshoot single (the single mixes of both are included here as bonus tracks.)
Steppenwolf toured the US in early 1970 to promote Monster, and their show on 22 January 1970 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium formed the basis for the band’s next album, Steppenwolf Live. The Esoteric/Cherry Red boxset includes the American “double” album version of Live (in the UK, the album was originally released a single disc.) The track listing includes most of the tracks from Monster (only Move Over, the instrumental Fag and the somewhat underwhelming What Would You Do (If I did That to You) are excluded) plus the big hits, The Pusher, Magic Carpet Ride, Sookie Sookie and, inevitably, Born to be Wild. The tracks Hey Lawdy Mama, Twisted and Corrina, Corrina are, in fact, studio recordings, but the delay and applause, added at the production stage, mean that it’s difficult to spot the ‘join.’ Critical reaction to Live was fairly muted at the time, but the album performed well, reaching the top twenty in both the US and the UK, and it’s always been another personal favourite of mine, principally for the way that the production captures and bottles the live sound. Indeed, I’ve always considered Steppenwolf Live to be one of the “great” live albums, up there with Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, Bursting Out and Stand in the Fire – and it’s impossible to overstate the impression that John Kay’s stage announcements – “Greetings to you, friends of peace,” “This one always was, and still is, dedicated to Uncle Sam” and “When you hear that coming back from down there, it makes you want to do all the much better up here” had on an impressionable and curious 15-year old back in 1970…
Legend has it that, during the tour that spawned the Steppenwolf Live album, the behaviour of bassist Nick St.Nicholas became increasingly eccentric, culminating (or so it is alleged) in a stage appearance during which, in addition to being “woefully out of tune,” he wore nothing but “bunny ears and a jockstrap.” Unsurprisingly, this episode led to St.Nicholas’s dismissal from the band and for the next album, Steppenwolf 7, he was replaced by George Biondo who, coincidentally, had previously also replaced St.Nicholas in Los Angeles band, T.I.M.E..
Steppenwolf 7 is a fine album, arguably the band’s best and its outstanding tracks, album opener Ball Crusher, John Kay’s autobiographical Renegade, Foggy Mental Breakdown and, particularly, Hoyt Axton’s anti-drug song Snowblind Friend still sound great. Axton, by the way, was also the composer of Steppenwolf’s other noted anti-drug epic, The Pusher. As a novelty, John Kay demonstrates his German roots (he was born Joachim Fritz Kiauldat in Tilsit, East Prussia – now Sovetsk, Russia) in the spoken intro to the original album’s penultimate track Earschplittenloudenboomer. As a welcome bonus, the Steppenwolf 7 disc in this latest set also includes Screaming Night Hog, arguably the best of all of the band’s many singles.
By late 1971, things were drawing to a close – at least as far as the first and greatest incarnation of Steppenwolf was concerned. For Ladies Only, the band’s eighth album, and their last for ABC Dunhill, was released in November, by which time guitarist Larry Byrom had fled the nest, replaced by ex-Blues Image planksman Kent Henry. The core of the album, including the title track, and numbers such as Shackles and Chains and Jaded Strumpet, deals with feminism issues and the material is notable for the low compositional profile assumed by John Kay. Indeed, Kay claims only a single co-write on the original album, with other tracks provided by the other band members, plus a couple of contributions from old mucker Mars Bonfire. Whilst Steppenwolf’s signature hard rock sound remains evident on For Ladies Only, there’s also a hint that the band were moving in a more progressive direction – a direction that was greeted with suspicion in contemporary reviews. The album’s artwork attracted a degree of controversy at the time, as the inner gatefold photograph was said to have phallic overtones; personally, I’ve always thought that the cover resembles that of a Steeleye Span album!
By the time For Ladies Only hit the racks, the writing was writ large upon the wall for Steppenwolf. The band played their final show (for the time being) on 14th February 1972 and then went their separate ways. John Kay attempted a solo career and Goldie McJohn and Jerry Edmonton went on to form Manbeast, before the three reunited in 1974 to have another bash at Steppenwolf. Since then, there have been various reincarnations and line-ups using the Steppenwolf name, the most recent of which came to an end in November 2019 when John Kay announced that the band was, finally and irreversibly, defunct.
I’ve been genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the quality of the work that Steppenwolf produced during their first intense blooming. A run rate of eight albums in just under four years is unbelievable by today’s standards, and there is a whole load of excellent material to be enjoyed within the ABC Dunhill portfolio showcased in this boxset. Their best songs were truly excellent – Magic Carpet Ride, The Pusher, Hey Lawdy Mama, Draft Resister, Don’t Step On The Grass, Sam, Screaming Night Hog, Snowblind Friend and, of course, Born To Be Wild, are all classics that bear repeated listening today, their polemic continues to withstand scrutiny and, as this collection ably demonstrates, they made some pretty impressive albums. Thanks, Esoteric/Cherry Red you’ve done it again!
Watch Steppenwolf perform their 1969 hit, Magic Carpet Ride – the title of this Esoteric/Cherry Red boxset – here: