Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
David Live

The most succinct review of David Bowie’s unspeakably mediocre live LP, 1974’s David Live, came from the mouth of Bowie’s long-time frenemy Mick Jagger. “If I got the kind of reviews that he got for that album,” quipped Bowie’s future “Dancin’ in the Streets” partner, “I would honestly never record again. Never.”

Recorded during Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs Tour at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby Philadelphia, David Live demonstrated just how much Bowie owed to guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson, who Bowie coldly dismissed (along with the other Spiders from Mars) as he reinvented himself as plastic soul man. Bowie would later say cattily, “There’s only so much you can do with that kind of band. I wanted no more to do with that loud thing. Hurt my ears.” No mention on his part how much David Live hurts mine.

The Diamond Dogs Tour was big on gimmickry but short on quality music. Amongst the massive stage props was a bridge that could be raised and lowered by remote control, and at a Montreal show the bridge collapsed Spinal Tap fashion, with Bowie–a confirmed acrophobic–on it. A dire omen perhaps–or proof that even inanimate objects saw fit to register a protest against Bowie’s insipid new sound.

David Live wilts in comparison to Live Santa Monica ‘72 and the July 1973 Hammersmith Odeon performance released in tandem with the 1983 film Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The latter was recorded only a year and a half before the pair of Tower Theater performances documented on David Live, but the contrast is sharp. Bowie and the Spiders delivered an electrifying show, kicking things off with a punk-speed “Hang on to Yourself” and a bone-crushing “Ziggy Stardust” before closing the show with a transcendental version of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Firm, The Firm

Talk about your corporate malfeasance. If I were on the board of directors of English stuporgroup The Firm I’d recommend bankruptcy.

A collaboration between legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rogers, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band drummer Chris Slade must have struck potential investors as an exciting IPO, but on their 1985 eponymous debut The Firm exhibited zero corporate synergy; instead of a shiny new product–a shiny new Jaguar, say–disappointed shareholders found themselves with a Bad Company Mach II on their hands.

And to compound their misery, Bad Company Mach II didn’t even live up to the standards of its predecessor. Not one of The Firm’s nine tracks measures up to such Bad Company Mach I classics as “Bad Company,” “Can’t Get Enough,” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Add to that the time factor; Straight Shooter was a quality deliverable in 1975; The Firm must have perplexed young listeners reared on punk, new wave and hair metal when it dropped 10 long years later. And even the old timers inclined to listen were disappointed by The Firm’s lack of anything new to bring to the party.

Split the blame between Rodgers and Page. The former’s wheelhouse is songwriting, but you can’t keep selling the same old song with only minor variations forever. Page, on the other hand, is chiefly notable for his absence–on such Bad Company Mach II numbers as “Together,” “Money Can’t Buy,” “Closer,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” and “Radioactive” he may as well be the Invisible Man.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rush, Fly By Night

Today we remember Neil Peart who passed away on Tuesday, January 7, 2020 with a look back from our archives via our resident in-house provocateur Michael H. Little.Ed.

I have hated Rush with a passion since the first time I heard Rush, or for 40 years, give or take a year or so. Rush exemplified everything I despised about rock: it was a show-offish band eager to demonstrate its sheer technical prowess and prog chops, fronted by a lead singer who screeched like a giant bird of prey. I reserved my greatest loathing for Geddy Lee, whose voice drove me nuts and whose bio I always felt should include a wingspread.

But recently I felt it incumbent upon me to give the Canadian power trio a second chance, probably because I’ve been so dead wrong about so many metal bands (e.g., AC/DC and Black Sabbath, to name just two) over the course of my long, strange career as a music critic. So I did something I’ve never done before: I listened to a Rush album in its entirety. I huffed Rush the band with the same avid dedication that I used to huff Rush the drug with my pal Dan “I’m Wasted Incorporeal!” Baker underneath the railroad bridge (now gone, alas) by the Littlestown Hardware and Foundry during the daily 9 a.m. coffee break, returning to the unspeakable tedium of my grinding machine with one walloping fandango of a skull-splitter.

And I’ll be damned; Rush isn’t half bad. Then again, Rush isn’t half good either. Let’s just say that Rush is better than I expected. Then again, I chose Fly By Night because it was recorded before the band started to devise 20-minute prog-epics with titles like “The Fountain of Lamneth,” and before lyricist Neil Peart’s hard-right turn towards science fiction and fantasy themes, to say nothing of the despicable objectivist philosophical notions of Ayn Rand. Such detestable subject matter—I’d sooner associate with Hirohito than a Hobbit, and that goes double for Ayn Rand—kept me at arm’s length from the band for eons, and I wasn’t sure I could give their later work a fair shake even now. When I hear the words “fantasy” or “science fiction” I reach for my Revolver—the Beatles’ LP, that is.

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Graded on a Curve: Sweathog,
Sweathog

Lookie here: This here reviewer wouldn’t be talking about this here album if this here band hadn’t come up with their name a good 4 years before Welcome Back Kotter made its television debut in 1975. Or if the band hadn’t slapped a salacious pair of ass cheeks on the front sleeve of its eponymous debut Sweathog, raising a lot of censorious eyebrows when it oinked its way into record stores back in 1971.

You’d think I have better ways to spend my time than reviewing LPs based on such trivialities. But you’d be wrong, so here goes: Sweathog was a San Fran band that scrapped the Bay Area’s prototypical hippie shuck and jive in favor of a slightly less MOR alternative to the likes of such corporate monopolies as Chicago, Three Dog Night, and Grand Funk Railroad.

Sweathog dished out a highly resistible hash of rock, funk, gospel, and misspelling (“Layed Back by the River”), and while you probably won’t want to actually listen to Sweathog much, its caboose of a cover will look simply fabulous on the wall of the basement you refuse to go into because you bought your house from the Smurls, the West Pittston, Pennsylvania family whose claims of a cellar poltergeist culminated in Papa Smurl’s claiming he’d been raped–twice–by a scaly she-crone with a young girl’s body and green gums. You can read all about his awful ordeal in 1986’s The Haunting.

Sweathog boasted a high-quality Three-Dog-throated vocal approach and the crack–but hardly innovative–musicianship of keyboardist (and lead singer) Lenny Lee Goldsmith, guitarist Robert Morris “B.J.” Jones, and drummer Barry “Frosty” Smith. But slews of other bands with less talent made a successful go of it, for the simple reason that they had a unique sound to hang their hippie headband on.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Ash,
No More, No Less

Blue Ash is the power pop group that got away. Hailing from the Buckeye State–that epicenter of power pop that also spawned the Raspberries–Blue Ash delivered the goods, but hardly anyone outside their limited Rust Belt state touring circuit took notice. Like Memphis, Tennessee’s Big Star, Blue Ash didn’t make much of an impression while they were around; unlike Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and Company, they’ve even been denied posthumous immortality.

Blue Ash only released two LPs (if you don’t count the 2004 compilation Around Again and 2015’s Hearts & Arrows), but it’s their debut, 1973’s No More, No Less that matters. Fellow Ohioan and Deadboy Stiv Bators was so taken with Blue Ash he recruited B.A. bassist and chief songwriter Frank Sesich to lend his formidable skills to his own power pop outing, 1980’s Disconnected. Take that Eric Carmen.

Blue Ash’s retro sound relied largely on power chord punch, Byrds-school jingle jangle guitars, and heavenly harmonies–the power pop formula, in short. The songs on No More, No Less push you around, bounce up and down, and are as romance friendly as power pop gets, but the boys in the band have more than girls on their minds; Pete Townshend homage “Smash My Guitar” is a real bang-up, and anticipates the bash’n’pop of the Replacements by a half-dozen years.

The LP includes a pair of covers, the big surprise being an amped up and vamped up reimagining of Bob Dylan’s folksy traveling carnival ode “Dusty Old Fairgrounds.” I kinda figured they covered it because Bobby name-drops Ohio, but upon close listening he doesn’t; Minnesota, North Dakota, Florida, Kansas and Michigan all get their props, but Ohio may as well be Hawaii. Less shocking is Blue Ash’s take on The Beatles’ “Anytime at All.” It retains that classic Lennon/McCartney flavor, but the boys have added some Raspberries crunch to the recipe.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bonzo Dog Band, Tadpoles

Today we remember Neil Innes who passed away on December 29, 2019 with a look back from our archives.Ed.

I am tempted to call The Bonzo Dog Band (or the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, take your pick) the greatest group in the history of rock. And this despite the fact that they only occasionally got around to playing what could be called a rock song. They were too far too busy cracking themselves up with their hilarious, brilliantly surreal, and utterly deranged wit. If Monty Python had turned to music full-time, they might—although I honestly doubt it—have been as funny as The Bonzo Dog Band.

The genre-hopping mobile insane asylum that was The Bonzo Dog Band might throw anything at you: trad jazz, oldies covers, bizarre street interviews with perplexed normals, and parodies, heaps of parodies—of thirties songs, music hall songs, fifties songs, blues songs, hard-rock songs, psychedelic songs—you name it. And they were excellent musicians—when they wanted to be—with a genius for arranging songs. Your average Bonzo tune may sound anarchic, but you can be certain it was put together with an exacting eye for detail, and every detail is in its right place.

There’s really no one to compare The Bonzo Dog Band with except Frank Zappa, and the comparison is a poor one. Zappa’s humor was sneering and juvenile; his Brit counterparts favored an intelligent and good-natured Dadaism. Just check out “The Intro and the Outro,” a parody of a band introduction that grows stranger and stranger as it goes on, with the announcer snazzily saying, “And looking very relaxed on vibes, Adolf Hitler… niiiice” and “Representing the flower people, Quasimodo, on bells.” No yellow snow here.

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Graded on a Curve:
Brian Eno,
Discreet Music

1975’s Discreet Music, Brian Eno’s first foray into ambient music, always reminds me of the Rodney Yee yoga videos my ex-wife used to play. Ten minutes of the insipid music playing behind Yee’s insufferably zen calm voice, and I was ready to assume Destroy Television Pose.

Asked about Discreet Music a while back, my pal William Honeycutt said astutely, “It’s music for when you don’t want to listen to music.” That said, it’s the perfect musical accompaniment to a coma. And I’ll bet it sounds great when you’re listening to another album at higher volume. Discreet Music can hardly be accused of drawing attention to itself; it’s too busy oozing silently into the aether without your noticing.

Discreet Music falls into the fine tradition established by Erik Satie, the French father of “furniture music.” Satie was known to carry a hammer wherever he went, and I can only assume its function was to ward off the attacks of discerning citizens outraged by his monotonous Ogives, Sarabandes, Gnossienes, and Gymnopédies. Satie also refused to talk while eating, out of fear of strangling. He should probably have worried more about his dinner companions taking his garroting into their own hands.

The title track makes up side A. It goes on for 30-plus minutes and is designed to turn your brain into rice pudding. To say nothing happens is an overstatement; it’s akin to listening to a jacuzzi, and I avoid jacuzzis because you never know who’s peed in them.

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Graded on a Curve:
Various Artists,
God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen

There are a gazillion holiday albums out there; everybody from Perry Como to Bob Dylan has put one out. Hell, you can even find my holiday-themed 1977 release, Some Nobody Butchers Your Favorite Christmas Carols, on eBay. It’s not bad, if you speak esperanto.

Most holiday LPs are designed to scratch a particular musical itch, and so it goes with 1981’s God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen. It’s probably not your cup of bebop if you don’t much care for America’s classical music, but it’ll make the perfect stocking stuffer for that loved one whose tastes run to jazzed-up interpretations of their favorite Christmas songs.

The artists on God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen include such legends as tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, pianist and John Coltrane Quartet sideman McCoy Tyner, alto saxophonist extraordinaire Arthur Blythe, trumpeter Wyinton Marsalis and more. And its songs include “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and that one with the chestnuts roasting on an open fire whose title I can never remember, amongst others.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and will make for the perfect mood music as you try in vain to put out the house fire caused by roasting said chestnuts in said open fire. And it’s an instrumentals only LP, which means there are no vocals to remind you’ve gone your whole life listening to these songs and still don’t know the words. But so what if you don’t know ‘em? I prefer to scat along like Shooby Taylor, that is until a beloved family member knocks me for a loop with a turkey leg.

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Roxy: Tonight’s the
Night Live

When the legendary LA Roxy Theatre opened its doors on July 20, 1973, it was another legend who greeted the club’s first customers. Neil Young, who was then, as he put it, down in the ditch in the wake of the drug-related deaths of two close friends, played a triumphant bummer of a set with a band calling themselves the Stray Gators. And at long last the show (or three of them actually) are available on vinyl in the form of 2018’s Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live.

The studio versions of the songs Neil plays on the live disc wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, but Young more or less runs through them all here, omitting only “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (which was actually recorded live at the Fillmore East in 1970 with Crazy Horse guitarist and drug casualty and Danny Whitten and adding “Walk On” from 1974’s On the Beach.

On both the live and studio LPs Young sounds like a man trying to come to terms with the anguish he was feeling after the drug-related deaths of both Whitten and roadie pal Bruce Berry. Don’t let the Vegas-style stage patter Young engages in between songs on Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live fool you; Young was one hurting individual.

And it wasn’t just Neil who was feeling gloomy; America’s youth were suffering a collective bring down from the loss of the idealism that marked the psychedelic sixties. On both LPs Young puts paid to the crystal visions of the Age of Aquarius, and channels the pain and disillusionment of a generation of innocents ravaged by hard drugs, Altamont, and the Manson family.

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Graded on a Curve:
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes,
I Don’t Want to Go Home

Sportscaster and Boring Guy Bob Hamilton: Welcome to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, where we’re getting ready for the New Jersey Championship bout between Bruce Springsteen and “Southside Johnny” Lyons.

Sportscaster and color man Bob “Bazooka” Frills : Look at that crowd. You can practically smell the blood. Smart money says this one’s gonna be the biggest blowout since the Boss KO’d Jon Bon Jovi.

A microphone is lowered to a stage announcer in cheap Vegas tuxedo: In this corner we have Asbury Park World Champion belt holder Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen! (Wild chants of “Bruuu-zer! Bruuu-zer!”) And in this corner we have perpetual Asbury Park runner-up and “Grandfather of the Jersey Sound,” Southside Johnny! (Smattering of polite applause, cry of “Loser!”).

Bob Hamilton: Before the bell rings for Round One, let’s talk a bit about this face-off.

Bazooka Frills: Springsteen’s a straight-up brawler. He’s got a terrific right hook and always goes for the kill. Awhile back he decked Bobby “Hurricane” Dylan with a savage punch to the throat, and the poor guy hasn’t sounded the same since. Southside Johnny, on the other hand, punches like David Bowie having a hissy fit. And he’s a notorious bleeder. I see a TKO, first round.

Bob Hamilton: There’s no denying Southside Johnny’s the underdog here, but I wouldn’t write him off. His highly regarded 1976 debut, I Don’t Want to Go Home, was damn good. It proved he sure knows how to start a party. On the other hand, he’s spent his entire career in the shadow of the Boss.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Seger and the
Silver Bullet Band,
Night Moves

Through no fault of his own—or maybe it is his fault, I don’t know—Bob Seger has never gotten any respect. He’s the Rodney Dangerfield of rock, and this despite the fact that he’s written his fair share of memorable, and even great, songs. He’s always been the consummate journeyman—someone you might go to see, but without being totally psyched about it—but in the bicentennial year of 1976 he rose above his station to produce two very, very good LPs, Night Moves and Live Bullet.

The former included a couple of instant standards, while the latter made a convincing argument that seeing him live might just be a better bet than you think. I’ve liked him since I first listened to my older brother’s copy of Live Bullet way back in 1976, and I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for him, this despite the fact that he’s the force of evil who bequeathed us such awful songs as “Like a Rock,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and the dreadful “Old Time Rock and Roll,” which to his credit he didn’t write but still recorded, which probably merits the electric chair. Why he even helped the Eagles write “Heartache Tonight,” a song that deserves to be burned at the stake.

But I forgive him, because he’s also given us such great tunes as “Get Out of Denver,” “Turn the Page,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Looking Back,” “Katmandu,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” “Night Moves,” and “2 + 2 = ?” And his version of “Nutbush City Limits” is almost as good as Tina Turner’s. As much a product of Detroit as the trucks he’s helped to sell via the suckass “Like a Rock,” Seger played in or founded a number of bands—the most notable being The Bob Seger System—without achieving much more than regional success before forming the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. Live Bullet finally propelled him to national stardom, and Night Moves solidified his status as a player in the big leagues.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sitar Metal,
Sitar Metal

Metalheads! Forget about what the famed English poet Robert “Percy Bysshe” Plant wrote in the second line of the third stanza of his magnum opus, “Stairway to Heaven”–look to the East, from whence cometh the universe’s first ever sitar-fronted metal band!

They’re called Sitar Metal, and on their eponymous 2019 debut LP frontman and sitar virtuoso Rishabh Seen–who’s been playing the instrument since he was 5 years old–and company make like Ravi Shankar backed by Metallica.

Sitar Metal is a revelation, and the fastest way to unclog your third eye this side of Drano. Seen’s the lotus position’s answer to Jimi Hendrix, while the band behind him–bassist Tushar Khurana, guitarist Deeparshi, and drummer Damian Rodrigues–provide the heavy metal thunder.

Seen’s a fourth-generation sitar player, and I can only wonder what his great-grandfather would have made of Sitar Metal–as an embodiment of Shiva the Destroyer, most likely. Its songs stop and start, proceed at a gallop, segue into meditative mode, and explode into enthralling climaxes; Seen often starts them off in solo mode, and it’s a shock to the chakras when the band comes storm-trooping in.

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Graded on a Curve:
Burt Bacharach,
Reach Out

Burt Bacharach is an evil man. Oh, I know the King of Smooth is a musical legend, and has undergone a renaissance of late–he’s collaborated with the likes of Elvis Costello, Adele, and Sheryl Crow, and even performed at the Glastonbury Festival in 2015. Bacharach chic is the order of the day, and who am I to question the likes of Elvis Costello?

But Bacharach–with the help of my own mother no less–laid waste to my tender years. She liked to pop the 8-track version of this instrumental 1967 monstrosity into its slot in the living room stereo and go about her housework. No skin off the asses of we kids, you’d think; we were safely out of its blast zone, pledging allegiance to the flag.

Unfortunately, there were those days when we were home with the flu, chicken pox, malaria, necrotizing fasciitis, or traumatic limb amputation. And while we lay helplessly supine on the living room sofa mom would sadistically play it over and over again, torturing us like involuntary participants in a sinister medical experiment. Like General George S. Patton she viewed all forms of physical or mental illness as malingering, and considered Reach Out a harsh but appropriate punishment. And it worked; one day of nonstop listening and we would hasten back to school, rickets, appendicitis, or bubonic plague notwithstanding.

We all know these songs; they stick with you like bubblegum beneath an elementary school desk. They’re part of our collective unconscious, imprinted in our DNA, and we’re destined to carry them across the River Styx into the underworld. Many of them were written in collaboration with co-conspirator and fellow traveler Hal David and sung by Dionne Warwick, and it’s the Warwick versions we all love. Is there anyone who doesn’t know her sublimely soulless versions of “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Reach Out for Me,” “Walk on By,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” by heart?

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Secret Treaties

So what do we have here? An album by a band that purports to be heavy metal but isn’t, lyrics by Patti Smith, famed rock crit Richard Meltzer and producer/manager/svengali Sandy Perlman, songs about a famous Nazi jet, cagey cretins, a guy who gets high on human eyeballs, dominance & submission and other everyday topics, and a vocalist/guitarist so cool the Minuteman named dropped him in a song. No wonder a Melody Maker critics’ poll declared it “the Top Rock Album of All Time.” Not band for a bunch of Long Island boys.

BOC began their career as Soft White Underbelly, changed their name to Oaxaca and then to the Stalk-Forrest Group before being signed to Columbia Records by Clive Davis. Pearlman saw BOC as America’s answer to Black Sabbath, which was kinda like declaring the Doobie Brothers America’s answer to Led Zeppelin. A lot of my badass pig farmer pals thought BOC were psychopomps sent to guide them to the underworld; in reality they were the kinds of well-mannered boys who would carry granny’s grocery bags up the stairs. Their “career of evil” most likely consisted of forgetting to pay a couple of parking tickets.

Metal these guys ain’t. Sabbath’s “Iron Man” crushes anything BOC ever recorded, Tokyo menace “Godzilla” (BOC’s least representative tune) aside. Secret Treaties’s less GTO than finely tuned sports car. It places a premium on speed and turning power. The LP’s sound is streamlined and clean, and there’s no muffler noise. It wouldn’t be stretching a comparison too far to say BOC have more in common with Bon Jovi.

No surprise, then, that my least favorite tune on the album is the lumbering “Subhuman.” That said, the lyrics are tres cool: “Left to die by two good friends” recaps their debut’s “Then Came the Last Days of May,” in which three “three good buddies” get offed in a dope burn. Better is the slow-paced “Astronomy,” which works thanks to Allen Lanier’s piano and a Van Halen-like “Hey! Hey! Hey!” chorus. Pearlman’s lyrics (sample couplet “In hellish glare and inference/The other one’s a duplicate”) don’t make a lick of sense to me, but then again, T.S. Eliot I ain’t.

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Graded on a Curve: Steppenwolf, Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf’s most excellent eponymous 1968 LP is one helluva debut. If it were a waif, I would take it in, buy it lots of cool video games, and send it to Yale. Hopefully it would provide for me in my old age.

Even your pet goldfish knows Steppenwolf derived its name from Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel of the same name. But your goldfish is wrong. In an exclusive 2018 interview with yours truly, Steppenwolf lead singer John Kay confessed he actually took the name from CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer. Said Kay, “Wolf lived next door and I can tell you with absolute certainty he’s a werewolf. On full moons he used to chase rabbits across my backyard on all fours, howling. The next night he’d be back on CNN, looking his normal self. But if you looked closely, you could see flecks of blood in his hair.”

Steppenwolf’s origins can be traced to the Toronto band the Sparrows. In 1967 by Kay and two other members of the Sparrows relocated to Los Angeles, changed their name, and recruited two additional members, one of whom would later be handed his walking papers after–wait for it–his girlfriend convinced him to avoid LA because it was going to be leveled by an earthquake and fall into the sea. Hasn’t happened yet, but better safe than sorry.

Steppenwolf and Kay–who is legally blind, but not probing stick, seeing-eye dog, Jose Feliciano blind–came out of the starting gate running. Steppenwolf spawned two immortal songs, the best known of which has become the official anthem of outlaw motorcycle gang everywhere. The LP’s other songs aren’t as well known, but they all kick ass and take surnames.

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