One of the greatest rock rebel anthems of the sixties was John Kay and Steppenwolf's iconic hit "Born To Be Wild," that gave the world the term: Heavy Metal. The thunder and adventure they were looking for continues when John Kay and Steppenwolf perform one show only at Arena Theatre, Houston's legendary theatre in the round on May 7. An innovator on Rock’s rugged side, John Kay brought us seven Top 40 rock classics, including “MAGIC CARPET RIDE” and “ROCK ME.” With over 20 million records sold and 28 albums to his credit, his hits have been featured in 27 motion pictures and 29 TV programs.
In the chaotic world of rock 'n' roll, in which the lifespan of most bands can be measured in terms of a few years or a few months, John Kay and Steppenwolf have emerged as one of rock's most enduring and respected bands, delivering hard-hitting, personally-charged music for more than three decades. In the late 1960s, Steppenwolf embodied that era's social, political and philosophical restlessness, building an impressive body of edgy, uncompromising rock 'n' roll that retains its emotional resonance more than three decades after the band's formation. Such Steppenwolf standards as "Born to Be Wild," "Magic Carpet Ride," "Rock Me" and "Monster" stand among Rock's most indelible anthems. At last count, the band's worldwide record sales exceed 25 million units. Its songs remain fixtures on classic-rock radio, and have been licensed for use in countless motion pictures and television programs. Steppenwolf's punchy style helped to establish the fundamentals of the hard-rock sound that would flourish in the 1970s.
Steppenwolf's remarkable resilience is largely a reflection of the fierce determination and never-say-die tenacity that's driven Kay for much of his life. He was born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in 1944 in the section of Germany then known as East Prussia. He never knew his father, who was killed fighting in Russia a month before John's birth. When John was less than a year old, he and his mother fled to what would soon become Communist-controlled East Germany. When he was four, they undertook a perilous midnight escape into West Germany. Growing up in Hanover, West Germany, John was profoundly affected by the American rock 'n' roll he heard on U.S. Armed Forces Radio. Though he didn't speak English at the time, the music's primal energy touched something deep in him, instilling both a driving ideal of personal freedom and an abiding interest in American culture. That vision became a reality in 1958, when the teenager emigrated with his mother and stepfather to Toronto. There, he immersed himself in the rock, R&B, country and gospel music that emanated from late-night U.S. clear-channel AM stations, while learning English from the speed-rapping DJs who dominated the rock 'n' roll airwaves.
Kay's first band, Sparrow, had run it's course by 1967 and Kay was in Los Angeles, where ABC-Dunhill Records staff producer Gabriel Mekler encouraged him to form a new group to record for his label. Towards that end, the singer reenlisted two old Sparrow bandmates, drummer Jerry Edmonton and keyboardist Goldy McJohn, and recruited 17-year-old guitar prodigy Michael Monarch and bassist Rushton Moreve. The new outfit was christened Steppenwolf, after Hermann Hesse's mystical novel of the same name. Steppenwolf's self-titled 1968 debut album-recorded in a mere four days-introduced the band's iconoclastic approach, which combined a tough, blues-rooted sound, a penchant for topical lyrics and the gritty growl of Kay, whose brooding presence and trademark shades made him one of the era's most magnetic and identifiable figures.
Steppenwolf soon emerged as one of the few bands of the late '60s to successfully straddle the pop-oriented AM mainstream and the hip FM underground, scoring substantial success on both the single and album charts without tailoring its approach to pander to either constituency. "Born to Be Wild"-written by ex-Sparrow member Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire-became Steppenwolf's first major hit, and was subsequently featured prominently (along with the band's pointed reading of Hoyt Axton's anti-hard-drug composition "The Pusher") in the seminal '60s film Easy Rider, cementing Steppenwolf's status as counterculture icons as well as earning the group a hardcore biker following.
"For the times, Steppenwolf was an uncharacteristically tight band," Kay notes. "In San Francisco, The Sparrow had been allowed to stretch out and experiment. But when Steppenwolf was created, I think Jerry and I had both come to the conclusion that the strong rhythmic element was what we really valued. Our philosophy was 'Hit 'em hard, make your point and move on.'" Steppenwolf's aggressive image co-existed with a thoughtful lyrical stance that challenged mainstream values and counterculture platitudes alike. "That idea of speaking your mind in the lyrics is something I had picked up in the folk-music community, and from growing up in post-World War II Germany," Kay states. "We didn't see why you couldn't have music that worked on a gut level but still offered some food for thought."
The band's career momentum and musical progression continued with such best-selling albums as Steppenwolf The Second (which yielded another Top Five classic in "Magic Carpet Ride"), At Your Birthday Party (which spawned the Top Ten hit "Rock Me"), the ambitiously conceptual Monster (whose politically provocative title track became a surprise hit), Steppenwolf Live (which featured studio single "Hey Lawdy Mama"), Steppenwolf 7 and For Ladies Only. Along the way, various members came and went. "Steppenwolf was always kind of a work in progress," says Kay. "By our second album, we had become more confident in not having to mimic others in our attitude, in our look or in our music."
Steppenwolf's popularity and influence continued unabated into the early 1970s. But, burned out from the endless album/tour grind, the quintet officially disbanded on Valentine's Day 1972, a day that L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty officially designated as "Steppenwolf Day." The band reformed briefly, but retired again, with Kay concentrating on a promising solos career. Kay learned that two of his former bandmates were touring with a bogus "Steppenwolf." He and Steppenwolf co-founder Jerry Edmonton fought to establish their legal claim to the band name. In 1980 Kay launched an all-new lineup, now billed as John Kay and Steppenwolf, virtually starting from scratch to restore his band's good name. The new group spent the next several years working a punishing touring regimen, playing anywhere and everywhere it could to rebuild Steppenwolf's reputation as a class act.
"That was a real ego adjustment, and a real test-do you want to do this badly enough to rebuild this thing from the ground up?," Kay admits. "It was a tremendously humbling experience...but it showed me that there were people out there who still felt a deep connection to Steppenwolf." Indeed, the lengthy rebuilding period had put Kay and company back in touch with a large and loyal fan base-as well as an influx of younger listeners responsive to band's enduring appeal-that has kept Steppenwolf rolling ever since. "There's a lot of truth in that old cliché about whatever doesn't kill you making you stronger," Kay concludes. "Looking back, I realize that it's the struggles that have taught us how to gain our independence and live the rock 'n' roll of life on our own terms."
Contact for media inquiries and interview requests:
Turn To Productions L.L.C.