It’s ironic that the group most associated with shaping the American music scene for an entire generation actually hailed from Canada. The son of a serviceman, John Kay was born in Germany and grew up listening to the armed forces radio network. Influenced by the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, he moved to Toronto at the age of fourteen. An early disciple of the blues, he cut his chops playing the local coffee shops while still a teen and set out on his own traveling across the continent, playing small blues venues, shortly after graduating from high school.
Upon returning to Ontario in 1965, he formed a band called The Sparrow with some local musicians from Yorkville. They released their self-titled debut with Columbia Records the next year as Jack London and The Sparrows and had the single “Hard Time With the Law”. Less than a year later London’s name was replaced by Kay’s on the marquee and another self-titled record hit the stores. A fairly loyal following developed after the group moved to the New York area and had three singles on the airwaves over the course of a year. Disputes with the record company, however, spelled the end of the group less than a year and a half after the album’s release.
Kay, along with Jerry Edmonton, his brother Dennis (who went by the name of Mars Bonfire), Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas re-emerged in late 1967 in San Francisco as Steppenwolf. Their self-titled debut came out in 1968 on MCA in the middle of flower power and is one of the most important records in rock history. Backed by the instant classic “Born to Be Wild”, the overall psychedelic sound blended with a hard-driving beat to instantly make Steppenwolf the spokesmen for North America’s attitude during the late ‘60s through to the mid ‘70s. Other classics such as the Willie Dixon blues classic “Hoochie Koochie Man”, “Sookie Sookie” and the Hoyt Axton-penned tune about the life of a drug dealer called “The Pusher” quickly turned the album gold.
The group came back the same year with Steppenwolf – The Second. Supported by the smash “Magic Carpet Ride”, and “It’s Never Too Late”, the closest thing they ever did to a ballad, the record stayed true to what would become their signature sound. At Your Birthday Party was released in 1969 and despite it being their third record in barely a year and a half, it was soon certified gold behind the support of “Jupiter Child”, “Rock Me Baby” and “It’s Never Too Late”. The group’s first live record, Early Steppenwolf, six tracks taped in England came out that same year. Notable is a version of “The Pusher” that takes up the entire second side of the album.
The band ushered in the ‘70s with Monster. Amid the turbulent turn of the decade, Monster contained the controversial “Fag”, a diary of San Francisco’s night life. Along with the title track and “Draft Register”, both commentaries about the Vietnam War, Monster was certified gold that same year, just in time for the release of the double album, Steppenwolf Live. Recorded at various California venues on the Monster tour, it gave the band time to regroup, following nearly four years of constant touring. The lull in the schedule also saw the release of their first greatest hits package, Steppenwolf Gold. Released in 1971, long before a “best of” package had remixes and previously unreleased classics, it was the quintessential biker record and turned gold practically overnight.
The time off seemed to go by unnoticed when they came back with For Ladies Only in the summer of 1972. Though it produced two singles, neither the title track nor “Ride With Me” broke new ground. Despite more gold for the band, a new sound was emerging, and like it or not, bubblegum was going to stay for awhile. That same year also saw the release Rest in Peace. Instead of re-thinking their approach, another biker album that year seemed to almost over-stuff the market.
MCA released another greatest hits package the next year while the group toiled in the studios. But while 16 Great Performances fed a market already dominated by them, the release of Slow Flux in the summer of 1974 disappointed the critics who, by this time were jumping off the “rebel ride” and on to the “pansy express”. Yet another greatest hits package came out that year - this one called 16 Great Performances - (same songs - different order)
Hour of the Wolf hit the shelves in 1975. The mid seventies were a time of change, no longer a time of rebellion as such. Without decent support from their label and no real expansion of sound, Hour of the Wolf was, in retrospect, the beginning of the downward spiral. Their second record in a row to fail to produce a single was released the next year in Skullduggery. The group’s status was in hiatus at this point and Reborn to Be Wild was released in 1977, a compilation of the second stage of the group’s career.
Legal squabbles over the use of the Steppenwolf name ensued for the next few years. Emerging from the court room victorious and returning to the record stores came in 1981 when John Kay won the right to use the name and released Live in London that year. Now free of the 1960’s lifestyle and now middle-aged, Kay’s return album on MCA featured such classics as “Sookie Sookie”, “Magic Carpet Ride” and of course “Born to Be Wild”. Everything you’d expect really - but the fact is it was a pinnacle album. It signaled Kay’s return, and his apparent realization that though his music would always be stereotyped and his course had run, he was back clean and still able to please a crowd. More importantly, it signaled that even in England people in the ‘80s were still interested in Steppenwolf’s message. Though the market was mostly the same people, just in smaller numbers, the niche was there.
Wolf Tracks was the first released on Kay’s new label, Wolf Records, distributed by Attic here in Canada, hitting the stores in 1982. Though not a bad album, it displayed Kay’s trademark vocals and the tour across England and North America showed he could still attract the crowds. Notable about the record is it contained a remake of the Argent classic, “Hold Your Head Up”.
Paradox was released in 1984 to poor sales, which forced Kay into the background until he released 1987’s Rock & Roll Rebels. Again he dropped out of sight and Steppenwolf wasn’t heard from again until Born to Be Wild - A Retrospective hit the stores in 1991. Kay even released a compilation of his work with Sparrow two years later. Feed the Fire came out in 1996 followed by 1998’s Rise & Shine.
Though John Kay and Steppenwolf have a niche that for the most part grows smaller as time goes on, the fact he’s still going and people still listen to their message spells legend in the language of rock and roll. Steppenwolf was synonomous with an entire generation, and the attitudes and beliefs they held true. Most of those people either still buy his discs or see him live or have influenced their kids’ tastes in music. Supply and demand even prompted Kay to agree to 1998’s first “John Kay & Steppenwolf Weekend”.