It's ironic that one of the groups most assosciated with shaping the American music scene for an entire generation actually hailed from Canada. The group's origins began as Jack London & The Sparrows, a mid 60s band hailing from Toronto. After London left following the band's only album in 1964, John Kay (real name Joachim Krauledat) joined. Now they were John Kay & The Sparrows, then simply The Sparrow. After a single that went nowhere, they briefly disbanded.
Now living in Los Angeles and having inked a deal with Dunhill ABC Records, Kay recruited two ex-Sparrows in the summer of '67, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton (real name Jerry McCrohan) along with 17-year old guitarist Michael Monarch and Rushton Moreve on bass. They named themselves Steppenwolf after Herman Hesse's popular novel at the time entitled "Der Steppenwolf."
They recorded the single "A Girl I Knew" backed with "The Ostrich" that same year, which was met mostly with indifference. Working with producer Gabriel Mekler, their self-titled debut was released in the spring of '68, a tougher sound rooted in rhythm & blues. The first single "Born To Be Wild," written by ex-Sparrow and Edmonton's brother Dennis (going by the name of Mars Bonfire) became an instant hit, and is credited as coining the phrase 'heavy metal.' Also on the record was the lead-off "Sookie Sookie" which became their second single, their cover of Hoyt Axton's anti-drug song "The Pusher," their cover of Willie Dixon's blues standard "Hoochie Coochie Man," and a re-release of their first two songs, "A Girl I Knew" and "The Ostrich." "Born To Be Wild" and "The Pusher" were both featured in the epitome of biker films, "Easy Rider" later that year. In the middle of 'flower power,' it's considered one of the most important records in rock history. And with a gold debut record to their name, Steppenwolf was on the map.
In the middle of a hectic tour schedule that saw them criss cross the continent, they squeezed in some studio time, and STEPPENWOLF THE SECOND was rushed out in October of '68. Yielding the band another Top 5 hit in "Magic Carpet Ride," the record was rounded out by 11 other tracks and stayed true to what was becoming their hard-edged sound - predominantly written by Kay, except Bonfire's "Faster Than The Speed of Life" and "28," written by Mekler, who co-wrote many of their songs previously and subsequently with Kay. Following the album's release, Moreve, was replaced by new bassist Nick St. Nicholas. Rumour had it that Moreve was convinced LA would be levelled by an earthquake, and therefore refused to go there. But in actuality, he was notorious for missing gigs. The band continued practically non-stop tours that took them into Europe for the first time, as well as making their first and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Their third record in barely a year and a half was on the shelves when AT YOUR BIRTHDAY PARTY came out in the summer of '69, peaking at number seven on Billboard's albums chart and certified gold soon after its release. Behind the support of "Rock Me Baby" which cracked the singles' top ten chart, "Jupiter's Child" and and "It's Never Too Late," the record showed a band maturing, with everyone in the band contributing to at least one song - and producer Mekler himself writing two on his own.
EARLY STEPPENWOLF, six tracks taped in San Fransisco two years earlier when they were The Sparrow came out before the end of 1969. Noteable is a version of "The Pusher" that takes up the entire second side of the album. In the middle of more constant touring, they finished off the '60s with MONSTER, which featured the band's debut by new guitarist Larry Byrom, who was still under contract with Liberty Records at the time, and Goldy McJohn, who took over keyboards. Amid the turbulent turn of the times, the record contained the controversial "Fag", sort of a diary of San Francisco's night life. Along with the title-track and "Draft Register", both political commentaries about the Viet Nam war, MONSTER was certified gold by the spring of 1970.
Hot on the record's release was the band's double length STEPPENWOLF LIVE that April. Recorded at various California venues on the MONSTER tour and peaked at #7 on Billboard's album chart, it also featured the studio single "Hey Lawdy Mama, which was released as a single and a prelude leading up to the album.
They returned with STEPPENWOLF SEVEN before the end of 1970. Featuring new producer Richard Podolar. Because St. Nicholas and Kay didn't get along, fuelled in part by St Nicholas' penchant for showing up for gigs drunk or high, and even at one time wearing a bunny suit on stage, he was replaced by new bassist George Biondo. Critics were less thrilled, and reception staggered. The record only reached #19 on the album chart, and two singles were released. "Who Needs Ya" cracked the top 40, but "Snow Blind Friend," another Hoyt Axton penned anti-drug themed song, failed to capitalize on the formula of "The Pusher," his first song for them, and failed to break the top 60. Other noteable tracks though included "Renegade," Kay's recounting of having to continually flee from aggressive armies in war-torn Germany.
With new guitarist Kent Henry, who replaced Byrom in mid-tour earlier that year, next up was FOR LADIES ONLY in November of '71, with Polodar again producing. Though it churned out two singles, neither the title track or "Ride With Me" broke new ground, and neither made Billboard's top 50 list. Sort of another political concept album in the vein of MONSTER two years earlier, the new record focused largely on feminist themese, but with several more conventional songs about romance as well, both unusual themes for the group. The fact that inside the gatefold sleeve the band was inside a penis shaped car didn't help them deny accusations of being sexist.
But after recording seven studio albums in less than five years, Kay and company were burned out from appearing on the marquee of every major festival for the last four years and touring with The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly and everyone else who was anyone. Add to that the declining record sales, and Kay announced the band's breakup on Valentine's Day 1972, the same day Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty declared the day "Steppenwolf Day."
It wasn't long before execs at Dunhill ABC capitalized on the band's name and started releasing compilation albums, first with REST IN PEACE, then GOLD, both with a couple of new tracks and both within only a few months of the band's demise.
While Kay was out doing a pair of solo records, and touring Europe as The John Kay Band with Steppenwolf also on the bill, with himself fronting both groups, another compilation album, FIVE FINGER DISCOUNT was released before the end of '72. 16 GREATEST HITS followed suit in the summer of '73. In perhaps the cheesiest of all marketing ploys, MCA Records then released 16 GREAT PERFORMANCES soon after, the same 16 tracks as its predecssor.
Now with Epic Records, Kay got back with Edmonton, McJohn, and Biondo, and recruited new guitarist Bobby Cochran ("Summertime Blues" Eddie Cochran's nephew) for 1974's SLOW FLUX. Still upset with what he perceived to be little interest in his solo work from Dunhill, Kay signed with Mums Records, a short-lived CBS subsidiary for American distribution. Only "Straight Shootin' Woman" was released as a single, peaking at #29 on Billboard's chart. The album failed to crack through the top 40, and the band didn't even tour to support it.
HOUR OF THE WOLF hit the shelves less than a year later with new keyboardist Andy Chapin, although McJohn is credited on the album. Kay himself actually only appeared on the songwriting credits of one track, "Someone Told A Lie." He did however dig up an old tape of one of Bonfire's songs, and "Caroline" (Are You Ready For The Outlaw World). But the mid '70s were a time of change, no longer a time of the rebellion that fuelled Steppenwolf's engines. Without decent support from their label and no real expansion of sound, HOTW was a complete disappointment critically and in the stores, stalling at #155.
Kay tried to disband the group, but Epic execs insisted he fulfill contractual obligations and release another album with the Steppenwolf name on it. Their second record in a row to fail to produce a hit was released the next year in SKULLDUGGERY, their last collaberation for Epic and featuring new keyboardist Wayne Cook. Kay wrote none of the songs on the album and the record failed to even chart. Soon after the record's release, Cook abandoned ship and joined Player.
REBORN TO BE WILD was released in '77, a compilation of the second stage of the group's career, therefore without any real hits. While Kay was off doing his solo thing again, he learned former members of Steppenwolf were touring under the band's name, much to his dismay. In fact, more than one version of the band was making its rounds on the bar circuit, and recordings were said to be ready to hit the store shelves. But years of squabbling over the use of the band's name ended in 1980 when Kay and Jerry Edmonton, who'd now traded in his drums for a camera, walked out of the courts victorious. Initially, Kay and Edmonton agreed to license the name to the others. The deal stated that McJohn and St. Nicholas would have to give up their Steppenwolf royalties forever in order to go forward. They both agreed, but the agreement was soon ripped up when after promised fees were not paid. Kay then took to the road in 1980 with a new lineup as John Kay & Steppenwolf.
From there, Kay met with David Pesnell about management, concert promotions and a new record. Pesnell incidentally was one of the people helping the faux-Steppenwolf charades only a couple of years earlier. Pesnell wanted to produce an album with the reformed Three Dog Night on one side, and Kay and company on the other, thus theoretically giving the album twice as many singles to fuel a tour of the two groups. Although parties from both groups appeared to like the idea in concept, it never materialized. Instead, Kay released LIVE IN LONDON in Australia on Mercury/PolyGram in '81, the first album billed as 'John Kay and Steppenwolf.'
Kay set up his own record label, Wolf Records, and released WOLF TRACKS on the Canadian and Australian markets in '82. Although the audience by now was mostly the same people but in smaller numbers, the niche was still there despite a changing musical landscape. Kay was older, wiser, and a little more reflective on tracks like "Time" and "Every Man For Himself," and critics found it a pleasant surprise, though it didn't translate to sales. The record also contained a reworking of "Five Finger Discount" and a cover of the Argent classic, "Hold Your Head Up".
1984's PARADOX reunited Kay with producer Richard Polodar, and originally only saw the light of day in Canada and Australia. With a new cast that included Kay's girlfriend Jackie DeShannon on backing vocals and co-writing most of the album, it featured "The Fixer," sort of a sequel to "The Pusher." But poor sales however forced Kay into the background until 1987's ROCK 'N ROLL REBELS. With a totally stripped down ensemble, it featured Kay producing with guitarist Rocket Ritchotte and bass/keyboardist Michael Wilk, along with drummer Ron Hurst.
Live gigs had become fewer and fewer over the last several years, and Kay again dropped out of sight to concentrate on a solo career until 1990's RISE AND SHINE on IRS Records, which featured a more politically conscious John Kay. "The Wall" celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and "Rock 'N Roll War", paid homage to war veterans. He followed that up with another compilation, BORN TO BE WILD - A RETROSPECTIVE, a four disc boxset, a year later. He also released a compilation of his work with The Sparrow in '93, then published his autobiography, "Magic Carpet Ride" the same year.
In 1994, Kay and company set out on a summer tour of Europe on the eve of the band's silver anniversary, which included his first trip back to his former home of eastern Germany. The resulting series of shows wound up as LIVE AT 25 a year later. Along with the expected top hits that fed a generation, it also included a few surprises, including their rendition of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On."
In '96, the band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the same year ROCK & ROLL REBELS was repackaged as FEED THE FIRE on Winter Harvest Records, simply with two new tracks, "Bad Attitude" and the title track. Nautilus Records teamed up with Attic in '98 to re-release RISE AND SHINE, this time with the bonus tracks scrapped in the initial sessions, "Lonely Dreamers" and "Now & Forever." From there, the flood gates had been opened, and almost every album in the Steppenwolf library was re-released, often packaged two at a time.
Kay released HERETICS AND PRIVATEERS as a solo record in 2001, but it wasn't long before he was using the Steppenwolf monikor again for touring purposes, which continues today, although more and more sporadically.