Early Steppenwolf


ABC / Dunhill, 1969


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


I remember getting into Steppenwolf way back when I was just a young pup in high school; I found their first two albums at a local music store and absolutely devoured them. Once I had done that, I eagerly searched out everything the band had released to that point.

Then, I found Early Steppenwolf, a collection of live recordings made from a May 1967 concert when they were still known as “The Sparrow”. I can still vividly recall my first response to the record: “What the fuck is this?!?”

Of course, now I’m older, and have come closer to achieving Buddha nature… which means I can listen to this again in this day and age, and realize that it’s an interesting but flawed picture of the early history of John Kay and crew. But, when those flaws do hit… man, are they painful.

In fact, let’s get the main flaw out of the way – specifically, the side two-filling, 21-minute extended version of “The Pusher”. That is to say, it’s about 11 minutes of Steppenwolf trying to be the Grateful Dead with an extended sonic melange of absolute noise, followed by about a four minute jam that eventually turns into the opening chord progression. Look, I have listened to enough psychedelia in my time to understand that this was a product of its time. But Steppenwolf was anything but a psychedelic rock band, and nobody – I repeat, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 nobody – asked for “The Pusher” to be stretched into a 20-minute mind melt, half of which makes absolutely no sense to the heart of the song. I’d have rather had this shortened to – oh, let’s say nine minutes, and have a few more of Steppenwolf’s early songs included on this album.

The first half of Early Steppenwolf is what makes the experience worthwhile. It’s not that the five songs that make it up are anything spectacular, but they do offer an interesting snapshot of the band in its infancy. (Of course, this disc came out about a year after Steppenwolf’s self-titled debut, so it might not have been as eye-opening to listeners in 1969 as it can be in today’s day and age.) Only one of the five songs - “Tighten Up Your Wig” - made the cut onto the debut album, so it is interesting to hear Kay and crew plow through the other songs, especially when trying to make covers like “Howlin’ For My Darlin’” their own.

It’s hard to call Early Steppenwolf a filler album, as it was one of three they released in 1969. If anything, it might have been their record label capitalizing on their increasing fame. It might have been a stop-gap live offering until a full-length concert could be recorded (which would arrive one year later). It could have been that Kay and crew earnestly wanted to take a look back to the origins of the band, and present those songs to the listener who might have arrived at the party a bit later.

Whatever the case, there is enough on Early Steppenwolf to keep even casual fans interested, but is most definitely not required listening. And, tread carefully when it comes to the drawn-out version of “The Pusher”… just don’t say you weren’t warned.

Rating: C

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