Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #8: Butthole Surfers

Today’s installment of Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands finds us taking a hard turn into the weird, and staying there for a long, long time.

As discussed in yesterday’s XTC post, I spent my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy essentially mired in a musical stasis state, as I was forbidden by the institution from openly owning and listening to any music for pleasure. (Marching and drill songs by the Drum and Bugle Corps were A-Okay, of course, though not terribly enjoyable). Come May 1983, I had a whole lot of catching up to do, plus a little bit of money to do it, as we were paid a monthly salary for our service time at the Academy, on top of our tuition-free educational experience. (If that seems unjust to you somehow, you might want to read this take on the matter; I wrote the piece in 2011, but revisiting it now, it’s still shockingly relevant and resonant, alas). Given the limited amount of time we were allowed to be off-campus, I was fortunate that there was a shockingly, stupendously good record store called Oceans II Records, just about a 10-minute walk from either of the Academy’s two main gates into downtown Annapolis.

Record labels have long been important in helping me develop my musical tastes and collections over the years, especially back in the days when you bought an album, and it would often contain a flyer or sleeve listing all of the other artists on the label, plus maybe even a handy mail order form. In the ’70s, I explored loads of things on Chrysalis Records (Jethro Tull‘s home label), for example, based solely on those promotional inserts. Off the cuff, I know I was introduced to Steeleye Span, Rory Gallagher, Blodwyn Pig, Roy Harper, Ten Years After and Robin Trower that way. I also backed into Genesis (who have bubbled just below Favorite Band status for a lot of years) via Steve Hackett’s solo releases on Chrysalis, not the other, more normal, way around.

That dependence and trust of labels was probably never more relevant than in the 1980s, in that sweet musical spot when independent American labels developed some incredible word-of-mouth, “get in the van” networks across the country, fostered by tape trading, ‘zines and the emergence of free-form and college radio, but before the indies were essentially subsumed into being a minor league feeder system for the corporate musical megaliths under the detested “alternative” banner. I’ve certainly never begrudged artists who I like signing major label contracts that, in theory at least, benefit them financially (so long as the contracts don’t crush or dilute their creativity), but I do lament the macro impact that the late ’80s signing sprees had on those glorious days of truly independent, truly innovative record labels issuing truly brilliant discs on a regular basis. I could wax philosophical on this era at length, but will note that there’s a pretty-much perfect text on the topic already that I’d highly recommend to you should you be interested in what that looked, felt, and sounded like: Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991.

Probably the two most important labels to me through the remainder of my time at the Naval Academy were Greg Ginn’s SST Records (home at various times to Black Flag, Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets and many others), and Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., T.S.O.L, MDC, Tragic Mulatto, also Hüsker Dü, NoMeansNo, Alice Donut, etc.). Ginn was leader of Black Flag, Biafra the leader of Dead Kennedys, and I loved both of those bands, so I loved and trusted the labels they launched to guide to me. In looking at their respective discographies, I pretty much bought everything they both released through around 1986 or 1987, by which time the majors had begun to hoover up the superstar independent bands, and my searching and listening paradigms changed accordingly.

Sometime in early 1984, my Alternative Tentacles completist fixation required me to buy an EP that had come out a few months earlier from a group called Butthole Surfers. I trundled off to Oceans II and found the disc in the racks there. The name was obviously offensive, but the EP’s front cover, well, that took things into whole new planes of yuck! I was kind of embarrassed, actually, when I handed it to the clerk at the counter. (Note that the image appears below in a couple of the videos I’ve selected for my Top Ten list; if you’re sensitive to gross medical imagery and/or are at work, you might want to skip that portion of today’s article). But, necessity was necessity, so I paid my few bucks, carried the disc back to my room at the Academy, and unwrapped it: seven songs, less than 20 minutes worth of music, the distinctive Alternative Tentacles logo on one side of the center label, and a drawing of “Pee Pee the Sailor” on the other side, with instructions to play the thing at 69 rpm, and the words “A BROWN REASON FOR LIVING” etched into the run-out grooves. No other useful information about the band or anything else was contained within. (Because of this dearth of information, the actual given name of the record itself remains uncertain, all these years on).

I figured that 45 rpm was the actual correct speed to play the disc, as was typical for 12″ EPs, so I plopped the disc on, dropped the needle, and had my head blown out by one of the most insane opening salvos in rock music history: “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave.” The two-minute long song contained shrieking lead vocals and guttural background grunts, horrible guitar shreds, distorted, pummeling drum and bass meltdowns, vile lyrics, all wrapped in a massive sense of danger and unease. About halfway through it, I wasn’t sure if that 45 rpm decision was the correct one, so I bumped it to 33 rpm, and it still sounded insane, just lower in pitch and slower. It was only after the second song, “Hey,” started that it became clear that 45 rpm was, in fact, the correct playing speed. 18 minutes or so later, I had a new favorite band, one that would last me a decade, carrying me from college through courtship through marriage through the birth of our child (I used to sing Surfers’ songs to my daughter when she was a baby, clearly earning five Parenting Gold Stars for that) and on into the internet era and the start of my post-military freelance music critic career. It was a life-altering record.

The Surfers didn’t make it particularly easy to be a fan, though, even beyond the off-putting words, visuals and music. They never put any useful information on their records, so it wasn’t until I go to see them for the first (of many) times that I had any idea what they looked like and how their line-up was configured. (Their best, classic lineup featured singer-guitarist Gibby Haynes, guitarist-singer Paul Leary, dual drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa, and bassist Jeff Pinkus). Most media outlets wouldn’t cover, interview or play them, because of their name (for starters) and in the rare cases when they did get coverage, they typically lied in response to everything they were asked, so nothing was made more clear. I knew they were from Texas. And that they liked dogs. Beyond that, not so much. They were reasonably prolific in recording, though, leaving Alternative Tentacles after releasing Live PCPPEP in late 1984 (it was basically the debut EP again, just live with new double-drummer configuration), and signing with Touch and Go Records, who became another gotta-have label for me, with Big Black, Killdozer, The Jesus Lizard, Die Kreuzen and others on their roster.

The Surfers were also insanely prolific in the touring department through the mid-to-late 1980s, and I saw them more times than I can remember, in Washington, DC, Baltimore, New York City and Athens, GA. In the latter case, they actually played a part in how I ended up there myself. I had a major shoulder injury and a failed corrective surgery while at the Academy that limited the mobility of my left arm, so I was designated “NPQ” (“not physically qualified”) for line service (e.g. Aviator, Surface Warfare Officer, Marine Corps, etc.) and forced to choose between a variety of Staff Corps opportunities for my mandatory five years of active duty time instead. I saw three viable possibilities there: Intelligence, Cryptography, and Supply. The third choice had its training school in Athens, which was already a hip music town, for sure, but right around the time when I had to make a decision, I learned that the Surfers had relocated their base of operations from Austin to Athens, allegedly so they could stalk emergent crossover indie superstar Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Well, golly, that pretty much made my decision clear and easy!

Alas, by the time I actually got to Athens, the Surfers had returned to Texas, so we didn’t get to become neighbors and friends. They did pass back through town on their never-ending road show circuit, though, so that was fine. That period of time found them offering a truly legendary live experience. The music was aces, of course, but the shows were so much more than that, turning into truly hallucinatory and disorienting Sensaround experiences. As if the band themselves weren’t already visually striking enough (Haynes is a giant who often ended up naked or close to it, the flailing stand-up drummer pair were alleged to be albino twins [they weren’t], Leary played his guitar and screamed with his eyes crossed pretty much the whole time, Pinkus shaved off the top of his hair leaving dyed tufts on the side, Kathleen Lynch later worked the stage as a naked interpretive dancer, etc.), they added strobe lights, films played atop the group (including the infamous penile reconstruction movie), fire, stage destruction, and whatever else the evening’s mood or drugs brought on. It was dangerous. It was dirty. And oh boy, was it fun!

Ultimately, though, it all worked for one reason and one reason only: the band were deeply talented musically, and most of their songs were utterly original and creatively stellar. I mean that most sincerely. I was often accused at the time for promoting and endorsing the Surfers just for the shock value of it all, e.g. “Oh, you can’t possibly really like that stuff, you’re just doing that to be weird.” (R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck actually even said that to me once when I was in Athens and he was hanging out behind the counter at Wuxtry Records, where he had worked before he got famous. I knew who he was, but told him “Shut up and take my money, clerk” when he challenged my commitment to my purchases. Grrr!) There’s no affectation in my affection, though: I deeply love the music and the artists who created it, most especially Paul Leary, who sits with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour in my personal high trinity of Guitar Gods.

So I just knew they had greatness in them, from even early on, not to mention more skill with creating accessible music than would have seemed obvious at first. When Marcia and I were first dating, I created a mix-tape called “Butthole Benign” featuring a choice assortment of their less off-putting fare. She liked it! No wonder I love her! That said, they didn’t get off to a great start with her. On our first long road-trip together, we did the “drive all night” thing between D.C. and Florida. She was asleep at some point when the Surfers’ song “Cherub” came up on whatever mix tape I was playing, and it jerked her awake in disoriented horror and revulsion. I changed the tape immediately. Fortunately, it didn’t get thrown out the window the way another mix, “Songs That Are Wrong,” did the next day. I was a slow learner, I guess.

Given my belief in Butthole Surfers’ power and glory, I wasn’t really surprised when bigger record labels came a-calling after the classic five-piece line-up hit a high-water mark with 1988’s Hairway to Steven. They signed with mid-tier Rough Trade Records (who issued the slightly dodgy piouhgd in 1991, along with a Pinkus-Haynes side project called The Jackofficers and Leary’s only solo album, then went belly up), then moved on to super-duper major Capitol Records, who let them hire Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to produce their big league debut, Independent Worm Saloon (1993). That album produced the minor MTV and radio hit “Who Was In My Room Last Night?,” and made them one of Beavis and Butthead’s favorite acts. (You can tell that Mike Judge was a Butthole Surfers fan because this is one of the rare cases where his idiot boy duo actually watch a video without talking and headbanging incessantly over it).

That album came out right around the time that I first got online, establishing some relationships that led me into my next musical obsession (Hawkwind), and which I will discuss in our next installment here. But I was still a thrilled fanboy when Electriclarryland, 1996’s offering from the Surfers (now down to a Haynes-Leary-Coffey trio, with studio helpers) spawned the legitimate pop hit “Pepper.” In some ways, getting the masses to sing along with their paean to drug life in Texas and the “ever-present football player rapist” might have been their most subversive act ever. I purchased a copy of Billboard magazine at some point when the song as on the charts, circled the Surfers’ entry, copied/scanned the page and sent it to variety of long-time friends/colleagues, noting “See! I told you so!” It was a satisfying coda to a great musical period of my life.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Surfers’ career was not quite so satisfying. In 1998, reviews and preview pieces emerged about their post-“Pepper” follow-up album, After The Astronaut. Unfortunately, the album itself never emerged, as Capitol Records rejected it, the Surfers rejected Capitol, the band fell into deep acrimony with their management, with Touch And Go Records (they sued the label, eventually winning), and with each other, and Haynes fell into heroin abuse. (He was on the scene and alleged to have played a contributory role the night that River Phoenix died of an overdose at the Viper Club). A watered-down and reconfigured version of Astronaut called Weird Revolution was finally issued in 2001, but it really shouldn’t have been. A year later, the Surfers then released a great compilation of lost/forgotten/rare tracks called Humpty Dumpty LSD on their own Latino Buggerveil Records, and that pretty much seemed to be that.

Leary went on to become a hot shot producer and engineer, Coffey remains a stalwart champion of and player within the Austin music scene (not to mention being a tremendous gardener), Haynes cleaned himself up, moved to Brooklyn, began exhibiting his art and published a (great!) young adult novel called Me & Mr. Cigar earlier this year, and Pinkus plowed on with his group Honky and eventually became Melvins’ bass player. (One of that group’s best albums was 2004’s Hold It In, which also featured Leary). The classic five-piece line-up improbably reunited for a tour in 2008-2009, after which Teresa retired again, leaving the core four, who have occasionally played short tours or festivals since then.

And, maybe, are also at work on a new record. Leary was quoted in 2017 as saying that the Surfers were working together again, noting (with a light edit to remove a piece of strong language): “Now that Trump is president, jeez . . . if there was ever a time for a Butthole Surfers album, it’s now. It just doesn’t get any weirder than that.” Coffey posted some photos on his Twitter feed of work in progress soon after that, but then, radio silence again. Hopefully whatever they’re working on doesn’t go the way of After the Astronaut. I’d love to have something new from such an important part of my own musical history, all these years on.

But until (or unless) that happens, I’ve still got the incredible catalog they’ve left behind, from which I cull these, my Top Ten favorite Butthole Surfer cuts. I didn’t include “Pepper,” just for the record, because I figure you’ve already heard it, and it came out toward the end of the game, not during its most thrilling middle innings. It’s a classic, but it doesn’t quite break into my chart-toppers. Dig these that do, though!

#10. “To Parter,” from Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis EP (1986) (Note: This cut often appears on streaming service listings as “TP Parter” for reasons mysterious).

#9. “Sea Ferring,” from Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986)

#8. “Dum Dum,” from Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac (1984)

#7. “Sweat Loaf,” from Locust Abortion Technician (1987)

#6. “I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas,” from Hairway to Steven (1988)

#5. “The Wooden Song,” from Independent Worm Saloon (1993)

#4. “Hey,” from Brown Reason to Live EP (1983)

#3. “Moving To Florida,” from Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis EP (1986)

#2. “Something,” from Brown Reason to Live EP (1983)

#1. “Cherub,” from Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac (1984)

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.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #7: XTC

Today’s installment of my ongoing Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series marks some significant cultural and personal transitions. On a macro cultural basis, XTC are the first featured band I’ve considered that emerged in the aftermath of the punk revolution; their early singles and first album could fairly be labeled with the the dreaded “New Wave” tag, though they quickly evolved into something far more significant and formidable than most of their peers in that cohort. On a micro personal basis, my XTC period saw me graduating from high school in North Carolina (I went to four different schools in three different states during my high school years, following my father’s Marine Corps career), and then heading off to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis for four years of fairly brutal military and academic training.

I consider XTC’s fifth album, English Settlement to be their finest moment, by a large margin. And also one of the finest albums ever produced by anyone, ever. A definite Desert Island Disc for me. It was the first XTC record that I purchased, in March of my senior year in high school. I don’t remember exactly what about it grabbed me in the mall record store where I purchased it (presumably I’d read reviews somewhere), but once I got it home, it was an utterly transformative musical experience, brilliantly written and played, quirky and profound in equal measure. It still has a unique sound about it, unlike anything else in the XTC catalog or anywhere else, really, with a sweet blend of fretless bass, semi-acoustic guitars, Prophet 5 synths, drum boxes and booming kit work, and sublime vocal harmonies. Perfect!

I quickly acquired XTC’s four earlier albums, and played them incessantly. The first two featured a line-up of guitarist-singer-songwriter Andy Partridge, bassist-singer-songwriter Colin Moulding, keyboard player Barry Andrews, and drummer Terry Chambers. Their debut, White Music (1978) with its spazzy skinny-tie fare was my least favorite of that first five-album run, but its follow-up, Go 2 (1978) was utterly brilliant. Andrews left XTC after its release to play in Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen and then to form the outstanding Shriekback, who are still knocking about, with a stellar 2020 release (Some Kinds of Light) that’s going to place highly on my Best Albums of the Year list come December. He was replaced by guitarist-keyboardist-arranger Dave Gregory, creating the classic lineup responsible for Drums And Wires (1979), Black Sea (1980), and of course English Settlement.

In July of 1982, mere months after acquiring those five XTC albums, I headed off to Annapolis for my boot camp-style Plebe Summer and subsequent boot camp-plus-technical-college-style Plebe Year, which in the normal world would have been called “college freshman” season. But among the many things that the Naval Academy is, “normal world” is not one of them, and being in that weird space actually contributed directly to XTC having an intense, if short, reign at the top of my Favorite Bands pile. Because one of the rules at the time for Plebes (and maybe still today, though I kinda doubt it) was that stereos, boom boxes and any other music-playing devices were strictly forbidden. So from early July 1982 until late May 1983, I was officially not allowed to listen to music where I lived, studied and worked, except for when I left campus, which was rare. My typical rapid rate of musical assimilation dried up for a year accordingly.

It’s probably not too much of a surprise to those who know me that I considered such a music ban to be onerous and unacceptable, nor that I was authority-defying enough to circumvent those rules by acquiring and stashing a Walkman cassette player and a handful of tapes deep within my locker. I mean, just look at me there. Does that face say “Plays well by the rules”? (A: No, no it does not). I only listened to my illicit music at night, head tucked under covers, for much of the first semester of Plebe Year. During the second semester, my room-mates were rule-bending types like me, so we’d play our Walkmen during evening study hours with the door to our room partially obstructed to slow down unexpected access long enough for us to stash the music machines in our desk drawers should someone barge in. (Plebes were not allowed to lock our doors, as upper class midshipmen barging in unexpectedly to see what infractions they could catch in progress was a key part of the psychological conditioning program there. It kind of boggles the mind in retrospect to consider the absurd-to-heinous nature of the Plebe experience way back when. Built character, I guess. Though perhaps of a broken variety).

Anyway, because I was so deeply into XTC when I headed to Annapolis, their first five albums, with English Settlement leading the charge, were anchors of my listening when I didn’t have many other options. Todd Rundgren’s Healing, The Clash’s Combat Rock, and Neil Young’s re-ac-tor were also among the small number of things I had available to me, and they’re all still on my Top 200 Albums Ever list all these years on in large part because of that year of intense, repetitive exposure. Familiarity didn’t breed contempt in this case, that’s for darn sure. And, again, English Settlement was the most important, most beloved, and most played record of the bunch.

Well, at least the U.S. version of English Settlement, anyway. I didn’t know it at the time, but the record was issued as a two-disc set in its proper U.K. release, but for American audiences, it was cut back to a single album, with five songs lopped off. I didn’t learn about or hear those five songs until years later, so it was fantastic to have one of my favorite things become even better when it was heard in its originally intended format. One of the five lost English Settlement songs is actually on my Top Ten list below, in fact. In another case of record label stupidity, the U.S. version of Drums and Wires (1979) excluded one of XTC’s biggest U.K. hits, “Making Plans for Nigel,” from its Side One, Track One perch atop the original version of the album. The corporate suits apparently thought it was too English for us dumb Yanks, so it was another killer song of the catalog that I did not hear until later, and it’s also on my Top Ten list below.

I opened this post discussing transitions, and English Settlement marked a big one for XTC themselves, after Andy Partridge suffered a breakdown and pulled the band off the road early in the tour that was supposed to support the record’s release. He declared XTC to be a studio-only entity henceforth. Drummer Terry Chambers, who was just dynamite to my ears, decided he wasn’t interested in leaving the road for good, so he exited the group during the recording of their next album, Mummer (1983). He was never properly replaced as a full band member, with the core trio relying on an evolving roster of session drummers. They were all well-known, great players, for sure (Pete Phipps, Prairie Prince, and Pat Mastelotto among them), but they weren’t Terry Chambers, and the cool rhythmic interplay and rapport that Chambers and Moulding had developed as a rhythm section was a lost facet of the group’s music as far as I was concerned.

There’s another transitional aspect to my relationship with XTC: they’re the only group on the Favorite Bands list who I kinda sorta came to hate some years later. That phase began in late 1986 (after I’d graduated from the Naval Academy and moved to Athens, Georgia) with the release of the single “Grass” (a Moulding song)  as the lead teaser from the group’s forthcoming Todd Rundgren-produced album Skylarking. It wasn’t “Grass” that was the problem, mind you. I love that song! The problem was its B-side, Partridge’s “Dear God,” which I spun once and declared to be absolutely the worst thing XTC had ever produced, hands down. Ugh! Never wanted to hear it again! I hate pretty much everything about it. Still. (Note, though, that my hatred is not because of its message, but rather how ham-fistedly it’s delivered, and that singing child, blee-auggh!!)

But then, in another case of U.K. vs U.S. cultural dissonance, American radio stations started playing the detested B-side in lieu of the gorgeous A-side, and “Dear God” became a huge hit on these shores, XTC’s much-belated breakthrough in my apparently taste-deprived nation. Skylarking itself was then quickly reissued in 1987 to include “Dear God” in its track listing, pushing that album up the U.S. charts as well. It frankly made me embarrassed to have been such an avid XTC pusher and junkie among my social cohort. In the years that followed, Partridge also alienated me as a once-fierce listener and defender for a variety of other reasons: some dodgy interview statements, his reported treatment of band mates (Dave Gregory was pushed out for their final two albums), song lyrics that rubbed me the wrong way, a growing swirl of demo and half-baked releases that indicated that he considered everything he ever did to be worthy of public release, etc.

Colin Moulding also eventually had enough of it all and walked away embittered after the final XTC album, 2000’s tepid Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), retiring from music-making for many years. The whole situation eventually poisoned my love for the group, or at least the Partridge portions of it. I  will admit that when I first started using digital systems for music listening around 2010, I only downloaded and spun the Moulding songs from all of the classic era XTC albums, going so far as to re-label them as “XTColin.” How’s that for churlish?

But, of course, you can only really properly hate the things you once loved, and sometimes when the embers of anger and distaste die down, the original feelings of affection can return. That was the case for me. At some point in the past five years or so, I heard one of the classic era Partridge songs somewhere and was reminded of how good it was, and that made me download the complete four-album run from Go2 to English Settlement, in their proper, as-intended formats and sequencing. They were, of course, wonderful still. Maybe even sweeter and better to my older ears after having renounced them for so long.

While I was still active on Twitter, I also started following Partridge there, and most of my residual negative feelings toward him softened and abated from that experience, and from reading his commentary in Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC in 2017 or thereabouts. (I didn’t care for some of Partridge’s reactions to Moulding and Chambers reuniting for their outstanding, but short-lived, TC&I project in 2017-2018, but I’ll let that slide). I also adored the song Partridge wrote (“You Bring The Summer“) for the Monkees’ superb 2015 reunion album Good Times! In the end, it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. Errrr, XTC, rather. Sorry. Lost the thread there for a second.

With regard to my Top Ten XTC tracks, no surprise that seven of them are from the classic Partridge-Moulding-Gregory-Chambers albums, two are from the Andrews-fortified Go2, and only one is from the post-Chambers era: Moulding’s beautiful “Grass,” now widely perceived as the B-side to the yucky “Dear God,” alas. I note that I only considered songs released under the XTC moniker, though Gregory, Moulding and Partridge also pseudonymously released an EP and an album with Ian Gregory on drums as the psychedelic Dukes of Stratosphear. Those records are very fine and worthy in their own rights, and worth investigating, even if I don’t count them as part of the proper XTC catalog. And with that, oh we go!

#10. “Making Plans for Nigel,” from Drums and Wires (1979)

#9. “Knuckle Down,” from English Settlement (1982)

#8. “Complicated Game,” from Drums and Wires (1979)

#7. “Grass,” from Skylarking (1986)

#6. “Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!),” from Go 2 (1978)

#5. “English Roundabout,” from English Settlement (1982)

#4. “Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian),” from Go 2 (1978)

#3. “Melt the Guns,” from English Settlement (1982)

#2. “Respectable Street,” from Black Sea (1980)

#1. “No Thugs in Our House,” from English Settlement (1982)

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.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #6: Jethro Tull

The underlying premise behind this Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series is that the answer to the Favorite Band Question has evolved throughout my life, with different artists holding the title at different times. But if really, truly pressed to name a single band as my favorite artist throughout A Lifetime of Listening, I would pick Jethro Tull. And I wouldn’t really have to think very hard before making that decision.

The group first moved onto my most-regular spins roster in the mid-1970s and have never, ever left it. I’ve seen them (or front-man Ian Anderson solo) in each of five decades, from the ’70s through the ’10s, and would eagerly add a sixth decade to that list if Anderson is able to tour again. (He recently disclosed that he is suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and it would seem that might be a show-stopper for a singer and flute player). The amount of physical pleasure, intellectual stimulation, and emotional joy that they’ve given me over the years is unmatched by any other artist in my collection. On top of that, I’d be lying if I denied tailoring my own lyric writing and singing (back when I did such things) on Ian Anderson’s approaches to the same. While I have been more obsessed in the moment with other acts at various times in my life, Jethro Tull are a constant: always here, always playing, always pleasing. Game, set, match.

Interestingly enough, and in contrast to the artists featured in each of the prior articles in this series, I cannot recall a specific origin or first encounter story that led to the blossoming of my Tull fandom. I’m also not even exactly sure which of their albums I first purchased or owned, though I would guess it was probably the 1976 compilation M.U. — The Best of Jethro Tull. I’m sure I would have heard their American AM radio hits (“Living the Past” and “Bungle in the Jungle”) and free-form FM station favorites (“Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Teacher,” etc.) well before then. I’m also pretty sure that I would have read about them back in those glorious pre-Internet days when I used to discover new artists of interest by sitting in libraries and bookstores and devouring Rolling Stone magazine and seminal music nerd books like the earliest compilations of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees. (I do know for a fact that it was a Pete Frame family tree that first introduced me to Hawkwind, but I’ll discuss that in a later installment of this series). It seems that Tull were just sort of always on my radar screen, and that I grew into being a super-fan more organically and amorphously with them than I did with the other 11 acts on my life-time favorites roster, where typically a single album, song or incident would have triggered a particularly strong response. I guess it was just meant to be. Or I guess it just was.

In parsing and dating my evolving list of favorite bands, I cited Steely Dan as owning the title from 1976 to 1978, and Tull from 1978 to 1982. But probably more accurately, they were essentially co-champions for that entire period, perhaps just with a little more emphasis on the Dan in the early years, and a little bit more on Tull in the latter. As noted in yesterday’s Steely Dan report, that period of time was when I found my first real music nerd running partner (Jim Pitt), and as was the case with the Dan, I think the two of us being obsessed with Tull in those years was well-rewarded, as the era included some of their very best work, most notably Songs from the Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I wasn’t much of a live albums guy then (nor now), but Tull’s Live: Bursting Out (also 1978) was nevertheless also a stereo favorite.

My Steely Dan and Jethro Tull era also found me with my first paying job beyond the obligatory newspaper delivery boy phase: I was hired to be the teen editor for Mitchel News, the military base’s little local rag. There I am in action in the photo at left, sweaty after basketball practice. I was supposed to be something of a beat reporter, doing interviews with new kids on base and documenting the things in which the local young people were presumed to be interested. But after a column or three like that, I got bored, and I started doing band career retrospectives instead (Tull and the Dan both received that treatment), or making sports predictions, or writing creepy poetry about some of the weird old buildings and spaces on the base. I also gave the way-popular movie Grease a thumbs-down, one-star, bomb review, eliciting howls of rage from most every girl I knew on base, and the guys who wanted to impress them. That might have been the bridge too far. I was let go from the job after about a year. Not a surprise, then or now. Music criticism was certainly more of a passion for me than popular puff pieces were. Also then and now.

Developing my Top Ten Favorite Songs list for Jethro Tull was super hard. Their catalog is the largest I’ve had to consider thus far in this series, though there are some even huger ones ahead of me, by an order of magnitude in a couple of cases. I consider Tull’s last truly great album to be 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast, though I suspect many fans would consider that their glory days ended after Stormwatch (1979). That’s when the “classic era” group fell apart following the death of bassist John Glascock, and a record label decision to issue what Anderson had intended to be his first solo album under the Jethro Tull banner instead, with long-time and much-beloved members John Evan, Dee (then David) Palmer and Barriemore Barlow left on the sidelines, for good. There are some fine songs on various albums after Broadsword (Ian Anderson’s solo album Homo Erraticus [2014]  in particular rises to classic era standards, with the same band line-up that also carried the Tull banner at the time), but I didn’t see anything in there that would make a Top Ten against the earlier works.

There’s also a complicating factor with Thick As A Brick (1972, and my very favorite Tull album) and A Passion Play (1973) originally each being released as single ~45 minute long songs split over two sides of a vinyl platter. While subsequent compilations and reissues have broken those big song cycles down into smaller bits, the chunking and labeling has been inconsistent over the years, so it’s hard to meaningfully cull cuts from those two great discs, and I have chosen not to do so in creating my Top Ten. I’m left with a wee bit of sadness from that decision as I am not then able to include arguably the most divisive moment in the entire Jethro Tull catalog: “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” from A Passion Play. Needless to say, I adore that little bit of atypical whimsy. When Tull originally toured A Passion Play, they created a short intermission film of “The Hare” segment, and it’s a weird gem featuring bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond in fine narrative form. Watch it here. Seriously. Do.

As I culled my initial list down to just ten cuts, I found myself keeping very few of the known hits and/or concert staples (no “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath,” for heretical starters), while also preserving several borderline obscurities that some better-than-casual Tull fans may have never heard, nor even heard of. So my list didn’t end up being a typical or perhaps even good introduction to the group and its catalog, as perhaps best evidenced by comparing it to the most recent compilation album released by the group: 2018’s 50th Anniversary Collection. That record featured 15 career-spanning songs curated by Ian Anderson himself, ostensibly an authority of some note on the subject matter at hand. His list of 15 and my list of 10, posted below, contain but one overlap: 1971’s “Life Is a Long Song.” Oh well. It’s not the first time in my musical listening career that I’ve most liked the things that few others do. My list sits just right and sweet and good for me.

#10. “Glory Row,” from Repeat – The Best of Jethro Tull – Vol. 2 (1977) (Note: Later available as a bonus track on most reissues of 1974’s War Child).

#9. “Mother Goose,” from Aqualung (1971)

#8. “Life Is a Long Song,” from “Life Is a Long Song” EP (1971) (Note: Later available on the first Tull compilation album, 1972’s Living in the Past).

#7. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” from Benefit (1970)

#6. “Summerday Sands,” from 20 Years of Jethro Tull (1988) (Note: Later available as a bonus track on most reissues of 1975’s Minstrel in the Gallery).

#5. “One Brown Mouse,” from Heavy Horses (1978)

#4. “Velvet Green,” from Songs from the Wood (1977)

#3. “No Lullaby,” from Heavy Horses (1978)

#2. “Songs from the Wood,” from Songs from the Wood (1977)

#1. “Minstrel in the Gallery,” from Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)

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.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #5: Steely Dan

Today’s installment of my chronological Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series moves me into my transitional and transformative early teen years, which unfolded in the somewhat bizarre surroundings of Long Island’s Mitchel Field. Our family’s quarters there (my father was in the Marine Corps) had been built in the 1920s, and it looked and felt that way, both inside and location-wise, sitting in the middle of a deteriorating military base that was doing double duty as the campus for Nassau Community College. We were a five-minute bike ride from Nassau Coliseum, home of the New York Islanders and (for the first couple of years I was there) the New York Nets, and the Coliseum was also a major regional music venue. I saw my first big rock shows there, and in the pre-Ticketmaster era, our proximity meant we were able to get lots of good tickets to see/hear lots of good things because we could be at the on-site Box Office pretty much instantaneously when event ticket sales were announced.

My best friend during the Mitchel Field era was named Jim Pitt, and he was the first peer of mine who shared the sort of arcane musical obsessiveness that was already a defining trait of my character and personality. (You can read more about Jim here. Note: It’s a sad story). Steely Dan ranked high among our shared musical passions, which was timely, as I believe they hit their creative peak with their most current albums of that period in my life: The Royal Scam (1976) and Aja (1977). Our other greatest shared musical passion was Jethro Tull, which I will discuss in the next chapter of this series.

Jim and I both had newspaper delivery routes, and I remember begging my mother to drive me to the record store so I could get Aja with my own scratch soon after its release. I already had a copy of The Royal Scam at the time, in the dreaded 8-track tape format. Those records were pretty much picture perfect for Jim and I as a pair of smart and sarcastic teens, feigning a degree of personal and artistic sophistication that we most certainly hadn’t really grown into yet. It didn’t hurt much that Steely Dan were popular with some of our “normal” friends too. Jim and I saw that as a brilliant case study of cultural subversion, since Steely Dan main-men Donald Fagen and Walter Becker truly created some of the most insidiously weird popular music ever made.

I had already been somewhat dialed into the Dan before I moved to Mitchel Field and met Jim. My aunt had their first two albums, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972) and Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), and I liked and listened to them back in my Steppenwolf and Wings days. Steely Dan had some big AM radio hits in the early ’70s (“Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), and their albums’ deeper cuts also got spun a fair bit in the emergent free-form FM arena. Steely Dan later acknowledged that relationship when they contributed “FM (No Static At All)” as the theme song for the film FM, which Jim and I watched together at Mitchel Field’s little base movie theater. It was pretty lousy, but we loved it, if you know what I mean.

I’m largely a self-taught guitarist who mostly only played stuff I wrote myself, but I did take a couple of months worth of lessons around 1974 or 1975, and the required class book was a collection of popular songs that had been dumbed-down to beginner guitar level. The book included “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” though the latter was somewhat inexplicable as you were asked to essentially strum the same chord endlessly through the song’s verses, with a few changes in the chorus. A great guitar song it’s not, unless you’re in charge of delivering the solo, and have the skill to do so. I later bought more professional-level Steely Dan music books that included all of their first six albums and, Holy Moly, the chords and changes those things contained were often mind-blowing, most especially their distinctive “mu major” chords. Becker and Fagen explained the mu major approach in the introduction to the Steely Dan Song Book, with a healthy dose of their customary snideness and snark. I didn’t really understand the theory behind the mu major chords, but I liked the way they sounded, and used them in my own playing and composition.

Many years after Jim and I created our own little self-contained Steely Dan appreciation society, I developed another friendship that also heavily featured the Dan within its dynamic. This friend’s name was Wilson Smith, and you can read more about him here. (Note: It’s also a sad story). Over many years and conversations, Wilson and I figured out that there were two distinctive aspects to the Steely Dan lyrical universe.

  1. Becker and Fagen extensively used imperative or directive forms in their lyrics, regularly and aggressively. A sample: “I think you better tell me everything you did, baby” from Royal Scam‘s “Everything You Did.” Not “would you tell me?” or “could you tell me?” or “won’t someone tell me?” They used straight up command forms, directed your way, no doubts about it: “You better tell me.” Donald and Walter didn’t ask you for your advice or ideas or thoughts or suggestions; if they wanted them, they gave them to you, as orders, or commands, or statements that this was the way it was going to be. You there: “turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening,” over and over and over again. It’s a key part part of their menacing lyrical charm, I think.
  2. The world(s) that Becker and Fagen created are deeply rooted in very precise places, a huge number of which are specifically named over the course of their nine studio albums. Steely Dan’s realities aren’t generic ones, but are rather set in their own places, precisely, which always makes them seem more real, more lived in, and more meaningful than less observational fare might have been. They are universal in their precision, and precise in the universality of their messages because of that.

We used the first concept to develop an interactive website called “WWDWD: What Would Don and Walt Do?” The core concept was that Becker and Fagen were the coolest, wisest people in the world, and they’d laid out brilliant rules for living in their lyrics. You could ask a question, hit a button, and receive a message from the Dan, as a sort of Magic Eight-Ball or Oblique Strategies approach to changing your thinking or actions. The WWDWD site is no longer functional, but I preserved all the narrative and text from it, and used it in my 2017 eulogy for Walter Becker, which you can read here. Wilson and I also scoured the complete Steely Dan lyrical catalog and developed a listing of every specific location referenced in the Dan’s lyrics, which you can see here. That was some good music nerdery, that was. The Dan in all of their arch wryness and technical sophistication inspired that.

As I did in my Wings reflections yesterday, I suppose I do need to at least acknowledge the dismaying widely-held and too-often-voiced opinion that Steely Dan stand as some manufactured epitome of everything that was wrong with music in the late ’70s as the punk eruption changed everything, forever. Somehow writing technically sophisticated songs with strange lyrics, having them performed flawlessly by some of the best players practicing their trades, and then scoring platinum-level pop hits with the outcomes is to be considered inferior to lo-fi three chords and a cloud of dust nihilism heard by hundreds, not millions. I certainly love a lot of that latter kind of stuff, mind you, but it should never be a didactic, dialectic “either/or” proposition. At bottom line, I have little to no patience with those who dismiss the Dan for being too good at what they did. That’s just nonsense. Stop it.

In assessing my top ten favorite Steely Dan songs, half of them come from the glorious duo of The Royal Scam and Aja, including the entire first side of the second album, one of the most perfect, beautiful stretches of music I’ve ever encountered. The other five albums of their original 1972-1980 run (Becker and Fagen reunited in the early 2000s to record another pair of studio albums, and to tour regularly until Becker passed away in 2017; Fagen still tours under the band moniker) are all represented except for 1974’s Pretzel Logic. That album contains “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and a fine collection of tunes, but it’s always felt somehow transitional to me, neither a product of the original live band, nor a product of the session wizard era that followed it, and it featured a lot of songs that were leftovers from Becker and Fagen’s early days as a songwriting team for hire. A fine record, for sure, but nothing from it rises to Top Ten level for me over the arc of their career. Here’s what does:

#10. “Deacon Blues,” from Aja (1977)

#9. “King of the World,” from Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

#8. “Sign in Stranger,” from The Royal Scam (1976)

#7. “Black Cow,” from Aja (1977)

#6. “Reelin’ in the Years,” from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

#5. “Black Friday,” from Katy Lied (1975)

#4. “Gaucho,” from Gaucho (1980)

#3. “Kid Charlemagne,” from The Royal Scam (1976)

#2. “Midnight Cruiser,” from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) (Note: Depending on the issue/version of this album you have, the song can be titled “Midnight Cruiser” or “Midnite Cruiser.” I’m going with the former as a spelling stickler. It’s one of a small number of Dan songs not sung by Donald Fagen, with original drummer Jim Hodder [RIP] handling the vocals, if you’re wondering why it sounds so different).

#1. “Aja,” from Aja (1977)

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.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #4: Wings

The Beatles were a ubiquitous part of my childhood, as was likely the case for any musically-sentient kid in the 1960s. My favorite album of theirs when I was young was Beatles VI (1965), culled from my Dad’s record collection. That was one of Capitol Records’ kluge releases for American and Canadian markets, combining album cuts and singles from what’s now known as the “core catalog” as released by EMI in the United Kingdom. (It was not until Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that the catalogs on both sides of the Atlantic aligned). Beatles VI was released near the tail end of the era when the Beatles were still recording cover songs in the studio and playing increasingly futile live shows, where the primitive amplification of the era wasn’t up to the task of drowning out a stadium full of screams. There aren’t (m)any widely-loved classics of the Beatles canon to be found within Beatles VI‘s grooves, but it’s still a favorite record of mine. As with so many things, our positive childhood moments resonate differently than those we experience when we’re older and, nominally, wiser.

I remember riding in the car with my mother sometime in 1970, listening to the radio, when the disc jockey played “Hey Jude,” then discussed the recent break-up of the Beatles. I asked my Mom to explain exactly why that happened and what it meant, as it seemed somehow dark and ominous to me, like a friend’s parents getting divorced in days when there was still a strong stigma associated with that. I didn’t have any concept of how musical groups formed, and I didn’t have experience with how and why they imploded. I don’t really recall the specific explanations she offered, but I do remember thinking about it a lot, eventually having my ideas of what constituted a musical group rearranged and re-calibrated, as I began to understand that individual artists had agency within the collaborative whole, for better or for worse.

A year or so later, the demise of the Beatles seemed a moot point when “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” by Paul and Linda McCartney topped the charts. Paul was my favorite Beatle, and I loved that song. It had so many things going on, and different movements, and loads of whimsy and absurdity perfectly suited for my own creative temperament. I didn’t know it at the time, but the McCartneys were already in the nascent stages of forming Paul’s post-Beatles band: Wings. The first couple of albums and related singles from the group didn’t really register much with me, but 1973’s Band on the Run certainly did, chockablock with huge breakthrough hits and deep radio classics as it was. I received the record for Christmas that year, and it instantly became one of my all-time favorite discs, a stature it holds to this day.

McCartney expanded the core Wings trio (Paul, Linda and Denny Laine) in 1974 to include hot-shot guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (RIP) and drummer Geoff Britton, who was then replaced by Joe English during the recording of their next album, Venus and Mars. The Paul-Linda-Denny-Jimmy-Joe lineup of Wings only lasted through 1977, but that’s absolutely the quintessential incarnation of the group for me, and I believe that they issued several of the very best albums of Sir Paul’s post-Beatles career. They were also commercially monstrous while doing so, as the epic 1976 live album Wings Over America so ably demonstrates. After McCulloch and English departed during the final recording stages of the London Town (1978) album, the McCartneys and Laine rebooted the band again and managed one more album and tour, but that all ground to a halt permanently after Sir Paul’s marijuana arrest in Japan in 1980. While he has actually played with his current touring band longer than he played with the Beatles and Wings, never again did Paul McCartney bill himself as a member of a group, instead opting to brand himself solely as a solo artist.

I’m well aware that Wings are viewed in hindsight as something of a joke or a farce, though I’ve never fully understood that evaluation, nor appreciated it. They were great, and it’s without a shred of embarrassment or remorse that I can categorically state that I listen to Wings far more often these days than I do to the Beatles. Wings were certainly not as transformational and influential as the Beatles were, obviously, but few artists can lay claim to such exalted status, and using that comparison to discredit or devalue McCartney’s 1970s output is reductive bordering on stupid.

I know that there has always been a whole cohort of cruel Linda debasers out there, but when you read the narrative of what Paul was thinking about in having her as a songwriting collaborator and onstage musical foil, it ultimately boils down to him wanting to do something with the woman he loved, and to keep his family close to him when he toured. Can’t fault an artist for that, can you? (If interested, this is a great book on that topic). I’m also a big fan of Denny Laine, who served fairly selflessly as a tremendously supportive studio and on-stage foil on guitar, bass and vocals for Paul and Linda from the inception to the demise of Wings. He deserves more accolades than he actually receives for that role.

There’s another cohort that dismisses McCartney’s songwriting of the era as flabby or insignificant, with “Silly Love Songs” perhaps being the donkey upon which Wings haters most often choose to pin their pointed tails. But I love that song too. For a bass player, it’s a veritable master’s class on how to do something spectacular within a nominally simple structure. And its core sentiment — “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs / What’s wrong with that?” — is also one I don’t find offensive in any fashion, especially when McCartney sang it with his beloved wife onstage with him. The world has so much angst swirling within it that I find it hard to disapprove of an artist who chooses to write a simple paean to a complex sentiment like love, especially when he plays the bass guitar like that on it.

And so to the favorite songs list! All ten of my top Wings cuts are culled from the period between Band on the Run (recorded just by the core trio) and the demise of the McCulloch and English incarnation of the band. They are glorious, if you can set aside critical snark long enough to embrace them.

#10. “Junior’s Farm,” from “Junior’s Farm” / “Sally G” Single (1974)

#9. “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” from Band on the Run (1973)

#8. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” from London Town (1978)

#7. “The Note You Never Wrote,” from Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976)

#6. “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” from Venus and Mars (1975)

#5. “Medicine Jar,” from Venus and Mars (1975)

#4. “Band on the Run,” from Band on the Run (1973)

#3. “Silly Love Songs,” from Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976)

#2. “Magneto and Titanium Man,” from Venus and Mars (1975)

#1. “Let Me Roll It,” from Band on the Run (1973)

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.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #3: Steppenwolf

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.