Fricke's Picks: Revisiting Steppenwolf's Provocative Hard-Rock Opera "Monster/Suicide/America"

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"America, where are you now?/Don't you care about your sons and daughters?/Don't you know we need you now?/We can't fight alone against the monster": That chorus is the big finale of the best rock & roll song about the current precarious state of our union, a three-part suite more than nine minutes long and originally released in late 1969 by the hard-rock hit machine Steppenwolf. "Monster/Suicide/America" ate up most of Side One on the group's fourth straight Top Twenty studio LP, Monster (Dunhill). The album is still in print (and on iTunes); XM Satellite Radio's Deep Tracks channel has the title track in periodic rotation. But I have gone back to the "Monster" opera a lot on my own in recent years, because the history in it is repeating itself so precisely.

The music -- written by singer John Kay, drummer Jerry Edmonton, bassist Nick St. Nicholas and guitarist Larry Byrom -- has lost none of its muscular drama: the bright, winding guitar riff and power-chord gunfire in "Monster"; the heavy-blues hell of "Suicide"; the gospel-army glow of the vocals and Goldy McJohn's organ in that last-stand chorus of "America." But Kay's acute, snarling rage at the runaway greed, disastrous imperialism and daily betrayals of civil rights is startling in its prescience: "Its leaders were supposed to serve the country/But now they won't pay it no mind. . . . Now we are fighting a war over there/No matter who's the winner/We can't pay the cost." When Kay sings, "The police force is watching the people," he has the biography to back it up. Born in 1944 in what would soon become Communist East Germany, he escaped with his mother to West Germany four years later.

Named after Herman Hesse's 1929 novel of transformation and dementia, Steppenwolf are most remembered now for their 1968 outlaw-life anthems "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride." But they were also a gnarly R&B band -- see the cover of Don Covay's "Sookie Sookie" on 1968's Steppenwolf -- and could be impressively weird. A 1971 B side, "For Madmen Only" (a title also borrowed from Hesse's book), was 8:46 of feedback and organ drone. And while Rolling Stone's 1970 review of Monster mocked its politics ("The words get in the way"), Kay's best early writing was vigorously partisan songs of warning and resistance: "Desperation" and "The Ostrich," on Steppenwolf; "Don't Step on the Grass, Sam," on 1968's The Second. But "Monster/Suicide/America" is as powerful and right today as it was thirty-seven years ago. And I will keep going back to it -- at least until history stops repeating itself.

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