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Steppenwolf were one of the pioneering bands of American hard rock, conjuring the roaring sound of a biker gang laying claim to the highway on hits like "Born to be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride." Like most early hard rock acts, Steppenwolf's approach was steeped in the blues, but with an added level of lyrical swagger and a full-bodied attack that added hints of acid rock. The key elements of their sound were the rough, throaty vocals of leader John Kay, the hard, barking tone of the eclectic guitar, and the thick, muscular voice of the overdriven electric organ. While wild good times informed most of their hits, as their career went on they shifted their focus to more serious themes, including politics, militarism, feminism, and the environment. Steppenwolf's initial run is documented thoroughly by the 2021 box set Magic Carpet Ride: The ABC/Dunhill Years 1967-1971, while their second era in the 1970s is summarized on the 1977 compilation Reborn to be Wild. The Steppenwolf story starts in Oshawa, Ontario, in 1964, with a rock band called Jack London and the Sparrows. Eager to move up in the world, they relocated to Toronto, and they cut a single, "If You Don't Want My Love," that was a major hit in Canada. In 1965, they brought aboard bassist Nick St. Nicholas and drummer Jerry Edmonton, and by the end of the year, frontman London left to go out on his own. The group revamped their lineup, adding lead singer and guitarist John Kay, lead guitarist Dennis Edmonton, and keyboard player Goldy McJohn. The new version of the group boasted a tougher, more blues-oriented sound, and they adjusted their name to Sparrow. In 1966, they began touring regularly in America, and were signed to Columbia Records, but their debut single, "Tomorrow's Ship," was a flop and they were quickly dropped. Undeterred, Sparrow moved their operations to California, and settled in San Francisco after a brief, unproductive stay in Los Angeles. They were soon playing the ballroom circuit and sharing bills with the likes of the Doors and the Steve Miller Band, but in June 1967, Dennis Edmonton would drop out and enjoy success as a songwriter and studio musician under the name Mars Bonfire. Michael Monarch took over as Sparrow's lead guitarist, though it wasn't long before the group decided to call it a day. However, fate stepped in when Kay and his wife rented an apartment where his next-door neighbor was Gabriel Mekler, a producer and A&R man for Dunhill Records. Mekler wanted to hear some of Kay's music, and after playing him some tapes of Sparrow, Mekler urged Kay to get the band back together. Jerry Edmonton, Goldy McJohn, and Michael Monarch were willing to give it another chance, and Rushton Moreve came on board to play bass. After cutting some demos, Mekler arranged for the band to sign with Dunhill; initial sessions at United Western Studio went nowhere, but relocating to American Recording Studio, where they worked with engineers Bill Cooper and Richie Podolor, pushed them in the right direction, and there they knocked out their debut album in less than a week. Released in January 1968, Steppenwolf included "Born to Be Wild," written by former bandmate Mars Bonfire, which became a massive hit single and introduced the phrase "heavy metal thunder" to the rock lexicon. The single peaked at number two on the American charts, and the album fared nearly as well, topping out at number six. As Steppenwolf dominated the radio and sales charts, they hit the road for a long string of live concerts, and the presence of "Born to Be Wild" and "The Pusher" on the soundtrack of the counterculture blockbuster Easy Rider fanned the flames further. Eager to keep things rolling, the band's follow-up, Steppenwolf the Second, was released in October 1968, and featured another smash single, "Magic Carpet Ride," which rose to number three. While the writing and recording of the LP was rushed, Steppenwolf the Second still went gold, but the rigors of the road led to Rushton Moreve departing from the group, and Sparrow bassist Nick St. Nicholas eagerly resumed playing with his old friends. (Moreve died in 1981 following an auto accident.) March 1969 saw the release of their third full-length, At Your Birthday Party, which contained the Top Ten single "Rock Me." Only four months later, Dunhill brought out Early Steppenwolf, an LP drawn from a May 1967 club gig in San Francisco, when the band was still known as Sparrow; the highlight of the album was a 21-minute version of "The Pusher." As the record arrived in stores, Steppenwolf were working on their next studio album, this time without Michael Monarch, who attributed his departure to creative differences. Larry Byrom debuted on lead guitar on Monster, issued in November 1969, which found Steppenwolf exploring political themes as America's mood became increasingly divided. An edited version of the title track (over nine minutes on the LP) and "Move Over" both made it into the lower reaches of the Top 40, and the album was certified gold. Steppenwolf's second live album, the more up-to-date Steppenwolf Live, came out in April 1970. It was recorded during concerts at the Santa Monica Civic Center, and added two studio tracks as a bonus; one of the concert cuts, "Hey Lawdy Mama," was pulled as a single and peaked at Number 35. Not long after the Live LP hit stores, Nick St. Nicholas was fired due to erratic behavior. George Biondo was hired to take his place on the bass. By the time Steppenwolf 7 appeared in November 1970, ABC Records had taken control of Dunhill, and the disc was issued as a joint ABC/Dunhill release. It was also the first Steppenwolf album without Gabriel Mekler receiving producer credit; Richie Podolor, who had helped engineer all their studio work to date, was cited as producer for the first time. The album made Number 19 on the album charts and went gold, but none of its singles reached the Top 40, and Larry Byrom left the band. Kent Henry, formerly of Blues Image, became Steppenwolf's lead guitarist, and appeared on For Ladies Only, issued in November 1971. It was a commercial disappointment, peaking at Number 54, and after a February 1972 show in Los Angeles, Steppenwolf broke up. ABC/Dunhill had already issued a "Best of" collection, Gold: Their Greatest Hits, in March 1971, and less than a year later, the label released a farewell album of lesser-known deep cuts, 1967-1972 Rest In Peace, in February 1972. John Kay cut a pair of solo albums, 1972's Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes and 1973's My Sportin' Life, while Goldy McJohn and Jerry Edmonton teamed up with Rod Prince and Roy Cox of the Bubble Puppy in the short-lived group Manbeast. After their post-Steppenwolf projects failed to find an audience, in 1974 the group re-formed with a lineup of John Kay, Jerry Edmonton, Goldy McJohn, George Biondo, and guitarist Bobby Cochran. The new edition of Steppenwolf signed with the CBS-distributed MUMS label, which released Slow Flux in 1974. The group toured heavily in support, and Kay dismissed McJohn in February 1975 after becoming disenchanted with the quality of his work. Andy Chapin became Steppenwolf's keyboard player in time to record 1975's Hour of the Wolf, which was issued by another CBS offshoot, Epic. While Slow Flux peaked at number 47 on the album charts and the single "Straight Shootin' Woman" reached the Top 30, Hour of the Wolf rose no higher than number 155. After cutting the 1976 contractual obligation album Skullduggery, Kay once again broke up Steppenwolf. In 1977, Epic released Reborn to be Wild, a compilation taken from the three reunion albums. After their second breakup, Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas toured the oldies circuit with a band they called "The New Steppenwolf," and while Kay initially gave them permission to use the name, he withdrew his approval and the act petered out in 1980. After the New Steppenwolf faded out, Kay assembled a band he called John Kay & Steppenwolf; he was the only original member on board, with the rest of the lineup featuring guitarist Michael Palmer, bassist Kurtis Teel, keyboard player Danny Ironstone, and drummer Steve Palmer. Teel and Ironstone were replaced by Chad Peery and Brett Tuggle by the time they recorded 1981's Live in London, which was initially issued only in Australia. With Michael Wilk on keyboards, the band cut an album, 1982's Wolftracks, which was recorded live in the studio to digital tape; it was issued by Attic Records in Canada and by the audiophile label Nautilus in the United States. A second album for Attic, Paradox, followed in 1984. Next, Kay disbanded this edition of the group in favor of an entirely new set of musicians – Michael Wilk on bass and keyboards, Rocket Ritchotte on guitar, and Ron Hurst on drums. In addition to frequent road work, this version of John Kay & Steppenwolf released two albums, 1987's Rock & Roll Rebels and 1990's Rise & Shine. In 1993, original drummer Jerry Edmonton died in an auto accident in Santa Ynez, California. Despite periodic lineup changes, Kay kept Steppenwolf on the road until October 2007, when he staged a farewell concert in Aberdeen, Maryland. Once again, Kay changed his mind, and in June 2009, he revived the band and set out on the road. August 2017 saw the death of original keyboard player Goldy McJohn, who succumbed to a heart attack at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. The Steppenwolf train finally stopped with the last date on their October 2018 tour; 13 months later, a post from Kay on Steppenwolf's website declared the band was done.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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