January 10, 2022

Don’t go in expecting seven discs of Born To Be Wild riffery and ‘heavy metal thunder’, as that is somewhat misleading – but open your ears to some prime turn-of-the-’70s hard rock and this will indeed be a magic carpet ride. Take a trip now.

With a few of these vintage bands which have had their output collected together in recent times, there can be a tendency for the immediate reaction from the man in the street to be ‘Oh yes, the guys who did…’ (insert obvious hit here). While we aren’t on quite the level of Iron Butterfly with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida here, Born To Be Wild isn’t going to rub shoulders with any more than maybe Magic Carpet Ride and The Pusher in the public consciousness. And as is normally the case, that’s a grave disservice, as this bumper eight disc set amply illustrates. No, this isn’t a box full of eight classics, but there is much more excellent material here than you might think. So, try to stop that riff and the words ‘Get your motor runnin’…’) out of your head, where they have undoubtedly now taken up residence, and let’s take a carpet ride through the years between 1967 and 1971, after which the original band first split up…

It also must be added that Steppenwolf is such an indisputably, downright cool band name that expectations are raised from the off. Taken from the Hermann Hesse novel (which gains ‘hip points’ right off the bat), and conjuring up images of stalking menace, it is in fact merely the German word for the Prairie Wolf, or Coyote – and Coyote as a band name really wouldn’t have the same ring to it, would it? Still, I digress. The band originally started life under the distinctly more feeble name of The Sparrows (Coyote isn’t sounding so bad now, huh?), before rebranding themselves as Steppenwolf in late 1967. Their first, self-titled album arrived in January 1968, to considerable success. Much of that acclaim obviously came from THAT song, though it is interesting that Born To Be Wild was only the third single to be released from the album, and in fact was almost left off the tracklist altogether! Amazing how often that happens, as Thin Lizzy almost made the same catastrophic mistake some eight years later with The Boys Are Back In Town. Nevertheless, when it was released it caught the public’s imagination, though really only hit the omnipresent heights when it later featured prominently in the film Easy Rider. It’s still a classic, for all its over-familiarity, and of course introduced the words ‘heavy metal’ into the musical lexicon – although the ‘heavy metal thunder’ of the track referred to a motorcycle rather than anything riff-related.

There’s plenty more to like on the album, however, which for the most part has worn remarkably well. The first single, Sookie Sookie is a powerful song let down only by a hopeless chorus, but elsewhere are clear winners. Their version of Hoyt Axton’s The Pusher is utterly definitive, and most people assume it to be a Steppenwolf original, such is the commanding vitriol that vocalist and main ‘Wolf man John Kay directs against the ‘pusher’ of the title (as opposed to ‘the dealer’, who is portrayed as a benevolent provider of sweet dreams, in an interesting early distinction between Class A drugs and more ‘recreational’ pursuits). In fact , it is rather interesting to note that, not only are that song and Sookie Sookie both cover versions, but technically so is Born To Be Wild, which was written by the marvellously named Mars Bonfire, lead guitarist with The Sparrows who departed before the name change, and wrote the song after he left the band. The closing two songs, Take What You Need and the political and social commentary of The Ostrich (as in the head in the sand imagery) are other clear highlights on an album which only has a couple of weak moments – namely an uninspired plod through Hootchie Kootchie Man and the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time Chuck Berry pastiche of Berry Rides Again (which he frankly shouldn’t have). There are eight mono single versions tacked onto end, which seem like a waste of disc space – but hold on! In fact, these sound significantly more powerful than the stereo album mixes, in an extremely surprising way – most notably Born To Be Wild, which really does get your motor running. Very unexpected bonus indeed.

We continue with the follow-up, in October of the same year; the imaginatively titled The Second, which is often spoken of as the band’s most accomplished album. It isn’t, but nonetheless still contains plenty of great material. Magic Carpet Ride is the most well known track here by some distance of course – and is another which sounds immeasurably better on the powerful single edit added as a bonus – though this is foiled by the editing out of most of the excellent instrumental section from the album version. A mono edit of the whole thing would have been a thing of magnificence for sure. The pro-marijuana song Don’t Step On The Grass, Sam is the other high point here, with an incredibly infectious chorus. Allegedly, the Sam in the title referred to a particularly anti-dope politician rather than the Uncle Sam nickname for America, but if true that did not prevent Kay from dedicating the song to ‘Uncle Sam’ in live performances! The album closes with a sort of ‘song cycle’ of five tracks running together, which – coming right after Magic Carpet Ride – gives the album an effective finish. Less impressive is some of the material on the old first side, most notably Spiritual Fantasy and the overwhelmingly hopeless Tighten Up Your Wig, but overall it’s two very creditable albums within nine months.

The first of two 1969 studio albums, At Your Birthday Party, is regularly singled out as a weak entry in the catalogue, and it’s hard to argue with that overall. There were inter-band stresses at the time, with Kay almost quitting, and as a result the writing is spread more evenly between the band members – a tactic which similarly sunk Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Mardi Gras album. Nevertheless, among such space-filling fluff as Chicken Wolf, Lovely Meter, Cat Killer and Mango Juice lies some strong material (largely from Kay, at least as co-writer). It’s Never Too Late is magnificent, while Rock Me, Don’t Cry and She’ll Be Better can all hold their heads up. This was followed four months later in July by the slightly disingenuous release of the live Early Steppenwolf – which in fact was nothing of the sort, being a May 1967 recording of The Sparrows – but it’s interesting for the appearance of the aforementioned Mars Bonfire on impressive lead guitar. It’s less interesting for another appearance of Tighten Up Your Wig, which is only marginally better than the studio abomination, but the rest of the first side of the recording actually demonstrates an excellent emerging blues-rock band playing with power and precision. This is unfortunately undone by the second half of the album which consists entirely of what purports to be a 21-minute rendition of The Pusher. Don’t get as excited as I did, however, as the disappointment is cruel when the track reveals itself to be largely a completely avant-garde (read ‘tuneless’) improvisation by five self-confessed stoned musicians playing to an equally stoned and indiscriminatory audience. Essentially, I would describe the whole piece like this: if you imagine the old saying of an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters eventually producing Shakespeare applied to music, this is what that discovery would sound like, with the preceding 13 minutes of them bashing away at the instruments left in for good measure. The actual seven or eight minutes when the piece coalesces into actual musical form and morphs into The Pusher is quite reasonable (though nowhere near the studio recording), but one wonders why it wasn’t edited down, as surely there must have been other usable recordings from the show. Still, as a curio, it has historical value for sure, and the first side is pretty good.

Much, much better was the November release of what I would deem the band’s finest studio album, the overtly political Monster, which tapped into the ongoing Vietnam zeitgeist with undisguised revolutionary zeal. The opening nine-minute multi-part title track (under the full title of Monster-Suicide-America) is arguably the band’s high water mark, hitting the bullseye in both musical and powerfully earnest lyrical terms. Straight after that, to hammer the album’s agenda home, comes the overtly anti-war Draft Resister, which lauds those who they deem as heroes fighting for sanity, and rails against their unfair imprisonment. Even if you don’t agree with the sentiment (as clearly some will not, and certainly would not have in the powder keg atmosphere of 1968) it is a powerful and heartfelt appeal for peace in a world bent on its own destruction. Power Play and Move Over are also strong, as are the closers What Would You Do (If I Did That To You) and From Here To There Eventually, with the oddly-titled instrumental Fag being slightly inconsequential but still not poor by any means. It’s a great album, and a political statement which the band never went as far with again.

April 1969 saw this followed up with the double album Steppenwolf Live (here fitted onto a single disc), and it’s an absolute cracker, almost from start to finish. It’s bolstered by two studio tracks to make up the length, but apart from that it features four choice selections from Monster (including the title track and Draft Resister), as well as great renditions of Sookie Sookie, Don’t Step On The Grass Sam, The Pusher, Magic Carpet Ride and, of course, Born To Be Wild. For its time the sound quality and energy level is astounding, and it makes a good case to be the definitive Steppenwolf recording – even if it is let down by another appearance of the hideous Tighten Up Your Wig, though happily the best rendition of it.

1970 brought us the next studio album, Steppenwolf 7, but it is an album which is largely as uninspired as its title. It has its moments, such as Snow Blind Friend and the surprisingly good closer Hippo Stomp, but elsewhere it is hamstrung by second division material. The bizarrely-titled Earschplittenloudenboomer, incidentally, sounds nothing like its intriguing name, being a curiously subdued horn-driven instrumental, which is neither loud, booming nor ear-schplitting. There is a non-album track with the inspired title of Screaming Night Hog, but this also is sadly underwhelming. If you call a song Screaming Night Hog, it has to be awesome. It think that’s written down somewhere. Treason, or something I believe…

However, surprisingly, the band bounced right back with the 1971 album For Ladies Only, which again features a nine-minute title track, this time fusing elements of blues and prog rock into the heavy mixture, and it’s a triumph. The album doesn’t have an outright dud to be seen, despite a 45-minute running time, and songs like I’m Asking, Sparkle Eyes, Tenderness, Black Pit and the superb Ride With Me are as strong as they ever did. Even the bizarrely-titled Jaded Strumpet manages to succeed! It’s a close thing between this one and Monster for the band’s finest hour to these ears, and a wholly unexpected return to form after the tired-sounding predecessor. There is a bonus track here entitled For Madmen Only, but that is an appropriate name for a nine-minute avant-garde sound experiment which only the deranged will listen to more than once. I listened to it all, and I can perform a public service by announcing that you can safely skip over it, as it doesn’t improve!

Sadly, the band broke up a year or two later and, although Kay reformed Steppenwolf in 1974 for the strong releases Hour Of The Wolf and Slow Flux, this collection ends with 1971. The visual presentation of the set has to be notably highlighted, as the mini-replica individual album sleeves – including the original gatefolds – are marvellous, while the thick and detailed 52-page booklet is accompanied by a poster with a collage of contemporary press clippings. I had only heard three of these seven albums before, along with a ‘Greatest Hits’ package, and the whole set has been a welcome education for me – not least in underlining just what a great vocalist and frontman John Kay was and is. For anyone who only knows the big hits, this will be even more true. Don’t go in expecting seven discs of Born To Be Wild riffery and ‘heavy metal thunder’, as that is somewhat misleading – but open your ears to some prime turn-of-the-’70s hard rock and this will indeed be a magic carpet ride. Take a trip now.