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Steppenwolf/Steppenwolf the Second

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  • All you have to do is listen to these first two albums from Steppenwolf to realize there were more than a one-hit wonder. Steppenwolf’s 1968 self-title debut album made it to #6 on the Billboard Charts mainly on the strength of one song, “Born to Be Wild,” which only made it to #2 on the singles chart, but which achieved immortality as the song identified with the film “Easy Rider.” Given that was the other way to get “Born to Be Wild” back then, having this album get to #6 was pretty good. But then since the title of the song was placed conspicuously on the cover of this album and because the group’s name was taken by a classy novel by Hermann Hesse, it was proably easier for kids to bring this album home that the soundtrack for the first notorious film about the drug culture. Actually “Born to Be Wild” was the third single from this album, following “The Girl I Knew” and “Sookie Sookie,” but neither of those made a dent in the charts and “Born to Be Wild” exploded on the national consciousness. You can make the argument that the phrase “heavy metal” comes from this song, which was written by Dennis Edmonton, brother of drummer Jerry Edmonton and former band member, under the pseudonym Mars Bonfire. Originally the song was slower and more of a ballad, but then somebody came up with that thundering opening guitar riff and the rest was music history. We are thirty-five years down the road and this is still THE biker anthem of all-time. Fortunately “Born to Be Wild” comes in the middle of the album (penultimate track on side one) so that listeners had the opportunity to notice Steppenwolf did other songs. However, on this debut effort the best ones are not written by bad members, with the cover of Don Covay’s “Sookie, Sookie,” Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and the riveting take on Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher.” These last two tracks are over five minutes long, unusual for the time, and along with the emphasize on blues on this album suggests more in common with the early days of Led Zeppelin than you would have thought at first glimpse. “Everybody’s Next One” is probably the best of the original tunes by John Kay, usually working in collaboration with someone else (producer Gabriel Mekler in this case), the song sounding like a British Invasion tune but with a harder edge. But there is enough sub-par efforts here to keep this from being a really great debut album. Instead “Steppenwolf” provides a solid basis for the group to build on as their first big hit disappears into the rearview mirror. If “Born to Wild” is the ultimate biker anthem then Steppenwolf’s next hit, “Magic Carpet Ride,” tries to achieve the same prominence as a psychedelic dance number. The song made it to #3 on the Billboard charts and got the “Steppenwolf the Second” album to the same position on the album chart. This 1969 album follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor, although there is clearly a bit less of the blues this time around thrown into the hard rock mix. There is even an acoustic track, “Spiritual Fantasy,” which does seem a bit out of place, especially compared to the funky guitar-organ groove of “Magic Carpet Ride.” At this point the focal points of the group are clearly John Kay on vocals and guitar and the underappreciated Goldy McJohn wrecking serious havoc with his keyboard playing. The biggest difference between the first pair of Steppenwolf albums is that this time Kay is writing the best songs on the album, with “Tighten Up Your Wig” and “Don’t Step on the Grass Sam” (complete with the drug bust at the end of the song), being the best of the rest after “Magic Carpet Ride,” which also has some of the most interesting lyrics penned by Kay. Overall, the top is not as high but the bottom is not as low for this second album, so they grade out about the same, which is why this double-CD set makes a lot of sense. .

    Posted on February 10, 2010