At different times in my life, Steppenwolf has been one of my all-time favorite bands, though for some reason they weren’t a big influence on my music, so I didn’t always list them as such. But these cats were vitally important in my adolescence as hard-rocking, politically savy role models!
Of course, everyone in the universe is aware of the awesomeness of “Born To Be Wild”, their first hit. A million bands have covered this song a million different ways and it is always wild! But this is far, far from their only stab at greatness.
This compilation of course doesn’t have everything that John Kay & company did over their prolific career, and a couple of album cuts that I love are missing, but it is a damn good overview.
“Sookie Sookie” is an R’n’B-styled groove-shaker that I’m amazed hasn’t been covered by some of the current crop of bands, such as Mooney Suzuki or Wolfmother. One of their best and loved by teenagers who would sing along “suck me, suck me, suck me, sue!”
The Steppenwolf re-working of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher” is one of their best known songs, most likely due to the inclusion in the intro of Easy Rider. Fantastically evil sounding and again, teens could relate to the message that it was ok to get high, but just don’t get hooked on the hard stuff. Of course, this was another song that we would blare at our annoying, square neighbors so that they could be offended by “GOD DAMN, the pusher man”!
Some of the album cuts are songs that even I am not extremely familiar with, such as “The Ostrich”, which is as memorable as many of their hits.
But then comes “Magic Carpet Ride”! Wow! What a ride! Dominated by Gold McJohn’s rhythmic organ (hit would look like he was slapping the keyboard as he played), this song has a wild, almost off-beat (but super catchy) cadence, a psychedelic solo section and a chorus that is almost impossible to get out of your head (not that you’d want to)! Another superb hit!
A “number” that didn’t become a hit for obvious reasons is “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam”, a very cool call-and-answer pro-pot swagger. Lyrics such as “it’s evil, wicked, mean and nasty / don’t step on the grass sam / it will ruin our fair country / don’t be such an ass sam / it will hook your sue and Johnny / you’re so full of bull sam / … please give up, you’ve already lost the fight” were damn near a call to arms to the smokers – and who wasn’t one back then? (The ending is damn funny, as well!)
“Tighten Up Your Wig” goes back to their days in Canada as Sparrow – this is pretty much note-for-note the same arrangement as appears on the bootleg recording of the earlier band. Another great lyric “just before we go I’d like to mention Junior Wells – we stole this thing from him and he from someone else”!
More rock grooves appear in “It’s Never Too Late”, “Jupiter’s Child”, and “Rock Me”, all of which would easily fit in with current sets of bands like the Hellacopters, Thunder Express, Monster Magnet, Wolfmother, etc.
One of their most political songs is “Monster/Suicide/America”, a mini-history lesson which tells us how little we have learned over the years, and unfortunately, this is at least as relevant today as it was when Kay wrote it in the 60’s. Because of its relevancy, this is one song that I always meant to cover and never managed to. It is a great song, as well as a great statement – every word is painfully poignant still, but ends with a rallying call: “America, where are you now, don’t you care about your sons and daughters? Don’t you know we need you now, we can’t fight alone against the monster.”
Disc 2 starts out with “Move Over”, which is basically a part two to “Monster” with lyrics such as “yesterday’s glory won’t help us today / you ought to retire, get out of the way” and “the country needs a father, not an uncle or big brother”. Again, they fit this into a rockin’ tune – they don’t sacrifice the song for the sake of the message.
Another cut that you can’t help but know is “Hey Lawdy Mama” – another justifiable hit! These guys really knew how to write catchy r’n’r songs!
Unfortunately, towards the end of the band, some of the songwriting started to suffer and while they are some more terrific tunes on this second disc, you can see the quality declining. But, besides the above-mentioned songs, there are greats such as “Screaming Night Hog”, “For Ladies Only” and “Ride With Me”.
The CD ends with a few John Kay solo cuts – his version of Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On” is most successful – sounds almost like Steppenwolf! I could live without the take on “Drift Away”, which I never cared for in the first place and John doesn’t improve on it.
Overall, another super compilation and a perfect starting point for someone who is just getting into the band, or just a good CD for those – again, like me – who don’t always want to pull out their old records! Once again, while all of their 60’s and 70’s albums are highly recommended this is good for the hits!