Steppenwolf have their origins in a Canadian band called The Sparrow, who released two singles in 1966 with little success. The Sparrow broke up in some acrimony but it wasn't long before constituent parts of it re-formed when an ABC Dunhill staff producer called Gabriel Mekler heard some tapes they had recorded and suggested to their guitarist/ vocalist John Kay that they make some demos. Sparrow guitarist Dennis Edmonton declined to participate in the reunion: he was recording an album of his own compositions, one of which was a song called 'Born To Be Wild'. However, Sparrow drummer Jerry Edmonton (his brother) and keyboardist Goldy McJohn were game. In addition, Kay took on teenage prodigy guitarist Michael Monarch and bassist Rushton Moreve.
The band started rehearsing in a garage beneath Kay's apartment. Kay remains convinced that the dark, distorted and menacing style the band emerged with was the result of the battered and borrowed equipment their impoverishment forced them to use at the time. That style was, by coincidence, similar to the music several different groups were making at the time: Led Zeppelin, The Jeff Beck Group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and, later, even the Beatles (the electric version of Revolution) were coming up with booming, distorted sounds never heard in rock up to this point.
That form of music was given a name by the lyric of 'Born To Be Wild which Kay and co decided to record after Edmonton (who wrote it under his new pseudonym of Mars Bonfire) dropped off a demo. Edmonton had been inspired by a motorcycle poster bearing the legend "BORN TO RIDE". The phrase he used to convey the sensation of riding a powerful motorcycle - "heavy metal thunder" - was recognised by music journalists as an equally apt description for this new style of distorted music and quickly passed into the language. However, Born To Be Wild was always bound to be remembered for more than providing a label.
Everything about it was perfect, from its intoxicatingly hedonistic sentiment to its soaring melody to its superb ensemble playing. A timeless classic, it became a number two US hit for the band in August 1968 under the name Steppenwolf. The name had been suggested by Mekler who had been impressed by Herman Hesse's celebrated novel of that title. The perception of the song - which climbed to number 30 in the UK the following year - as one which defined the free-spirited age was cemented when it appeared in the movie Easy Rider in 1969. However, Steppenwolf's eponymously titled debut album, released in January 1968 in the US and three months later in Britain, proved that they were more than a heavy metal band.
A Girl I Knew is a piece of vaguely psychedelic pop bookended by harpsichord playing that could not be a greater contrast to Born To Be Wild's growling guitar riffs. In addition, the band's cover of Willie Dixon's Hoochie Coochie Man underlined their blues roots, and Berry Rides Again saw them affectionately pastiching the style of one of the first rock and roll stars. The Pusher, meanwhile, illustrated how Kay had a perspective that was often very different from other radicals of the time: what other rock musician in the LSD-soaked year of 1968 would cover Hoyt Axton's emphatically anti-drugs culture composition? As someone who had had to risk his life at the age of four fleeing from East Germany to the West, Kay was always going to have a slightly different view of the world to North Americans who, while genuinely angry about societal iniquities, had only ever known privilege compared to the inhabitants of Kay's home country.
This propensity to think for himself would later lead Kay to do the unthinkable for a heavy rock band member when he wrote strongly feminist songs for Steppenwolf's 1971 album 'For Ladies On/y'. That, though, wouldn't have come as a surprise to those who concentrated on the lyric of Lost And Found, one of the highlights of the album 'Steppenwolf The Second', which appeared in the US a mere ten months after its predecessor. (Britain would have to wait until January 1969.)
by Sean Egan
1. Sookie Sookie (Don Covay, Steve Cropper) – 3:12
2. Everybody's Next One (John Kay, Gabriel Mekler) – 2:53
3. Berry Rides Again (John Kay) – 2:45
4. Hoochie Coochie Man (Willie Dixon) – 5:07
5. Born to Be Wild (Mars Bonfire) – 3:28
6. Your Wall's Too High (John Kay) – 5:40
7. Desperation (John Kay) – 5:45
8. The Pusher (Hoyt Axton) – 5:43
9. A Girl I Knew (Morgan Cavett, John Kay) – 2:39
10.Take What You Need (John Kay, Gabriel Mekler) – 3:28
11.The Ostrich" (John Kay) – 5:43
*John Kay - Guitars, Harmonica,Lead Vocals
*Rushton Moreve - Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
*Michael Monarch - Guitars, Backing Vocals
*Goldy McJohn - Hammond Organ, Piano, Electric Piano
*Jerry Edmonton - Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals
1968 John Kay and the Sparrow
1972 John Kay – Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes