Steppenwolf – The Epic Years 1974-1976
Cherry Red Records
Release Date: 27/01/23
Running Time: 02:05:04
Review by Simon Black
Slow Flux – 6/10
Hour Of The Wolf – 9/10
Skullduggery – 7/10
Overall – 7.5/10
I don’t think many people realise quite how huge Steppenwolf were as the twilight of the 1960’s dribbled into the 1970’s. Their two globally renowned tracks ‘Born To Be Wild’ and their version of ‘The Pusher’ are the essence of Biker Rock – both hailing from their 1969 self-titled debut, and blown into the global limelight thanks to their inclusion on the soundtrack for the movie ‘Easy Rider’. And let’s not forget that the former would also prove to be the first coining of the phrase “Heavy Metal” in a music context three years before Black Sabbath hit the airwaves, even if they were actually singing about Harley Davidsons…
That cinematic and mainstream exposure so early on meant that they didn’t spend very long playing the toilet venues around the USA and Canada for long, rapidly finding themselves on headline arena tours and under huge pressure to keep delivering the hits. Seven studio albums later over a brisk four years, a revolving door of band members plus the slog of touring all proved too much, and a very burnt-out Steppenwolf called it a day at the start of 1972.
Frontman John Kay switched into a solo mode for a while, before Steppenwolf reformed in 1974, which is where the story of this box set kicks off. They were actually signed to Mums Records (as a “screw you” to the label that Kay endured during his solo stint, but this was absorbed by Epic Records. The line-up was a hybrid of Steppenwolf’s original backbone of Kay, Edmonton, and McJohn along with some members of Kay’s solo band, which meant with both bands going out as a package for the first tour meant for a somewhat gruelling tour if you were pulling double duty.
That first record, “Slow Flux” is a little odd, and aptly named. Apart from Kay’s distinctive vocals, it doesn’t really sound like Steppenwolf, and that’s probably because a significant chunk of it was originally destined for one of Kay’s solo disks. OK, ‘Straight Shooting Woman’ charted well, but it really doesn’t feel like it’s firing on all cylinders, and behind the scenes the wheels were falling off of Goldy McJohn’s bus, and his erratic behaviour saw him replaced for the next outing. It’s not actually a bad record, just a bit of a mixed and inconsistent bag. Slow and in flux indeed…
“Hour of the Wolf” however is a triumphant return to form, mostly.
Not only does it actually sound like Steppenwolf for the most part with the addition of Andy Chapin on keyboards bringing back some much-needed Psychedelic noodling to the arrangements, but the song-writing in general has also upped the ante noticeably. Where it fails at the time was in its bizarre choice of lead single – the Mars Bonfire penned ‘Caroline (Are You Ready for the Outlaw World)’. Now on paper Bonfire seemed a sensible choice, given he actually wrote ‘Born To Be Wild’, but this sounds manufactured and trying too hard to be a hit single, at which it failed spectacularly. It’s actually when the writing starts to get a bit more experimental that things get more interesting, with the almost Progressive ‘Mr. Penny Pincher’ showing Chapin’s virtuosity on the keyboards, as well as pumping up the mood. Fortunately, the belters outweigh the bland, so it stands up well after nearly fifty years.
Sadly, when we get to disk three, Chapin has moved on. In fact, in many ways so has the whole band, who had run out of steam once again, but were forced into releasing this as a contractual obligation to Epic, but which never got toured. Whilst still having a few good moments such as the title track, it feels rudderless overall as an album. These good moments are generally stronger than anything on “Slow Flux”, but it’s clear that the band are a spent force by this point, with tracks seemingly padded with Disco-esque instrumental breaks just to shoot everyone involved in the foot out of sheer spite.
As always when Cherry Red re-issue these sets, it’s done with love and care, and the huge 30-page booklet makes for a fascinating read, not to mention a grand job being done of polishing up the sound for the modern age. Kay would revive the brand in the next decade, but from here on in as a creative force Steppenwolf were done and forced into becoming their own tribute act. As a slice of history though, this is some way out from their heyday, but when they are firing on all cylinders it works well, with “Hour of the Wolf” standing out from the pack by many yards.
Disc One – Slow Flux
01. Gang War Blues
02. Children of Night
03. Justice Don’t Be Slow
04. Get into the Wind
06. Straight Shootin’ Woman
07. Smokey Factory Blues
08. Morning Blue
09. A Fool’s Fantasy
10. Fishin’ in the Dark
Disc Two – Hour Of The Wolf
01. Caroline (Are You Ready for the Outlaw World)
02. Annie, Annie Over
03. Two for the Love of One
04. Just for Tonight
05. Hard Rock Road
06. Someone Told a Lie
07. Another’s Lifetime
08. Mr. Penny Pincher Bonus tracks
09. Angeldrawers (B-side of single)
10. Caroline (Are You Ready for the Outlaw World) (Mono promotional single mix)
Disc Three – Skullduggery
02. (I’m a) Road Runner
03. Rock n’ Roll Song
04. Train of Thought
05. Life is a Gamble
06. Pass it On
08. Lip Service
John Kay – Guitar, Vocals
Bobby Cochran – Guitar
George Biondo – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Jerry Edmonton – Drums
Goldy McJohn – Keyboards (Slow Flux)
Andy Chapin – Keyboards (Hour of the Wolf)
Wayne Cook – Keyboards (Skullduggery)
Disclaimer: This review is solely the property of Simon Black and Ever Metal. It is strictly forbidden to copy any part of this review, unless you have the strict permission of both parties. Failure to adhere to this will be treated as plagiarism and will be reported to the relevant authorities.