Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Steppenwolf-The Classic Years

It's funny how I can't remember much of today but can pick out certain things in the 53 years of life itself.  Most of the time revolves around my times at the local record store or various ones that used to be in existence.  The old Woolworth's stores from Webster City to Lincoln to the ones that were close by. I'm certainly glad that I grew up in a era that we could pick out 4 for a dollar specials at Woolworth's or Arlens for that matter.  One thing stands out in my mind was that around the hippie era (1969) I gotta kick out of some dude, whacked out on too much pixie sticks and playing Sookie Sookie about 10 times that day.  I really don't know what ever happened to that guy, or the three ladies in Arlens, reeking of not having a bath for about 10 days and stinking up the joint.  It was a whole different time and somehow I can still picture and for that matter smell that.  It wasn't pretty.

Now that I got your attention there, the majority of singles found in Woolworths or Arlens' got me to acquire plenty of Dunhill singles from Steppenwolf, a band originally known as Sparrow and made a hard to find album for Columbia before moving over to Dunhill.  The first two singles flopped (A Girl I Knew, and Sookie Sookie) before they struck rock and roll gold with Born To Be Wild.  For the most part, the first Steppenwolf album was very good and was one of the longer albums that were out there at that time, clocking about 48 minutes.  John Kay and company could do pop as well as rock and roll, (B sides Everybody's Next One and Take What You Need), but they could also jam out, sometimes great (The Pusher), sometimes good (The Ostrich) and sometimes so so (Desperation, later covered by a new British band Humble Pie).

While John Kay sang most of the time, Steppenwolf the 2nd had Goldy McJohn (I'm guessing) helping out on vocals on Faster Than The Speed Of Light and 28, but the hits belonged to Kay with Magic Carpet Ride and FM classic Don't Step On The Grass Sam.  This could have been a classic album but it's hampered by a strange medley after Magic Carpet Ride, but overall the album isn't bad either.

At Your Birthday Party is another strange album, the singles taken off the album the highlights including It's Never Too Late, Rock Me and Jupiter Child.  Most of side 1 is listenable with Round And Down, Don't Cry  and Chicken Wolf getting a lot of play on my stereo, but side 2 falls apart with too much filler.

Monster seems to be a concept album about the wrongdealings of the government that ring true to this day although the 9 minute Monster/America/Suicide segment may be too much for the short attention span people out there.  Move Over was a minor hit.  With that Steppenwolf Live came out and shows the band in fine form, but it's poorly recorded.  Early Steppenwolf, which dates back to 1967 is a bit more rougher and has the 21 and half minute The Pusher which takes forever getting off the ground. You had to be there.

While John Kay, Goldy McJohn and Jerry Edmonson being the core members of this band, there were plenty of personnel changes and turnovers in the band and George Biando replaced the fired Nick St. Nicolas on the heavy Steppenwolf 7 album.  While this record gets a bad rap, I tend to call this my favorite of the studio Steppenwolf albums out there.  The songs titles are hilarious (Ball Crusher, Earsplittenloudenboomer), Kay's lyrics hard to figure out but they do ride the groove on Who Needs Ya and Hippo Stomp.  And Kay continued to talk of social issues like Renegade.  I might be overrating this with an A minus grade but to me it's a classic.  For Ladies Only, on the other hand is kinda bland as Kay starts writing more sensitive songs like Tenderness or the title track which just might be the best thing Goldy McJohn ever did on the piano break. Outside of Ride With Me, it's their least interesting album.  Of course when this came out on CD, the infamous Penis mobile in the record jacket disappeared, perhaps that somebody at Universal would have thought people would be offended.

With that in mind, Steppenwolf decided to call it a day and Rest In Peace, their final Dunhill LP, cherry picked key tracks off the First album and 7.  1973's 16 Greatest Hits highlighted their singles but somehow didn't add the Hey Lawdy Mama 45 edit, choosing to go with the fadeout on the live album.  John Kay moved to a so so solo career and made two decent albums before deciding to reconnect with Steppenwolf once again.

With a new guitar player (Bobby Cochran) and a new label (Mums/Epic) Slow Flux came out in 1974 and while reviews of that record were lukewarm at best, they managed to score a top thirty hit in Straight Shooting Woman but Slow Flux was more in line with For Ladies Only rather than Born To Be Wild, it's more middle of the road rock.  Sometimes they would get heavy (Gang War Blues, co written with Kim Fowley, Get Into The Wind) but they kinda played it safe, even covering Albert Hammond's Smokey Factory Blues (The 45 version is different than the LP).  The record didn't sell very well, their label Mums went under and the next two albums came out on Epic.  Goldy McJohn was booted out of the band and the late Andy Chapin (who would be killed in the plane crash that took the life of Rick Nelson) replaced him for Hour Of The Wolf.  With some highlights (Caroline, Hard Rock Road, Someone Told A Lie), it was sadly coming the fact that Steppenwolf's time has come and gone.  1976's Skullduggery is their final chapter of anything decent, but the only time the record catches fire is on the title track.  The record didn't sell, Epic dropped them and then the band would go through many many configurations and personnel before John Kay and Jerry Edmonton retook the name away from various lineups that Goldy McJohn and Nick St Nicolas would put together.

While semi retired, John Kay does tour as John Kay And Steppenwolf  when summertime comes around but he only does about four to five show at best.  Larry Byrom, guitarist for the Monster and 7 albums would become a go to Nashville session player and can be heard on many country albums. Jerry Edmonton died in a car accident in 1993.  Goldy McJohn continues to play in various bands around the Washington State area and still remains very bitter toward John Kay. 


Steppenwolf (Dunhill 1968) B+
Steppenwolf The 2nd (Dunhill 1968) B+
At Your Birthday Party (Dunhill 1969) B-
Monster (Dunhill 1969) B
Steppenwolf Live (Dunhill 1969) C+
Early Steppenwolf (Dunhill 1970) B-
7 (Dunhill/ABC 1970) A-
For Ladies Only (Dunhill/ABC 1971) C+
Rest In Peace (Dunhill/ABC 1972) B
16 Greatest Hits (Dunhill/ABC 1973) B+
Slow Flux (Mums/Epic 1974) B+
Hour Of The Wolf (Epic 1975) B
Skullduggery (Epic 1976) C
All Time Greatest Hits (MCA 1999) A-

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dean Martin-King Of Cool

The Rat Pack!  Frank, Sammy and Dino!

Back as a snot nosed brat, I disowned everything from these squares cause they were not rock and roll.  Far from it, but over time and age and tired of crappy music from crappy bands of the 80s and 90s, I basically to scour the bargain bins for certain albums.  While Frank Sinatra remains the all time great vocalist according to everybody, I was more into the king cool of Dean Martin more than the MOR Pop of Frank and while someday I may attempt to pick the ultimate Sammy Davis Jr, I will cast my lot for Dean Martin.  After all he was Matt Helm in those mid 60s spy movies and of course The Dean Martin Show which I did watch and of course they can be found on DVD and the Dean Martin Roasts are always campy but good fun.

For music, Dean could nail a song with one or two takes tops.  The guy could sing a telephone book and get a hit with it.  With the Reprise albums, Bowen would record the tracks, then have Dean come in later and lay them down the greatest of ease. The early years Capitol has always managed to put out  albums via CD.  Like Frank and Nat King Cole, there's a lotta fluff to go with the pop but once in a while Dino would make a winning single (Memories Are Made Of These, Standing On The Corner)  but most of the time the dated charts and background singers made it a chore to listen to.  While pop, Dean Martin was also (to me) a damn good country singer, had Jimmy Bowen, his Reprise producer lined him up with folks from Bradley's barn or Nashville rather than the Your Hit Parade backing singers.

The period I'm more familiar with is his Reprise/Warner Brothers tenure which he had the number 1 single that knocked the Beatles off the top spot, with Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes, but when you listen to this on the Collector's Choice mixtape of The Long Lost Reprise Hits, you hear the same arrangements over and over, (The Door Is Still Open To My Heart, a carbon copy of Everybody Loves Somebody and did fairly well)  Bowen always did surround Dean with some great session players, The late Earl Palmer on drums but Godalmighty the cheesy background muzak singers really didn't do anybody any favors. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Lee Hazlewood taken a crack at production, the track Houston is the best percussion use of a coke bottle ever done.  And Houston plays to the strengths of Dino, for it's a country based song, something not out of character on a Roger Miller album if Roger even attempted to do that song.  While later songs didn't chart as high or well, Martin was best at the country croon like I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am or Little Ole Wine Drinker Me, or the 56th version of Gentle On My Mind.  Capitol, sensing this issued a couple of Country based themes in around 1998, the one I found, Hurtin Country Songs while good, suffered from dated production.  Martin covered the country hits at that time and did credible versions of For The Good Times which could rival the late great Ray Price, but he beats out O.C. Smith in Little Green Apples.

There's no shortage of Dean Martin on vinyl, any thrift store will probably have a few scratched up copies of Houston or Everybody Loves Somebody and for the casual listener that borderlines on overkill if you only looking for the hits.  Collector's Choice in the 2000's managed to reissue all of the Reprise albums as 2 on 1 CDs and certain ones do command higher prices than the 25 cent copy at the Salvation Army.  Although Dean was winding down in the late 70s, he managed to return to lush pop sounds on the just about forgotten 1978 Every Once In A While.  But Martin would reunite with Jimmy Bowen one more time for the 1983 Nashville Sessions, Dean's final album and actually had a country hit with My First Country Song. 

Capitol for the most part has continued to keep Martin's legacy alive with a slew of Best ofs and ICON series which makes decent but spotty sampler of cherry picked hits that come both from Capitol and Reprise but this year, The Dean Martin Family Trust has signed up with Sony/Legacy to reissue Dean's Reprise albums once again, will they do it as the 2 albums on 1 CD that Collector's Choice or will they be issued as stand alone albums?  The one that I am most interested in would be The Nashville Sessions though  I don't think Collector's Choice ever reissued it.  With Martin Family Trust moving the Reprise stuff over to Legacy, Capitol's revamping of Dino, The Essential Dean Martin, takes out the Reprise stuff and adds a second cd of Capitol recorded stuff. But the original 2004 Dino Capitol Comp does have most of the Reprise hits.  The new Legacy Playlist of the Reprise Years (2014) to me is a disappointment with the omission of key tracks (Gentle On My Mind, Too Many Indians) in favor of lesser known stuff and leaves off My First Country Song and instead has Drinking Champagne.  It's buyer beware and this will not let me give up the Collector's Choice version of Long Lost Reprise Hits, which omits Gentle On My Mind.  Out of everything that is out there, Dino (2004) Essential Dean Martin covers most of it.

In the smoke filled Las Vegas Sahara ballrooms and lounge areas of the long gone 40s, 50s and 60s nothing could compare with the laid back cool of Dean Martin.  He's gone now, been gone for over 25 years but his music, his movies and his roasts still remain.

Forever cool.