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In Praise of the Wolf: Steppenwolf for a New Generation

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In recent years, I’ve noticed that, for many younger listeners, the ’60s provided only a bit more than a handful of A-list performers. The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, The Doors, Beach Boys, and Hendrix still get their due with occasional mentions of bands like The Who, The Band, Santana, and The Kinks. Many, many other groups and singers are relegated to the nostalgia circuit, best remembered for their AM hits that don’t resonate with younger generations who prefer a harder edge in their rock and roll.

As a result, some groups that were high-fliers back in the day are seemingly lost in the mists of time. One example is certainly Steppenwolf, one band who had a major place in the rock pantheon for many good reasons, but somehow is now mostly remembered for one hit, the anthem to young rebellion, 1968’s “Born to Be Wild.” Some recall Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher,” which repeatedly and insistently used, for the first time, “God damn” in a rock record to drive home a point. (It was a sermon that got a second life when it was used in 1969’s Easy Rider.) There are those who also treasure “Magic Carpet Ride,” which might be described as grunge/psychedelia.

Steppenwolf - All Time Greatest HitsBut even beyond these nuggets, Steppenwolf was always a gritty, earthy, hard-driving music machine, releasing eight gold albums and 12 Billboard Hot 100 singles of which six were Top 40 hits. By one count, they’ve sold 25 million units, and their songs have been licensed for approximately 50 motion pictures and even more television series. But sales figures alone don’t measure the depth of Steppenwolf’s importance.

After changing its name from The Sparrow, Steppenwolf debuted in 1968 boasting the talents of three of the original members, growling vocalist/songwriter John Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn (the man who gave the Wolf its distinctive Hammond organ sound), and drummer Jerry Edmonton, who was also a major contributor to song composition. As the years went by, many other players came and went and ultimately both McJohn and Edmonton moved on. But this trio was essential to the sounds of the first era that ended in 1972.

During these four years, while many performers were supposedly “spokesmen for a generation,” few groups were so consistently vocal in expressing their concerns over topical issues, which lead to some calling Steppenwolf the “thinking man’s band.” Steppenwolf was clearly on the side of legalizing pot, as in “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” from 1968’s Steppenwolf the Second. But they were also strongly opposed to the use of harder drugs as in 1968’s “The Pusher” and another contribution from Axton, 1970’s “Snow Blind Friend.”

After decrying social complacency in early songs like “The Ostrich,” 1969’s Monster was Steppenwolf’s heaviest, some say heavy-handed, political statement. Discounting the truncated single version of the title song, one album showpiece was the nine-minute “Monster, Suicide/America” suite which was a history lesson in American injustice. No other song would dare to repeat the same note over and over to punctuate an idea. Listen to it now, and it’s clear the more things change, the more they stay the same. Overt nods to the Vietnam war were “Draft Resister” and the hit “Move Over” which pushed for the older generation to retire and “get out of the way.” Hmm, that’s me now. Ouch.

Another component of the rock equation is sex, and Steppenwolf’s voice was rarely part of the free love chorus. On their debut album, “Everybody’s Next One” was an unflattering portrait of groupies, and the 1970 single, “Hey Lawdy Mama” was brotherly advice to those who complain nothing is happening in their town. 1971’s For Ladies Only was touted as a feminist statement, although some found it carrying mixed messages due to the cover art. It was more noted for Mars Bonfire—composer of “Born to Be Wild”—returning to pen new songs like the single, “Ride With Me.”

While some label this incarnation of the band “acid rock,” it’s hard to connect many dots between Steppenwolf and the trippy tie-dyed flights of other outfits. I’ll give you “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Rock Me” from the Candy soundtrack and its one-minute percussive bridge. Then again, “Rock Me” was crafted for jazz composer David Grusin’s youth-oriented score filled with other folks doing the wah-wah, sitar thing that was never part of the Steppenwolf sound. In fact, perhaps one reason Steppenwolf has been so ignored by later generations is the lack of any psychedelic guitar god playing extended solos like many of their contemporaries. According to John Kay at the Steppenwolf website, that was by design:

“For the times, Steppenwolf was an uncharacteristically tight band,” Kay notes. “In San Francisco, The Sparrow had been allowed to stretch out and experiment. But when Steppenwolf was created, I think Jerry and I had both come to the conclusion that the strong rhythmic element was what we really valued. Our philosophy was ‘Hit ‘em hard, make your point and move on.'”

One demonstration of this point would be Edmonton’s tricky time changes on “Screaming Night Hog” (1970). Any drummer wanting to show off their chops should try copying this showcase of stick prowess by the late percussionist. But lest you think the Wolf was strictly head music, try “Berry Rides Again” from their first album and have fun identifying all the Chuck Berry references in the lyrics.

Then, after 1971, the Steppenwolf saga took many hits to its reputation. In 1972, the band broke up and Kay made a few stabs at a solo career. Then came the “Re-born to be Wild” period with a reformed band putting out lackluster albums between 1974 to 1976 on the Mums/Epic label. The less said here, the better. Then came a series of official and unofficial congregations of ex-members trying to make some bread without the one voice that mattered—John Kay.

Finally, in 1980, the new John Kay and Steppenwolf came together and barnstormed the country precisely because Kay wanted the Steppenwolf name redeemed. The new line-up didn’t really make a splash with new recordings until the 1987 Rock ‘n Roll Rebels, with its more than worthy title song. The criminally neglected 1990 Rise and Shine included the last two Steppenwolf classics, notably the mini-epic “The Wall,” which told the autobiographical story of the young Kay escaping East Berlin and living to dance on the ruins of the Berlin Wall. The other was “Rock and Roll War,” a song inspired by a Vietnam vet who told Kay how much Steppenwolf’s music had meant to him back in the war-torn jungles.

So, after this decades-long legacy, why isn’t Steppenwolf held in higher regard now? Why aren’t they in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Like The Animals, now remembered for their biggest hit, “House of the Rising Son,” perhaps “Born to be Wild” has so eclipsed the rest of the Steppenwolf canon that the band is now too associated with one signature song. Perhaps the topical lyrics, especially those criticizing the Vietnam War, are now seen as irrelevant. If you sit on the political right, much of Steppenwolf’s lyrical content isn’t going to be your cup of tea. As noted earlier, the lack of a noticeable guitar virtuoso might decrease interest in fans who expect six-string jams in their music.

But I suspect the single most important reason for apathy in younger listeners is a dismissal of virtually every band of the ’60s before the advent of Sabbath, Zeppelin, and The Stooges. One exception seems to be guitar monster Leslie West, which is a tad ironic, as his bluesy vocal belting has more in common with John Kay than the high-register pyrotechnics typical of many heavy metal frontmen. Well, he plays long guitar solos, so there you go.

If one were to look for a good introduction to Steppenwolf, there are many good compilations. One fine overview with a healthy chunk of non-hit studio album tracks is 2005’s Steppenwolf Gold [Original Recording Remastered]. While 1970’s Steppenwolf Live has its pleasures, notably the original band at the height of its powers, it’s hard to beat Live at 25 from 1995. It has an excellent mix of older and newer tunes with Kay serving as “Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Main Performer, Programming, Vocals, Producer.”

These days, the Wolf offers their wares for online distribution and one of these is the great documentary, the self-produced A Rock & Roll Odyssey (2008). It’s the story of a young boy who didn’t learn English until he was a teenager, cut his teeth on American rock, folk, blues, and, well, you can learn the rest at the Steppenwolf website. The film is far more substantive than the now out-of-date VH1 Behind the Music episode which emphasized the band’s squabbles in the ’70s and after.

And lest we forget, the brooding John Kay personified rock and roll leather and sunglasses cool that was emulated by many a rocker to come. Kids, it’s never too late to join the “Wolfpack,” the fans of one of the most distinctive bands defining “heavy metal thunder” for every generation.

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About Wesley Britton