Steppenwolf – ‘Magic Carpet Ride-The Dunhill/ABC Years 1967-1971’ (2021)
In the four year period between 1967 and 1971 California based hard rock band Steppenwolf released a series of best selling albums and singles, unique for their social and political commentary, garnering nine gold records and gathering an extremely loyal fan base that remains to this day.
Cherry Red Records has gathered the six studio and two live LP’s, supplemented by twenty six single sides, in a new eight disc box set on the label’s Esoteric Recordings imprint.
Disc one opens with the tracks from the band’s self-titled debut album originally released on January 29, 1968. The LP contains two tunes which were immortalized by their inclusion in the 1969 motorcycle/counter culture cult film ‘Easy Rider. The Mars Bonfire (Dennis Edmonton, brother of Steppenwolf drummer Jerry Edmonton) penned ‘Born To Be Wild’ is famous for its inclusion of the term “heavy metal” in its lyrics, while its sound is dominated by Michael Monarch’s lead guitar line, as well as his feedback-drenched soaring solo and the Hammond organ work of Goldie McJohn. The band’s take on Hoyt Axton’s anti-drug anthem ‘The Pusher’ opens with the heavy riff of John Kay’s rhythm guitar and the driving beat of bassist Rushton Moreve and drummer Edmonton before Monarch’s lead guitar and Goldie McJohn’s Hammond organ join while Kay belts out a stern warning regarding hard drugs, especially heroin, and drives home the difference between marijuana dealers and the uncaring, greedy purveyors of deadly drugs. The album also includes some excellent band originals. ‘Desperation’ reassures the listener that it’s normal to sometimes feel lonely, lost, even useless, reminding them that others will understand and help them, a timely topic with alienation and suicide so rampant in today’s society, while prompting us to remain ever vigilant, to not become complacent, and to remember that we needn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. ‘The Ostrich’ tells of the false hopes of the “great American dream” which plague many in their quest for financial security, while warning of the damage to the ecology mankind is capable of, with a reminder that freedoms, such as that of speech, are to be treasured as the threat of fascism is ever present. The disc closes with eight single sides, all presented in mono, including ‘Born To Be Wild’, which reached #2 on the US charts, while the album peaked at #6, giving the band their first two gold records.
Disc two centers around ‘The Second’ which hit record shops in October of 1968, a month after its hit single, the title track to this box set. ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, written by Kay and Moreve, opens with a wall of guitar and organ feedback, its familiar melody featuring chunky rhythm guitar and Hammond organ, before Monarch turns the heat up on his guitar with throbbing feedback, the band locked into a steady riff. Released as a single the tune hit #3 and gave the band their second gold single. John Kay takes a shot at Richard Nixon’s “Operation Intercept” with his ode to marijuana ‘Don’t Step On The Grass Sam’ which has more pyrotechnics from Monarch on guitar augmented by McJohn’s organ and its biting lyrics: “Well it’s evil, wicked, mean and nasty, (Don’t step on the grass, Sam), And it will ruin our fair country, (Don’t be such an ass, Sam), It will hook your Sue and Johnny, (You’re so full of bull, Sam), All will pay that disagree with me, (Please give up you already lost the fight alright).” Kay takes another shot at the closed mindedness of authority figures with the humorously titled ‘Tighten Up Your Wig’. ‘The Second’ charted even higher than the band’s debut, topping out at #3 and earning the group another gold album. The disc is filled out with two mono single takes, including ‘Magic Carpet Ride’.
Disc three is built around the March 1969 LP ‘At Your Birthday Party’ with Moreve replaced by Nick St. Nicholas, from the band’s earlier days in Canada as the Sparrows, on bass. Containing more conventional hard rock and less commentary the album had the group’s third Top 10 single, the Kay penned ‘Rock Me’ and another sizable hit written by Kay and St. Nicholas, ‘It’s Never Too Late’, which made #51 on the charts. The long player sold well, peaking at #7, but did not achieve gold record status. The disc is filled out by the mono single versions of the two hits and their b-sides.
Disc four contains ‘Early Steppenwolf’ an album recorded live at The Matrix in San Francisco on May 14, 1967, by the group’s nucleus of Kay, McJohn and Edmonton, before their move to the US from Canada, while performing as the Sparrows, with Mars Bonfire (Dennis Edmonton) on lead guitar and the previously mentioned Nick St. Nicholas on bass. The LP’s highlights are a twenty one and a half minute take on ‘The Pusher’ filled with fiery guitar courtesy of Bonfire and takes on Kay’s ‘Power Play’ and ‘Tighten Up Your Wig’ which would become mainstays in the Steppenwolf live repertoire. ‘Early Steppenwolf’ reached a respectable, but not spectacular #29 on the charts.
Disc five centers around what many consider the band’s masterpiece, the highly political, hard rocking, November 1969 ‘Monster, the first to feature Larry Byrom on lead guitar having replaced Michael Monarch’. The album opens with the timeless, nearly ten minute, trilogy of social and political commentary ‘Monster/America/Suicide’. The tune begins with the melodic tale of the founding of the United States as Kay sings: “Once the religious, the hunted and weary, Chasing the promise of freedom and hope, Came to this country to build a new vision, Far from the reaches of kingdom and pope”. The band finds a comfortable groove as the song’s lyrics move from the hopeful beginning of the nation through the realities of nation growing: “And though the past has its share of injustice, Kind was the spirit in many a way, But it’s protectors and friends have been sleeping, Now it’s a monster and will not obey.” The song’s saga moves on to the reality of America, filled with authoritarianism and xenophobia, in the late 1960’s: “Our cities have turned into jungles, And corruption is stranglin’ the land, The police force is watching the people, And the people just can’t understand, We don’t know how to mind our own business, ‘Cause the whole worlds got to be just like us, Now we are fighting a war over there, No matter who’s the winner, We can’t pay the cost, ‘Cause there’s a monster on the loose, It’s got our heads into a noose, And it just sits there watching.” The band turns to a heavy, repetitive riff as the tune concludes with its plaintive question as to which direction the country will turn: “America where are you now?, Don’t you care about your sons and daughters?, Don’t you know we need you now, We can’t fight alone against the monster.” Without doubt the Jerry Edmonton/John Kay tune is as meaningful in 2022 as it was when it was written more than half a decade ago. The Kay,/Edmonton/Byrom composition ‘Draft Resister” addresses the hard choice faced by American youths whether to participate in the controversial war in Viet Nam. With Byrom’s guitar and percussion by Edmonton dominating the melody, and Byrom contributing an extended soaring solo, the lyrics were again essential in their social and political elements: “Here’s to all the draft resisters who will fight for sanity, When they march them off to prison in this land of liberty, Heed the threat and awesome power of the mighty Pentagon, Which is wasting precious millions on the toys of Washington, Don’t forget the Draft Resisters and their silent, lonely plea, When they march them off to prison, they will go for you and me, Shame, disgrace and all dishonor, wrongly placed upon their heads, Will not rob them of the courage which betrays the innocent.” The band follows with another tune of incredible importance, questioning the authority and judgment of the Nixon Administration, is Kay’s ‘Power Play’. The tune is mellower, with Byrom’s restrained guitar and Edmonton’s driving drums dominating before Byrom takes the tune away with a probing solo and Kay’s vocals pose the question: “What gives you the right hey you, To stand there and tell me what to do, Tell me who gave you the power, To stop me from livin’ like I do, Remember if you plan to stay, Those who give can take away, Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, Just one time I’d like to be somewhere where, None of your clever lies fill the air, I’m tired of your frozen smile and your voice of tin, Just might all gang up on you, Turn the knob and do you in, Remember if you plan to stay, Those who give can take away.. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, This never ending power play.” One more tune is especially strong in its commentary on life in the United States, ‘Move Over’ penned by Kay and producer Gabriel Mekler, with lyrics such as: “Yesterday’s glory won’t help us today, You want to retire?, Get out of the way, I ain’t got much time, The young ones close behind, I can’t wait in line, Move over, Come on, Move Over.” Byrom’s guitar dominates as ‘Move Over’ opens with a blast of feedback, his lead guitar line supplemented by McJohn’s Hammond organ. Byrom adds an effortless solo, as the album shows a finely honed hard rock band with incredibly insightful lyrics, making for one of the finest, and arguably most important, albums of the rock music era. ‘Monster’ returned Steppenwolf to the Top 20, reaching #17 on the charts, giving Steppenwolf its third gold album, while edited versions of ‘Monster’ and ‘Move Over’ peaked at #39 and #31 on the charts when released as singles. The disc adds the mono single versions of ‘Monster’, ‘Move Over’ and ‘Power Play’ as bonus tracks.
Disc six is built around the April 1970 double LP Steppenwolf ‘Live’ recorded at various gigs early that year. The release includes live takes on the band’s hits ‘Born To Be Wild’, ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ and ‘Monster’, long time set list occupants ‘Don’t Step On The Grass Sam’, ‘Power Play’ and ‘Draft Resister’ as well as holdovers from the Sparrows period ‘Tighten Up Your Wig’ and ‘The Pusher’. Steppenwolf was arguably at their best live with Byrom’s guitar and McJohn’s Hammond organ to the fore, while the rhythm section of St. Nicholas and Edmonton, along with Kay’s rhythm guitar, consistently maintained the riff on tunes. In addition to the live tracks, one new studio recording is found on the double long player, the Edmonton/Kay/Byrom composition ‘Hey Lawdy Mama’, with Byrom’s guitar dominant and the group displaying gorgeous vocal harmonies. Byrom’s wah wah aided solo is an especially nice touch. The single was the band’s sixth Top 40 single, peaking at #35. ‘Steppenwolf Live’ reached #7, giving Steppenwolf its fourth gold album. The disc is filled out with three mono single tracks, most notably ‘Hey Lawdy Mama’.
Disc seven is fittingly dedicated to ‘Steppenwolf 7’, released in November 1970. The LP stands in sharp contrast to the group’s previous studio album ‘Monster’, the focus returning to more straight forward hard rock tunes and George Biondo having replaced Nick St. Nicholas on bass. Kay’s autobiographical ‘Renegade’ is the sole tune devoted to political and social issues. The song describes the lead vocalist’s escape from East Germany at a very young age: “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 tank came, One day I learned just how it used to be, The devils’ curse brought the whole world to its knees, And it was “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.” The trip, which would eventually land Kay in Canada is further described: “It’s a mighty long way out of the darkness, To where the sun is free to shine, Oh! The truck came by to put us in the back, And left us where the railroad tracks cross the line, Then the border guide took us by the hand, And led us through the hole into the promise land beyond, And I can hear him now, Whispering soft and low, “When you get to the other side, Just run like hell”. The LP’s other standout tracks are Kay’s heavy rocker ‘Who Needs Ya?’ which Byrom dominates with his scorching lead guitar, and a cover of another Hoyt Axton anti-drug song, the gentle ‘Snowblind Friend’ which reached #62 and #60 respectively when released as singles. The album peaked at #19, becoming the group’s fifth gold album. The disc is completed by edited versions of ‘Snowblind Friend’ and its b-side, the light-hearted ‘Hippo Stomp’, another track from the LP. The disc also includes Kay’s biker rock tune ‘Who Needs Ya?’ which was included on the March 1971 compilation album ‘Gold’ and features incendiary guitar courtesy of Byrom. ‘Gold’ reached #24 and gave the band their sixth and final gold album, while the single peaked at a disappointing #62.
Steppenwolf had one more offering on Dunhill/ABC, November 1971’s ‘For Ladies Only’, which broke new ground in the rock industry by addressing the plight of women in its Kay penned title track, and gun violence in the Edmonton/McJohn tune ‘I’m Asking’. The album opens with the nine-minute plus ‘For Ladies Only’ which begins gently with new guitarist, Kent Henry (ex-Blues Image, Genesis USA) and organist McJohn to the fore, Kay examining the treatment of women in American society: “What you say to drive that girl away, When she’s the one and only?, Who’s the one that you been leanin’ on, Every time that you were down and lonely?“ then concluding: “For ladies only, Tired of talkin’ ’till somebody hears, For ladies only, Half the world has been built upon their tears.” Henry contributes a hot guitar solo leading to an extended piano interlude by McJohn before the band rejoins to rock the tune to a close. Equally ahead of its time is Edmonton and McJohn’s commentary on the problems associated with youths and firearms in ‘I’m Asking’: “I’m asking all you mothers,, Do you tell your children lies?, How do you think they’ll grow up, If they’re weaned upon a gun.” The album fittingly brings the band full circle to its ‘Born To Be Wild’ beginnings with the inclusion of the Mars Bonfire tune ‘Ride With Me’ another feedback-drenched, guitar and Hammond organ-fueled biker tune. The disc is filled out with single sides, including a three minute edit of the title track and the mono version of ‘Ride With Me’.
During the period of slightly more than four years covered in this box set, Steppenwolf released eight albums that reached the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 200 charts, six of which made the Top 20 and four peaking in the Top 10. The group had twelve singles reach Billboard’s Hot 100, six placing in the Top 40 and three reaching the Top 10. Each and every one of these tracks are included on ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, making it an absolutely complete collection of works of the band during their glory years at Dunhill/ABC Records.
The eight discs of ‘Magic Carpet Ride-The Dunhill/ABC Years 1967-1971’ come in mini-LP replica sleeves, five of them gatefold, each uniquely including the album’s original artwork on the discs themselves, which fit snugly in a sturdy clamshell box. The box set includes a glossy six panel fold out poster filled with press clippings as well as a full color fifty two page booklet with complete track annotations and album credits, an extensive essay by Malcolm Dome, photos of band members, album and single artwork and lots of other memorabilia. Steppenwolf sounds better than ever thanks to the 24 bit mastering job of Paschal Byrne at The Audio Archiving Company. This is without doubt the absolute last word on Steppenwolf’s glory years at Dunhill/ABC Records and will appeal to fans of the band, 1960’s and 1970’s rock, classic rock, hard rock and rock music in general and comes highly recommended.
Steppenwolf – ‘Magic Carpet Ride-The Dunhill/ABC Years 1967-1971’ (Cherry Red Records 2021)
Yes, I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is pure bullshit,but why, why why is Steppenwolf not a member – when Madonna and Whitney Houston are???