Artist Profile: Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf Profile

Photo: By ABC / Dunhill Records (Billboard, page 21, 13 March 1971) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Since the late 1960s, singer John Kay has led his band, Steppenwolf, to rock and roll success, selling over 25 million albums worldwide and achieving twelve Billboard Hot 100 singles, three of which reached the top 10. Lead singer John Kay has fronted the band since 1967 and is currently the only member of the original lineup still in the band.

The Thinking Man’s Rock and Roll

While unapologetically and undeniably rock music, what sets Steppenwolf apart from the rock masses is the attention to detail and meaning in their lyrics. In writing their songs, the band strove to produce music that not only rocked the bodies, but also the minds of their listeners. The philosophical lyrics delve into issues such as political unrest and social mores. However, that is not to say anything less about the quality of the music itself.

Much of Steppenwolf’s music features direct, straightforward melodies that let the lyrics take center stage. Rather than bog the music down with extended, experimental solos, the band keeps the guitar riffs and bass lines simple so that the songs can speak for themselves without a lot of distracting gimmicks. The solos that the group does include tend to be on the short side and blend seamlessly with the rest of the song. This elevated simplicity has made Steppenwolf’s hits favorite staples of classic rock radio stations and stadium sports.

John Kay’s Early Life

Front man John Kay was born in East Prussia, Germany towards the end of World War II. Before his first birthday, Kay’s mother fled with her child to East Germany, then under the control of the Communist Party. At age 4, he and his mother escaped to West Germany, where he was first exposed to American rock and roll through the U.S. Armed Forces Radio. Something about the raw, primal nature of rock music struck a chord with Kay, and he developed an early interest in music and learned English from American songs.

In 1958, Kay’s family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, where he began performing blues and folk music at small venues throughout North America. He then joined Canadian band The Sparrow, which frequently performed in Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Hollywood in 1967, Steppenwolf was born.

Steppenwolf Rockets to Stardom

Named after a Hermann Hesse novel of the same name, Steppenwolf achieved top 10 success with their third released single, “Born to Be Wild,” released in 1968. This song, along with another by the group, “The Pusher,” was featured in the 1969 biker classic Easy Rider. Ever since, “Born to Be Wild” has been associated with the biker culture and lifestyle. It was also in this song that Steppenwolf coined the term “heavy metal.” While the lyric was meant to refer to motorcycles, it quickly became accepted in the music industry as a term to describe this evolving genre of rock music.

The group released several more albums in the coming years with continued success. Steppenwolf the Second featured top 10 hit “Magic Carpet Ride” (this author’s favorite song!), and At Your Birthday Party included another top 10 achiever, “Rock Me.” The year 1971 marked the beginning of the end for the starting lineup of the band, with Larry Byrom quitting the group. Several more changes ensued, and the band eventually split after a Valentine’s Day farewell concert in 1972.

One Last Reunion

Lead singer John Kay went on to a mediocre solo career that achieved some critical success but low sales. In 1974, Steppenwolf reunited with the majority of its original lineup, but was unable to replicate their early successes, ultimately splitting again in 1976 after releasing three albums which largely stayed under the radar. In 1980, Kay reformed the group with mostly new members, renaming the band John Kay and Steppenwolf. Throughout several incarnations, the band continued to tour up until 2007 when they announced their retirement.

Reaching a New Generation

Despite their retirement in 2007, John Kay and Steppenwolf have continued to perform live shows, with several concerts already set for 2016, including several dates in the United States and one stop in Brazil. Throughout the band’s long history, they have spawned a number of cover bands, delivering their music not just to long time fans, but to new listeners as well. The band, Born to Be Wild, is one of the most popular and well-known of these tribute groups.

written by Alanna Borrowman

Steppenwolf : discography

John Kay & The Sparrow (released 1967)

Steppenwolf  (released 1968)

The Second  (released 1968)

At Your Birthday Party   (released 1969)

Monster  (released 1969)

Steppenwolf Live   (released 1970)

Steppenwolf 7   (released 1970)

For Ladies Only  (released 1971)

Steppenwolf Gold Their Greatest Hits  (released 1971)

Rest in Peace (released 1972)

Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heros (released 1972)

My Sportin’ Life (released 1973)

16 Greatest Hits (released 1973)

Slow Flux (released 1974)

Hour of the Wolf (released 1975)

Skulldudggery (released 1976)

The ABC Collection  (released 1976)

Born To Be Re-Wild (released 1976)

All in Good Time (released 1978)

Live In London (released 1981)

Wolftracks (released 1982)

Paradox (released 1984)

Rock N Roll Rebels (released 1987)

Lone Steppenwolf (released 1988)

Rise and Shine (released 1989)

The Best of John Kay and Sparrow: Tighten Up You Wig (released 1993)

Live at 25 (released 1995)

Feel the Fire (released 1996)

The Lost Heritage Tapes (released 1997)

20th Century Masters (released 1999)

All Time Greatest Hits (released 1999)

Heretics and Privateers (released 1901)

Live at 25 Silver Anniversary (released 1903)

Live in Louisville (released 2004)

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