From my perspective the only real problem with Steppenwolf’s 1969 album “Monster” is that I never got around to listening to it until several years after I had worn out my copy of their 1970 “Steppenwolf Live” album. Compared to the energy and drive of that (apparently faux) live album, the studio recordings of the title track, “Draft Resister,” “Power Play” and “From Here to There Eventually” seem rather sedate. Especially on “Monster/Suicide/America” the tempo is clearly a bit slower. On the other hand, there is ample reason to believe that these were songs that were written because of how good they would be in live performance (ironically, that was the whole point behind the songs that R.E.M. would write for their own “Monster” album decades later).
None of those four songs that appear on both “Monster” and “Steppenwolf Live” were ever hits. “Monster” is 9:16 and 9:56 on those two versions, which meant radio airplay was out of the question (even in the post “In-a-gadda-da-vida” period) except in a horribly cut down version that made it to #39 on the Billboard pop chart. But I think the other three, on balance, better than the group’s three Top 10 hits: “Born to Be Wild” (#2), “Magic Carpet Ride” (#3), and “Rock Me” (#10). Certainly they are much more political. Steppenwolf might even be better known for its songs commenting on drugs, “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” and “The Pusher,” but that is only another reminder that their political songs were largely overlooked.
“Monster” is one of the most powerful songs that I remember from my youth.” “Monster” is actually the first part of the song and provides a history of the United States from the perspective of Sixties enlightenment: good Christians killing witches, slaughtering the red man, the insanity of the Civil War. Ultimately, the song is about America remember its true face:
And though the past has its share of injustice
Kind was the spirit in many a way
But its protectors and friends have been sleeping
Now it’s a monster and will not obey
The “Suicide” section in the middle indicts the policies and practices of the American government at the time. If Billy Crystal thought at the Oscars last month that not much had changed from one Bush administration to the next, look at how much this verse relates to today:
The cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin’ the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can’t understand
We don’t know how to mind our own business
‘Cause the whole world’s got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who’s the winner we can’t pay the cost
The song ends with “America,” in which John Kay repeatedly asks “America, where are you now/ Don’t you care about your sons and daughters/ Don’t you know we need you now/ We can’t fight alone against the monster.” The net result is a powerful and largely forgotten protest song.
What “Monster” proves is that there was more to Steppenwolf than their place in music history as the group that recorded the ultimate “gas’n'go” anthem with “Born to Be Wild.” But then the fact that this was a rock ground named after a Herman Hesse novel might have been a clue all by itself. “Draft Resister” obviously speaks to the Vietnam War, and I might be reading too much into the lyric but I think “Power Play” works better on a political level than it does as an interpersonal commentary. If I make the same mistake with the lyrics to “From Here To There Eventually” then that only goes to show how much “Monster” raised my political consciousness. Certainly in retrospect I can look back and see how it was Steppenwolf’s “Monster” that shaped by sense of political outrage more than Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Phil Ochs. They came later. For me “Monster” was there first.