This week’s suggestion began as folk ballad and only became as famous as it did thanks to it being accidently used in a film. In its original form it was unlikely to have been a hit said its unlikely named songwriter Mars Bonfire. Let’s find out how.
Steppenwolf were formed in 1967 and took their name from Hermann Hesse’s 10th novel Der Steppenwolf which was originally written in German in 1927 and translated into English two years later when it became known as Steppenwolf. The band comprised drummer Jerry Edmonton, singer/rhythm guitarist John Kay, lead guitarist Michael Monarch, keyboard player Goldy McJohn and bassist Rushton Moreve. They’d originally came up with the name Sparrow and Kay explained how they decided on the new name, “When it came to putting the name of the demo box our producer, Gabriel Mekler, said, ‘Well, what is the band called?’ and aside from the obvious joke names and other obscene suggestions which were not marketable, he finally said, ‘Well, look, how about Steppenwolf? I think it’s a word that looks good in print and it denotes a degree of mystery and power and you guys are kind of rough and ready types.'”
The song celebrated its 50th anniversary last month and Mars Bonfire – alias band member Jerry’s brother, Dennis Edmonton, explained how the track came about, “I finally scraped enough money together to buy my first vehicle – a Ford Falcon and then I started to explore the great Los Angeles area I was really stunned at the beauty and variety of what was there. I was totally unaware of this and that inspired the opening line ‘Get your motor runnin’, lookin’ for adventure and whatever comes our way’ because that was basically what I was doing every morning. It was intended as a folk ballad about life on the open road. Once Steppenwolf began working with the song, the tempo was increased. One day I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard and saw a poster in a window saying ‘Born to Ride’ with a picture of a motorcycle erupting out of the earth like a volcano with all this fire around it. With my new car it all this came together lyrically: the idea of the motorcycle coming out along with the freedom and joy I felt in having my first car and being able to drive myself around whenever I wanted. The song didn’t stand out initially, even the publishers at Leeds Music didn’t take it as the first or second song I gave them. They got it only because I signed as a staff writer. Luckily, it stood out for Steppenwolf. It’s like a fluke rather than an achievement, though.”
It’s often been described as the first heavy metal song because it contains the words ‘heavy metal thunder’ but that’s not the case as the term was first coined by William Burroughs in his 1961 novel The Soft Machine in which he used it to describe the character Uranian Willy as ‘the Heavy Metal Kid.’ Also Musicologists will argue that the first heavy metal track is more likely The Gun’s 1968 hit Race with The Devil which preceded it by seven months.
In 1969 production of the movie Easy Rider began, it was directed by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hooper who also star in it as two bikers who ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans and en route meet a man who bridges a counter-culture gap they are unaware of. There was no plan for Born to Be Wild to be included as Peter Fonda was a fan of Crosby, Stills & Nash and wanted them to provide the soundtrack, it became apparent, however, that the song was right for the movie and it got included. Incidentally, another Steppenwolf track, The Pusher, was also included. Other acts whose music was included was The Byrds, Roger McGuinn, Little Eva, The Electric Prunes and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The song went to number two in the US, but stalled at number 30 in the UK. In 1999, when the film celebrated its 30th anniversary the song was re-issued in the UK and went to number 18. The band broke up in 1972 with Kay saying, “I pulled the plug on Steppenwolf because I felt that the fun had, quite frankly, gone out of it.”
It was a favourite of Slade who not only regularly included in their shows, but chose it as the closing track on their Slade Alive album. Other acts who have covered it include The Cult, U2, Status Quo, Slayer, Blue Oster Cult, Inxs, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Bruce Springsteen and even Kim Wilde. In 1994, Miss Piggy duetted with Ozzy Osbourne on a version which was included on the album Kermit Unpigged.
In 2004, Paris Hilton courteously asked Bonfire if she could include the track as part of her Simple Life 2 show but he vehemently denied.
In America, the song cropped up again, this time in a 2017 TV commercial for the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster. It was used during the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons and directed by the Coen brothers which features a re-created scene where Fonda has swapped his bike for the Merc.
In 2018, for the first time, songs are being inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in a brand new singles category called ‘Devoted songs that changed the course of rock music’. The first five inductees were, Rocket 88 (Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats), Rumble (Link Wray and his Ray Men), Louie Louie (The Kingsmen), A White Shade of Pale (Procol Harum) and Born to Be Wild (Steppenwolf).