John Kay says he couldn’t hope to leave a Steppenwolf concert alive without playing “Born to Be Wild”


By Steve Newton

Back in the summer of 1968 you could hardly turn on the radio without hearing the surging power chords and menacing vocals of “Born to Be Wild”, a song that became an anthem for the carefree life and a harbinger of seventies hard-rock.

But in 1972, just when Steppenwolf was at its peak of popularity, leader John Kay quit to go solo.


“Primarily because at that point the fun started to go out of it,” explained Kay in a recent phone interview from L.A. “And there were the normal gremlins that start to appear within a band. We had gone through a few member changes, and some of the members started to second guess themselves and take the rather one-dimensional image that the media had of us, too seriously.

“They were starting to think, ‘Does this sound like Steppenwolf?’ rather than doing what we had done in our early formation period, which was ‘This is what we play because this is what we like’.”

A year after their first breakup, though, Kay agreed to a farewell European tour with the band. But the farewell tour became a reunion tour, and the band released three more albums on CBS Records, including Slow Flux, and the Top 20 single “Straight Shootin’ Woman”.

Management and label hassles caused the final breakup of that Steppenwolf lineup, and Kay again went solo, recording the albums Sporting Life and All In Good Time. But coinciding with the 1978 release of the latter LP, something totally unexpected occurred–and caused Kay to once again take over the Steppenwolf name.

At first one, and then several, bogus Steppenwolf bands were formed, and despite numerous lawsuits could not be put out of business until Kay, in sheer frustration and anger, hit the road in early 1980 as John Kay & Steppenwolf.

By late 1980, the bogus bands were vanquished, through Kay’s efforts and several court interactions, but the whole fiasco left its mark on him. The ineffectiveness of the legal system is referred to in a song called “The Fixer” from the band’s new album Paradox.

Can’t get cash from all those deadbeats?/Can’t get a witness to the crime?/And the cops are all at the doughnut shop/Well, you just call the fixer, he’ll do fine

You say your mind was on vacation/The day you signed your life away/And the judge ain’t free until 1993/Well, you just call the fixer, he’s got the time

“It’s basically saying, don’t wait for the judicial system to do anything for you,” says Kay in a slightly bitter tone. “It’s a waste of time and money, and all you’ll do is be ready to rip your own head off in frustration. But if you engage the service of Large Lewis with a brown paper bag full of money you will get the job done immediately.”

The song most likely to be a hit on Paradox is the opening tune, “Watch Your Innocence”, which was written by two friends of Kay–Jackie DeShannon and Duane Hitchings. DeShannon also wrote “Bette Davis Eyes” which was a huge hit for Kim Carnes, and Hitchings has written several songs for Rod Stewart, including “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

When John Kay & Steppenwolf play the Commodore Ballroom tonight (Friday) and tomorrow night, “Watch Your Innocence” should be one of the Paradox songs featured. Luckily for fans of the old Steppenwolf, the show is “50 percent old and 50 percent new.”

“Quite obviously we couldn’t hope to leave the place alive without playing ‘Born to Be Wild’, ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, ‘Pusher’, and ‘Hey Lawdy Mama’,” says Kay.

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