Amazingly, Steppenwolf’s classic, bluesy debut still holds up.
I’ve got my iTunes on shuffle, and a couple of minutes ago the song “The Pusher,” from the first Steppenwolf album, came up. It’s a Hoyt Axton song, but nonetheless, it’s a reminder that Steppenwolf’s debut album is a rock classic.
I might be partial because the album’s single, the still-rockin’ “Born to be Wild,” was the song that turned me on to rock ‘n’ roll—1968, it was, when I was 14. Before then, I spent my LP money on Bill Cosby comedy discs. My idea of good music was albums by Mason Williams—blame it on “Classical Gas.” And because I’m obsessive-compulsive, I had to have every Cosby disc and every Williams disc. I haven’t listened to Cosby since Steppenwolf grabbed my ears and launched me into the rock galaxy, but the Williams music I’ve revisited—once—is cringeworthy. The Steppenwolf album, though: That’s another story.
On its first album, Steppenwolf shows its roots as a blues band with songs like “Take What You Need,” “Berry Rides Again,” and “Sookie Sookie.” But with its cover of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Koochie (sic) Man,” Steppenwolf makes the song its own while staying true to Dixon’s mojo with John Kay’s gritty bluesman’s voice, the guitarist Michael Monarch’s blues chops, and Goldie McJohn’s heavily Leslie-fied organ.
The fifth album, curiously titled Steppenwolf 7, sounded great to my senior-in-high-school ears, but not so great a few years ago when I gave it another listen. The album, however, shows the band never strayed too far from the blues.
I never found their subsequent albums to be as strong as the first, despite hugely popular singles like “Magic Carpet Ride,” from the group’s second album, and “Rock Me” from the third album. Monster, the fourth album, was overtly political, with a nine-minute opening track about singer-songwriter Kay’s view of the state of the union (“Monster/Suicide/America”), followed by a song called “Draft Resister” (although it’s actually about a military deserter). Just as the music he wrote was always tinged with the blues, Kay’s songs frequently referred to current events and offered social commentary.
The inevitable personnel changes within the band were as turbulent as the times. It’s fair to speculate that drug abuse led to conflicts among band members and contributed to the comings and goings. The changes also might have had something to do with the brutal pace—probably contractually required—at which the band churned out albums: Steppenwolf, January 1968; Steppenwolf the Second, October of the same year; the third album, At Your Birthday Party, in March 1969; Monster, November of the same year; Steppenwolf 7, November 1970.
By contrast, Cream released four albums in four years. Led Zeppelin released its first two albums in one year, but then had a full year to release the third album and another year to turn out the fourth. Then again, the Jimi Hendrix Experience released three brilliant albums in a year and a half—a testament to Hendrix’s interstellar genius rather than a measuring bar for other bands.
As I wrote this, I played Steppenwolf’s first album in the background, just to make sure it still sounds fresh. It does, and it certainly deserves a place in your musical library along with the other classic albums of those times. After all, 46 years later, “Born to be Wild” still is a great effing song.