Single of the week

Born To Be Wild (Steppenwolf)

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).

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You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) – Beatles

A favourite topic of conversation, not only amongst music fans, but people in general is, ‘what is your favourite song of a particular decade or genre and by such and such an artist, the Beatles often being one of the most asked. Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon said I Want to Hold Your Hand, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys favours She’s Leaving Home, Rick Wakeman prefers I Am the Walrus, mine? A Day in the Life. This week’s suggestion is Paul McCartney favourite.

By the late summer of 1967, the Beatles were reaping the rewards of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which had been released at the beginning of June but were soon back in the studio recording some adhoc stuff and a bit half-heartedly. They had been taking some substances therefore not concentrating fully and EMI were paying for the studio time, so what the heck. I Am the Walrus can be a good indication of their states of mind and so was, You Know My Name (Look up the Number) which was recorded around this time.

Although nearly all Beatles song are jointly credited as Lennon/McCartney, it was more obvious which one wrote the majority, if not all, of the song. You Know My Name was conceived by John.

What inspired the song? John explained in All We Are Saying by David Sheff, “I was waiting for Paul in his house, and I saw the phone book was on the piano with ‘You know the name, look up the number.’ That was like a logo, and I just changed it. It was going to be a Four Tops kind of song – the chord changes are like that, but it never developed and we made a joke of it. It was a piece of unfinished music that I turned into a comedy record with Paul.”

It has a normal intro but when the vocals start 18 seconds in you think, ooh this is weird. In Many Years from Now by Barry Miles Paul recalled his first hearing of it, “John had arrived one night with this song which was basically a mantra and I never knew who he was aiming that at, it might have been an early signal to Yoko. It was John’s original idea and that was the complete lyric. He brought it in originally as a 15-minute chant when he was in space-cadet mode and we said, ‘Well, what are we going to do with this then?’ and he said, ‘It’s just like a mantra.’ So we said, ‘Okay, let’s just do it’.

They started recording it in 1967 and it featured all kinds of strange noises including the sound of a shovel digging up gravel and it was Mal Evans, the Beatles’ roadie, on spade duty. The song also features the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones on alto saxophone who was there on Paul’s invitation.

There’s a part of the original recording which was edited out to John’s chagrin. It was a where John repeated the mantra to a ska backing, but it was restored in 1996 with a new stereo mix which then appeared on Anthology 2.

The first part of the track was done over 14 different takes. Take 10 was originally favoured but then they used bits of take nine and they eventually recorded a further five takes which featured electric guitar, drums, flute, organ and tambourine and it still sounded like a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band outtake!

The second part of the song you hear John saying, “Good evening and welcome to Slaggers, featuring Dennis O’Bell”. Slaggers should be pronounced Schlagers which is a German term for a kind of sentimental music and Dennis O’Bell is a sly tribute to the film producer Dennis O’Dell who had previously worked with the Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night. He later produced the Magical Mystery Tour and then went on to head up Apple Films.

Another section of the song, which was supposed to be the last section, but the verses were altered during the editing process, was a nod to the wonderful world of  Monty Python and it featured many strange sounds including bongos, harmonica, some cuckoo noises and some very typical silly Python-esque voices. What became the last section was a jazz-piano type piece with an array of incomprehensible vocals.

The almost finished article ran to just over six minutes and John had the idea of releasing it as a Plastic Ono Band A-side, but the other Beatles disagreed and that idea was shelved. John then edited it down to just over four minutes and it was eventually released as the flip side of the Beatles final single whilst they were still together, Let It Be in 1970.

Soon after its release Dennis kept receiving phone calls, he said, “There were so many of them my wife started going out of her mind. Neither of us knew why this was suddenly happening. Then I happened to be in one Sunday and picked up the phone myself. It was someone on LSD calling from a candle-making factory in Philadelphia and they just kept saying, ‘We know your name and now we’ve got your number’. It was Ringo who played me the track and I realised why I’d been getting all these mysterious phone calls.”

“We had these endless, crazy fun sessions and eventually we pulled it all together,” Paul said. We just did a skit, Mal and his gravel, I can still see Mal digging the gravel. It was just so hilarious to put that record together. It’s not a great melody or anything, it’s just unique.”

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On and On (Stephen Bishop)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a man who had a huge American following but was very overlooked in the UK, this week it’s a similar story. You’ll know songs by this man especially if you’ve seen the films Tootsie, National Lampoon’s Animal House and White Nights. Not only has he contributed songs for films but he’s acted in a few too. His name is Stephen Bishop and the song in question this week is On and On.

Bishop was born Earl Stephen Bishop in San Diego, California in 1951 and at school learned the clarinet. It was after seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show that he decided he wanted to be a musician and persuaded his brother to buy him a guitar. Once he got that guitar and learned how to play it he formed a band called The Weeds. He also began writing songs and after he’d moved to Los Angeles he landed himself a job at a song publishers earning $50 a week.

He got his big break in the mid-seventies, Stephen explains how it happened, “My friend, a singer called Leah Kunkel, knew my songs and she had some on cassette. I think her husband at the time (drummer) Russ Kunkel, was doing a session with Art Garfunkel and she got him to give one of my tapes to Art. He really liked it, and he wound up recording two of my songs, Looking for the Right One and The Same Old Tears on a New Background. I had a situation at home where my stepfather wasn’t very keen on rock & roll. He was an opera teacher – he hated rock & roll. That was a drag but I guess that was one of the things that compelled me to be the singer/songwriter guy that I am.”

In 1974 he got a deal with ABC records, he explained how that happened, “I was friends with a guy named Richard Holland, who was going out with Chaka Khan. Chaka’s manager, Bob Ellis, was interested in me, and he’s the one who got me my deal with ABC. Roy Halee, the producer of Simon & Garfunkel, signed me to ABC.

He released his first album, Careless, in 1976 which made the US top 40 and was certified Gold. The first track released from it was On and On. It featured Andrew Gold on guitar and reached number 11 on the Billboard Singles chart. Bishop has said that he wrote from titles usually and explained in an interview with Songfacts how On and On came about, “My landlady back then used to put lots of flowers in her garden from all over the world. She was a big flower lady so she would tell me where all these flowers were from. Back then I hadn’t travelled anywhere so I was really fascinated by that. And then I was walking down the street to the corner grocery store in Silverlake where I was living at the time and I just got the idea for the title. I just wrote it down on my little message book. When I went back to my apartment, I came up with this chord that I just loved. Then I just kept playing it over and over and I finally did something with it, and made On and On.” It never charted in the UK for Bishop, however a cover version by Aswad reached number 25 in 1989.

Bishop recorded, but didn’t write, It Might Be You which is the memorable track from the Dustin Hoffman & Jessica Lange 1983 film Tootsie. It was actually written by Dave Grusin and Alan & Marilyn Bergman. In early 1985 he recorded an album called Sleeping with Girls which was only released in Hong Kong, but on it was a track called Separate Lives that Bishop wrote about his own past romantic liaisons which appealed to Taylor Hackford, the director of an up and coming film called White Nights. Bishop did not intend it to be a duet, but Hackford suggested it and it was covered by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin. Not only has Bishop written and recorded songs for films, he has made some appearances too; his first was in 1977 in The Kentucky Fried Movie where he was billed as Charming Guy then as Charming Guy with Guitar the following year in Animal House. In 1980 eagle-eyed viewers would have spotted him as Charming Trooper in The Blues Brothers and his final ‘charming’ appearance came in 1983 when he was billed as Charming G.I. in Twilight Zone: The Movie.

As a songwriter, numerous singers including Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, Yvonne Elliman, Kenny Loggins, Johnny Mathis, Helen Reddy, Stephanie Mills, Frida (from Abba) and the Four Tops, have covered his songs.

Stephen is still recording and released his last album, Blueprint in 2016. This year he has contributed two tracks to two different films, you’ll hear Animal House in the film A Futile and Stupid Gesture and Almost Home which is performed by Dewain Whitmore, Jr. in the film about an orphaned puppy called Benji.

He continues to tour saying, a couple of years ago, “I do a lot of stuff overseas; they usually pay really good. I went to Belfast to do some concerts. Over the years I’ve been to the Philippines 10 times, Japan eight times. I’ve been to Dublin six times, England three or four times, plus Argentina three times. So I’ve been all over the place.

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Red Rubber Ball (The Cyrkle)

This week’s song owes its success, but only in America, to one half of a legendary duo and one quarter of an even more legendary quartet. Despite charting half a dozen US hits in just 16 months, The Cyrkle are only remembered for their debut which was called Red Rubber Ball.

Rhythm guitarist singer Don Dannemann and singer, lead guitar and bass player Tom Dawes met in 1961 whilst studying at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and originally formed a band with drummer Mary Fried called The Rhondells. Dawes said, “We did all the pop tunes of the day including songs by the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.” It was after a performance at Atlantic City in New Jersey that led them to signing a recording contract with Columbia records. The area where Lafayette College is situated in downtown Easton is known locally as the circle. According to the sleeve notes on their anthology, Red Rubber Ball : The Best of the Cyrkle, Dawes said, “Nat Weiss (an artist lawyer) had spoken to Brian Epstein (whom he had been friends for a while) and supposedly asked John Lennon if he had any ideas for group names and, as an allusion to the college area, he came up with The Cyrkle.

The newly named Cyrkle got their big break in early 1966 when they opened for Simon and Garfunkel for whom Dawes was also a touring member. During that time Paul Simon offered them Red Rubber Ball, a song he had co-written with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers. After the duo had released the album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. which failed in America, Simon moved to the UK where he met Woodley and the pair wrote the song which was originally intended for The Seekers, but the rest of the band didn’t like it and turned it down. After learning that it was a hit for The Cyrkle, the Seekers eventually did record it and can be found on their 1966 album Come the Day which was titled Georgy Girl in the States. Later that year, because of the Brian Epstein connection, they opened 14 nights on the Beatles’ US tour.

It was Dawes who first heard the demo and played it to Dannemann who recalled a few years later what he thought at the time, “To be honest with you, my first feeling was it’s no great shakes, but everybody else seemed to think, ‘yeah there’s something here.  Let’s try it.’  So we did and the song became a big hit for us. It’s really funny, but I never thought much about it at the time.”

Paul Simon has stated in numerous interviews that he wrote Red Rubber Ball whilst in England and did so just to get a £100 advance from the Seekers. The Cyrkle’s version, which features an electric organ played by Earl Pickens, was the first production by John Simon who later went on to work with The Band. What set it apart from other tracks of the era was that it was recorded in stereo with lead, bass guitar and percussion on the right track and acoustic guitar and electric organ on left. The vocals were on both.

The Cyrkle had one other top 20 US hit, Turn Down Day, but following the death of Brian Epstein the band broke up with Dannemann and Dawes becoming successful jingle writers. Dawes’ most famous TV advert was for the ‘plop plop fizz fizz’ jingle for Alka-Seltzer. Dannemann’s most popular material was for Continental Airlines and Swanson Foods, eventually writing the original 7Up – Uncola ads which featured Geoffrey Holder.

The song, which not only famously featured on Leonard Cohen’s jukebox, has been covered by Del Shannon, Mel Torme, Cliff Richard, Cilla Black and Neil Diamond.

In the mid-eighties Sundazed records acquired the license from Columbia to re-issue The Cyrkle’s back catalogue, “They sent me what they were putting out and they wanted comments from Tommy and I and our drummer, Marty Fried,” recalled Dannemann. “Now understand, after the band broke up I got involved in advertising and had a nice career doing commercials and things. I had a production company. So I had really left that part behind. Anyway, I was on a plane and had nothing to do, so I pulled out my Walkman and listened to the cassette. When Red Rubber Ball came on and as soon as I heard the first two seconds, it was like ‘Wow! There’s magic in that. That really was a special hit.’ I had just never thought about it like that. My conclusion is, you can take the best producers, the best musicians, the best writers, and the best artists and bring them all together and you might make a good record.  But you can’t guarantee the magic. It may or may not happen.”

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Follow Me (Lyme & Cybelle )

Once upon a time there were two kids who met in high school, later in life they formed a duo, had one modest American hit and then went their separate ways and had successful careers in their own right. Let’s find out about that one song and the people behind it.

The label credit on this week’s suggestion is given as Lyme & Cybelle which gives nothing away. The single was only issued in the US, Canada and Australia and bizarrely, in America, the label credited their names in lower case letters apparently in an effort to be trendy like a couple of poets once did, but in Oz and Canada they were correctly given capital letters. So, Cybelle was the name chosen by Violet Santangelo which was inspired by the 1962 French film Sundays and Cybelle and Lyme is first musical outing for Warren Zevon who originally began using the non de plume Stephen Lyme before he was famous.

Zevon was born in Chicago in 1947 and, although didn’t have any UK hit singles, he’ll always be best remembered for the radio favourite Werewolves of London which featured Fleetwood Mac members John McVie on bass and Mick Fleetwood on drums. Violet said, “I was born in Chicago and later moved to the Land of Lost Angels and attended Hollywood High School, where I met Warren Zevon.” The pair, who were never romantically linked, both shared a love of the Beatles and began singing songs together.

At a gig one day the American child actor, Michael Burns who appeared in the TV series’ Lassie and Bonanza among others told his mother about the duo he’d seen. She worked at White Whale Records which led them to sign a recording contract with them. They recorded three songs with the label, the self-penned Follow Me was the first, a cover of Bob Dylan’s If You Gotta Go, Go Now and their final one was Write If You Get Work.

Follow Me was written by both Zevon and Santangelo and because of its sound it is generally accepted as being one of the earliest psychedelic songs. It has beautiful harmonies reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas and a catchy hook, but it only peaked at number 65 in America. One of the reasons for its low placing was, as Santangelo recalled, “The single began selling well, only to have its momentum crushed when Bill Gavin, a powerful radio industry figure, claimed the song was sexually suggestive.” Listening intently and scanning the words carefully one wonders what planet the people who make these decisions are on. Not one word, even for the sixties, can remotely suggest anything suggestive. It’s the epitome of a flower power anthem all culminating with a brilliant production by Bones Howe who is best remembered for his production work with Fifth Dimension and The Association, both revered harmony groups, as well as The Monkees and Alessi’s 1977 hit Oh Lori.

Zevon, who was writing a number of songs, began presenting them to White Whale label mates The Turtles. Outside Chance, which was co-written with Santangelo, was one such track, but it didn’t chart even though it had more than a passing resemblance to the Beatles’ Taxman. Incidentally, the B-side of Follow Me was called Like the Seasons and appeared on the B-side of The Turtles American pressing of Happy Together but in the UK it was relegated to the flip side of the non-hit Can I Get to Know You Better.

After the second single failed Zevon walked away, his reasons weren’t clear but Santangelo claimed that she walked away from Zevon because of his excessive drinking and drug use. Either way, Zevon concentrated on a solo career and released 14 albums between 1969 and 2003. For some reasons his career never took off in the UK, his only charting album was The Wind in 2003 which spent a solitary week on the chart at number 57. As for Violet Santangelo she quit the music industry and moved into theatre. She studied and gained a scholarship at the University of Southern California and, changing her name to Laura Kanyon. From her website she explained, “After learning the triple time step and paying my dues at the Bluth Bros. Theatre I decided to go big time and leave home.  I was married, left home and moved to New Yawk all on the same day! Two weeks after moving to the Lower East Side in Manhattan, I found myself in an Off Broadway piece called Peace in which I played a character referred to as Abundance. Two weeks later, I was Martha Raye’s maid in a new musical called Hello Sucker and after two years of belly dancing with Richard Kiley in the Man of La Mancha, I starred in Ron Field’s Broadway production of On the Town. My life has been full of up (town) and down (town) experiences. I’ve written with Warren Zevon, had more than 15 minutes at the Warhol Factory, worked with gifted directors, composers, and artists and developed my craft through the eyes of the inspired actress, Alice Spivak, who is also my mentor and acting coach. I recently ended my run as the Baronessa Serafina Delle Rose in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, and I continue to inspire and educate young artists with the experiences that I have had in my career.”

Her musical highlight must have been performing as Lyme & Cybelle in a club on the Sunset Strip with Van Morrison as their opening act.

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