During a time of social and political unrest, when the hippies and the "man" were locked in mortal combat and profound changes were taking pop music to places nobody had dreamed of before, Steppenwolf was not only there, it was spearheading the revolution.
The pack leader of the late-'60s counterculture, Steppenwolf's fire-breathing biker anthem "Born To Be Wild" laid rubber and spewed exhaust as the band, led by John Kay, he of the primal growl you hear on the song, drove down the highways and byways of America and took magic carpet rides. On its journey, the band found itself at the epicenter of explosive cultural movements, and on the 1969 album Monster, Steppenwolf addressed head on some of the hot-button political issues of the time.
Now comes a career-spanning DVD titled "John Kay & Steppenwolf, A Rock & Roll Odyssey," due out Sept. 30, that tells the incredible story of this iconic band and what was happening around them when Steppenwolf was as big as anybody in the land.
Recently interviewed for a story that will appear in the Oct. 24 issue of Goldmine, Kay relates the tale of how the project came about.
"It was something that had been on my list of projects to hopefully get to one day for several years, and an old friend of mine, who passed away a couple of years ago, Morgan Cavett — who, in fact, co-wrote one of the songs on our very first Steppenwolf album... Morgan and I were talking about doing, basically, a video biography, and he had, over the years, gotten involved in all sorts of other pursuits, and the last one was video shooting, directing and production and the like. So, he would come out during some of the Steppenwolf engagements, he would fly out with some of his gear, and he would shoot some talking heads and performance clips and other things, and amassed a backlog of video footage, but we were always too busy to completely follow through on this. And unfortunately, he then developed a serious illness and died a couple of years ago."
Then, along came a Nashville videographer by the name of Mark Hall to save the day.
"[He's] a Canadian fellow who's been in Nashville for a long time, and has done numerous video biographies on Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and The Band and on and on and on," says Kay. "He had also done a project with me for the Bravo Canada channel, and so he and I had a good working relationship. I liked the quality of his work, and so, he also had known Morgan, and he was willing to take on this project and to finish it basically."
The idea behind the project was to tell Steppenwolf's story the way it should be told.
"The whole premise of doing this project was really the idea that we would get to tell our story, our way, without any concerns where we would have to satisfy someone else's expectations — meaning, when you create something for cable channels, or VH-1 or whoever, they have their take on what it is they want to focus on in any of these stories," says Kay. "After all, it's about ratings, and in the end about ad dollars, and we knew that would definitely interfere with what we had in mind, because we had already done a 'Behind the Music,' which turned out to be what it turned out to be (laughs). And so, consequently, I decided that this would be a self-financed and directed project, because we, as a band, in our history, don't really fit any particular mold 100 percent. While people tend to think of us as being either a biker band or, because of the Monster album, a social-political oriented band, or if it's 'Magic Carpet Ride,' you know, it's kind of a pop hit... we were a lot of things, but perhaps not enough of one particular thing to fit any particular sort of pigeonhole. And the same thing was the case with respect to this DVD because it is something quite separate and apart from the typical 'here are five guys, who were in a garage and made some music and they got lucky and they had some hits, and the trials and tribulations of being a rock band, and the infighting and you know, eventually half of them go face down in the gutter with drug addiction, you know'... That sort of thing we've seen plenty of and done to death, and it doesn't actually fit our situation to a T in any case."
In Kay's eyes, there was more important stuff to address.
"Far more importantly, from our perspective, is the fact that we had much more of a bigger story to tell," says Kay. "It's because of my individual background, having been born in what was then East Prussia and growing up behind the Iron Curtain, and escaping to West Germany, discovering rock 'n' roll on the Armed Forces Radio Network, you know, coming to Canada, etc. etc. That all leads into my joining The Sparrow, the Canadian band which later migrated to the West Coast, broke up then in L.A., from the ashes of which Steppenwolf was formed in '67, and from there forward. But, during the course of both The Sparrow as well as Steppenwolf's life span thereafter, we were in certain cultural meccas at certain times that were pivotal times."
Kay isn't sure if there's a particular television channel that'd be willing to show this film, but he's all right with that.
"Unfortunately, because of that diversity of ingredients, it again doesn't really fit on any particular cable channel's focus," says Kay. "Because there's not enough history for the History Channel. There's not enough debauchery and God knows what for VH-1, and so, we basically said, 'Don't worry about that. This is really us telling our story and there are those that have supported us for many, many years, who will be interested — up to a certain number of them — in this somewhat different, somewhat less typical story of a rock 'n' roll band, and its life and its times that it lived in.'"
For ordering information and all things Steppenwolf related, visit www.steppenwolf.com. Order through Wolf Wares and you can get a copy autographed by Kay himself. Also, visit www.rainmanrecords.com to find more Steppenwolf and John Kay related merchandise.
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