By Lee Zimmerman
Some songs become anthems for their time. Others become anthems for all time. “Born To Be Wild,” as originally recorded by Steppenwolf, belongs with the latter. An enduring period piece, it’s graced dozens of film and television scores (over 100 at last count), innumerable compilations and the set lists conceived by countless cover bands as well. Few other songs have come as close to penetrating the collective cultural consciousness as it has over the past 50 years.
Naturally, it’s still a tremendous source of pride for John Kay, the impenetrably sun-shaded, gritty-voiced leader of that venerable ensemble, and these days, its sole surviving active member, mainstay and keeper of the band’s legacy. It brought the band its first major claim to fame, and inevitably kept its name alive for decades to come.
While they’re not often given credit for all their accomplishments, Steppenwolf was one of the first late ‘60s bands to reap airplay on both the AM dial and the newly emerging so-called FM underground. “We were very lucky, because the relatively new phenomenon of freeform radio was beginning to play an important role in exposing new music,” Kay comments while speaking by phone from his home in Santa Barbara. “We were getting our entire first album played on those stations, and by the summer of ’68, we were getting airplay on the Top 40 stations as well. We were working both sides of the street, but the meat and potatoes stuff kind of sustained us.”
In celebration of their half century milestone, a new album, aptly titled Steppenwolf at 50, has been readied for release. A triple-CD collection that include John Kay solo tracks, deep cuts from the band’s catalog, and most of the big hits revisited via concert recordings culled from the 1992 album Live at 25, it was assembled by the band’s former manager Ron Rainey with Kay’s complete cooperation.
Although Kay and company currently don’t perform as consistently as they did back in the band’s heyday, a newly reconstituted version of Steppenwolf reemerged in the early ‘80s, as much out of necessity as a desire to preserve the group’s ownership and legitimacy. A tour to mark the band’s 40th anniversary in 2008 was intended as the band’s final hurrah, but with the 50th anniversary now upon them, the group has committed to do another 10 to 15 special dates before calling it quits for good. “We’ll be putting the Wolf to bed,” Kay declares.
“In 1980, I first resuscitated the whole Steppenwolf thing after having become so infuriated by a bogus Steppenwolf band that was touring in ’78 and ’79, when I was doing my solo albums,” he recalls. “I felt compelled to go out and rescue the name in order to distinguish our band from what was at one point two bands that were calling themselves Steppenwolf. To further distinguish ourselves, we became John Kay and Steppenwolf, so that people who had some inkling of the band’s history kind of got an idea of what that was all about. We eventually went out of the road in 1980 and rebuilt our reputation small club by small club in several secondary markets.”
Naturally, Kay had a big stake in lending legitimacy to Steppenwolf’s continuing legacy. His name is not only synonymous with the band’s, but also equally situated on the marquee as well. Indeed, as the band’s defacto historian (he extemporaneously recited the group’s history by heart without any prompting over the course of an hour interview), his early influences were part and parcel of the band’s early repertoire.
Kay grew up in East Germany and escaped from that communist country with his mother at the age of five. The family’s first stop was West Germany, and it was there that he first heard the early echoes of seminal rock and roll — Chuck Berry and Little Richard in particular. Two years later, at age 14, they permanently resettled in Canada, a place where Kay gained exposure to other forms of American music, including country and western and the sounds of Sunday morning church services broadcast by black congregations 100 miles away in Buffalo, New York.
“I realized then that gospel music sounded similar to what Ray Charles and some of the other R&B artists I was listening to were doing,” he remembers. “That was my musical education. In the early ‘60s, there was the folk music revival, and I started listening to the field recordings of Alan and John Lomax. I also attended the Newport Folk Festival in ’64 and ’65, where I had opportunity to see those artists who were following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie — people like Dylan, Phil Ochs, Richard Farina and so on.” Indeed, those artists had a profound effect on a mission he would soon see for himself.
“I realized that music can have meaning, not only in what it sounds like, but also in what it sings about,” he reflects. “At first it was the blues, and the rock ‘n’ roll and R&B that sprang from it, as well as the tradition of expressing yourself through lyrics. Those were the driven forces that have been pulling my wagon ever since.”
In 1965, Kay put that musical mantra in motion when he joined a Toronto band named The Sparrows. “They were young guys who witnessed the success of The Beatles,” Kay notes. “The drummer and the guitarist were brothers, and their father had owned a ballroom where they had opportunity to see everything from Woody Herman and the Herd to Bill Haley and the Comets. That kindled their initial interest in picking up instruments themselves, and when the British Invasion came along, they started writing their own songs. When I joined them, I brought some Hoyt Axton songs with me — “The Pusher” in particular — and it all went into the mix.”
In the winter of 1966, The Sparrows moved to New York, but Kay, who had spent some time mingling in California’s burgeoning folk scene, convinced the group that they were spinning their wheels where they were, and that the West Coast was really where the new, hipper sounds were emanating from. “So that’s where we eventually migrated to, first to Los Angeles, and then, because the police riots on Sunset Strip shut down the clubs temporarily afterwards, to San Francisco. We played the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore and all the other big venues. We became influenced by what the Bay Area bands were doing. They would stretch out, jam, drop LSD and get trippy with what they were doing. What did we know? We had come from the East Coast. We had played these clubs in the Village, alternating with the Chamber Brothers and meeting Bette Midler, who was a hat check girl at the time. We enjoyed our stay in the Bay Area. People like Steve Miller would sit in with us, and we’d find ourselves hooked up with The Charlatans and Charlie Musselwhite and God knows who else on triple bills.”
Eventually though, The Sparrows opted to return to L.A. to further their fortunes. “We began to realize after awhile that the recording industry was really in L.A.,” Kay explains. “So, after the smoke had cleared and the clubs were reopened, we went down there. Unfortunately, after a week long engagement at the Galaxy Club, which was next door to the Whisky, there was some dissension in the ranks and the band went asunder.”
Not wishing to stall their momentum, Kay and two of the former Sparrows — keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton — opted to enlist Rushton “Rusty” Moreve on bass and 17 year-old Michael Monarch to play guitar while forming a new version of the band. Producer, pianist, songwriter and A&R rep Gabriel Mekler heard some of their demos, and suggested a name change to Steppenwolf — apparently he was reading Hermann Hesse at the time— before subsequently signing them to ABC/Dunhill Records.
“We recorded the first album in four days — mixed, done out the door for $9,000 and that launched Steppenwolf,” Kay recalls. The rest is, of course, history. A seemingly nonstop string of hits and essential tracks followed — the aforementioned “Born To Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Rock Me,” “Desperation,” “Sookie Sookie,” “Hey Lawdy Mama,” and more. Likewise, their fourth album, 1969‘s Monster hit a high plateau on its own, courtesy of a chilling collection of politically-charged entries that targeted the war in Vietnam in particular.
“It was prophetic in terms of its songs and lyrics, especially as to how they still apply to the here and now,” Kay muses. “In the last 10 years, every time we play ‘Monster,’ we get a standing ovation.”
It is, Kay insists, part of that lingering legacy.
“We had certain songs that were not necessarily not in the top five, but they still had meaning to many people, songs that got them over certain speed bumps in life, and became their daily tonic. They substantiated our position that we could write about whatever was on our mind and not get too sidetracked about whether it was radio friendly or had hit potential. Hang around long enough and sometimes your position gets validated through continued support. After 50 years, still having people that want to hear you play — many of whom raised their offspring to your music — that’s been one of the more rewarding things that we’ve always enjoyed.”