“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs……There’s also a negative side.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
Everybody remember this one.
My apologies for making you listen to a song, as great as it was, that’s played 12 times a day on every crappy classic rock station in America. But you can’t begin to talk about Steppenwolf without mentioning their first hit off the first album, and one of their most iconic. Plus dig Jack Nicholson on the back of the Captain America chopper wearing a football helmet. I was 14 and haven’t stopped dreaming of motorcycles and football helmets since. Terrible movie. Great music. Huge influence.
I’ve always loved Steppenwolf but more for their R&B influence. I’ll concentrate on the first six albums on ABC Dunhill Records, all taking place in my opinion their most significant period 1968 -1971, and certainly most prolific. I will be picking out the R&B related pieces. This was a very good R&B band with a unique sound and they definitely influenced the way I listened to music.
First a little history.
John Kay the lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (especially blues harp), you know the guy with THAT voice, first joined with 2 of the eventual cast of the band with a Canadian group Sparrows. The band didn’t last and ex-Sparrows Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton recruited guitarist Michael Monarch and bass player Rushton Moreve to form a new band. They got the attention of a Dunhill producer Gabriel Meckler and Meckler suggested Steppenwolf as a band name because he’d just read Hesse’s novel by the same name.
Meckler was a classically trained musician and had recently moved to the US from Palestine and went to work for Dunhill. He had no success until he hooked up with Steppenwolf and that relationship lasted through Monster, the band’s 4th studio album, when engineer Richard Podolor took over as producer for the 7 and For Ladies Only. Meckler’s success with Steppenwolf led to his producing all the early albums for Three Dog Night and that success kept him viable and busy until his death on a motorcycle in 1977. OK sad, but ironic.
Kay was an interesting and talented guy but must’ve been hard to work with. Monarch, the guitarist with such a classic sound from the first two albums, quit in 1969 after disputes with Kay. Moreve was let go in 1968, not because of problems with Kay but because he started missing gigs because his girlfriend had convinced him California was going to slide into the ocean any second so he was afraid of CA gigs. What a couple of maroons. How many of us would have killed to be in a band with that much success and screw it if the lead singer was an asshole or your girlfriend ran away with the circus at a young age and hit her head on a Tilt-A-Whirl? Sheesh.
Plus the band could hardly get rid of Kay because he had THAT voice. So for the remainder of the band’s existence the personnel went through a revolving door.
Jon Kay was actually born in East Prussia, Germany, now Sovetsk Laliningrad Oblast, Russia. His father died a month before he was born in 1945. Bummer. As a baby his mother took him to escape the advancing Soviet troops and settled in Hanover, Germany. When he was 13 the family moved to Canada.
You don’t see many pictures of Kay without sunglasses, which were the fashion de coolness in the day, but his use was more than an affectation. He was afflicted with rod monochromacy, a very rare and extreme form of color blindness contracted at birth which results in seeing no color at all. The world exists completely in black, gray and white. As a result being in sunlight and in front of something like Klieg lighting is very uncomfortable. I just wore them because I wanted to look like John Kay.
I had a ball listening to all these albums again after all these years looking for examples of their R&B stuff. Pretty much all 6 albums had a form of R&B if only a single song but the influence of that idiom certainly runs through most of their music.
The first album, released in 1968, does showcase some vital stuff including the title tune. But two songs “Hootchie Coochie Man” and “Berry Rides Again” are examples of what I’m talking about. Side note here. Readers may well bring up that the Stones did a lot of R&B and several rock bands from the period specialized in R&B. But I’ll remind you that the first albums of guys like Johnny Winter, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers came out in 1969, a year after the first two of Steppenwolf’s albums with real strong examples of R&B on them. I’m not saying Steppenwolf was better; anyone who knows me knows how much I adore both Winter and the Allmans. But for me The Second was my first exposure to the stuff. Sure I bought the album because it had “Magic Carpet Ride”. But it was the R&B shit that grabbed my package. Also, I never thought the Stones really pulled the stuff off. Yeah, I said it.
Remember the old adage…Before you criticize someone walk a mile in his shoes. That way when you do criticize him yer a mile away and you have his shoes.
So from that first album Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Cootchie Man”. That’s right, Dixon, not Muddy as popularly assumed.
And “Berry Rides Again”.
Dig dat. Clapton would’ve loved to be in the mid of that shit man. Michael Monarch on that guitar.
The second album was titled The Second. Has a couple of great examples. One of them “Tighten Up Your Wig” is a complete rip-off of Junior Wells’ “Messin With the Kid”. When I was in a Blues Brothers type band in the late 70s we did a medley of these two and it was a blast. To Kay’s credit, he references the fact that he stole “Tighten” from Wells and ‘he from someone else’.
In 1970 they released a live album that my friend and brother Hank turned me onto. From Steppenwolf Live, Tighten Up Your Wig.
At Your Birthday Party, the third album and released in 1969 had a nice hit with “Rock Me” that shows definite R&B influence, but two, “Chicken Wolf” and “Cat Killer” are fun and in the vernacular. From At Your Birthday Party we have “Cat Killer”.
Any reference to a cat killer gets my attention immediately.
The fourth album Monster was primarily a political statement. Hey it was 1969. There was a lot of angst floating around about Nixon and his gang of liars and thieves, and of course the Vietnam Conflict. But we can still have some fun. Here is “What Would You Do (if I did that to you)”:
The fifth album by the boys, released November 1970, was Steppenwolf 7 for some weird reason. This marked five albums in 2 years, all with great stuff on them. I bought 7 when it first came out and in 8 track form. More on that some other time. When the 8 track wore out I bought the vinyl and I still have it. This is a wonderful work through and through including a version of Hoyt Axton’s “Snowblind Friend”. There are several R&B influenced numbers on it like “Ball Crusher”, “Hippo Stomp” and “Foggy Mental Breakdown” but I’ll use a song that was a minor hit for them “Who Needs Ya”. Um, play this loud. Seriously.
Our last here and the last for Dunhill is from For Ladies Only. This was panned by the critics and labeled as sexist, so naturally being a 17-year-old guy I ran right out and got it. The album is not on a fave list but they were still doing stuff like “Jaded Strumpet”.
I saved the best for last, my usual treat for both the readers and me. That album The Second, my first Steppenwolf album, had a medley on the B side that to this day is so cool and meant so much, and the same for my funk fusion drummer son. True test there. This right here is what I mean when I say I was grabbed by the balls by this album. I’ve worn out 2 copies of the vinyl and I’m on my third. Enjoy.
What a wonderful band and a shame they couldn’t keep it together. Lord knows they tried reunions several times, the last as late as 2017. The fan base is pretty fanatical and it would be a gas to see them in what would certainly be a small venue. It also would have been interesting to see if they just re-hashed the old hits or stuck to R&B roots in these performances. I would hope it to be the latter.