Steppenwolf – At 50 – Collection Grabs Hard to Find Gems (review)

Steppenwolf – Steppenwolf at 50 (Rainman)

A complete overview of the band’s lesser-known years

History is a strange animal.  Bands with long careers too often get distilled into one or two songs.  Case in point: Steppenwolf, who are best remembered for the motorcycle anthem, “Born To Be Wild,” and the psychedelic rocker “Magic Carpet Ride.”  You might be surprised to know that the band actually scored eight Gold albums during their heyday, and have continued to release albums and tour to this day.  A new, three-disc collection attempts to tell a more complete story of the band in Steppenwolf at 50 from Rainman Records.

Full disclosure here: the band’s biggest hits have been omitted in favor of their lesser-known material (there are live versions of the hits on disc 3).  For those looking for just the hits, start with The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection (reviewed here).

Their most familiar songs may not be here, but there’s still plenty to sink your teeth into, with a good deal of surprises too.  The set leads off with another motorcycle anthem, “Screaming Night Hog,” an excellent rocker.  The pointed “From Here to There Eventually,” originally found of their 1969 Monster album, is included in an alternate version. “Angel Drawers” is a previously unheard, mostly-instrumental track, containing some great guitar and strange keyboard and drum sounds.

John Kay was one of rock’s most under-appreciated vocalists.  He sounds fantastic on the surprisingly melodic “For Ladies Only,” which should have been a hit.

The band disbanded in the early Seventies, long enough for Kay to record a pair of solo albums.  From that time period, “You Win Again” is the Hank Williams country song and is a definite departure, full of twang, while “My Sportin’ Life” was an acoustic track, very common for the early Seventies.

After Kay’s solo career failed to take off, the band regrouped in 1974 for Slow Flux – from it, the excellent “Straight Shootin’ Woman” still contains the driving, classic Steppenwolf sound, but with the addition of horns.  “Skullduggery” features fantastic drumming and a uncharacteristically funky beat.

After another layoff, the band returned in 1982 for Wolftracks.  The cover of Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” featuring dated synths and a funky bass, totally misses the mark.  Around this time, Kay decided to try and update the Steppenwolf sound, adding keyboards and slick production.  “Hot Night in a Cold Town” is one example of this.  1984’s topical “Give Me News I Can Use” contained a heavy dose of keyboards and kind of comes off like a softer version of the band Europe.

Quite possibly even stranger than Aerosmith’s teaming with Run DMC, Steppenwolf decided it was a good idea to join forces with Grandmaster Flash (!) in 1988 for a revamped “Magic Carpet Ride.”  Problem is, the track lacks the sizzle of the Aerosmith track (but the use of Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” is a nice touch).

“Hold On (Never Give Up, Never Give In)” is a decent, if dated now, mid-tempo rocker that’s reminiscent of Whitesnake.  “Rock & Roll Rebels” is better, with a nice chorus. “Give Me Life” opens with a riff that sounds like Eighties-era ZZ Top, while “Rise and Shine”  I swear steals the guitar line from “She’s a Beauty” by the Tubes.

“Compared to What” is a previously unreleased track, and it’s actually very good – it’s got a jazz/jam feel to it.  The organ and production sounds like classic Steppenwolf, but there’s no information on when it was recorded.

Disc three is a straight reissue of the album Live at 25, which came out in 1995.  It’s decent sound quality – the tracks are recorded well, the playing is good, and most importantly, Kay sounds great and seems to be having fun. All their hits are included here in live form.  There’s even an extended version of “Born to Be Wild,” featuring fiery organ and guitar solos.

The accompanying booklet features a heartfelt essay penned by Kay himself.

A lot of this music is out of print and extremely hard to find.  Fans of both 60’s classic rock, and the 80’s pop metal-era will find quite a few surprises here, chronicling how the group continued to evolve.  If you’re a dedicated fan of the band, celebrate their golden anniversary with Steppenwolf at 50.   –Tony Peters