Tonight’s installment of my ongoing “Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands” series features the only one of my twelve favorite groups which I fell in love with by way of an 8-track tape.
My aunt owned it. She’s much younger than my mother, closer to my age than she is to her sister’s, and more like an older sibling to me when we were growing up than a member of my parents’ generation. She had good taste in music, so I heard a lot of things for the first time when at my grandparents’ house in South Carolina, during my aunt’s middle or early high school years. Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Led Zeppelin II, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), and Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer To Home spring to mind when I recall hanging out in her room during my own elementary school days, listening to 8-track tapes on one of these:
But the tape that beat out all of the other ones in my heart and mind was Steppenwolf Gold: Their Great Hits (1971). I played that thing over and over and over whenever I could, and I still have a particular fondness for what I call heavy organ music, a genre within which Steppenwolf sit as an (if not the) archetypal example. I was also prone to sing the decidedly not-child-friendly lyrics from Steppenwolf Gold to myself while puttering around the house and yard. I distinctly remember my grandfather once asking my grandmother and mother “Now why in the hell is that boy singin’ about ‘Goddamn the pusher man‘?” Well, because that boy knew a killer jam, that’s why, even if he didn’t yet really know what all of the specific words meant, nor why they shouldn’t be sung in front of one’s grandparents.
At some point the battered Steppenwolf Gold cartridge traveled home with me to Virginia (where we lived at the time), so I could then slam it into the cartridge slot of my Dad’s stereo and listen to the songs and the ker-chunk sounds between channels to my heart’s content. (To my younger readers who may have never experienced an 8-track tape in action: it’s really mind-boggling what an awful format that was in so many ways, with the ker-chunk sound of the tape-head shifting every 12 minutes or so being the most distinctive of that listening era). For the record: I’m not quite sure whether my aunt actually gave that 8-track tape to me or whether I just decided that I needed it more than she did at that point. Either way, I played it to pieces, literally, as one day some internal mechanism went ker-chunk in a way that it wasn’t supposed to, and the tape that was once inside the casing ended up all spooled and knotted inside the stereo’s guts instead, and that was that for that.
Sometime relatively soon after I had turned myself into a pre-teen Steppenwolf junkie, I went away (or was sent away, anyway) to a summer camp way out in the Virginia woods. I am horrifically allergic to poison ivy, and I got a whopper of a case within a few days of my arrival there, to the point where my eyes were swollen near shut, and the rest of me was a itchy, bloated, oozing mess as well. I wasn’t able to participate in some of the routine camp activities given my grotesque and uncomfortable state, so I was sent to hang out with a couple of counselors in their cabin for a few days so they could keep an eye on me while the other kids did their things. Poor poor! As it turned out, one of the counselors had Steppenwolf’s 1969 Monster album, also in the then-ubiquitous 8-track tape format. I asked to hear the album, and was then allowed to ker-chunk it on repeat, probably just to keep me out of their (very long) hair. Happiest, itchiest boy! Steppenwolf all day!
I was thrilled not only by Monster‘s music, but also by its sociopolitical content (most especially on the tracks “Monster/Suicide/America” and “Move Over”), which actually inspired me somewhat profoundly, given my limited years and lack of worldly experience. (Admittedly, that reaction might have been influenced by all the benadryl I was being fed to quell my pox). I had some educational (for me) conversations with one of the counselors about what the lyrics said and meant, and why they were important. I was still a little country cracker at that point, of course, but I left that summer camp as a much more woke young dude than I’d been before those weird few days. Social justice and equity, and the responsibility of governments to ensure them on behalf of all of their people, have been important personal concepts and professional cornerstones throughout my life, and Steppenwolf helped me to frame my understanding of those issues very early on in my development as a human being, along with a whole lot of Muhammad Ali. While the lyrics to “Move Over” and “Monster/Suicide/America” might scan on their own as a bit trite and obvious to adult me or you in 2020, they still carry a special power and resonance because of how I first heard and perceived them 50-ish years ago.
Steppenwolf Gold documented the group’s classic original era, which featured six studio albums released in less than four years, including the aforementioned Monster. I eventually acquired all of those albums, some of which are truly great, some not quite so much. The group broke up soon after Gold‘s release, then reformed for another trio of lower-quality albums in the mid-’70s, then essentially became a nostalgia rock vehicle for frontman-songwriter John Kay until he retired in 2018. When I consider the ten cuts that most exemplify the group for me, nine of them appeared on Gold, with only two of that greatest hits album’s tracks not making my own list. My tenth spot instead goes to “Monster/Suicide/America,” which I suspect was left off Gold due to its unwieldy length, but must be on my personal Steppenwolf jukebox for the reasons explained above.
While the preponderance of Steppenwolf Gold cuts on my list could be construed as me never moving beyond their disc that first rocked me so deeply, I actually think that’s it because whoever compiled Gold did an utterly masterful job. Those really are the best songs from those original six albums, pretty objectively speaking, a sentiment reflected in the Allmusic review of the album, which notes: “as an introduction to a great band, it’s nearly perfect.” Yep. So here’s how I rank my lightly amended version of that nearly perfect album, from #10 to #1.
#10. “Move Over,” from Monster (1969)
#9. “Screaming Night Hog,” from “Screaming Night Hog/Spiritual Fantasy” (single) (1970)
#8. “Jupiter’s Child,” from At Your Birthday Party (1969)
#7. “It’s Never Too Late,” from At Your Birthday Party (1969)
#6. “Who Needs Ya,” from Steppenwolf 7 (1970)
#5. “Born to Be Wild,” from Steppenwolf (1968)
#4. “Monster/Suicide/America,” from Monster (1969)
#3. “The Pusher,” from Steppenwolf (1968)
#2. “Magic Carpet Ride,” from The Second (1968)
#1: “Rock Me,” from At Your Birthday Party (1969)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.