There was a moment in my childhood where I was enamored with albums based entirely on the covers alone. When I say “childhood,” I’m talking kindergarten age, the time when a young boy left to his own turntable instead of human contact begins to form realities within the cover art in front of him.
What’s concerning is the nature of those records, in terms of content, but mainly the covers themselves.
Three records stand out: Bloodrock Bloodrock 2,
Alice Cooper Love It To Death and Steppenwolf 7.
Only one of those albums-Love It To Death-remains in high esteem, for reasons that I didn’t know back then. The other two have been lost to youthful admiration, seemingly selected on their easy heaviness and bitchin’ album art.
But the Steppenwolf record was lost early, and I have not been able to verify that it deserved to be forgotten since I left it in the back of my mom’s baby blue VW Beetle. I was going to bring it to show and tell at school, and on the way home I put it in the very back for “safe keeping” only to promptly forget about it for a few days. When I remembered, it was unplayable.
Fast forward to last night, when I remembered the above story and quickly downloaded a replacement copy for my long lost warped vinyl copy.
What I discovered-and this is something that I suspected before-was that Steppenwolf’s 7 is nothing like it’s menacing cover projects. In fact, it’s quite a collage of different styles, each one proficient enough to place this Canadian outfit as a credible touring act capable of stirring up enough dust on the circuit to deserve the bigger letters on the marquee.
But by the time 7 was released in 1972, the band was reaching the end of their popularity and the record seems to hint that John Kay and the boys are throwing up different styles just to see what sticks and what might take off for continued commercial success in the new decade.
For “Snowblind Friend,” Steppenwolf dig out the pedal steel and try a bit of Canadian Prairie country, telling the story of a young drifter who spent his last buck on drugs. They seem to imply that more money is coming to him on Monday-from what, the listener doesn’t know-and they admit that someone simply needs to get him on a bus home.
“He said he wanted Heaven/But prayin’ was way too slow” indicates an impatient character, and John Kay’s weary baritone nearly makes this melodramatic tale work.
And that’s the problem throughout 7; Steppenwolf nearly makes an album as worthy as their heyday, and they nearly seemed poised to take on the new decade with something refreshing.
Trouble is, they can’t seem to focus on one style long enough to grain traction. Even the gatefold sleeve is filled with identity conflict. It finds the band members donning gladiator costumes, except Kay who is still in his biker motif.
When they start given other members the lead vocals, like “Fat Man,” things go from bad to worse. Guitarist Larry Byrom provides some ridiculous unbuttoned shirt singing, magically turning Steppenwolf into an atypical Canadian bar band who’s nightly setlist contains the FM rock staples of the day and a few of their own “Let’s go grab a beer” originals.
Of course, at six-years of age this stuff probably seemed as badassed as the dual skull cover art, but as the decade wore on and I grew older, it was probably for the best that I left this record as a relic of my youth. Because some four decades later, listening to it now reminds me how leaving it the sun’s glare was probably the most appropriate outcome for this forgotten document.