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Steppenwolf is a Canadian-American rock group that was prominent from 1968 to 1972. The group was formed in late 1961 in Toronto by vocalist John Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton. Guitarist Michael Monarch and bassist Rushton Moreve were recruited by notices placed in LA area record stores and musical instrument stores. The essential core of Steppenwolf was John Kay, Jerry Edmonton and Goldy McJohn from The Sparrows (originally Jack London & the Sparrows from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada).
Steppenwolf sold over 25 million records worldwide, releasing eight gold albums and twelve Billboard Hot 100 singles, of which six were Top 40 hits, including three Top 10 successes: "Born to Be Wild", written by Dennis Edmonton, "Magic Carpet Ride", and "Rock Me." Steppenwolf enjoyed worldwide success from 1968 to 1972, but clashing personalities led to the end of the core lineup. Today, frontman John Kay is the only original member, having served as lead singer since 1967.
Steppenwolf: Breakthrough success and decline (1967–1972)
The name change from The Sparrows (The Sparrow) to Steppenwolf was suggested to John Kay by Gabriel Mekler, being inspired by Hermann Hesse's novel of the same name. Steppenwolf's first two singles were "A Girl I Knew" and "Sookie Sookie". The band finally rocketed to worldwide fame after their third single "Born to Be Wild" was released in 1968, as well as their version of Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher". Both of these tunes were used prominently in the 1969 counterculture cult film Easy Rider (both titles originally had been released on the band's debut album). In the movie, "The Pusher" accompanies a drug deal, and Peter Fonda stuffing dollar bills into his Stars & Stripes-clad fuel tank, after which "Born to Be Wild" is heard in the opening credits, with Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding their Harley choppers through the America of the late 1960s. The song, which has been closely associated with motorcycles ever since, introduced to rock lyrics the signature term "heavy metal" (though not about a kind of music, but about a motorcycle: "I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racin' with the wind..."). Written by Sparrow guitarist Dennis Edmonton who had begun using the pen name Mars Bonfire and inspired by a billboard roadside advertisement Bonfire liked which depicted a motorcycle tearing through the billboard artwork, the song had already reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1968. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
In 1968 Steppenwolf played one of their biggest shows up to that time at the Filmore East to rave reviews, sharing the bill with Buddy Rich and Children of God.
The group's following albums had several more hit singles, including "Magic Carpet Ride" (which reached No. 3) from Steppenwolf The Second and "Rock Me" (with its bridge lasting 1:06, which reached No. 10) from At Your Birthday Party. It also sold in excess of one million units. Monster, which questioned US policy of the Nixon era, was the band's most political album. Following the Monster album from 1969, the following year (1970) the band released what some consider their strongest album, Steppenwolf 7, which included the song "Snowblind Friend", another Hoyt Axton-penned song about the era and attitudes of drugs and associated problems. The band lineup reached its peak in the opinion of most fans with this album and their live performances in the middle of 1970 with John Kay, Jerry Edmonton, Goldy McJohn, Larry Byrom and George Biondo. Unfortunately this lineup was also unable to remain together as Byrom became upset with McJohn over personal issues and quit the band in the early part of 1971.
There were several changes in the group's personnel after the first few years. Moreve was fired from the group in 1968 for missing gigs after he became afraid to return to Los Angeles, convinced by his girlfriend that it was going to be leveled by an earthquake and fall into the sea. Rob Black filled in for Moreve until former Sparrow bandmate Nick St. Nicholas came aboard. Monarch was fired in the spring of 1969 after incurring Kay's wrath for his many unprofessional actions. Larry Byrom, who'd been in TIME with Nick St. Nicholas, ably replaced Monarch. Nick St. Nicholas' tenure with the group proved to be brief and he was let go in early 1970 after showing up onstage for a concert wearing only a jock strap and bunny ears and playing his bass loudly and out of tune. The above tales were related by Kay in his 1994 autobiography Magic Carpet Ride (co-written with Canadian author John Einarson). George Biondo was then recruited and guitarist Kent Henry replaced Byrom in early 1971. In November of 1971, the band released "For Ladies Only", with the lineup consisting of Kay, Henry, Biondo, McJohn and Edmonton. The album was notable for several reasons, most notably the controversial LP inside cover art, the romantic, political, and social lyrical content, and the fact that it featured several of the group members on lead vocals.
The band broke up after a farewell concert in LA on Valentine's Day, 1972. Kay went on to a brief solo career, scoring a minor solo hit in 1972 with "I'm Movin' On" from his album Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes. Although it received generally high marks from most critics, the album sales were disappointing in the US. Kay released a second solo album in 1973 on the Dunhill label titled "My Sportin' Life". This album sold less than his first solo album and was less gritty and more LA studio polish in sound.
Following the first official breakup of Steppenwolf, and after the release of Kay's first solo album, a late summer and autumn 1972 tour in the USA and Europe occurred which featured Kay heading both The John Kay Band and Steppenwolf at the top the bill. Dunhill had released an album of a collection of Steppenwolf songs titled "Steppenwolf: RIP" Thus the tour was known as the RIP tour. The John Kay Band included Hugh Sullivan on keyboards and Whitey (Pentti) Glan on drums (both were contributors to John Kay's first solo album). Kent Henry on lead and slide guitar and George Biondo on bass joined Kay in both lineups. The Steppenwolf band lineup featured Goldy McJohn on keyboards and Jerry Edmonton on drums. This tour proved to be a fairly positive experience for all of the musicians and drew respectable crowd turnouts.
Following this tour, while Kay was recording his second solo album in 1973, McJohn and Edmonton continued to play and formed a band called Manbeast. Some of the material created in the Manbeast days would show up on the 1974 Steppenwolf reunion album, most notably "Gang War Blues", which was recorded as a demo with Edmonton singing slightly different lyrics.
Steppenwolf reformed in 1974 with its core lineup of Kay, Edmonton and McJohn, along with longtime bassist Biondo and newcomer Bobby Cochran, Eddie Cochran's nephew on lead guitar. The band signed with Mums Records in retaliation for what Kay perceived as a lack of support by Dunhill Records for his solo albums. Their first reunion album was Slow Flux which included their last Top 40 hit, "Straight Shootin' Woman". In February 1975 McJohn was dismissed for what Kay described as a decline in the quality of his performances as well as erratic behavior. McJohn was replaced by Andy Chapin on Hour of the Wolf in 1975, though McJohn appeared in artwork for the single to Caroline. After the album peaked at No. 155, Kay attempted to dissolve the band again, but the label, now having been absorbed by Epic Records, insisted Steppenwolf record one more album to satisfy their contractual obligations. The ensuing album, Skullduggery (1976), featuring Wayne Cook on keyboards, was released without a tour to support it and by the early fall of 1976, Steppenwolf disbanded a second time. Kay appeared in a segment of the popular music TV show "The Midnight Special" to announce the end of Steppenwolf and also played a solo version of the song "Hey I'm Alright". This song appeared on Kay's third solo album "All In Good Time", released on Mercury Records in 1978.
New Steppenwolf (1977–1980)
From 1977 until 1980, Steppenwolf had retired and did not exist. However, a variety of bands featuring some previous members of Steppenwolf were put on the road under the false name Steppenwolf by concert promoter Steve Green. Another promoter, David Pesnell, reportedly acted as manager for an incarnation featuring former members Nick St. Nicholas, Goldy McJohn and Kent Henry, and new lead singer, Tom Pagan. Plans for a new album circulated. A new studio album, produced by Phil Spector, with Larry Green on lead vocals, was attempted in 1978, but abandoned due to Pesnell and Spector's hateful relationship. The relationship ended with a well-documented fist fight between the two at the Whisky a Go Go in which Pesnell sent Spector to the hospital, where he stayed for three nights. Assault charges were dropped against Pesnell after the Los Angeles Police Department determined Spector had instigated the fight.
Another fake Steppenwolf band, launched in the summer of 1978, featured lead vocalist Bob Simpson, and original members Goldy McJohn and Rushton Moreve, with Kent Henry. This version recorded new tracks for a proposed album which was never released. A splinter Steppenwolf band (which featured no members from any Steppenwolf band fronted by John Kay) appeared around the same time with lead vocalist Don Coenen. That line-up included keyboardist Geoff Emery and guitarist Tony Flynn. Another album, The Night Of The Wolf, was said to have been recorded and produced by Pesnell in 1979 with lead vocalist Bob Simpson, featuring such songs as "Night of the Wolf" and "I Don't Want To Lose You," and "Randy's Rodeo."
A concert tour in the U.S., Canada and Europe was promoted by Pesnell with the opening acts including Iron Butterfly. The St. Nicholas/McJohn grouping eventually disbanded due to exhaustion and heavy drug use by St. Nicholas, Goldy McJohn and drummer Frankie Banali. St. Nicholas formed yet another version of a band named Steppenwolf and went back out on the road. This grouping included lead singer Tommy Holland, lead guitarist Ruben DeFuentes, Emery, and future Keel/W.A.S.P./L.A. Guns drummer Steve Riley. The retooled band returned to the studio to revamp tracks for the new album, but it was never released. McJohn also eventually headed back out himself with another lineup that first featured Peter Graw on lead vocals, then another line-up that featured lead vocalist Nick Graham and sometimes included Kent Henry, who had just departed a touring Wolf band that featured Tim West on vocals. The Graham/McJohn/Henry version pitched an entire new Steppenwolf album to record labels, which was actually a project recorded by Graham's High Intensity band adding McJohn and Henry to the existing tracks. The album was blocked from release. Frankie Banali later went on to join Quiet Riot.
After hearing of these multiple bogus Steppenwolf incarnations, John Kay became furious. An original agreement among the band members in the early 1970s stated that anyone leaving forfeited any rights on the group's name, while the last original members standing when the group disbanded (Kay and Jerry Edmonton) would have exclusive claims on the name hereafter. At their lawyers' advice, Kay and Edmonton agreed to license the name to the others. This licensing agreement stated that McJohn and St. Nicholas would have to give up their Steppenwolf royalties forever to go forward. They both agreed. Eventually, this agreement was terminated after promised fees were not paid to Kay and Edmonton. After the compact optical digital disc (CD) became the new form of presenting old music by 1987, McJohn and St. Nicholas lost large amounts in additional royalties from their time in the authentic Steppenwolf band. Kay took to the road in 1980 with a new line-up as John Kay and Steppenwolf.
John Kay and Steppenwolf (1980–present)
Kay had a couple of meetings with David Pesnell (after his release from rehabilitation for his drinking and drug problems), about management, concert promotions and producing a new album for the band. Pesnell wanted to produce an album featuring new songs on Side A, by the reformed band Three Dog Night and with Side B of the album featuring songs by Steppenwolf. The album's working name was "Back to Back", a play on each band having a side of the album and the fact the bands were back together again. Pesnell's concept was simple: each band should record four new songs, with a fifth song on each side featuring a medley of the band's past songs. This would give the Pesnell-produced album a double release of singles to support a concert tour featuring the two bands. Even though both bands liked the concept of the album and tour, the arguments included who would be Side A and Side B and which of the two would headline the upcoming concert tour.
The reformed John Kay and Steppenwolf line-up featured John Kay, Michael Palmer (guitars, backing vocals), Steve Palmer (drums, backing vocals), Danny Ironstone (keyboards, backing vocals) and Kurtis Teel on bass. The Palmer brothers had played in a group called Tall Water and had also been involved with Kay in his solo career playing live gigs in the late 1970s. Teel was replaced by Chad Peery and Ironstone by Brett Tuggle by 1981, and the new grouping released Live in London overseas. Tuggle was then displaced by Michael Wilk and a new studio album, Wolf Tracks, was released in 1982 on the small Attic (Nautilus in the U.S.) record label. "Wolf Tracks" was one of the earliest digitally recorded albums in the industry. It was recorded live on a two track Sony digital recording system. Bassist Welton Gite, who appeared on this album, left shortly after its completion and was replaced by Gary Link. Another album, Paradox, followed in 1984.
In December 1984, the band as it was disbanded and Kay and Wilk decided to continue on in early 1985 with a pared-down quartet that comprised: Kay, Wilk, Wilk's friend Ron Hurst (drums, backing vocals) and Rocket Ritchotte (guitars, backing vocals). Wilk also handled bass duties from his sequencing computer keyboards from here on. This line-up released Rock N' Roll Rebels (1987) and Rise & Shine (1990). Both of these were on the Qwil and I.R.S. Records imprints, respectively. Ritchotte had departed temporarily in 1989 to be replaced by Les Dudek and then Steve Fister, but then returned in 1990 for three more years. Fister (ex-Iron Butterfly) came back in late 1993, but turned guitar duties over to Danny Johnson (formerly of Derringer, Rod Stewart and others) in 1996.
As the band was named after the novel Der Steppenwolf by German author Hermann Hesse, who was born in the Black Forest town of Calw, the city invited them to come over and play in the International Hermann-Hesse-Festival 2002, along with other bands inspired by Hesse, such as Anyone's Daughter. The concert drew considerable media coverage, with Kay's fluent German stunning those who did not know beforehand about his growing up in Germany – in fact, he was born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (now Sovetsk, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia).
The band performed its 'farewell concert' on October 6, 2007 at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland, featuring Kay, keyboardist and programmer Michael Wilk, drummer Ron Hurst, and guitarist Danny Johnson.
A 2007 newsletter from Kay's Wolfpack fanclub stated there would be some remastering of the band's albums throughout 2007 and 2008. Since the group's official retirement, they have continued to play a limited number of shows each year.
Personnel John Kay and Steppenwolf
John Kay – lead vocals, rhythm guitar (1967–1972; 1974–1976; 1980–present)
Michael Wilk – keyboards (1982–present)
Gary Link – bass guitar (1982–1984; 2009–present)
Ron Hurst – drums (1984–present)
Danny Johnson – lead guitar, backing vocals (1996–present)