The self-titled debut album by Los Angeles-via-Toronto rockers Steppenwolf has long been one of my favorites, ever since buying a new '80s MCA reissue back in the day. And I wish I still had that copy. During the years since the major labels attempted to kill the vinyl format, I gradually replaced many of the reissues I'd purchased new with original pressings. I remember thinking that the reissue sounded better than the original I'd found of Steppenwolf ... but the reissue went bye-bye.
Consequently, I've bought this album several times trying to find an elusive copy that sounds good, is not partied out, and/or does not have pressing defects. That's okay, because it's an album I like to drop on my friends, and it's always easy to move along playable duplicate copies for a buck or two at the occasional record sale. The continuing presence of "Born to Be Wild" in the American consciousness has pretty much guaranteed that someone else out there wants to hear it.
Since the album stayed in print on LP fairly continuously through the end of the '80s, there's various pressing variations out there for the curious to try out -- however, I never have run across another copy of the '80s pressing to see if my memory of how it sounded holds true.
The vintage ABC-Dunhill version of the album that turns up most often around the Midwest originates from Long Wear Stamper Corp., a company that produced parts to press albums by labels which didn't have their own pressing facilities from the 1950s at least into the '70s. Pull out some '60s ABC or Atlantic LPs or 45s, and if you're in the Midwest there's a good chance you'll see an LW in the deadwax.
Somewhere along the line for Steppenwolf, however, Long Wear must have created some bad stampers, because many of the copies I've heard have non-fill crackles in the same places on the records -- particularly irritating on "Somebody's Next One," for just one example. So, I've rolled along with the same so-so original I've had for years, simply because it doesn't have the defect.
I discovered a potential answer to this super-nerd complaint while perusing the ever-reliable Steve Hoffman Music Forums, where posters have mentioned in various threads that the best sounding LP versions of Steppenwolf titles are in many cases those originating not at New York's Long Wear but from the Monarch Record pressing plant in Los Angeles. That makes some sense at a basic level; the Dunhill label was headquartered there and the albums were recorded in L.A., so it's possible that plant had access to master tapes, or perhaps a lower-generation dub than what was sent to the east coast. After a bit of poking around online to try and find a Monarch, I lucked out and stumbled on one in better than average shape right here in town.
It's easiest to positively identify a Monarch by looking at the deadwax inscriptions on the disc; their pressings have a delta symbol/triangle preceding a matrix number that's different than the label's own matrix information. Many also include a small "MR" in a circle. It's trickier but possible to also ID pressings by the label typeface in some cases. Using this album as an example for late '60s-early '70s ABC labels, the Monarch copy has much bigger band/title print, the "stereo" is larger and above the speed designation, and the song titles are centered rather than left justified. The label's finish is also glossy, as compared to the uncoated paper of the Long Wear version.
The difference in sound quality is indeed surprising. It's not that the Long Wear version sounds bad -- it's just clearly apparent that either Monarch did have access to a source closer to the master tape or some very magical cutting engineers. John Kay's vocals and the instruments all come across more alive, making the East Coast version sound veiled in comparison. Comparing differences in sound quality is a very subjective art at best, and often the differences encountered on pressings of a similar vintage are slight ... but in this case, it was so obvious there's really no contest. The Monarch version of Steppenwolf really pops out of the speakers.
This is far from the only instance of superior Monarch pressings I've discovered over the years; records by other West Coast acts like The Turtles, The Doors, Love, and The Mamas and the Papas all sound better if you can find a Monarch.
There's a caveat with Monarchs through, which may be a deal breaker for some listeners -- even top condition copies often have some baseline surface noise, which in most cases is overwhelmed by the music. Monarch may have been on top of their game sonically, but it doesn't seem they were using the best quality vinyl. And what goes for LPs sound-wise is opposite for 45s; the majority of Monarch singles I've had over the years were pressed on styrene and seem to typically be distorted or worn-out sounding no matter the condition.
But what of the music, you may ask?
Stepenwolf was more diverse musically than the unitiated might expect from the hard-edged tracks that have remained in classic rock radio rotation, and the debut is no different. It's got the well-known tracks "Born to Be Wild" and "The Pusher," immortalized by Easy Rider, and their cover of "Sookie Sookie," nods to rock 'n roll's past with "Berry Rides Again" and the Diddley-beat of "The Ostrich," a stab at baroque-pop in "A Girl I Knew," and my favorite of them all, "Everybody's Next One." Any classic rock fan who hasn't heard this album should check it out, in whatever version you find! (ABC-Dunhill DS-50029, 1968)