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For Ladies Only
Steppenwolf

Dunhill DSX 50110
Released: October 1971
Chart Peak: #54
Weeks Charted: 11

Steppenwolf is like the football club that always wins more than it loses, and perennially finishes second or third in its conference -- something like Purdue. Sound in the skills but hardly ever brilliant. Always in contention, but never the champ.

Steppenwolf does have a gifted quarterback in John Kay, whose voice has always seemed to me to be the growl of the archetypal lead singer. Kay normally writes or cowrites most of the songs; he also directs the group in most of its undertakings. Ironically, it is Kay, Steppenwolf's strongest component, who has most often underlined the group's effectiveness as an unsophisticated but hard-driving rock & roll band. He's never statisfied with a more collection of good rock tunes -- he has to tie them together under some over-all theme. Kay has always been a bit too ambitious for his own good -- or the good of Steppenwolf as a whole. That is what derailed a seemingly unstoppable Steppenwolf after two fine straightforward albums in the form of an abominable pseudo-concept album called Birthday Party. And it was ambition that caused Steppenwolf to exploit the political cliche in Monster.

Steppenwolf - For Ladies Only
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Well, it's happened again. This time, however, the other four group members are equally responsible, having shared the songwriting duties democratically with the boss. After making a heartening comeback with a surprisingly powerful live album and a spotty but much improved studio recording (Steppenwolf 7), they've decided once again to sacrifice rock & roll relevance on For Ladies Only. It's another critical setback, made even sadder by the inclusion of a couple of great stinging rock songs, one of which ranks with Steppenwolf's early best.

Good Steppenwolf is usually short Steppenwolf: this is an excellent singles band when it wants to be. Bad Steppenwolf is interminable: when this group makes one of its "major statements," a 15-minute album side can seem endless. So it follows that the monumental moments on For Ladies Only -- Mars Bonfire's "Ride with Me" and "Sparkle Eyes," by Kay and George Biondo -- move swiftly, while the bad parts -- the title song and the cruddy "Jaded Strumpet" -- hang in there tenaciously. "Ride with Me" is the ultimate mythic biker-as-buccaneer anthem. It's ironic that Steppenwolf, whose memorable work is romantically reactionary (Kay's publisher is Black Leather Music), should make an album about the oppression of women. But never fear, Steppenwolf fans -- the boys do it in a gloriously reactionary way.

After listening to the album, I'm still not certain whether the fellows are for or against, but the songs within do little to dispel that feeling of steaming hostility toward women. I must admit that I find myself without the burning desire to find out where Steppenwolf stands in regard to women's liberation: the music accompanying the group's politics isn't much more exciting than the tired issues discussed in the lyrics. In the title song, for example, a passable rocker is interrupted by a piano section that tries valiantly for a "Layla"-like effect, but adds little to the song itself (except for duration -- the piano bridge is longer than the song it surrounds, blowing it up past nine minutes altogether). In Bonfire's "Tenderness," Kay attempts, not without some success, to sound like a country singer, but there's little else notable about it. The group even does an instrumental, "Black Pit," that is nothing of the sort -- somebody plays vibes on it. "Jaded Strumpet" would be offensive if it weren't so dull, and that's worse.

So I'll file this one away and occupy myself with Stereophonic Steppenwolf and the "Ride with Me" single, and I'll offer this little poem to a band gone astray (to be sung to the tune of "Monster"):

Oh, Steppenwolf, what's with youse guys
Don't you care about your wives and mothers?
Hop on your bikes and try to forget
All the good rock 'n' roll your heavy hand smothers.

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 12-23-71.

Bonus Reviews!

In the past few years, the fine instrumental work of Steppenwolf and the gravel-and-leather voice of lead singer John Kay have been on the AM and underground airwaves regularly. Steppenwolf makes consistently powerful rock and roll records. Here's another one. The album includes their current hit "Ride With Me."

- Billboard, 1971.

These fellows certainly have lost their hip aura, and their bid for the feminist vote here is likely to be undercut by, let's see, titles like "Jaded Strumpet" (not to metion "For Ladies Only"), the customized Penismobile in the gatefold, and the vagina dentata -- denture atop shapely gams -- from which the band recoils on the enclosed poster. Too bad, since the title tune does lay out rock and roll misogyny with the kind of dumb, well-meaning insight I've always liked about John Kay. Wish he had come up with a few more dumb, well-crafted hooks as well. C+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.


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