Pick of the Week #4
From Here To There Eventually

(Monster, 1969)
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 13, 2020

"My birthplace would be hard to find/It changed so many times/I'm not sure where it belongs"

"But they tell me the Baltic coast is full of amber/And the land was green/Before the tanks came"


"Hey you, keep your head down/Don't look around, please don't make a sound/If they should find you now/The Man will shoot you down".

That's the incipit of the very fine song called Renegade, a piece whose author, John Kay, composed for the album Steppenwolf 7 (1970), which in many ways could be considered the group's apex, in order to tell a story from decades before but which was still very clear in his mind.

Today's encyclopedias say that Joachim Fritz Krauledat was born on April 12,1944 in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (today's Sovetsk, Kaliningrad Oblast, in Russia).

After several dramatic adventures, in 1958 his family (his father having died one month before his birth) emigrated to Toronto, where his teachers started calling him "John K". Five years later, his family emigrated to the United States. Destination: Buffalo, New York.

After Steppenwolf's most fertile chapter, in both commercial and artistic terms, had come to its end, John Kay started his solo career by releasing an album - Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes (1972) - where he revisited his musical roots, recording cover versions of songs penned by Hank Williams, Richard Fariña, Robert Johnson, and Hank Snow. A repertory which had been his moral compass, but also a parallel way to learn a foreign language, and a piece of a new identity for a guy who suffered severe eye problems - hence, those dark glasses he used to wear, which later became an integral part of his - also his group's - "image".

An album released in order to give some breathing space to a group that was overwhelmed by too many concerts and by a contract that forced them to release two albums per year (something which was fairly standard in those days), Early Steppenwolf (1969) featured a live show by the Sparrows, a Canadian-American group that, with just a few modifications, will soon become Steppenwolf.

On Early Steppenwolf, songs by Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and Hoyt Axton appear side-by-side with just a few originals. The group's love for blues, rhythm 'n ' blues, and country will stay the same on their debut album of same name (1968), which featured songs penned by Covay/Cropper, Willie Dixon, and Hoyt Axton (whose song Snowblind Friend will get a very appropriate cover on the already-mentioned Steppenwolf 7); while Berry Rides Again recreates the mood of Chuck Berry's music, with lyrics that are a pastiche of his songs.

John Kay's perspective as a songwriter - here I have to immediately mention his "rock" voice, so easy to recognize after just a few notes - was greatly influenced by his life story: somebody who had come from a different country, with a "blue collar", "working class", background; somebody who regarded the civil and political freedom of a Country where he had found his place as supremely important but who now saw those values in danger, that freedom at risk, with the Vietnam war raging and a shift to the right that was quite easy to perceive, especially in the state, California, where the members of Steppenwolf found themselves living and working.

The group's producer, Gabriel Mekler, was of great help for the group's career. (Maybe readers won't remember his name, but he's a featured instrumentalist on two Donovan big hits from that period: he's on piano and organ on Atlantis; on melodica on To Susan On The West Coast Waiting.)

Just by chance, a song penned by... Mars Bonfire - a.k.a. Dennis Edmonton, the guitar playing brother of Steppenwolf's drummer Jerry Edmonton - shot the group to the top of the charts in 1968: Born To Be Wild, a song that more than half a century later is still regarded as a "classic" from that time, having appeared in such a moment-defining movie as Easy Rider.

And so, Born To Be Wild is the song that immediately comes to mind as soon as the name Steppenwolf is mentioned. But there are also other songs that were released as singles, a few of them with excellent chart placing, that a lot of people remember quite well: Magic Carpet Ride, Rock Me, Jupiter's Child, Hey Lowdy Mama, Move Over, Who Needs Ya?, Screaming Night Hog (whose title will remain an enigma for those who, being unaware of the US meaning of the word "hog" as a large motorcycle, will forever believe that a literal "hog", i.e. a pig, is "screaming in the night").

As it's the case with many other groups and artists that are not household names anymore, today Steppenwolf are known for just two/three hit singles, and a few other assorted songs: those that one can find on any "greatest hits" release.

For reasons I can't really say, in their day Steppenwolf were given scant attention by critics, even their best albums that worked well as such (it has to be admitted that at the time the "competition" was quite formidable, though).

With John Kay as singer and guitarist, the group's main figures were Jerry Edmonton on drums, and Goldy McJohn on organ and piano. The latter has its work often placed "inside" the music, but he proves himself as versatile and inventive. While technically "just adequate", for mysterious reasons Edmonton is very often quite personal and easy to recognize, the same being true of the group sound: something that at the time accounted for a lot.

Just seventeen, Michael Monarch is the guitar player on the group's first three albums. He's good in the rhythm/solo dept. (Sookie Sookie), with a few "Indian"-inspired moments (The Pusher, whose classic group rendition was also featured in the movie Easy Rider).

What the group obviously lacked was the ability to fill two albums per year with new material. New guitarist Larry Byrom comes to the rescue. Byrom (who many years later I found in the pages of US magazine Guitar Player, working as a name session player in Nashville) proved to be a solid and inventive instrumentalist, already possessing a good background, quite good at assembling guitar parts that form a rich, and timbrally various, landscape. Hence, things going seriously bad when he left the group, for "personal reasons", the group then releasing an album, For Ladies Only, where the spirit was willing but...

Monster (1969) and Steppenwolf 7 (1970) are the great specimens of the group with Byrom on guitar. There's also more attention to production, a conscious effort to better the arrangements, a search for new colours. While timbrally richer, 7 is a bit too heterogenous for my taste, hence my personal predilection for Monster.

Side one opens with Monster, a long track split in three parts, featuring lot of guitars, organ, and voices (there's also a female chorus, uncredited in the album liner notes), with lyrics that tell a long tale, and the birth of a crisis.

The following track, Draft Resister, inhabits a tense, nervous, mood. It features multiple guitars, lots of percussion (also, an uncredited marimba), and an excellent vocal interpretation by John Kay.

Appearing in a short version on Early Steppenwolf, Power Play is given here an extended coda. The track also shows John Kay's growth as a singer. There's a great finale, with the organ "full vibrato" closing the track with just the "room mic".

Let's listen to the "B" side.

After a guitar feedback, Move Over appears at a frantic pace, the vocals placed "inside" the track, a fast tempo, nervous drum rolls, a pounding piano, and a "screaming" guitar.

It's at this point that the album decides to take a rest, with both an instrumental and a cover featuring a different bass player from the one performing on the rest of the album, or so it seems to me. "By ear", to me it sounds quite like George Biondo, who will officially join the group starting with 7, as a replacement for Nick St. Nicholas.

Starting with a blues piano in "rubato", Fag crawls in a lazy tempo with piano, bass, and drums acting as backing to a solo guitar through a Leslie, or "phasing".

What Would You Do (If I Did It To You)? is a rhythm 'n' blues cover with a spectacular bass and drums intro - listen to those bass drum hits - and great use of the organ. A singer whose identity is not revealed by the liner notes, a female chorus, a song that sounds a bit lightweight but which possesses its own peculiar kind of depth.

The album close (the album is a bit on the short side - just a bit over 33' - but here everything counts) is a song penned by John Kay, titled From Here To There Eventually.

A medium tempo gives the singer the time to tell his story. The "house filled with things of gold" and "preaching about being pure" make it apparent that the song is talking about "a man of faith". Which is not an object of scorn, since the singer remembers those times "When I still embraced you/A little prayer would ease my mind".

"'Til I saw that you hide from the misery outside so I left you behind".

"Do some work down in the street/(...) Throw your robe and stuff away".

Here a very beautiful "call and response" section appears, John Kay in a dialogue with a Gospel choir.

The song ends, replaced by a fantastic, "psychedelic"-sounding r 'n' b "groove". Then, screams and what sounds like whipping, appear, with noises from the echo machine, and at the end, a Gospel explosion that's bound to remind one of (yet to be released) Gimmie Shelter, but which could be influenced by the Gospel choir that the Rolling Stones featured on Salt Of The Earth, on Beggars Banquet.

"Jesus will save/He's comin' back for you people/Yes He is//Jesus will save/He's comin' back and you better believe it".

Here, a few slow electric guitar arpeggios take the song to its enigmatic close.

© Beppe Colli 2020

CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 13, 2020