Steppenwolf’s Biker Anthem ‘Born to Be Wild’ Began in a Ford Falcon

‘200 Greatest 60s Rock Songs’ Book Excerpt

Frank Mastropolo
The Riff

--

Bellaphon

Please do not highlight.

Before Steppenwolf formed, singer John Kay and guitarist Mars Bonfire were members of the Sparrows. Canadian-born Dennis McCrohan first changed his name to Dennis Edmonton and later to Mars Bonfire. The Sparrows broke up in 1967, leaving Bonfire time to drive into the mountains and deserts of Los Angeles in his used Ford Falcon.

“Those trips in the Falcon provided the inspiration for ‘Born to Be Wild,’” Bonfire told The Guardian. “I got the basic guitar riff quick, and the lyrics were written chronologically: ‘Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway / Lookin’ for adventure, and whatever comes our way.’

“One afternoon, I had encountered a thunderstorm so ferocious I had to pull over as the road turned into a river. The sky was ominous, the color of lead. I was struggling to describe it in words until I remembered the periodic table of elements I’d studied during chemistry class at school.

“The term ‘heavy metals’ came into my head, which gave me the line: ‘I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder!’ This was before heavy metal became a music genre.

“I’d just been kicked out of an apartment for playing my guitar too loud, so I made a demo of ‘Born to Be Wild,’ almost whispering it, with my guitar so quiet it sounded like a banjo. Luckily, the band heard its potential and my replacement, a 17-year-old guitarist called Michael Monarch, played it perfectly.”

“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf

“We were rehearsing it in a double garage,” explained Kay, “when, by chance, a record executive called Gabriel Mekler moved in next door. He heard us, produced us, and got us signed. But the label didn’t think ‘Born to Be Wild’ was a single. They eventually compromised, putting it out on a double-sided single with the track ‘Everybody’s Next One,’ but the radio stations just played ‘Born to Be Wild.’”

“‘Born To Be Wild’ was the third single off our first album and the record company argued about which of the tunes that remained from the album that had not been released to date should be the next single,” Kay explained on the Steppenwolf website.

“So management and band on one side and label on the other side had this tug of war and finally the compromise was to put ‘Born To Be Wild’ on one side, put the other song that the record company preferred on the opposite side, send it to radio, and let them fight it out.

“Well, within a relatively short period of time (early summer of 1968) 9 out of 10 played ‘Born To Be Wild.’ After that came Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, who did Easy Rider, and, of course, ‘Born To Be Wild’ and ‘The Pusher’ were in that film and helped to spread the name Steppenwolf internationally through the success of the film. And once that all took place, that song, ‘Born To Be Wild,’ had at that stage reached its global anthem status.”

“Born to Be Wild (from Easy Rider)” by Steppenwolf

“Born to Be Wild” became a №2 hit in 1968. The song’s use on the 1969 Easy Rider soundtrack made it the anthem of the ’60s Generation. It also made Steppenwolf a favorite of bikers around the world.

“Yeah, ‘Born To Be Wild’ more or less became the unofficial biker anthem, and still is to this day,” Kay told Classic Rock. “But we had been dealing with the clubs even before that. The biker thing was strictly accidental, as were much of things going on with us.

“At this juncture, we have played biker events from Australia to Brazil to Finland, to Italy, Norway, Bucharest, and many, many in between. The irony is that at none of those events do I recall any unrest or fights.

“There were even times I remember in Texas, they had Outlaws, Bandidos, groups that were not terribly fond of each other, but there was always an unspoken truce that when we’re in this joint, we’re here to see the man do ‘Born To Be Wild,’ and nobody messed with that. On the one hand, we really appreciated their support and loyalty, on the other hand, it would have been a real bummer if people who weren’t involved in that thing had gotten beat up, and that was never the case.”

Frank Mastropolo is the author of the 200 Greatest Rock Songs series and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

--

--

Frank Mastropolo
The Riff

Visit www.edgarstreetbooks.com for more information about our latest projects that document the history of rock and roll and New York City.