Steppenwolf The Epic Years 1974 to 1976 3CD Box Set Review

STEPPENWOLF The Epic Years 1974-1976 (3CD clamshell) Cherry Red

Watch the video above for the unboxing video

Following the 8 disc ABC/Dunhill years set of a year or two back (now THAT was a wonderful box set), Cherry Red follow up with the three albums issued post breakup and reformation. Again, it does what it says on the tin. Three wonderful albums, Slow Flux, Hour Of The Wolf and Skullduggery. These albums are not so easy to find, on LP or CD, which makes this set all the more welcome.

Forever known for hits like Born To Be Wild and Magic Carpet Ride in the late 60s, there is so much more to the Steppenwolf catalogue. And by 1974 there was less of a psychedelia leaning and move towards a rawer hard rock with blues and soul touches.

Lead singer John Kay had always had political motivation in his lyrics, and this continued throughout his career. When I interviewed him for Record Collector Magazine, he told me: “Oh yes! My interest in politics isn’t always about the workings, just a good system and the human rights that goes with it. I’m still interested to this day. My roots are – after fleeing East Germany – growing up in West Germany. I remember watching the newsreel reports of the East German uprising as a nine-yearold. I was then moved by footage from the Hungarian movements too. When I was in Canada I saw footage of police attacking peaceful demonstrators, which enraged me. I witnessed folk festivals, where you had Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie writing about this stuff – the draft, etc. Then hearing The Byrds playing Dylan songs made me realise that electric songs can have meaningful lyrics, not just be about love. And the Nixon government, when you think about what came out on the tapes, it represented that kind of oppression”.

The original split had been caused by burnout: “We’d had our ups and downs in terms of quality of output. Monster was a highpoint, a reinjection of energy, and we had a break when we put out Steppenwolf Live – though I wish we’d recorded more nights. On Steppenwolf 7 we had a line-up change that was not for the best, and I did not want to be obligated to the producers”. He recorded two solo albums, before the reformation: “In between I’d recorded an album, had a hit. I was recording a second when an agent called to discuss a farewell tour. There was a lot of interest in Germany and the others agreed to it. But I still had this album to finish. The band had had a break and gained fresh energy, so we had both bands on the same bill: The John Kay Band, and Steppenwolf headlining. The solo album was put on hold and got finished later. I didn’t think Dunhill handled it well, so we parted company. When we got back together we signed to the MUMS label, who were distributed by CBS. We did three albums, Slow Flux, Hour Of The Wolf and Skullduggery. Things started well but didn’t end up that way. We ended up on Epic, who felt like they inherited us and had no interest”.

So on opening the box, a solid card affair that feels as good as it looks, and three albums in card sleeves. First up is Slow Flux, in places rough hard rock and some hard soul/funk/rock too. Gang War Blues a fine and hard hitting opener. The Nixon government is alluded to, One of the standout tracks, Get Into The Wind, has a fine groove that gets you nodding, and Jereboah a track that makes you glad you discovered this album. The album features, alongside John Kay, original pianist Goldy McJohn, drummer Jerry Edmonton, guitarist Bobby Cochran and bassist George Biondo. After the album was released, McJohn was fired, to be replaced by Andy Chapin.
Next Up is Hour Of The Wolf which, like its predecessor, features horns on several tracks.
Opener is the Mars Bonfire penned track Caroline, although an excellent song, and an equally strong performance, lacks the fire of earlier Steppenwolf. Much of the album follows suit, using outside writers, and there’s a generic Steppenwolf cum mid 70s American rock feel, earlier edginess gone. Two For The Love Of One does pick things up, and is one of the ‘Go To’ tracks on the album. Lack of edge aside, there’s still some great tracks here. Two bonus tracks too, but there’s an apparent outtake unused. A very minor point.
1976 and Skullduggery, with keyboard player Wayne Cook. Much like the predecessor, it is a fine album, lots to love, it just didn’t stand out so much. The title track, I’d forgotten how good that track is.

All three albums are really well worth investigating, and the packaging is superb. Really well put together, and a wonderful and well annotated booklet. Cherry Red are defining the template with such packages.

Still needing an overhaul are John Kay’s three 70s solo albums, and his 80s/90s solo / Steppenwolf work (including the Lost Heritage Tapes). And I really hope that Cherry Red can give those similar treatment.

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Joe Geesin | Now Spinning Magazine

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