Tuesday, June 5, 2012


There was once a Toronto-based group of music makers who called themselves The Sparrows. This was a fairly cool name for a group...a fifties-era doo wop group, that is. Problem was, this was the mid to late sixties and vocalist John Kay, guitarist Michael Monarch, keyboardist Goldy McJohn, bassist John Rushton Moreve and drummer Jerry Edmonton happened to be a hard rock band. To put not too fine a point on it, this group would be hard pressed to go the distance with a name like The Sparrows. I'm just sayin'...Nonetheless, The Sparrows carried on from their formation in 1967 until around 1968 when producer Gabriel Mekler gave the boys a fighting chance by suggesting they change their name to Steppenwolf, inspired by the Herman Hesse novel of the same name. The band liked the idea and with that obstacle removed, off they went. With the exception of Moreve that is, who was reluctant to relocate to California. He was replaced by Nick St. Nicholas. The band's first album, titled simply Steppenwolf, was released in 1968 on ABC Record's Dunhill label. Two singles were released from that LP, "A Girl I Knew" and a song written by Don Covay and Steve Cropper and performed on a 1965 single by Covay, "Sookie, Sookie".

Those two singles didn't make much of an impression on the charts or otherwise. It was the third time that proved to be the charm with a song written by drummer Jerry Edmonton's brother Dennis using the way coolest pen name in the world, Mars Bonfire. It was played during the opening credits of the legendary cult film Easy Rider as the screen showed actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper speeding down the road on their modified Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The lyrics introduced to the music world the term "heavy metal", but as a reference not to music but to motorcycles. The song would in fact, become closely associated with bikes and biker culture up until this very day. That song was "Born To Be Wild"

By August of 1968 "Born To Be Wild" had already gone to #2 on the Billboard charts, sold a million copies and was awarded a gold disc. Another song prominently featured in Easy Rider was "The Pusher", a song written by country music singer Hoyt Axton. These songs literally propelled the band to stardom world wide. There was more to come, as their second album Steppenwolf The Second yielded the band's second biggest hit, "Magic Carpet Ride", which went to #3. Their third LP release, At Your Birthday Party, contained another hit, "Rock Me" peaking at #10. Both singles sold in excess of a million units.  The band's subsequent albums, Monster and Steppenwolf  7 were notable for the amount of political commentary lyric-wise as compared to their previous work. They also released one of the best double live albums to come down the pike, Steppenwolf Live.  Highly recommended.
Besides the departure of Moreve, the band went through other personnel changes during their peak years.  Guitarist Michael Monarch quit the group in 1969 due to disagreements with John Kay. He was replaced by Larry Byrom, an old bandmate of St. Nicholas'. St.Nicholas himself was fired after a series odd and disruptive behaviours which culminated in his appearance at a gig wearing a bunny costume and playing loudly and out of tune. His replacement was George Biondo. Kent Henry replaced Larry Byrom in 1971, and in 1972 Steppenwolf disbanded completely.

Kay began a solo career that was inconsistent at best. In the later part of 1972 he went on tour as The John  Kay Band and had Steppenwolf as the supporting act, performing as lead singer for both acts. A novel approach, indeed. The band reunited in 1974, most likely because it had to be less work than Kay's previous arrangement. The line-up was McJohn, Edmonton, Biondo and new guitarist Bobby Cochran, a nephew of rock legend Eddie Cochran. Slow Flux was their first reunion album containing the top 40 hit "Straight Shootin' Woman. Two more albums followed without much fanfare, and the band broke up again in 1976.

Several incarnations of Steppenwolf hit the road at different times with different combinations of members old and new. Much legal wrangling followed, and at the end of it Kay was allowed to carry on with all new members as John Kay And Steppenwolf, still active today. At least no one had to go back to calling themselves The Sparrows.

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