The group’s still-ubiquitous 1968 anthem ‘Born To Be Wild’, with its “heavy metal thunder” lyric, helped usher in an entire genre of music which thrives to this day. Steppenwolf’s pioneering “hard rock” sound was an altogether grittier and heavier beast than 60’s rock audiences had generally heard before.
Music fans wanting to own some of Steppenwolf’s work have mostly been content to have one of the band’s countless “greatest hits” collections – a wise choice if your interest is merely casual. Steppenwolf’s few original albums tend to be highly uneven efforts, but they did manage to make a couple of great ones. “Steppenwolf”, their debut, remains arguably their best.
From an unpromising start came one of rock history’s most breathtakingly punchy, sonically economic-yet-engaging works. Its combination of kickin’ party-on rock and sophisticated adult socio-political viewpoint is truly an odd one.
In autumn of 1967, a touring Canadian band called Sparrow (fronted by East German escapee John Kay) found itself broke and stranded in Los Angeles. Not yet ready to be sent home by Immigration officers, some of the Sparrow-men renamed themselves Steppenwolf, added a couple of locals, and passed themselves off as a fledgling American band.
The new band’s intitial distinctive sound was due largely to some very dodgy old gear they were using, including the cheap Lowery organ so memorably attacked in ‘Born To Be Wild’ and throughout this album. Their daunting technical deficiencies were ingeniously concealed behind loads of volume and tastefully-used distortion.
Steppenwolf’s fortuitous choice to use L.A.’s little-known American Recording Studios resulted in their sophomore effort having the amazing near-live sound that it does: crystal-clear, in-your-face, and wonderfully gimmick-free. Bass lines sound fat yet nimble, the loud crack n’ thump drums vastly surpass the usual “cereal box” tap-tapping found on most 60’s records. With few effects but amps set firmly at ‘10′, guitarists Kay and Michael Monarch fill the air with a pealing, harmonic-drenched soulfulness that still sounds fresh over four decades later. A Rolling Stones disc from the same year sounds woefully flat and dated in comparison.
Then there’s That Voice, the unique and unforgettable singing of John Kay. (That Kay’s voice impressed Little Richard speaks volumes.) Here, Kay differs from most of today’s male rock singers in that he tries and succeeds at sounding far older and more worldly than a man just out of his teens has any right to! Shifting from pop balladeer to blistering blues shouter, John Kay is easily one of the finest singers the classic rock era ever produced.
“Steppenwolf” ’s range of songs makes for a most entertaining listen. From the creepy chords of ‘The Pusher’ (wholly sampled to great effect on Neneh Cherry & Michael Stipe’s ‘Trout’) to the rock-meets-funk sound of Don Covay’s ‘Sookie Sookie’; from the rollicking tribute (Chuck) ‘Berry Rides Again’, to the wry sexual observations of ‘Everybody’s Next One’; this is an album of unusual breadth and maturity. The idea of applying mildly-fuzzed guitars and organ to a Willie Dixon standard should horrify, but here it works curiously well. ‘Desperation’ ’s chorus of over-driven guitars sound at once sweet, elegant and deafening. The album’s most ascerbic political song, ‘The Ostrich’, takes the archetypal Bo Diddley rhythm, drives it a bit too fast, and mutates it into something both bleak and mesmerizing. Intricately dueling lead guitars make the song even more exciting.
The huge success of Steppenwolf’s dubut (helped by ‘Born To Be Wild’ ’s inclusion in the hit movie “Easy Rider”) did not prove beneficial to the band for long. Other hits (and better gear) were to follow, but the band generally floundered until its first breakup in 1972 for the usual rock-star reasons. (Those believing that Steppenwolf eschewed drugs should read John Kay’s memoirs.) Of their original albums, only 1971’s “Seven” came close to recapturing this album’s strength and clarity of vision.