Home Albums Album Review: Steppenwolf – ‘The Epic Years 1974 – 1976’

Album Review: Steppenwolf – ‘The Epic Years 1974 – 1976’

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Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM

Best known for THAT line, in THAT song, there’s much more to Steppenwolf than ‘Born To Be Wild’. Whilst the phrase ‘heavy metal’ was first coined by cult sci-fi and fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, it certainly came fully to life when John Kay and his long-haired cohorts sang about it in the 1968 hit, Saxon turning those three words “heavy metal thunder” into an anthem some twelve years later.

With the boost that Steppenwolf got when their iconic track was used in classic 60’s film ‘Easy Rider’, the band rode a wave that saw them become a household name not just in their home country but globally.

Sadly, their success was to be relatively short lived, issues with the line-up meaning that they called things a day in 1972, Kay launching a solo career. The lure of the ‘wolf was too much though and the band reconvened two years later, signing to Epic Records and producing the three albums in this new box set, a new fire in their bellies.

The trio of releases certainly have that classic psychedelic bluesy hard rock feel they’d become known for but there’s also a sense of calm here that’s missing from those early albums. With a more stable band they’d become freer to push their sound and this makes for fascinating listening, the only downside being
that some of the early volatility and danger had dissipated, the earlier, massive success giving them a cushion. This fame though was a double-edged sword in itself, the expectation a heavy weight on their shoulders.

One thing working in their favour was the relatively short time they’d been away and the fact that their comeback was much anticipated, fans choosing loyalty over the fickleness of chasing the newest shiny thing to come their way.

It’s with this fact that we can view 1974’s ‘Slow Flux’ as a triumphant return, hard rocking ‘Gang War Blues’ full of grit and an irresistible groove. With Kay’s distinctive roar and the keys of Goldy McJohn there’s a mix of the biker bar band and psychedelia throughout, the guitars snarling and the bass and drums rock solid.

From social protest song ‘Justice Don’t Be Slow’ through to a storming ‘Get Into the Wind’ and ‘Smokey Factory Blues’ through to celebratory and joyous ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ there’s much here to kick back and enjoy.

Released in 1975, ‘Hour of the Wolf’ was more of the same, albeit with a more laid back approach initially and after two mellower opening tracks it took ‘Two for the Love of One’ to start putting the hammer down, the interplay between the guitars and keys delightful. Ballad ‘Just for Tonight’ shimmers with a real soul and light and the Creedence Clearwater Revival-like ‘Hard Rock Road’ is a highway song that soundtracked many a trip down Route 66.

With their use of keys to drive as well as the guitars, Steppenwolf could also claim kinship with England’s Uriah Heep and tracks like ‘Someone Told a Lie’ add weight to this thought, the Trans-Atlantic appeal there very clearly. Most remarkably though, ‘Mr Penny Pincher’ sounded both light years ahead of its time and at times rooted in the rock musicals that became so popular at the time, the whole an intriguing blend.

Old problems started emerging through their revival, with subtle changes happening with the band’s membership once again, each of the three Epic albums featuring at least one different player.

By the time they got around to ‘Skullduggery’ in 1976 the cracks were becoming terminal once again, the band splitting once more but it’s a frustrating scenario as the album is full of some very fine work indeed. With the extended titular opener with its great fretwork, the powerful ‘(I’m a) Road Runner’ and the gorgeously lyrical ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Song’, there’s all long-time fans could want here.

Closing with the cosmically funky ‘Lip Service’, the band were just starting to stretch their wings once again and it would have been interesting to see where they would have gone next, had that line-up stayed together.

‘The Epic Years 1974 – 1976’ is certainly a fascinating document and one that opens up a whole new world to those who just know Steppenwolf for ‘Born to be Wild’ or ‘Magic Carpet Ride’.

The dynamic tension between past and future is a palpable force here, giving each of the albums a frisson of something special that goes beyond any nostalgia felt listening to recordings almost fifty years old.

With John Kay continuing with various forms of the band until 2018 when things were put to bed once and for all, theirs was a long and storied history and this compilation is an all too often overlooked chapter that’s certainly worth exploring in greater detail.

An American classic, Steppenwolf may not have had the lasting fame and massive success of others but were a bedrock of music and deserve respect. Get your motor running and grab yourself a copy of this box set now.

John Kay & Steppenwolf – The Epic Years 1974-76. Coming in January, a new 3CD box featuring three albums and bonus tracks. Included is an illustrated booklet featuring essay and interviews. 👉https://www.cherryred.co.uk/…/steppenwolf-the-epic…/

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