Thursday, May 8, 2014

Blow Your House Down: John Kay & Steppenwolf Huff and Puff into the 80s

There was a time when the name Steppenwolf was synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. With hits and significant movie soundtrack and album cuts such as “Born to be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride” and “The Pusher” Steppenwolf led by charismatic frontman John Kay ruled the airwaves in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Unfortunately, success could not be sustained and the group fell apart and broke up in 1972. But through fits and starts, Steppenwolf would regroup and disband again and again over the course of the next decade plus. But with the proviso that the only original member of the band in each incarnation would be gravelly voiced crooner Kay.

Rolling, or panting, into 1987, the group now booked as John Kay & Steppenwolf entered a new phase of their career. Perhaps inspired by the successful reunions of other veteran rock groups such as Aerosmith, Deep Purple and others in the 1980s or out just to re-establish his legal rights to the name Steppenwolf, John Kay decided to give it another try. Along with noted Hollywood session guitarist Rocket Ritchotte, keyboardist Michael Wilk and, allegedly, drummer Ron Hurst, Kay and the group put together “Rock & Roll Rebels” in 1987.

In a curious development, Kay and Steppenwolf did not sign with a major label for “Rock & Roll Rebels,” but instead decided out of principle or by necessity to use Qwil Music as the label, which was distributed through K-tel International, the infamous “As Seen on TV” purveyor of “20 Great Hits sung by 20 Great Artists” type compilation albums. But the contradiction of a once-ultra-cool, cutting-edge rock act on the kitschy television record label mostly featured in commercials during the “The Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” seemed a perfect-fit for the schizophrenic 80s, when First Lady Nancy Reagan preached “just say no” to drugs in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic.

In any event, the actual album “Rock & Roll Rebels” has a decidedly upbeat, fight-the-good-fight vibe in resistance to the jaded, seen-it-all ambiance that had taken hold by 1987. On “Give Me Life,” Kay and crew exhort us to grab some fun and not let the good times pass us by without grabbing all you can—you need to be bold. Ritchotte does some nice soloing and quick-fingered fretwork on this song. Even though online sources now list Ron Hurst as the drummer on this album, I’m pretty sure it’s actually a drum machine. This idea is reinforced when I recall seeing advertisements in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section showing only Kay, Ritchotte and Wilk for a local show.

John Kay circa 1972. Photo credit: Affendaddy /
 Foter / Creative Commons -NonCommercial-
ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
An anthem for those who have a chip on their shoulders against naysayers is “Hold on (Never Give up, Never Give in),” or what I like to think of as the Galaxy Quest song. While risking clich├ęd sentiment, Kay earnestly sings the chorus of “Hold on, never give up, never give in | Stay young and believe in your chance to win.” For those everywhere who have ever heard the wolf at the door at 3 a.m., these are powerful words indeed to steel your nerve and harden your resolve to triumph against incredible odds.

A most interesting track on the album is “Give me News I can Use,” which seems to completely encapsulate everything that made the Crazy 80s, with its literary device of an early evening newscast and highly improbable but very plausible incidents: a train hijacker is shot dead by a midget G-man dressed like Donald Duck at Disney World, the referee was crucified and tore limb from limb at a playoff game. Kay would have shown these live but they will have film at 5. Seems completely reminiscent of news anchor Jerry Dunphy coming on KABC-TV L.A. Channel 7 during the 10:30 station break breathlessly pumping the trainwreck story of the day, punctuated with the motivating “film at 11” signoff. Who could resist watching?

In 1970, Steppenwolf was on par
with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Photo credit: brizzle born 
and bred
 / Foter / Creative 
Commons Attribution-
NoDerivs 2.0 Generic 
(CC BY-ND 2.0)
While you will not find any howling, leather-lunged rockers in the spirit of “Born to be Wild” on “Rock & Roll Rebels” it is a divergent platter that went against the hedonism-for-its-own-sake grain of the Decade of Reagan. Speaking of platters, if you are into collector’s items or just like the warm sound of analog records, the Steppenwolf staff recently found some long out-of-print vinyl copies of “Rock & Roll Rebels.” It might be a good investment as well as good listening! Otherwise, you’d need to buy the CD reissue “Feed the Fire” on Amazon.
-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

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