Jun 302021

When I was younger and more idealistic, I might have crafted a 10,000-word essay this question. I don’t think I have that much idealism left, but I’ve got to ask anyway.

I got turned onto Steppenwolf as a little kid, thanks to the faux-live album with the snarling wolf on the cover. Their half dozen or so nasty rock classics were staples of AM radio, also bridging over to FM, when I finally got around to listening to FM radio. Their music was featured in Easy Rider, another key learning opportunity that my parents somehow turned me onto when I was about 7 years old. Steppenwolf was biker cool, man.

I still love listening to a Steppenwolf hit when it comes on the radio. Years ago, I tried listening to something other than the live album or their greatest hits. If you’ve been wondering if the deep cuts are worth the effort, trust me: they are not. That said, the band’s 5 or 6 killer singles retain their staying power.

OK, “Magic Carpet Ride” isn’t as mind-blowing as it was when I was 7, and “Born to Be Wild” has lost something thanks to overexposure, but “Hey, Lawdy Mama” came up on a playlist the other day, and I was as ready to pick a fight with a stranger as ever. That is possibly the most badass song ever. Some of those little guitar hooks could take down the best guitar hooks by the mighty Lynyrd Skynyrd.

And don’t get me started on “The Pusher.” It’s as ominous and unintentionally funny as ever.

We could be talking more often about the 5 or 6 great singles by Steppenwolf, but instead, we go on for days over T. Rex or lazy-ass Alex Chilton. Why?

I look forward to your thoughts.


  16 Responses to “Why Do We Talk About T. Rex and Alex Chilton More Than Steppenwolf?”

  1. Man, it seems like you answered your own question. They are just plain properly rated. They aren’t overrated or underrated. You named all the songs that are worthwhile except of course for Sookie Sookie! It’s a tough beat when you have so much filler on your greatest hits compilation. They have 5 or 6 great A sides! Not even 5 or 6 great singles. The winners are excellent, but they get the proper amount of respect already.

    And The Pusher is laugh out loud (GOD DAMN!) funny, but that’s about it.

    Also, did anyone in the band go on to do anything else of note? I’m unaware of it. Was John Kay in a German soap opera or anything like that? Any kind of longevity might have increased the props bestowed on Steppenwolf.

    And I know of your deep emotional bond with Easy Rider, but that movie is a difficult hang. There are a lot of boring parts in it; Jack Nicholson and Karen Black excepted of course.

  2. Again Chickenfrank’s unerring aesthetic judgment takes the day.

    Steppenwolf, experienced in real time, were one of those bands that suddenly seemed completely silly about five minutes after their sell by date. That was because the cartoonish heaviness of their schtick was just too much to take seriously for more than a couple of teenage years, not unlike the film that spurred your interest in them.

    That said, the hits, especially Magic Carpet Ride, have a great crunchy thick beat with fantastic guitar sounds, nice half time hi-hat work and that massive Hammond organ sound. A few years out from the embarrassment of having first noticed how cheesy they were, you hear those things on the radio and think, “Oh, that does sound good.” But they are totally silly and have barely a smattering of songs, three and a half maybe, that I’d ever listen to again.

    I am NOT a big T-Rex fan, but when I look at their list of ten most popular songs on Spotify, there are certainly more songs on there that I’d like to hear, six to be exact, than the three and a half on the Steppenwolf list. Also, Al, who is a pretty big T-Rex fan let me down in his defense of them. On the phone he delivered a proper rant about how Bowie was consistently a couple of steps behind Bolan. I have always hated the Ziggy Album myself and given my choice of Glam, I much prefer the goofy fun of Electric Warrior to the stilted rock beat with pretentious Broadway Bowie vocals on top. “Let the children boogie,” indeed. Ugh.

  3. Oh, and Alex Chilton, love him or hate him, is one hundred times more interesting than Steppenwolf. His first record is every bit the perfect radio hit. I guarantee that the Box Tops greatest hits collection has more good songs on it than the Steppenwolf. Then he moves into proto-Power Pop, turns up in NYC during the punk explosion and continues to take bizarre career turns, Panther Burns, yard work, bar band doing obscure Southern Soul. Big Star reunions, Box Top reunions, all of which, regardless of their absolute worth, are at least worth the discussion of why.

    Did John Kay ever pen a line as great as, “Pretty soon we’re all gonna get it, It’s time to buy some stuff on credit?” Absolutely not.

  4. I’m tempted to go with the thought process some wag I don’t like or respect came up with, along the lines of critics responding to and respecting more the also-rans and almost-weres than the actually popular ones, because that gives them hope that one day, one day, they too will be properly understood and revered.

    Actually, I do think there’s something to that. But I also think that while eventually quality usually wins out, it doesn’t always, and that doesn’t mean it wins as big as lesser stuff. And the lowest common denominator, all else being equally, usually does easily beat the hell out of more adventurous stuff, commercially.

  5. Geo, I didn’t let you down.. I drafted a long, totally persuasive argument that will convince anyone of the worthiness of T. Rex and put it up on the draftboard 4 days ago. As this post demonstrates, though, Mr Mod has the fix in and the power to crush the will of the people so it looks like you won’t see that on this lame stream news outlet. Guess I have to go to Rex News to see the truth.

  6. Rex News! Make American Glam Again.

  7. …and Mr. Mod, thinking of your post after seeing the Spotify list, I’m not seeing anything like “5 or 6 killer singles.” Magic Carpet, Born, Lawdy, Pusher? Aookie? Monster??

  8. For the most part, the Moderator’s critiques are usually flawed for one simple reason: his familiarity with the catalogs of the artists he tears apart is spotty at best.

    That said, he hit the target on this one. The misunderstood Alex Chilton solo material suffers for the following reasons: what he thinks is clever isn’t clever, what he thinks is funny isn’t funny, and what he thinks is craft is half assed shit nobody in their right mind would bring into a rehearsal for consideration. One would think that would be bad enough, but the production emphasizes his overall awfulness.

    When God finally calls for John Kay and tells him to check in with Peter at the golden gate, Peter will put his arm around him and say something like, “Your overall batting average was pretty low, but the fact of the matter is that you and your gang took what little talent you had to the max and cranked out “Born to Be Wild,” one of the greatest rockers of all time. What you’ve accomplished is comparable to that of Robbie Robertson. I let him in a few months back. I let the guy who put together “Brandy” in as well. Head on in there, you done good.”

    I doubt Peter was as generous with Chilton.

    As far as the whole T. Rex thing is concerned, here’s more or less how the shtick works: lyrically, you pretty much get the same nonsense no matter what track you pick. Rhythm wise there’s a little more diversity. The nonsense is matched up with either the “Bang a Gong” , “Mambo Sun”, or “Cosmic Dancer” thing. And it gets old real quick.

    And Al, do us all a favor and grow a set of balls. If T. Rex is such a life and death issue for you, post your fucking defense on this site asap where some real back and forth will take place and not some kiss ass Star Trek convention Rex News like thing.

  9. Happiness Stan

    Al, I look forward to the big M pressing that button and anticipate riding by your side in defence of the mighty elf.

    As for Steppenwolf, Born to be Wild never grows old, The Pusher is funny the first three times and the rest is just so much wallpaper with a dull thudding noise going on behind it. I watched Easy Rider once, it didn’t half go on. I recently found this, which I rather enjoyed, Steppenwolf on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972. I guess it also demonstrates that, four years after its release, even they recognised they didn’t have much apart from the hit in their armoury.


  10. Al, I am so sorry if I didn’t see your post! I will find it and get it posted tonight.

    Meanwhile, all of you are killing it. Keep the insights coming!

  11. Since some have seemed to miss the incredibly clever yet clearly too unclear humor –

    “lame stream news outlet. Guess I have to go to Rex News to see the truth”

    “lame stream news outlet” equates RTH to the New York Times, Washington Post, and MSBNC.
    For Rex News, read Fox News.

    Well, maybe not “incredibly”…

  12. I got it. My apologies for my awkwardly worded response. Corrections have been made. Still waiting for your defense as well as your T. Rex British best of. And I don’t want to hear any horseshit regarding the historical iimportance of his “work”. The truth lies in the actual music.

  13. BigSteve

    Alex’s best work was with Big Star. Everyone (except Alex himself) knows this. Three terrific but very different albums, more than most any rock musician, and certainly more than Steppenwolf,. But Alex made creditable, at the very least interesting, work at every other stage of his career, before and after Big Star. Well ok Like Flies on Sherbet stretches the definition of interesting. My point is that there a whole lot of good/cool music. With Steppenwolf you start to stretch the definition of good/cool before you get the end of their 5 memorable singles.

  14. I’ll have to read the biography again. I agree that Alex doesn’t know that his best work was released as Big Star, but I’m not sure he even thinks of that as a thing. I think after the disappointment of the first Big Star album, he never really was willing to commit to anything. The second album arose out of a desire to capitalize on the posthumous critical praise after the first album sunk unceremoniously. I’m not knocking Radio City, but a chunk of it was random sessions, not even intended initially for Big Star and featuring Chilton with drummer Richard Rosebrough and bassist Danny Jones. I don’t think Chilton was fully committed at that point to Big Star, rather it was just the moniker he was very loosely operating under. Even more so for Third.

    After his second NYC adventure, when he began to emerge from his deep alcoholic fog, he had no stomach for career goals, and he was totally satisfied to do whatever caught his fancy. I think he also knew that he had enough built up cache to get by doing just that and any illusions of potential wealth and fame were just that.

  15. BigSteve

    Yeah one of the things I remember from the biography I read was that Alex admitted to working only as much as he needed to in order to pay the bills. He had his llittle house in New Orleans, and he’d sit around playing Bach on his guitar and reading. Gigging was not his priority, much less recording.

  16. When I was in college I had a friend who, having discovered avocados, proceeded to eat so many of them that she developed an allergy. I think that America’s collective exposure to “Born To Be Wild” has probably produced much the same effect relative to the entire Stepenwolf catalog.

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