of the Week #4
From Here To There Eventually
birthplace would be hard to find/It changed so many times/I'm not sure where it
they tell me the Baltic coast is full of amber/And the land was green/Before
the tanks came"
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".
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.
encyclopedias say that Joachim Fritz Krauledat was born on April 12,1944 in
Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (today's Sovetsk, Kaliningrad Oblast, in Russia).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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").
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"
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,
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.
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).
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
(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
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
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.
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
listen to the "B" side.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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".
I saw that you hide from the misery outside so I left you behind".
some work down in the street/(...) Throw your robe and stuff away".
a very beautiful "call and response" section appears, John Kay in a
dialogue with a Gospel choir.
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.
will save/He's comin' back for you people/Yes He is//Jesus will save/He's
comin' back and you better believe it".
a few slow electric guitar arpeggios take the song to its enigmatic close.
Beppe Colli 2020
| Dec. 13, 2020