Main Index Page General Ratings Page Rock Chronology Page Song Search Page New Additions Message Board


[page in the process of being converted from MP3 status to full status]

Class ?

Main Category: Roots Rock
Also applicable: Hard Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Steppenwolf fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Steppenwolf fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

For reading convenience, please open the reader comments section in a parallel browser window.


Coming soon.



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating =

Is this the Lynyrd Skynyrd of psychedelia?

Best song: BORN TO BE WILD

Track listing: 1) Sookie Sookie; 2) Everybody's Next One; 3) Berry Rides Again; 4) Hoochie Coochie Man; 5) Born To Be Wild; 6) Your Wall's Too High; 7) Desperation; 8) The Pusher; 9) A Girl I Knew; 10) Take What You Need; 11) The Ostrich.

Supposedly this album has gone down in history as a "classic", but now I'm stuck here with the necessity to explain why. Goddamn. Goddamn the pusher man. Now look: Steppenwolf's debut record is by no means bad or incompetent. In fact, it boasts quite a solid share of entertaining quality. Actually, it's simply the single best Steppenwolf album ever, no doubt about that. But it's well nigh impossible to formulate in friggin' words what exactly these Canadian bikers happened to introduce to the world of rock'n'roll with these songs.

Think of it - Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly, their contemporaries, were far heavier and were actually intent on making their heaviness matter, while John Kay and Co. seem to play 'heavy' just because they're rough boys and it seems more natural to them to play heavy than play soft. Their repertoire mainly consists of generic R'n'B, soul and blues covers and half-assed originals, few, if any, of which can boast an unprecedented approach to melody. John Kay's gruff, ragged vocals suit the music perfectly, but if we're talking ragged, then 1968 was, after all, the year of John Fogerty. And while the band punches out its sound pretty well, there ain't a single virtuoso player for miles around.

So why is this a classic? In formal, objective terms - because it has 'Born To Be Wild' on it, of course; in other words, the fame of the single has automatically been transferred onto the album. The song, well, the song, unlike the album, deservedly is a classic. One of the first, if not the very first, freedom-loving, hedonist anthems recorded in a "we don't give a fuck 'bout all your intellectual bullshit" manner. I mean, where things like 'My Generation' are essentially revolution calls, and things like 'Satisfaction' target society and the establishment as the main object for despising, 'Born To Be Wild' just trashes everything. It's not a call to arms: it's just a bunch of muscular rednecks-turned-potheads yearning for the simple pleasures of life. 'Get your motor runnin', head out on the highway, lookin' for adventure and whatever comes our way'. That's the main motto, man. To hell with everything but me and my bike. Simple, stupid and sensual.

This is where Motorhead stems from directly, but not only that; this vibe had a great influence on glam rock (hey, Slade used to cover the song in concert), and ultimately on punk and God knows what else. Statistically, I suppose, 'Born To Be Wild' is responsible for more bad influences than good ones, but hey, who's counting? And anyway, the song has a great melody - written by Mars Bonfire, it's filled with hooks a-plenty and nice tempo changes and is even strangely complex for such a 'brainless anthemization'. And maybe I'm mistaken, but didn't the line about 'heavy metal thunder' earn the genre its eventual name? That's one of the theories, at least.

Now, Canadian lightning strike me if I'm talking nonsense, but the rest of the songs, enjoyable as they might be, don't display too fresh an approach. To put it not so mildly, they're derivative as hell. Take 'Desperation', for instance - a soul ballad that's pretty and touching, but would you say that John Kay actually wrote that melody? No; it's a clear rip-off, from Solomon Burke and the like (play it back to back with 'That's How Strong My Love Is', for instance, and there you go). How good is it? Does it deserve a 5:40 running time? Who can tell? It's not the kind of thing I normally associate with bands like Steppenwolf, and it's definitely not the kind of thing that could make me associate bands like Steppenwolf with something I never associated Steppenwolf before.

Titles like 'Berry Rides Again' speak for themselves - at least the boys rock pretty fine on that one, but presumably none of them took "creativity classes" or whatever it's called, else they would have been warned you have to be careful with quotations and direct references. Careless usage will bring harm to both the quoter and the quoted, and lyrics like 'I used to call him Little Queenie, his name was Johnny B. Good' certainly prove that point, don't they? Personally, I would have preferred to simply have a straightforward cover of either one of the two. Then again, it's not too hard to forget about the lyrics and simply give in to the groove, because the groove is quite hot.

How good are their covers, anyway? 'Hoochie Coochie Man'? Well... how many versions of 'Hoochie Coochie Man' do you really need? It sounds good. Okay, it really sounds good, with fine organ work and fine guitar solos. So what? So will the 198,456th cover of the song you've heard, especially if you're a regular visitor of blues festivals (which, fortunately, I am not, but even then one more 'Hoochie Coochie Man' is one too many 'Hoochie Coochie Men' for me). This is supposed to be wall-rattling, ground-shaking rock-'n'-roll to end all competition? Sorry, no dice. The guitar solo really smokes, but ultimately it just bores me because there's no way it couldn't.

So let's cut to the chase and get out the really good stuff (apart from 'Born To Be Wild', of course) that is recommendable even for those who feel sick just looking at a bike, let alone riding one. The cover of Don Covay's 'Sookie Sookie' is crude, hilarious and punchy without dragging on for too long - although had I heard the original, I'd probably think different. What's the exact meaning of the contrast between 'let it hang out baby' and 'hang it in baby', anyway? Is it referring to girations of a sexual character?

'The Pusher', yet another cover (Hoyt Axton - absolutely no idea who that is, so sue me for ignorance), has Kay at his best when he's grumbling out the refrain - funny enough, the song is actually an anti-drug note of warning, the only tune I know of that seriously distinguishes between the 'dealer' and the 'pusher' and condemning the latter. The good-guy dealer, as we now know, 'for a nickel will sell you a lot of sweet dreams', but the bad-guy pusher will 'ruin your body and leave your mind to scream'. Apparently these two categories never overlap and have no relation to each other, whatsoever. Kee-rist! It took the idealism of 1968, I guess, to perform that kind of material. And it took Pulp Fiction to mock this approach in the cruellest way possible.

A little less impressive, but also a little less lyrically ridiculous, is the acoustic/harpsichord-intro ballad 'A Girl I Knew' - refreshingly different, a cozy little poppy ditty only gruffened by a distorted buzzing solo in the middle, played with enough dedication and power. And then the album ends on a really high note - the eco-rock/social-apocalypsis anthem 'The Ostrich', taken at a faster tempo than almost everything on here, eventually develops into an adrenaline-high jam that shows Steppenwolf were a band that was truly able of establishing an impressive rave-up and building up on the strength of the moment. Now there's some great garage rock'n'roll for you! It's not every day that you come across thunderstorms like these: before the arrival of Motorhead, who pretty much turned that kind of approach into their regular occupation, you could only, like, meet them in single units every few months. So treasure them.

In short, inconsistent and saddled with taste-lapses as it is, Steppenwolf is still a gas if you let your hair down. Whether John Kay had this direct, self-conscious inclination to "make an album for the people" or it just came out all by itself, it's one of the bluntest, sincerest, straightforward-est, honest-est, simply stupid-est records of the epoch, saddled with psychedelic overtones, of course (just look at all these garments on the album sleeve), but nowhere near as much as the already mentioned Blue Cheer or Iron Butterfly. No excess artsy-fartsiness - KISS and Lynyrd Skynyrd would be proud. Maybe that's why the LP didn't do that well in the States in 1968. The country wasn't yet ready for a redneck music explosion. Especially if the rednecks were Canadians! And especially if the Canadians were led by a German!



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating =

Is this the Lynyrd Skynyrd of the Abbey Road style?


Track listing: 1) Faster Than The Speed Of Light; 2) Tighten Up Your Wig; 3) None Of Your Doing; 4) Spiritual Fantasy; 5) Don't Step On The Grass, Sam; 6) 28; 7) Magic Carpet Ride; 8) Disappointment Number (medley).

Some people cringe whenever they see bands giving their albums numbers instead of names - Led Zeppelin being the chief culprit, of course (Chicago is a bit of a special case since they practically turned this into a special kind of art) - but me, I really don't mind. It's only, like, for about one out of twenty cases when the name of the album really matches its content, so if you can't think of a suitable tagline, why bother with a tagline at all? Numbers are honest, at least. (Unless you release a "IV" without having ever released a "III", sending your fanbase off in search of the lost chord, just in order to have a little cruel fun at their expense). And besides, I can totally get it why Steppenwolf preferred to go along with numbers. Their non-numeric album titles would all suck anyway. For Ladies Only? Hour Of The Wolf? What kind of names are these?

Okay, intermission over. Steppenwolf's second album is not as good as the first, but, unlike the first one, which is somewhat overrated, is actually underrated. Still with me? Well, let me put it this way. Normally, Steppenwolf albums - the ones that would follow, at least - are anything BUT what I'd define as "interesting". With the psychedelic age over, Kay and Co. would retreat to their rootsy-tootsy blue and just sort of sulk there. But in late '68, they were actively trying to dabble in "things", and The Second marks the peak of their dabbling. Good dabbling, bad dabbling, it's all the same if you don't dig in too deep - sometimes even the obviously failed experiments can still raise a few ripples.

The obvious bloody-murder-level minus point is that there's no instant classic like 'Born To Be Wild' here. On the other hand, don't fret: there's still 'Magic Carpet Ride', another epochal track of slightly lesser status that I've always thought virtually invented Hawkwind and the "sci-fi hard rock" scene before I heard 'Magic Potion' by the Open Mind, but let's just suppose you ain't heard me talking about that one. 'Magic Carpet Ride', now - I'm talking primarily of the spaced out midsection, because the main melody is just a simple folksy shuffle that could have gone unnoticed; but the mid-section, with Kay chugging out the gunky rhythm and the rest of the band coming in with dark, brooding organ passages and different kinds of psychedelic noises, must have been a great way to link the "softie" crowd of ex-middle-class intelligent hippies with the violent biker "rabble". Ah, those were the times when you could woo even a Hells Angel with a flower. Times when Ted Nugent tried to take you to the center of your mind instead of shooting up every animal within fifty miles of his house. No fish up Robert Plant's butt. No Altamont.

Taking off the rose-colored glasses, now, what we also have here is 'Faster Than The Speed Of Light', also credited to "Mars Bonfire" (a collective pseudonym, no doubt?) and definable as, well let's see, shall we say a Jefferson Airplane-style pop-rocker with Kaukonen-like guitar tones and a couple simple, pedestrian, but empathetic vocal hooks that elevate it above the level of uninspired derivative dreck? Which, by the way, makes it two sci-fi panoramas on this album instead of... well, instead of none on the first album, since 'Born To Be Wild' ain't exactly psychedelia.

Speaking of hooks, I don't really know what to make of 'Don't Step On The Grass, Sam'. I love the goddamn song, and not just because it makes fun of hypocritic preachers in a far more straightforward manner than anything else in the epoch ('you're so full of bull, Sam' is, after all, pretty bold for 1968), but because it does that in such a fun manner - lazy, relaxed, and so charmingly condescending, besides, that organ riff in the chorus is one organ riff to die for. On the other hand, I'm not quite sure if such a thing as straightforward pro-grass propaganda is really laudable, and I'm definitely not supportive of the almost God-worshipping attitude Kay takes towards the stuff ("finest of grasses"? "noble weed"? whatever). Goddamning the pusher doesn't mean we have to sanctify the dealer.

These three songs are pretty much the only ones that really stand out in my memory; but hits and stage favorites are one thing, and a general picture of the album is another. For instance, who'd have expected a gentle orchestrated folkish ballad from the band ('Spiritual Fantasy')? Creations like these, with complex structures and untrivial arrangements, demonstrate a significant improvement in songwriting - if only in the technical sense, that is. In my humble opinion, 'Spiritual Fantasy' is boring. Slow and monotonous - what are those guitars actually doing apart from having the same function as drum kits? Nothing. Lyrically naive, too, with its preachy tale of an attempt to bring the world to perfection (were they reading Plato or what?). But taken as just one piece of puzzle, it performs its main duty - add a somewhat different colour shade to the album - quite fine.

'None Of Your Doing' - what's that, an attempt to create a sophisticated vocal harmony arrangement? Rather far from top ten material in that department, but still commendable. Tasty gospel organ in the intro, some sort of Far Eastern plucked instrument in the middle, this is the band being actively influenced by... by... well, you name it. Memorable? Maybe for somebody with a very different operative memory manufacturer from mine. But certainly not uninteresting.

Likewise, I'm always on the fence when it comes to the extended medley that finishes the album. It is by far the strangest thing of the year 1968 (yes, stranger than Zappa and company even, because its strangeness is doubled by the fact of coming from such an obviously "non-strange" band as Steppenwolf). It baffles me entirely. Yes, it baffles me worse than 'Revolution 9'. It's thirteen minutes of bluesy/jazzy/folkish jamming, several tunes connected with each other through pseudo-breaks and sometimes metamorphosing into something different right in the process of being performed. The song titles don't have anything to do with the lyrics; and the lyrics are partially original and partially drawn together from different cliches ('Disappointment Number' has a direct quotation from Elmore James' 'The Sky Is Crying', for instance, and later on we get a piece of 'Shake Your Moneymaker' thrown in for good measure). Sung parts alternate with whacky instrumental sections, which then revert to different sung parts again, and they lower the curtain with a short nearly accappella piece ('Reflections'). It all sounds... well, it all sounds as if the guys had a slightly too serious portion of the finest of grasses before going into the studio for that one. Besides, much to my disappointment, never even once during this performance do they kick so much sand in our face as they did on 'Ostrich'.

But with lowered expectations, it's still fun - and effectively disproves the notion of Steppenwolf as a 'dumbass' band who was only able to churn out simplistic macho rock and serve as main influence to Motorhead. Of course, if we take a general look around, we'll see that 1968 just wasn't a suitable era for those kinds of bands: even the dirtiest, the grittiest, the most lobotomy-threatened garage bands of the day would still wear fancy clothes, copy the Beatles, wallow in feedback and "astrality" and propagate escapism into imaginary territory. But Steppenwolf actually did it better than many, if not most, others, which makes it even more sad that with the passing of the epoch, they'd drop so much of it.



Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

Not at MY birthday party for sure. Silence would be far less boring.


Track listing: 1) Don't Cry; 2) Chicken Wolf; 3) Lovely Meter; 4) Round And Down; 5) It's Never Too Late; 6) Sleeping Dreaming; 7) Jupiter Child; 8) She'll Be Better; 9) Cat Killer; 10) Rock Me; 11) God Fearing Man; 12) Mango Juice; 13) Happy Birthday.

A record I frankly can't get tremendously excited about. (This actually goes for almost the entire Steppenwolf catalog, but since I haven't yet had a chance to make this blatant generalization, I'm gonna jump at the nearest opportunity. Down with Prussian militarism!!). And it's a pity - because, see, the band is still trying to be creative, work out a special sound and dabble in artsiness and technology. Yet they just don't happen to have the talent for it, and the obnoxious "weirdness" of the album pales in comparison to the quirky, but simple medleys of its predecessor. With Second, they went as far as they could in the "we're better than a plain barroom band" department. And yet they stubbornly press on, like that old fag Alexander the Great - searching for more and more conquests with fewer and fewer resources. What, you thought this was a bad analogy? Alexander stopped at the borders of India; Indian music was one of the main inspirations for the psychedelic revolution; the psychedelic revolution forced even those people to jump on the bandwagon who, in their previous incarnation, wouldn't know art if it came up from behind and shouted "Hi! My name is Stockhausen!" right at them; and Steppenwolf were out there in the front row of these very people, proudly waving their emblem - a beer mug-shaped Harley-Davidson wrapped in the colours of the Prussian army.

But let's get back to our Birthday Party. There are some 'hits' on here, of course, if we go by the literal definition of 'hit', but none of these songs have become either radio classics or underground favourites, and you know why? Because they don't fuckin' deserve it. Oh, no hard feelings at all, in fact, there's nothing that could be categorized as "disgusting" or "offensive" or "immoral" or "mass-destructive", and I do sort of enjoy it a bit while it's on. At the very least, it ain't mid-Eighties Rod Stewart we're speaking of. The rockers can make you tap your feet a trifle, the ballads may tug at your luvverly strings a tiny bit, maybe even two tiny bits. But the songwriting really hits a low. In fact, I just don't get how it was actually possible not to have one decent hook on the entire record. They were never Beatles-level when it came to consistency (I can see them flames coming already - "so they're not consistent! so who cares?"), but they did have 'Born To Be Wild' and that 'Don't Step On The Grass' number, too. These were good, groovy, sing-along-able tunes, sharp, scorching, and catchy. On here, all the songs sound as if somebody unscrewed all the bolts on the plane before take-off. The carcass is still there, but it does little but wobble. It's a very wobbly album.

It also lost its edge. These guys were born to be wild? I doubt it. What kind of sedative did they inject in their rockers? Okay, so we all know they like taking out loans in the form of well-known guitar lines, and I don't blame them for basing 'Don't Cry' on the 'Summertime Blues' riff. It's a riff that screams to be loaned, after all. What I do blame them for is borrowing it for a song that, for the first two minutes, is little but a mess of poorly produced, confusedly played, completely perfunctory, meaningless, "funky" licks, with a bland, forgettable vocal melody slapped on top - with neither the guitarists nor Kay as vocalist contributing their best efforts. By the time it tries to pick up steam towards the end and bring the proceedings down in a torrential crescendo, it's too late already. Gimme 'The Ostrich' over this tripe any time of day, night, or whatever there is in between. Even the band's strongest bastion, snarling social critique, seems to be eroding at lightning speed - 'God Fearing Man' is so generic and flat it can't aspire to even a tenth part of the charm of 'The Pusher' or 'Don't Step On The Grass'.

Maybe it's this silly love for funk that does them in - looks like way too often they're far more intent on making the song go chucka-chucka-chucka than making it actually register. I can't blame them on a historical level; 1969 was the year for whitebread bands to discover the chucka-chucka (James Gang, anyone?). But it's ridiculous to suppose I'm always going to be forgiving when it comes to datedness; not in this case I won't. Not in the case when I have a song called 'Rock Me' which has the gall to insert a Santana-like Latin percussion solo in the middle of a weak, frail country rocker, occasionally injected with the chucka-chucka sound (the rough equivalent of treating an alergic person with antibiotics, if you'll excuse my medicine). Oh, you know, maybe it's just me, but I get mad every time I see a song with the word 'rock' in it that doesn't actually rock.

In fact, incredible as it is, I think that the ballads on here actually far surpass the rockers - not that they're better written, of course, but occasionally Kay's vocal delivery is soulful and strong enough to make songs like 'She'll Be Better' really work. Hmm... one could think of them as, say, a Stones tribute band covering R'n'B covers covered by the Stones - yes, the derivativeness factor is that high, but don't forget the fun factor, too. Sometimes excessive derivativeness can be cool. Besides, what casual fan could have thought the grim, leather clad Steppenwolf would eventually churn out an album of weak, half-hearted rockers, on one hand, and nice, moving ballads, on the other? Image is nothing. 'She'll Be Better' has a powerful crescendo in the coda which seems, to me, the most heartfelt (and the most thoroughly elaborated) moment on the record. 'Lovely Meter' is completely acoustic, soft silky vocals and a meek quiet accordeon in the background. Something that wouldn't be unfit for John Sebastian, I'd wager. Bikers? 'Heavy metal thunder'? Stop kidding me.

Unfortunately, the small bunch of lovely ballads doesn't save the album anyway. Don't even try to stop my verbal inundation - I haven't yet described the 'weirder' numbers to you! This time, instead of trying to simply rearrange that old blues-rock sound in a bizarre way, Kay and Friends try to go directly psychedelic in a couple of cases, resulting in such primitive, kid-level tunes as the instrumental 'Mango Juice'. Basically, it's little more than a bunch of "ethnic" percussion with random keyboard and bass notes - and an occasional flute - slapped on in a dissonant manner. In case you think you're still out of it, this is Steppenwolf's understanding of "art rock": a bunch of ethnic percussion decorated by random, dissonant keyboard noises. There, now let's all get together and make guesses about why these guys don't get the same reverence as Captain Beefheart. Anybody?..

Okay, not that I'm a big admirer of the Cap'n's skills at their weirdest, but I'll be the first to admit that Beefheart's avantgarde experiments were twenty times more complex and thought-provoking, whereas these guys just doodle along. Apart from 'Mango Juice', the band's newly-found penchant for The Bizarre also includes the minute-long 'Sleeping Dreaming', a trivial folkish chant set to drunken chatter, and 'Cat Killer', an equally trivial piano/organ-led blues instrumental - what good is that? Sadly, just as I was hoping that the potential of The Second album would evolve into something really eyebrow-raising on the follow-up, they retread back to second-hand material. Or "retread forward", 's all the same to me.

And on a pathetic, overblown note, they end the record with 'Happy Birthday'... well, no, not that 'Happy Birthday', but a true two-minute long song with a gospel flavour to it and female backup vocals. Sounds like a prediction of Lynyrd Skynyrd at their worst. Kay even sounds like Ronnie Van Zant with his nonchalant growling on that one. Creepy.



Year Of Release: 1969

Even if Steppenwolf were on a, ahem, "quantitative roll" at the time, effectively pumping out two regular LPs per year, Columbia Records thought they weren't milking the band enough, and ended up releasing this recording of a Steppenwolf live show which is quite early indeed, dating back to the summer of 1967, when the band actually were still called Sparrow. And, well, it's nice to see that they used to perform 'The Pusher' and 'Tighten Up Your Wig' long before their precious commercial breakthrough, but this record sucks.

It doesn't just suck - it shatters the very foundations of my credibility. Here I sit, thinking I really can't go wrong with a live album, and actually believing that a band like Steppenwolf could kick so much ass live this will compensate for any studio roughness we may have experienced. Nadah. At least, as far as summer '67 goes, Steppenwolf, or Sparrow, couldn't get two notes together. Of course, some flaws should be blamed on crappy sound quality, but it ain't that crappy. It's a club recording, after all, with not too much girl screaming or anything (not too many girls took part in Steppenwolf concerts anyway, I guess), so you can hear what the band members are doing pretty well. And let me tell you this: what they're doing is pure shit.

The centerpiece of the album, of course, is the 21-minute "epic" version of 'The Pusher'. But how correct is that phrase? 'The Pusher', as an actual song, only begins, like at the sixteenth or seventeenth minute or so (and is performed rather poorly - Kay's growls are entertaining enough, but he was far more convincing and inventive with his voice on the studio version). Before that, it's seventeen minute of jamming, but it's not blues-rock jamming. Take an ounce of Pink Floyd a la mid-section of 'Interstellar Overdrive'; an ounce of Grateful Dead a la 'Dark Star'; and an ounce of Jefferson Airplane a la Bathing At Baxter's. Now throw out the innovative sonic techniques of Pink Floyd, the rich professionalism of the Dead, and the eccentric weirdness of the Airplane. What remains is just a meek bunch of lifeless peelings, and this is exactly what Steppenwolf offer to us during these seventeen minutes. Dissonant chords, lame guitar pinching, ragged bits of drum solos, weak, lethargic acid-rock two-chord soloing, all of this could only satisfy an audience who either went to a live show for the first time in its life or just thrived on acid-rock so much that it was happy to swallow even Sparrow's cheap imitations.

Without this so-called "jam" (although, to be frank, when I first heard it - and even more frankly, I ain't gonna listen to it twice - I thought they just released ten or so minutes of the band tuning up), the record would maybe merit a weak two stars, but then again, without this jam, it would be shorter than a moth's life. Didn't the guys at Columbia understand what a heck of a disservice they were doing to the band by placing this record on the racks? Then again, it was 1969, and back then, any kind of dreck could actually pass for genius. Unsurprisingly, this was the year of George Harrison's Electronic Sound.

As for the rest of the material, it ain't that hot either. 'Powerplay' is a pretty good rocker, but the Howlin' Wolf cover is boring, the Airplane-like guitars on 'Corina, Corina' become tedious really quick, and 'Tighten Up Your Wig' is really much too short to kick any serious ass - a pity, it's about the only song on here, maybe together with 'Powerplay', which really hints at the band's ability to achieve ignition. Perhaps the only moment of revelation, and of any importance, on the album is when they start a generic R'n'B number, 'I'm Going Upstairs', which seems to predict another stately bore, and then all of a sudden, at 3:20 into the song, Kay (or was it new guitarist Michael Monarch?) suddenly starts off with a shrill, screechy, distorted guitar tone that's usually considered completely inappropriate for such types of songs, at least, by blues purists. Unfortunately, he only messes around with it for about twenty seconds, after which the song slumps into further irrelevancy - but these twenty seconds are really well worth hearing, and considering the fact that this was played in summer 1967, when America didn't yet know Hendrix, that's really heavy for that epoch. Heavy and unpredictable.

Regardless, though, in our present time Early Steppenwolf can only be evaluated as a document of its epoch; I can understand those that claim that all of the acid rock excesses of the Dead and the Airplane haven't at all dated and can still be appreciated and wondered at by younger and newer audiences, but this 1967 brand of Steppenwolf is just way too immature, amateurish and plain stupid to be successfully filtered through the history test. So buyer beware! Don't let these bastards at Columbia rip you off yet another time! Invest your money wisely! Like in Texan oilfields, for instance.



Year Of Release: 1969

Hmm. Well, the good news is that Steppenwolf get "heavy" again. Or, maybe, they're just getting "less wussy", because this is actually the kind of radio-friendly watered down heaviness that really couldn't hope to qualify as such in Britain, what with Beck and Zeppelin on the threshold. In any case, this is a good message for headbangers: Kay and new guitarist Larry Byrom trade dirty licks from their guitars once again! Sloppy and grumbly, that's the way my life goes.

The bad news, then, is that Monster isn't so much a collection of rock songs as a bold and brash political statement. Of course, 1969 was THE year for bold and brash political statements - just look at the Airplane's Volunteers. But Kay simply overdoes the trick: every song on here, except for the lone instrumental 'Fag' (and what kind of a provocative name is that?), deals with a certain political issue or with several at a time, and much as you'd like to concentrate on the guitar riffs and catchy vocal melodies, you find out that the only thing you can concentrate upon is politically-tinged lyrics. Steppenwolf were really on a political roll at the time: Kay was even trying to get himself elected to some high office in LA or something. And, well, the band must be credited for recording arguably the very first album in rock that's so totally and uncompromisingly dedicated to current political issues. I can't even say that the songs sound dated - Kay wisely avoids naming names and calling on time-specific events, and all the problems that he raises are still actual today, in the States as well as all over the world.

What I sure can say, though, is that if I wanna have a lecture on left-wing philosophy, I'll go straight to the right sources. The only other "fully political" album I know, Lennon's Sometime In New York City, did tackle particular details of the current situation, including John Sinclair, Angela Davis and Irish bloodshed, so its lyrics are far more dated than Steppenwolf's; but at least Lennon wrote some moderately good music to accompany the tunes. Kay didn't. Not a single tune on here is memorable - it's just your basic blues-rock with absolutely unengaging rhythm tracks, obligatory, boring guitar solos and an occasional "gospel twist" or two, with the obligatory female backup vocals. Perhaps the band had become more professional with its arrangements - I wouldn't know.

What I hear is that all of those songs have potential; they all start out fine, either with a nice catchy riff or with a solid guitar tone, but there's so little development that they overstay their welcome even if they're shorter than a bunny's tail. And since this is supposed to be an "angry" album (now we're talking Lynyrd Skynyrd! Yahoo!), there's nary a single ballad to be found, so you're simply forced to sit through all this slime and wait when it 'gets to you'. Well, it 'got to me', and now I can easily say that it's the most boring Steppenwolf album recorded up to that time.

Apparently, some of these tracks were old outtakes - 'Power Play', for instance, had just been released on Early Steppenwolf, so they must have written this piece of warning towards the arrogant politican ('don't bite the hand that feeds you') as early as 1967, if not earlier. However, Early Steppenwolf certainly had the definitive version of that song - here, it's milder and meeker, and while it does catch a little psh-psh-psh towards the end, what with the sludgey guitar solos and all, I still can't help thinking how many millions and billions of similar songs had been written over the years and how many millions of better songs had been written and why the goddamn hell am I sitting through this piece of boring filler when for all I know I could be reviewing a... a... could be reviewing a Jennifer Lopez record or something instead?

And that said, 'Power Play' is still one of the two better songs on here; the other one which I feel mildly attracted to is the corny 'Draft Resister', which is so simple it can't help but stick in my head, despite the piss-poor lyrics. 'Heed the threat and awesome power of the mighty Pentagon/Which is wasting precious millions on the toys of Washington'? Whatever. The song has at least some cool 'dangerous' atmosphere to it, with its echoey percussion and guitar licks and gritty solos, as tired and pedestrian as that line of text might seem to you. What do you want from me? To review 1,300 albums and not repeat myself 1,300 times? Ha! Even Mark Prindle repeats himself sometimes. I'm not superhuman - if I had to think of something truly genial and groundbreaking to say about an album like Steppenwolf's Monster, I'd have my Nobel Prize guaranteed, that's for sure.

I'm not even naming the other songs. Not for now, at least. All I can say is the album's a darn good listen if you wanna have a personal, intimate fuck on the US government. Just you and the White House, you know. And John Kay as humble medium. Otherwise, don't even bother.



Year Of Release: 1970

Okay, by now you're probably all getting wired up about my bashing Steppenwolf and all. After reviewing Monster, I promised myself I would struggle and find something positive to say about the next Steppenwolf album, however bad it might turn out to be. It sucks when you're on a constant negative streak. Fortunately, the task turned out to be easier than I thought - because Seven is indeed a solid improvement over its two weak predecessors. Why it is "seven" is way beyond me (by all means it should have been 'five'), but you know how it goes when the band starts including all the miserable hit packages in their 'regular' catalog.

Anyway... this is where Kay finally drops the political noodling, for the main part, and concentrates on what the band did best: gritty stripped-down rockers and nice tender balladeering. There ain't a single classic on the album, although a couple of songs were hits, but there are no stinkers either, and there's enough classy headbanging potential to make the experience worthwhile, plus, as far as I know, this is Kay's high point as a vocalist; his low grumble is so well-controlled, steady and sincere at the same time, that some of the songs can easily get along on the basis of his singing alone. (Kinda reminds you of Mariah Carey, now doesn't it?)

Well, what's wrong with good singing? What's wrong with an ounce of innocent non-violent headbanging? 'Ball Crusher', 'Fat Jack' and 'Who Needs Ya' are all enjoyable mid-tempo rockers that took about half an hour to write each, which is better than the three or four minutes that most hard rock bands spend at their compositions. Feel the difference! 'Ball Crusher' has all those nice wah-wah leads, 'Fat Jack' has this nearly-catchy refrain, 'Who Needs Ya' was the hit, well, you get the drift. It's at least far more exciting than Monster, although way too mild and derivative for my personal taste.

Oh, and 'Forty Days And Forty Nights' is a surprisingly effective Muddy cover. Goddammit I love Muddy, but Kay really does his song justice, and it's far more interesting to hear the band hear such an untrivial obscure composition than something like 'Hoochie Coochie Man', which has been covered by just about any roots-rock band that ever appeared on this planet. Except for Grand Funk Railroad, I suppose, because they couldn't master the complex three chord progressions. Oh well, can't really blame 'em. They had this Mark Farner guy who was just too busy diggin' God.

Speaking of diggin' God, by the way, did you know that the track before the last is called 'Earschplittenloudenboomer'? Steppenwolf are back to their psychedelic roots, although to be frank with you, this isn't so much psychedelia as it is optimistic, tuneful jazz-rock, like a simplified version of Blood, Sweat, Tears, Earth, Wind, Fire, Pus, Snot, and Alka Seltzer. Well, we can't ask the guys for anything too complex (this is just a bunch of grass-full Canadian biker hacks, after all), but as far as jazzy psychedelic ramblings go, this one's far better and more tuneful than, say, CCR's 'Rude Awakening #2'.

That said, it's hardly surprising that my favourites on here are still the ballads. 'Renegade', for instance, is a nearly great song, with Kay's sad reminiscences of his Iron Curtain period existence in East Germany - after all, he did spend the first fourteen years of his life on Soviet-occupated territories, and he knows the horrors and sadness of life in Eastern Europe of the period better than anybody. Lines like '...if they should find you now the Man will shoot you down' really hit hard, especially when delivered with this authentic, convincing gravelley voice of Kay's. The mid-section has a great guitar solo, too. The obligatory anti-drug message of 'Snowblind Friend' is pretty good too, with Kay settling on a particularly warm and pretty vocal tone reminiscent of Ray Thomas' cute shakey baritone.

Overall, this is a pretty solid effort - I'm still not quite sure why you could want this record in your collection, but I guess if you like the Grateful Dead or something like that, it won't hurt at all. Together with Second, it really shows that Steppenwolf weren't just a corny talentless one-hit wonder, but I guess I already said that a few times before, in between all the bashings and thrashings and executions. Well, remember that there is a big, big, big difference between a boring band and an offensively tasteless band. The former can eventually grow on you, with the boredom factor wearing off, while the latter will only grow worse with every next listen. It's like, well, the difference between a benign tumor and a malign one.



Year Of Release: 1971

This record tends to get a particularly bad rap from critics, but I have a hard time trying to come up with a good reason as to why For Ladies Only should be regarded as a huge letdown from general Steppenwolf quality. It was the band's last album before a three-year hiatus (actually, Kay disbanded the ensemble, but later on initiated this boring series of reunions because nobody wanted to buy a John Kay record), and it's obvious that an album like this couldn't have served as any kind of artistic breakthrough - but it's not bad, by any means, just boring and tedious in places. Of course, it flopped - my personal guess is that had something to do with the title. Gentlemen probably wouldn't buy the record because of it, and there weren't that many ladies around, I guess, who'd be seduced by such a mischievous offer from Steppenwolf. Stupid title, stupid title track.

Actually, the title track is mainly stupid because of the lyrics (a piss-poor attempt at protecting women's rights) and the strange piano jam in the mid-section which extends what could have passed as a half-decent redneckish barroom boogie into some kind of 'artistic exercise', similar to the band's earlier 'exercises' on their live shows. And yes, that's a common problem with most of the songs here - they're overlong, dragging for four or five minutes where there's hardly enough good ideas for two. Kay tries as hard as he can to pen some 'biting' lyrics and to sing as convincingly as he can, but the problem is, these particular melodies are still way too unimaginative to be saved by any kind of energetic delivery.

Strange enough, though, the album slowly picks up a bit steam as it progresses - it's a rare case when it's the first tunes, like the title one or the hookless rocker 'I'm Asking', that bore the hell out of me. But the country-rock ditty 'Shackles And Chains' is pretty good as far as cheerful, bouncy country-rock ditties go, with a lovely friendly chorus and cute jerky guitar patterns. It's about as far from the biker paradise of 'Born To Be Wild' as possible, but that doesn't really bother me, because, well, it's not any worse than the Eagles' best excourses at country-rock. And I do respect the Eagles' contributions to country-rock.

There's also the ballads - 'Tenderness', for instance, will easily hold its ground against any selected Bruce Springsteen ballad (which reminds me that Springsteen and Steppenwolf actually have far more in common than you could imagine). Graced by a lovely harpsichord, the song really builds up to a moving, tender climactic refrain ('she said, she said all your women burn in your flame'...), and the song's subtle, quirky charm is actually far more tasteful and refined than the straightforward dumb feminism of the title track.

I also get my kicks out of 'Jaded Strumpet', a really mean old rocker that borrows its first organ chords from CCR but is otherwise consistent and catchy, again, in that slightly dumb Eagles/Skynyrd way, but as long as you don't despise Lynyrd Skynyrd because they are Lynyrd Skynyrd, I think you'll have to agree that 'Jaded Strumpet' works pretty well. Same goes for the pretty 'Sparkle Eyes' and a couple other songs: their hooks are arguably stronger than anything Steppenwolf had released since Second. And since when has it become cool to praise 'Born To Be Wild' but bash an album with 'Ride With Me' on it? It's one of Steppenwolf's best rockers! Ever! Strong and punchy, with some really heavy chords and one of those starry-eyed, ecstatic build-ups that everybody says Steppenwolf were a master of. Or, well, not everybody. Everybody who's heard 'Born To Be Wild' and nothing else, but still considers himself to have a full right to make generalizations about Steppenwolf. (Admit it, you have heard at least a few people make generalizations about Steppenwolf without having heard anything but the Big Hit. Heck, I was one of those people once. Yeah, yeah, so sue me - we all grow and mature).

Anyway, what I've never considered Steppenwolf to be was a great fantastiwastic band, and setting my expectations to the "really okay" level, I say the band went out with a "more or less okay" record - not their best, but far, far from their worst. Now if only Mr Kay would have left it at that and retired from songwriting soon afterwards, or, like, perished in a bike accident or something, he'd have become a True Patented Rock Legend. Unfortunately (or, well, fortunately - I'm not really a blood-thirsty person, not at all), he didn't, and this led to at least two or three band reunions and more Steppenwolf records... although, to be frank, most of these are more likely to be Steppenjackal records. And For Ladies Only? I think that some gentlemen, at least, will get more kicks out of this album than your average lady. Not to be sexist or anything.



Year Of Release: 1974

Hmm, well, okay, forget the things I said about Steppenjackal and everything. This is a good record! Not any worse than whatever came before it, at least. After a couple solo flop albums Kay reunites the band (George Biondo on base! Gouldie McJohn on piano! Jerry Edmonton on drums! Bobby Cochran on guitar - have I forgotten anybody? Forgotten JOHN KAY! Yip-yip-yippie!) and gets on the old war horse, er, sorry, war wolf again. Obviously, he believed that people would buy a new Steppenwolf album. Obviously, he was wrong. Obviously, the only thing it tells us about is that John Kay wasn't as sharp and far-sighted as he would seem to some of the more rabid Steppenwolf fans.

What is not obvious here is that the final product was damn bad. On the contrary, it clicked with me right after the second listen, and though the click was not very loud - in fact, it was rather muffled, I think - it was effective. It's true, Kay's songwriting gift, scarce as it was, is rapidly flowing away, but at least he's democratic enough to let the other band members join in the fun; as a result, Slow Flux is a very democratic album. VERY democratic one - just about every band member gets to shine with a composition of his own, plus a few oldies' covers. When used in the plural, the results are mixed, when used in singular, the result is more or less satisfactory. So here's to the new look Steppenwolf!

The sound is big here, with lots of overdubbing, saxes and brass, keyboards and occasional synths, even talkbox guitars - but at least it all seems alive, none of the songs were butchered in the studio. Kay was probably wanting to start everything 'anew', which is why the album starts with a painfully obvious 'Born To Be Wild' throwback, 'Get Into The Wind'. However, for a painfully obvious throwback, this one isn't bad: a fast piece of boogie with a well-constructed refrain and driving organ solos. And guess what, it's short - just three minutes, the perfect length for a single. For some reason, though, it wasn't released a single, and that honour fell to the far less interesting 'Straight Shootin' Woman', which is slower, jazzier and way too pub-rock-oriented to make any kind of impression. And, well, pub-rock irrelevancy was the least needed thing at the time, particularly since America already had Lynyrd Skynyrd, who were able to do pub-rock playfully and creatively, without taking themselves so seriously.

Still, don't get me wrong: 'Straight Shootin' Woman' might be boring pub-rock, and a few other tracks don't make the grade either (the super-slow, tedious 'Justice Don't Be Slow' is a particularly low point), but as a whole, there's enough catchy well-performed rockers to make that darn grade. For once, these guys try again to demonstrate their toughness on songs like 'Gang War Blues', and it works, because, well, John Kay can be tough when he wants to - the Really Tough Guy, straight outta the Sixties! Was there a tougher guy than John Kay to come out of the Sixties? Nah! THEY WERE ALL WUSSES! 'Cept for Engelbert Humperdinck, of course. That one was a real bison of a man.

Songs like 'A Fool's Fantasy' and 'Fishin' In The Dark' have their little memorable riffs and that load of energy that wasn't always possible to find, although 'Fishin' In The Dark' could have been far better without the cheesy horns. And, of course, how can you find an album of a Sixties' survivor without a lament for the Woodstock nation and 'disillusionment' ('Children Of The Night')? And heck - corny as it might be, I still dig the naive country-blues of 'Smokey Factory Blues'. I mean, isn't that the kind of song that extols all the virtues of the genre so blatantly? How can your heart sit still when that guy goes '...and I think I'm going under/ With those way down low down/Smokey fact'ry blu-u-u-u-u-u-es...'. Isn't that, like, the perfect soundtrack to a frustrated working man's heart? If we all dig stuff like Cochran's 'Summertime Blues' so much, what's wrong with digging something a little bit slower?

I'm even somewhat attracted by the talkbox mockeries on 'Jeraboah', the album's most (and only) 'experimental' tune. The only truly serious problem is that I miss the trademark Steppenwolf ballads. John Kay as tough guy is good, but I'd also like a touch of John Kay as the sentimental guy. And 'Morning Blue', the only ballad on here, isn't exactly what I need - the chorus might be slightly 'uprising', but it's very artificial and strained, because the actual melody doesn't develop - hey, I can raise and lower my voice, too, but where are the goddamn hooks? In the shark's belly?

Still I don't really mind - not all that much. It's not like I seem to be losing sleep over that issue, and I doubt that the world could have changed for the better had John Kay bothered to write a stunning ballad for Slow Flux. Then again, the world is so much often ruled by coincidences and accidents that... who knows? In the meantime, I suggest any Steppenwolf lover go out and find this record, because it doesn't sound radically different from 'normal Steppenwolf'. Let's just assume the guys took a two-year break to clean up.



Year Of Release: 1975

Hoo boy... Man! Is this album ever boring! Slow Flux showed these guys still had a pair of strong fangs, but Hour Of The Wolf only flashes one rotten tooth after another. Out of the two prevailing vibes of the previous album - hard boogie and barroom midtempo rock - they seem to have voted unanimously for the second one, so the entire record sounds like a feeble Skynyrd parody or something. Saxes and watery organs completely overshadow any possibilities of grittiness on the part of the guitars, and the melodies are weaker than on your average Backstreet Boys hit single.

There's just nowhere to cling on to, get it? All of this stuff is totally perfunctory and I could count all the hooks on the album on a single hand, heck, on a single finger nail. When the best song on an album is the first one ('Caroline'), and that first one is only the best one because it endlessly repeats the refrain, and that refrain goes 'Oh Caroline, Caroline, are you ready for the outlaw world', you know you're in potential danger of a permanent brain damage. Worse, you know it from the very first minute that they will necessarily include a 'tough' mid-section with a 'tough' guitar solo, because otherwise the song would be too joyful and poppy to serve as album opener, and right you are, because that's what they do! And the world just became a bit gloomier and more senseless than before.

There ain't a single song on the album that would speak out to me - 'Caroline' is still way too redneckish (and unfunny at that) to be enjoyed, and the two ballads, instead of being romantic and tasteful, show Kay's slow descending into schmaltzy schlock: 'Just For Tonight' has John constantly backed by female vocalists, cliched, bland lyrics, and a general vocal delivery so corny, so contrived and generic, that I was nearly shocked; so far, ballad writing was one of Steppenwolf's main saving graces - few barroom/hardrock bands are able to pump out consistent high quality ballads, and Steppenwolf were one of the few lucky ones. Not any more. 'Just For Tonight' sucks, and the preachy, pompous countryish ditty 'Another's Lifetime' is little better. It's a typical example of the substance sucked out in favour of style.

As for the rockers, well... rockers my ass. I don't have anything against barroom rock as long as it's got hooks and doesn't take itself too seriously. Yeah, Skynyrd is perfect in that respect. But these rockers don't have hooks (and if they do - well, in that case everything has hooks, including Britney Spears and Music For Airports), and they're absolutely unfunny. That's a big problem for the band, actually: it took itelf way too seriously regardless of whether they were perfroming something worthwhile or playing absolute derivative, stupid crap. The last track on here, 'Mr Penny Pincher', apparently, is Steppenwolf's effort to go 'artsy' one more time, as the mid-section is entirely dedicated to lots of self-indulgent 'emotional' synthesizer solos. Goodbye Steppenwolf, welcome Kansas.

And maybe I'm wrong, but for some perverse reason I believe that if you write a song and name it 'Hard Rock Road', you should make it a hard rock song, which means adding a good gritty hard rock riff and not drowning the almost non-existent melody in cabaret pianos and generic female backup vocals. Or saxophones, for that matter. Or at least name it 'The Rock Road To The Bar'. Or 'It's A Hard Way To Tipperary'. Yeah, that's that, I think.

Finally, one last nail into the coffin: the only bit of 'experimentation' on the album is limited to ANOTHER use of the talkbox effect on 'Someone Told A Lie'. Only this time, unlike 'Jeraboah', the song simply goes nowhere by itself, and no weirdass guitar solos are going to save it.

In all, Hour Of The Wolf simply falls into the 'failed sequels' category. Apparently, any kind of inspired songwriting that the band members might have shown on the previous album was due to that two-year hiatus, but now it's obvious that the barrel had run completely dry once again. Much as I'm sceptical towards the band in general, this record is the first one in their catalog which simply has nothing to say. Not a single interesting, new, or entertaining thing. Too bad. Plus, I've wasted several hours of my life trying to get into it. Now this is a crime against humanity.



Year Of Release: 1976

Digging through all these Steppenwolf albums is more or less like a hobo digging through a trash can. That is, you gets - at random - two options: either you find completely unusable garbage, or you find usable garbage that is still garbage. Likewise, when you dig through Steppenwolf albums, what you find is either complete throwaways (Monster, Hour Of The Wolf) or stuff that's tolerable, but barely has a significant reason to exist due to being seriously cluttered with filler (For Ladies Only, Slow Flux). Compressing all those records into an intelligent hit compilation is about the only way to truly enjoy Steppenwolf - I mean, when you really listen to music and enjoy it, not just sit and stare and make yourself love at least some of the tracks even if your body urges you to go and put on some Skinny Puppy or Dead Can Dance instead. Whatever.

Skullduggery is the band's last offer before its second, and longest, breakdown - and again, it's a mixed bag, but not one of the worst records the guys had to offer. What you have here is a solid rocker, a couple hideous ballads, a bunch of catchy barroom-pop rockers, and an acceptable exercise at funk; it is thus obvious that Kay was aiming at a bit more diversity than usual, and tried to steer the band in a slightly new direction, even if it was already too late. Even more funny is the understanding that at this point, the band was doing pub-rock better than almost anything else: if you manage to disregard the abysmally banal lyrics of songs like 'Life Is A Gamble' (indeed) and 'Pass It On', they might come across as well-crafted chunks of catchy rootsy pop rather than evidence of the band being totally washed-up. Unfortunately, the lyrics are hard to overlook, mainly because the most memorable part of the songs are the repetitive choruses, and a chorus ain't memorable if you can't sing along. And I don't suppose anybody will want to sing along to lines like 'help your brother, don't be selfish, pass it on', etc., unless you're using the tune for a church revival ceremony.

That said, there's only one tune on here that I openly loathe - 'Rock And Roll Song'. Granted, after the shock of 'Hard Rock Road', I prepared myself to meet something like a slow blues or a samba, but generic country waltz? Gimme a break. I've heard billions of similar tunes, I don't need another one. So I'll just quote the lyrics of Mr Kay himself: 'Play me a rock'n'roll song, or don't play me no song at all'. In fact, this can be a motto fit to describe the entire career of the band! (Although, granted, I still think they had a nice ballad vibe going on... once).

The album opener and the album closer are inarguably the best tracks on here. Both of them draw heavily on funk influences, although the title track is still primarily a rocker, with the typical crunchy Steppenwolf "riffchords" and aggressive solos. There's still some kind of a dreadfully boring aura around the song, which I can't explain - I suppose it all stems from poor production and poor playing. Why is the damn organ so high in the mix? I could play these two chord organ riffs easily, shit, I want to hear the guitar. And I want to hear more than three chords. And I want an idiosyncratic guitar playing style. Shucks, I just want too much. Why don't I just shut up? This is a decent song.

The best on here is still 'Lip Service'. Funky and danceable, that's all it wants to be, and it is so. Nice phased and wah-wahed riffs intertwining with each other, obtrusive, but inoffensive synth landscapes coming in from time to time, it's the closest Steppenwolf ever got to disco, but if there is any difference between disco and funk, I'd still qualify 'Lip Service' as the latter rather than the former. In any case, the main riff wouldn't have hurt any respectable funker, so it's a plus. I wonder if it points a possibility of future development, though - I mean, had Steppenwolf continued in the same vein, could they have transformed into a 'harder' version of the Bee Gees or anything? Just imagine John Kay taking off his leather outfit and changing into polyester! Wouldn't that be cool?

Well, we never got to see that anyhoo. The three albums convinced Kay that the band was truly dead meat and that he couldn't seel any more records disguised as Steppenwolf than in his own guise, so after Skullduggery Steppenwolf was no more. For a grand total of six years.


Return to the main index page