Tuesday, December 12, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1082: Steppenwolf

Today at work my bathroom smelled like pizza. Not like the ‘aftermath’ of pizza, but like someone had been eating fresh pizza in there. Anyway, here’s a music review.

Disc 1082 is…16 Greatest Hits
Artist: Steppenwolf

Year of Release: 1973 but featuring music from 1967-1971

What’s up with the Cover? There are a lot of borders on this cover. This would ordinarily annoy me, but the smaller this band photo is the better. I can live with the shapeless dude without a shirt on the right hand side but the guy showing off his belly on the left? Tuck that beer baby in, my friend.

How I Came To Know It: Everyone knows this band’s big hit, “Born to be Wild” and it is why I bought this on cassette back in high school. I ordered it by mail through Columbia House, where you got something like 11 albums for 8 cents or 8 albums for 11 cents or something, but then you had to spend the next year finding a tape a month to buy at the regular price.

That tape copy has long been lost to the mists of time, but about a year ago my buddy Ross was placing an order to some small online clearing house that offered free shipping. He asked me if I wanted to get anything at the same time. The website listed a bunch of classic albums, including this one for only $5 so I decided it was time for it to return to my collection. “16 Greatest Hits” is probably the only album I’ll ever buy through a discount mail order system…twice.

How It Stacks Up:  This is a greatest hits album so doesn’t stack up.

Ratings: Greatest hits albums don’t get a rating.

What is a Steppenwolf anyway? Apparently it is a Herman Hesse novel from the twenties about a man struggling with his human nature and his more bestial instincts. Like a werewolf, only on a psychological level.

In terms of the band, Steppenwolf is a half-American, half-Canadian hybrid that made a lot of cool music in the late sixties and early seventies. They weren’t a psychological werewolf so much as they were a psychedelic werewolf, banging out simple rock and roll in complex arrangements (another dichotomy) and singing about sex, drugs, rock and roll and a bit of social revolution. Hey man, it was the sixties.

I know this album very well and I came into it preparing to cringe at the overplayed ghosts of my past. Instead, I found every track was like an old friend, gone too long but always welcome when he rings me doorbell. Not literally, obviously. I’m Canadian: call ahead before you ring my doorbell.

This is some solid rock and roll, and if these guys had just banged it out in the traditional way it would still be good. The riffs are memorable, and the melodies are creative and have a meandering carefree quality, without ever losing focus.

But Steppenwolf was not content with just writing good riffs and pop hooks, and steep their music in layers of sound. Instead of relying on studio tricks, they allow complicated arrangements to create these layers, and this puts a lot of pressure on the musicians to be tight, lest the result be a muddy mess. Fortunately everyone is up for the challenge.

Guitar and vocals are a big part of all rock and roll, and Steppenwolf is no exception, but I found their willingness to rely heavily on organ fills the music with an overlay of otherworldly groove. The constant organ licks, combined with flashes of tambourine and harmonica take sixties flower power pop elements and combine them with harder rock. The result is a celebratory parade of crazed but controlled creativity.

Thematically, Steppenwolf loves their motorcycles. In addition to their most famous song (do I really have to name it) lesser-known tracks like “Ride With Me” and “Screaming Night Hog” further explain the joy of the wind in your hair and the growl of a Harley Davidson between your legs. When I was a kid I was warned me to steer clear of bikers, but I would always peer out from behind the curtains when I heard the sword pipes growling down the block. “Born to be Wild” recaptured early childhood memories of them driving through my neighborhood; demigods of dangerous rebellion.

While “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” are the obvious hits on this record, I’ve known these songs so long they all feel very familiar. “Snowblind Friend” and “The Pusher” are both cautionary tales about hard drugs with “Snowblind Friend” being particularly tragic with lines like:

“He said he wanted heaven, but prayin’ was too slow
So he bought a one way ticket on an airline made of snow.”

And this being the late sixties, there are a fair number of protest songs, the best being “Monster” which bemoans Steppenwolf’s observation that the idealistic values that founded America have become perverted and monstrous.

When I first had this on tape I didn’t appreciate it. I’d play “Born to Be Wild” flip the tape, rewind four minutes and then play “Magic Carpet Ride.” Years later I realize this album has very little filler, and if there is any it is probably in the acid-rock meandering instrumental in the middle of “Magic Carpet Ride”.

Instead, this album gives you a lot of what made the late sixties great; innovative music that wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. Whether you want to rock out while you ride your hog, or examine the social ills of modern society, there are tracks a-plenty for you to delve into. I’m glad this record is once again part of music collection and I won’t make the mistake of letting it slip away again.

Best tracks: Born to be Wild, It’s Never Too Late, Snowblind Friend, Magic Carpet Ride, The Pusher, Monster

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