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.

Steppenwolf has been labeled a heavy metal band, because they may or may not have coined the phrase. Steppenwolf proves otherwise. The boys in the band dish out a whole lotta sludge, but it’s not metal. And they’ve got range. Steppenwolf’s set list includes a Chuck Berry tribute, a mean Willie Dixon cover, a groovy blues about a chick who does the Baltimore jig, and a trio of tunes that bring the Doors to mind. Call ‘em psychedelic, call ‘em heavy even, but Black Sabbath they ain’t.

Let’s run down the songs. “Born to Be Wild” is a rip-roaring, chopped hog of a tune, but there ain’t a Harley in sight. Goldy McJohn’s Hammond organ’s right up front, Kay comes on like Canada’s answer to Jim Morrison, and here a fun fact for you–the wonderfully named Mars Bonfire (aka Dennis Edmonton) wrote it as a ballad.

“The Pusher”–which was written by Hoyt “Joy to the World” Axton–sounds a whole lot like Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Kay confesses he’s smoked a lot of grass and popped a lot of pills, but he’s never met a drug his spirit couldn’t killed. Junk, different story. He’s seen a lot of people walking around with tombstones in their eyes, and he damns the dealers who are responsible.

Protest song “The Ostrich,” which is not to be confused with the Primitive’s song about of an imaginary dance craze of the same name, boasts a Bo Diddley beat, one hellacious bottom, and Michael Monarch’s barb wire guitar. “Berry Rides Again” lacks the deft touch of the guy who inspired it, but charms nonetheless. Kay delivers shout-outs to his favorite Berry tunes, McJohn does his best Jimmie Johnson imitation, and Monarch’s guitar duck walks its way across the song.

“Desperation” is a slow-motion, organ-drenched blues. It opens on a Who-like note, Kay says never give up, and the rhythm section bangs you on the head like Cain did Abel. Steppenwolf’s cover of Willie Dixon’s makes me forget how tired I am of the damn song. The rhythm section booms and crashes, Monarch rips it up and tears it up, and there are moments when Kay sounds just like Captain Beefheart!

Three of the remaining tunes have Jim Morrison and Company’s fingerprints all over ‘em. “Take What You Need,” “Everybody’s Next One,” and “Your Walls Too High” could all be Doors outtakes. As for “A Girl I Know,” it opens on a frighteningly baroque note before going all pop psychedelia on ya. “Sookie Sookie” is a blues stomper on which Kay invites his girl to do the Baltimore Jig. He also warns her not to step on a banana peel. How she’s supposed to spot a banana peel while doing the Baltimore Jig, Kay doesn’t say.

Steppenwolf would go on to record a couple of very good LPs, but their debut remains my favorite. Ruston Moreve’s girlfriend was wrong about Los Angeles, but Steppenwolf’s one earthquake of an album. You can do the Baltimore Jig to it, you can do the Ostrich to it, you can strap a turntable to the back of your Harley and do wheelies to it. All of my Hells Angels friends give it their full endorsement. Or they would, if I had any Hells Angels friends. They’re some mean hombres. Me, I was born to be mild.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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