Steppenwolf Frontman John Kay on Rock Hall of Fame Nomination: 'It's a Surprise'

Gems/Redferns
Steppenwolf photographed circa 1970.

Steppenwolf, whose “Born To Be Wild” is the quintessential rock n’ roll anthem, is among the first-time nominees for the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band, who crafted the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 classics “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Rock Me," currently only features one original member, frontman John Kay.

“It’s a start,” Kay, 72, told Billboard from his home in Santa Barbara, California of the nomination. “It came as a surprise for two reasons. One, the last 20 years or so, gradually and ever more so during the last 15, my energy and time has not really been in or under the entertainment industry umbrella because my wife, Jutta, and I have a family foundation [Maue Kaye Foundation] that supports a variety of NGOs around the world that are involved in conservation and animal protection in Africa and elsewhere.

“However, in order to keep our foundation funded, John Kay & Steppenwolf continue to perform roughly a dozen dates or so a year in order for Jutta and I to take our share of the proceeds and keep our foundation funded. But other than that I’m really not active within the music community so I haven’t really been keeping an eye on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame developments.”

Kay knew about the nomination before it was public because the organization asked him for a quote. “I said, ‘Well, it’s a surprise. I want to express my appreciation and say thank you to whoever found Steppenwolf’s efforts worthy of a nomination. So thanks for throwing our hat in the ring and we’ll see where it goes.’”

There is another distinction often attributed to Steppenwolf -- that they gave rise to the term “heavy metal,” taken from a line about a motorcycle in “Born To Be Wild.” Others attribute the term to Creem music critic Lester Bangs in the early '70s. What does Kay think?

“There’s another camp that says in Williams Burroughs’ book, Naked Lunch, there is the phrase ‘heavy metal.’ [it’s actually used it in his novels The Soft Machine and Nova Express]. So there are different schools of thought who argue that to death,” Kay says. “Personally, I don’t really give a rat's knuckle ass to who’s right [laughs].”

Some Steppenwolf fans, like fans of other legendary bands, have lobbied and stated their case on social media for the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“That is, without question, one of the biggest blessings that our band has benefited from because when we came onto the scene in ’68, our first album and ‘Born To Be Wild’ and all that, those were turbulent times,” says Kay. “We toured across North America in the summer of ‘68 during assassinations and riots and cities burning and so on. Subsequent albums had songs that were of a semi-political, social political nature and there were a lot of people who were either on college campuses demonstrating at that time who found our music kind of a tonic as it were, or something that resonated because we were saying something that they felt.

“And there were tons of young guys, mainly in Vietnam, fighting the war,” he continues, recalling a show in Hawaii attended by “about 20” Vietnam vets, some of whom told him that they listened to Steppenwolf’s music there. “For people like that, our music will forever be etched in their memory bank. Many of them have raised their children in households where this music of ours, and others, was played. When we play, you see an age group that ranges from 12 year olds to 72 year olds.”

Kay, who was born in East Prussia, Germany, came to Canada with his mom and stepdad in 1958.  He joined the band The Sparrows in Toronto in 1965, which had some success in Canada. The band relocated to California and morphed into Steppenwolf, which for nearly 50 years has undergone innumerable lineup changes.

If Steppenwolf is selected as one of the inductees at next April’s ceremony (finalists to be announced in December, determined by a committee with consideration to a fan vote), Kay knows which lineup he’d like honored.

“It will be the holograms of the original lineup, including the deceased members,” he quips. “Obviously, in my opinion, irrespective of differences in the past, there’s no denying that, for instance, Goldy McJohn, was a fellow founding member of the band who contributed his not insignificant musical contributions to our first few albums, so I’m sure that he would be fine with being part of that. 

“Michael Monarch, our original guitarist, with whom I’m on good terms, would obviously be qualified to be there. Jerry Edmonton, our original drummer who is deceased, I would contact Mars Bonfire, his brother who wrote ‘Born to be Wild’ and ask whether he would be willing to stand in for Jerry because obviously ‘Born To Wild’ and, therefore, Mars Bonfire played an enormous role in the history of the band.

“And that leaves the question of the bass player [Rushton Moveve], who is also deceased. Now when Rushton was kicked out of the band for bizarre conduct that required a replacement, the bass player that replaced him is the Canadian Nick St. Nicholas and even though he did not record with us on the first two albums  [Steppenwolf and The Second] — the albums that contain ‘Born to Be Wild’ and ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ and ‘The Pusher’ – he was in the band during the Steppenwolf Live [1970] and the Steppenwolf Monster album [1969] and more to the point, in my opinion, he was the driving force of the Sparrows which we were all members of.

“He was the guy who was forever beating the bushes to promote the band, to find a manager, and while the end results weren’t what we hoped for, there’s no denying that he played a crucial role in at least the Sparrows making it all the way to California where we broke up. 

“So when Rushton, the original bass player, needed replacement, out of acknowledgement of the role that Nick had played in the past, he was the first guy that we said, ‘If you want, you can join Steppenwolf,’ and he did; unfortunately, you got to keep in mind, these were the late 60s, there was a lot of drug use, a lot of strange stuff going on in the world, and eventually Nick became unmanageable with respect to some of his conduct, particularly onstage, and was let go. But even though that was the case, I haven’t forgotten the past.

“I would certainly extend an olive branch to see, at least for one night, if we can all be in the same place and accept the induction.”