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Born To Be Wild: The Steppenwolf Story

Back in 2010, John Kay explained why Steppenwolf were about to head out on the highway for the last time. They're still going, and this is their story...

We’re a hard rock band and we don’t take shit from anybody. When we’re on stage, that’s our turf. And if you like what we do, welcome to the club. If you don’t, don’t bother us.”

As the founder and frontman of the legendary Steppenwolf, John Kay has built an empire on used leather, high-octane gasoline, dirty blues, sweaty R&B and bad attitude.

Yes, there’s Magic Carpet Ride and Born To Be Wild, the latter a rallying cry of freedom to rockers and rule breakers the world over, but beyond the early hits and the brooding, bad-ass image there’s 40 years’ worth of stormy, politically charged rock’n’roll behind Kay’s impenetrable black shades. Kay has endured countless band line-ups, treacherous record deals and even hostile takeovers in the past four decades, and from every adversity he’s emerged stronger, tougher, as cunning as the lupine creatures of the night he so admires.

Kay was born and raised in Germany, where he first heard rock’n’roll on the Armed Forces broadcasts on his tinny FM radio in the 1950s. In 1958 his family moved to Toronto, Canada, and by the time he reached high school in the early 1960s he was already playing in bands. He joined The Sparrows in 1965. “We morphed into a blues-based raunchy rock’n’roll band after I joined,” he says. “There was this kind of rich musical gumbo in the Toronto area. It had become an absolutely thriving scene that attracted thousands of kids from the suburbs every weekend, to the point where they had to seal off the streets when it got a little too weird.”

Young, restless and wild, The Sparrows moved around a lot, from a stint in New York in the spring of 1966 to a life-changing emigration to the west coast later that year. “We loaded up the station wagon and the U-Haul and we headed out to LA,” Kay recalls. “The Sunset scene was happening. We were playing the Troubadour, The Doors were playing down the street, various things were happening. Then the Sunset strip riots basically shut things down for a while, so we moved to San Francisco. We stayed there until the spring of 1967.

“During that period we became fully immersed in that scene there, which was very different, because those people were stretching out and experimenting with music. There was the psychedelic stuff, light shows at the Avalon, lots of drug use. We were part of – not as performers but as observers – of the first human Be-In, which was at Panhandler Park in January of 1967. And that was really the spark of the whole thing that later turned into the Summer Of Love of ’67. So we were playing those ballrooms, at the Ark in Sausalito and the Matrix in San Francisco, with people like Steve Miller’s blues band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Janis Joplin, The Charlatans, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe And The Fish, lots of people making really interesting music.

“It was quite progressive and it had some influence on us, but we realised we were standing still. We had a band house, we were playing regularly and we were feeding ourselves, but we were treading water, and we figured with the record industry headquartered in LA we wanted to be there. We went back there and had a falling out. Shortly thereafter, Jerry Edmonton, who was the drummer in The Sparrows, Goldy McJohn, who was The Sparrows’ keyboardist, myself and two fellas from LA [bassist Rushton Moreve and guitarist Michael Monarch] formed Steppenwolf in the summer of 1967.”

The Sparrows were already a known quantity in town, so the new band scored a record deal with ABC- Dunhill with relative ease. They began recording almost immediately.

Steppenwolf’s first, self-titled album was released in spring 1968. The album started getting extensive play on underground FM stations. Things really caught fire when the third single from it, Born To Be Wild, was released in the summer and the band got airplay on AM radio. From then on, “we were busy boys”.

Born To Be Wild, Steppenwolf’s most enduring hit, was written by the mysterious Mars Bonfire.

Mars was the lead guitarist in The Sparrows, and he was also the brother of Jerry Edmonton,” Kay explains. “At the time, Mars was still Dennis Edmonton. When The Sparrows busted up he went his own separate way. He wanted to become a songwriter and a solo artist. He changed his name to Mars Bonfire just because, well, it was a mysterious sort of name, something you wouldn’t forget. He wrote Born To Be Wild because he had just gotten enough money to buy himself an American Motors Matador. It gave him a sense of independence and freedom, which inspired the song. Initially he was not fixated on motorcycles. It doesn’t say anything about motorcycles on that song, it says ‘Get your motor running’. That could be anything. He was really talking about the age- old custom of American teenagers heading out to the highway to cause unrest. It was so right for the time, in terms of independence, a different way of life, alternative lifestyles, freedom from the supervision of their parents, so the song just connected with the adolescent rebellious spirit.”

Born To Be Wild, along with the propulsive The Pusher, found itself on the soundtrack for movie Easy Rider, the quintessential counter-culture film of the 1960s, a hazy blur of motorbike existentialism starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and the death of the American dream.

“Nobody knew what the hell this thing was going to turn into,” Kay says of the film. “We just thought it was a cool thing to be part of. Of course, it had an enormous ripple effect. It became an instant cult classic, and it’s still running in many places around the world.”

As well as immortalising Born To Be Wild, Easy Rider also made Steppenwolf an instant favourite of outlaws and hard-riders the world over.

“Yeah, Born To Be Wild more or less became the unofficial biker anthem, and still is to this day,” Kay acknowledges. “But we had been dealing with the clubs even before that. The biker thing was strictly accidental, as were much of things going on with us. When The Sparrows were playing the Ark in Sausalito, a bunch ofHell’s Angels walked in, all on acid. They came in, sat down, and eventually figured it was more comfortable to lay down on the dance floor and listen to us for three, four sets a night. And they would come pretty regularly. This was way before Altamont; most people then were very laid back. It was like, okay, he’s a biker, he’s not beating up on anybody, so who cares? Why can’t I smoke a joint with him? It was that kind of a mind-set. It may have gone a long way to making people feel like: ‘We’re the outlaws and the outcasts of society and we’re proud of it,’ but the long-haired kids were also getting beat up by the beer- swilling college kids or some cowboy type, so we empathised with that – here’s another group that’s not getting the time of day from straight society.”

Steppenwolf’s alliance with bikers continues to this day. “At this juncture, we have played biker events from Australia to Brazil to Finland, to Italy, Norway, Bucharest and many, many in between. The irony is that at none of those events do I recall any unrest or fights. There were even times I remember in Texas, they had Outlaws, Bandidos, groups that were not terribly fond of each other, but there was always an unspoken truce that when we’re in this joint, we’re here to see the man do Born To Be Wild, and nobody messed with that. On the one hand, we really appreciated their support and loyalty, on the other hand it would have been a real bummer if people who weren’t involved in that thing had gotten beat up, and that was never the case.”

With thousands of hairy an’ scary outlaws on their side – to say nothing of the many more thousands of screaming young girls charmed by Kay’s black leather or bass player Rushton Moreve’s gyspy-pirate rags – Steppenwolf were well on their way. Two more albums were released in less than a year: 1968’s The Second, featuring the band’s second biggest hit, Magic Carpet Ride, and 1969’s At Your Birthday Party. The band held a unique position in rock’n’roll at the time: they were loved by the squares and the heads. But their next album would prove, quite decisively, that they were on the side of the freaks.

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In 1969 Steppenwolf released their most radical album, Monster. Angry and politically charged, it opens with the deceptively airy Monster-Suicide-America, a rambling, psyche-pop mind-bomb that expressed with nimble dexterity the daily anguish of life in the US during the Vietnam war. Songs like Draft Resister and Fag burned with a righteous anger a million miles away from the party- stomping bacchanalia of Magic Carpet Ride. The days of easy riding were definitely over. ‘It’s time to get our heads together,’ Kay sang on the bluesy rabble-rouser Power Play. ‘Let ’em know we’re awake.’

“When we turned in the Monster album to our record company, they asked us where the hit single was,” Kay remembers. “We said: ‘It’s not about a hit, you numbskulls. It’s a political concept album.’ So they looked at us and said: ‘Well, okay, what do we do with it?’ I said: ‘Man, you take it college campuses.’ So they did that.”

The album yielded two Top 40 hits, including the 10-minute title song and the super-grooving Move Over. More importantly, it also struck a chord with the distraught and disenfranchised in those turbulent times. As Kay explains, Monster’s rebel yell still echoes even today.

“Sometimes you throw a pebble in the pond, but the ripple effect doesn’t reach you for many years later”, he says. “About a week ago somebody turned me on to the Rolling Stone website, where one of their writers was readdressing the Monster album, writing about how relevant it is now. At the same time, I get a call from the London Observer from a guy who’s a war correspondent there. He was at our Royal Albert Hall show in the early 70s, and he’s been a Wolf fan ever since. He told me the Monster album is what got him on his way. On the same day, I got a letter from this lawyer in the deep south. He tells me that the Monster album is what got him started, and he’s been a lawyer for 25 years, representing the common man to fight against the bullies of the world. The gold records are fine, but there’s a whole shoebox full of letters like that. And they mean more than any trophy.

Despite the lingering influence of Monster, the album was not the smash that previous records were, and the band’s slow decline from the charts began. As Kay explains, the punishing recording and touring schedule the band had taken on four years previously was finally taking its toll.

“Once we caught our first wave of success, it was an intense, blurred period. Because we were so young and so unsophisticated, with respect to the recording industry, we signed a recording deal that really came out of the 1940s or 50s. When we signed the initial deal, we didn’t have a pot to piss in. Some of our gear was in the hock shop, and there was no money for a lawyer and we didn’t have any management yet. There were only two things that we insisted on. One was that we no longer had to release singles. We figured the time for singles was over. We wanted a guarantee that we could make an album, and that the label would release it. The other thing was that we needed $1,500 to get our amplifiers out of hock. So they said: “Okay, you can have that,” and that was it.

“So basically, the contract said: ‘You’re going to deliver two albums a year.’ That was based on some crooner being called into the studio twice a year. He’s got an A&R man, he’s picked the songs, he’s learned the tunes, he’s got the orchestra rehearsed, and three days later he’s got an album. Well, these were the days when people were writing their own songs. We had to go out on the road to promote the album that was just released, then we had to go to Europe, come back to the US to do television, all this stuff. Two records a year was just an absurdity. Somewhere down the line, bands like The Eagles said: ‘I don’t care what the contract says, you’re gonna get the album when it’s ready.’ But that was years later. For us, well, we signed this contract, and the label is pushing us, so we’d better get these two records out.

“It hurt us. We ran out of juice after a while. We should have waited. To some extant that was really the reason why 1971 I said: ‘Listen, guys. I want to put a stop to this. And I don’t want to be responsible for everyone’s livelihood. So if we want to retire the name and go our separate ways, I’m okay with that.’ I was basically burned out. With hindsight, that could have been done much better; we could have had more enlightened management that would have stood up to the label, a lot of things. But I’m not complaining. There are worse things than what happened to us by a long shot. And nobody ran off to Ecuador with our money.”

In 1971 Steppenwolf released the tepid album For Ladies Only, a lukewarm collection of warmed-over Wolf-boogie, and then limped to the finish line. “Our energies were elsewhere, and we were feeling very drained by the time we made that album,” Kay says. “We were just not enthusiastic about what we were doing, so that diluted things.”

The band announced their ‘retirement’ on Valentine’s Day 1972. That retirement lasted just two short years. In 1974 Steppenwolf were back with the surprisingly invigorated Slow Flux album. It yielded one minor Top 40 hit, Straight Shootin’ Woman. The time away from the public eye had hurt the band. But then so had fame.

“By the mid-1970s we were flying in private jets,” Kay says. “We had the limousines, the saunas, the presidential suites and so forth. To some extent that removed us too much from the street-level thing that we were part of at the beginning. On the whole we were always a band of the people, for the people, by the people. In the long run I think that’s a component for why we’re still here. Because there was some sort of perceived integrity that withstood the test of time. In the early days we were very accessible, and hanging out with our fans was fine. Of course, after doing the Ed Sullivan show, and having songs on the charts, and the screaming young girls, well, things changed, and you could no longer do that because of security issues. After a while you also wanted privacy. But yeah, it changed how people looked at the band.”

Steppenwolf released two more albums in the 70s: Hour Of The Wolf in 1975 and Skullduggery in 1976. While both had their share of blistering, bluesy hard rock, neither sold well, and the band decided to call it quits. John Kay put together a new band, and started touring as a solo act. And that was very nearly the end of the Steppenwolf story.

But by the late 1970s, a new Steppenwolf began stalking the dingier rock dives across the USA, a rag-tag pick-up band of ex-Kay cohorts the Steppenwolf founder derisively calls “Bogus Wolf”. That rebel Steppenwolf was formed by ex-bandmate Nick St Nicholas, who had a long and storied history with Kay, stretching all the way back to The Sparrows.

“When we were in The Sparrows together, Nick was the guy who, more than anyone, applied himself to the advancement of the band,” Kay explains. “He was always the one looking for a manager, looking for a record deal. And it was he who found one. He was instrumental, in an important way, to the survival of the band. And that’s why we called him when Rushton went off the deep end. [Rushton Moreve, who died in an auto accident in 1981, was Steppenwolf’s original bass player. He was fired in 1969 after his behavior became erratic.] He followed this cult that believed that California was gonna fall in the ocean,” Kay says. “He didn’t show up for engagements, so we had to replace him. We all thought that Nick busted his balls trying to get The Sparrow happening, so maybe he deserves a shot. So we called him up.”

St Nicholas joined Steppenwolf in 1969 and stayed with the band until 1971. “Unfortunately, some years after, Nick went off the deep end as well and started doing some weird shit, like wearing bunny ears and jock-straps on stage. So we had to replace him as well.” Kay laughs. “But he’s still the guy that tried to get The Sparrows on the map, and nobody should take that away from him.”

St Nicholas, along with original Steppenwolf guitarist Michael Monarch, is now a member of the World Classic Rockers, a revolving-door supergroup that also boasts ex-members of Journey, Santana, The Eagles, Toto and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But in the late 1970s St Nicholas and original Steppenwolf keyboardist Goldy McJohn had other plans.

“So, Nick had been fired from the band years before, as had Goldy. Some agent got a hold of them, or vice versa, and said: ‘Well, John doesn’t have a Steppenwolf out there, and you two were in the band, so why can’t you use the name?’”

Kay and Jerry Edmonton were actually the owners of the Steppenwolf name, but Kay still found himself embroiled in a frustrating legal dispute, unable to stop the bogus Wolf from operating.

“There were corporate records out there over who owned the name, but the documents were not as well attended to by the highly paid attorneys we had working on our behalf. Whatever the reason, it caused us to not have the legal basis to stand up in court with a clear-cut case. So they went out and toured while this legal battle was going on.

“By this time,” Kay says, “we had gotten letters that said: ‘What was that? I went to see this Steppenwolf and they were awful! People were throwing drinks at them!’ I figured by the time these guys get pushed out of the business, if ever, the way things are going with injunctions and appeals, any credibility the name had will be gone. I’d had it. I talked to Jerry and said: ‘Look, are you okay with me going out as John Kay And Steppenwolf with these guys I’ve been playing with to distinguish this version from the bogus Wolf? He said fine, and we worked something out financially. So we headed out. But in 1980 we had to pick up the name in the toilets of the secondary markets and third-rate bars. It was horrible what had been done with the name.”

Things looked bleak, but Kay’s band were up for the challenge.

“The new band had a tremendous work ethic,” he says. “The idea was, we kicked ass tonight, and they will spread the word. That was our hope, and that is in fact what happened. We worked our way out of the really small shitty clubs into the larger shitty clubs, and from there, eventually to the big clubs, the good clubs, into the theatres and the ampitheatres and back into the arenas. But that took years. Along the way we learned to make everything work in-house. At the beginning there was nobody there for us, because there was no money to be made off of us. So we had to provide our own vans, our own gear, hire roadies and technicians as we could afford them. We went from that to a motor home, and from that to a bus, from a cube van to a 40-foot truck. In each instance there were these incremental steps, until by1987 we came up for air, looked around and said: ‘Jesus Christ, we’re going full-bore. We’ve got a career, we’ve got income, we’re having fun on stage, we’re releasing new product,’ and so on. That’s the legacy. As miserable and as soul-wrenching as it was at times to deal that with bogus band and the destruction of our reputation, when we had managed to scrape the shit off our shoes, and wound up playing for 60,000 people at Farm Aid, it was one of those times when you said: ‘Well, it was a long hard haul, but we’ve finally regained our independence

It would be easy to paint Nick St Nicholas as the Judas in the Steppenwolf story, the grand schemer who nearly did in the band’s long and noble legacy, but Kay’s views on his old bandmate have softened over time (“It’s water under the bridge. I wish him well”). Besides, Kay can afford benevolence now. Steppenwolf’s gradual resurrection ultimately resulted in Wolf World, a 145-acre spread in Tennessee with a private lake, a recording studio, a bus, a barn, a merchandising company and more. “I’ve always been a firm believer in minding the store and being prepared,” Kay offers. “I’ve always felt no one’s going to care about what affects you more than you do, so pay attention.”

He also cites teamwork as an important component in Steppenwolf’s success. “All of this – the bus, the 105 cases of gear, the publishing company, the recording studio – obviously it’s rooted in the ability to find people for our SWAT team of rock’n’roll who really cared about this, for whom Steppenwolf was more than a band with a couple of hits. Most people in our organisation wear more than one hat. Our tour manager also runs our fan club. Our keyboard player is also our computer programmer and my co-songwriter. So everyone pitched in, and as a consequence we grew. To be able to make something like this last this long, to just hang in there, to persevere and thrive, I think that’s an incredible achievement.” And thrive they have. In the past decade the band have played to increasingly larger audiences – often bigger than those of the band’s 70s heyday.

“We have a following that’s very loyal, very intense and it’s growing. Once we started seeing 14-year-old faces in front of the stage, all the way back to their parents’ age, we realised that we had sent the message: yes, we have hits, and we love playing them, but we have new songs, and we aren’t going to become stale. We’re always going to alternate new songs with familiar ones, and we’re going to get them accustomed to that idea, and it should work. And it did. Eventually we started to record at my own studio, and we licensed the albums to various labels internationally. So it’s been never boring.”

So why quit now?

“I don’t want to give people the impression that we’re falling off the edge of the world,” Kay replies. “We have been a touring band for 40 years, and I don’t see myself playing the 30-40 dates again that we’ll play this year. But we have this wildlife foundation, and who knows, maybe 18 months from now, if there’s a couple of events for it, I may do that. I’m certainly intending to play a handful of Smile if you get the songwriting royalties. Steppenwolf (John Kay far right) in the late 60s. blues festivals as a solo act, doing the kind of stuff I’ve done since I was a guy with a guitar in my hand hitch-hiking across America. So music will continue to be something that I will be involved in. But as far as Steppenwolf’s annual trek across America, that is definitely coming to an end this year.”

Wolf World will still stand, of course, although Kay has since moved to Vancouver, where he and his wife will focus on their work with the Maue Kay foundation, a non-profit group that provides financial assistance to people working to protect wildlife, the natural environment and human rights.

As for the long and winding legacy of Steppenwolf, Kay has no regrets.

“Fairly early on, even back in Germany during World War II, it became abundantly clear to me that the sort of by-the-book middle-class existence, I just could not see myself in that world.

“When the music came along, it was basically Little Richard who started it all for me. I realised that, for the first time, I had stumbled upon something that really ignited some sort of inner spark in me. And it went on from there. A few years later, as luck would have it, things turned out quite well. When I look over my shoulder to the beginning of all this, I think of times on stage when it was really clicking, when it was really optimum, and you really did not want to be anyone else or anywhere else. You were in the here and now. And that’s as good as it gets.”

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 109. John Kay and Steppenwolf are still on tour.


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