Born to Be Wild: A Retrospective

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Born to Be Wild: A Retrospective was the first attempt at a serious historical overview of Steppenwolf and founder/leader John Kay's career, and considering that the makers limited themselves to two CDs, they did an amazingly good job. A lot of listeners -- even those who were around during the band's heyday -- who think of Steppenwolf as nothing but successful purveyors of hard rock on the pop charts, may be surprised by what is here. Disc one reaches back to a pair of excellent tracks from the summer 1966 Columbia Records sessions by the Sparrow, the earlier band (featuring John Kay as lead singer) out of which Steppenwolf was formed. The array of Steppenwolf songs includes all of the expected hits and a lot more, which may be more than most casual fans will want. The latter will probably opt for the group's 20th Century Masters single CD, but this set is not to be passed over lightly -- as is quickly revealed on the first disc, Steppenwolf was one of the more prodigiously talented hard rock acts of the late '60s, easily able to go head-to-head with Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, or any other of the top American acts of the era, and come out on top; they knew enough blues (and folk) licks, were good (and bold) enough with their instruments, and had a sufficiently charismatic lead singer in John Kay to generate six strong studio albums in five years -- including three very consistent, challenging, and inventive LPs in 1968 and 1969 -- and a string of hit singles, This set doesn't give enough exposure to the group's somewhat underrated second album, but otherwise it's a very good cross-section of some of their most popular work interspersed with their more ambitious album cuts, their entire output represented except for the two live albums, Early Steppenwolf and Steppenwolf Live. This set was also the first updated digital transfer of the band's classic recordings, and what's here does sound richer and louder than the existing individual CDs from MCA (which, in fairness, were unusually good for mid- to late-'80s releases). The collection includes highlights of John Kay's early-'70s solo sides and the mid-'70s incarnation of the group on Columbia Records, up through the version of the group organized by Kay in the late '80s. There are a few flaws in the package, to be sure, mostly in the annotation -- Todd Everett's essay gets very sketchy about the music (especially their albums) after the first LP, and tend to focus more on personnel changes than on what they were actually releasing (which was still charting), and that's frustrating for anyone genuinely interested in the history of the music. But this is as good a survey of Steppenwolf and John Kay as we're likely to see, and the listening is a pleasure and a serious enlightenment for the uninitiated, and one that even casual fans should take seriously.

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