Hello there! This is another entry in our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week features one of the seminal ‘heavy metal’ tunes, Born To Be Wild. We will first review the original song by the Canadian-American hard rock band Steppenwolf. Next we will feature the song as it appeared in the movie Easy Rider. Finally we will discuss a cover of this song by Blue Oyster Cult.
Steppenwolf and Born To Be Wild:
In 1965, lead singer John Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton were members of a Canadian rock band called Jack London and The Sparrows.
The Sparrows disbanded, but in 1968 producer Gabriel Mekler convinced Kay to form a new group. Kay, McJohn and Edmonton from the Sparrows then added guitarist Michael Monarch and bassist Rushton Moreve from ads that they placed in L.A.-area record stores. Mekler had just finished reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, and persuaded the group to take that name.
Below is a photo of Steppenwolf from 1970. From L: John Kay; Larry Edmonton; Larry Byrom; George Biondo; Goldy McJohn.Embed from Getty Images
Mekler produced the group’s first album, the self-titled Steppenwolf, that was released in 1968. The first two singles released from that album went nowhere, but the third single Born To Be Wild became a mega-hit. The song climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, and became the highest-charting tune ever released by Steppenwolf.
Born To Be Wild was written by Mars Bonfire. Bonfire (under his given name Dennis Edmonton) had been the guitarist for The Sparrows, the group that preceded Steppenwolf.
The song describes the exhilarating untamed feeling of riding a motorcycle at high speed. The song resonated not only with bikers, but also with disaffected youth in general.
I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin’ with the wind
And the feelin’ that I’m under
Yeah Darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space
Like a true nature’s child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die
Born to be wild
Born to be wild
So here is Steppenwolf in a live version of Born To Be Wild.
This video was filmed in 1969, the year after Born To Be Wild was released. The lineup features John Kay on lead vocals, Michael Monarch on guitar, Nick St. Nicholas on bass, Goldy McJohn on organ and Jerry Edmonton on drums.
John Kay riffs through what has become a biker classic tune and an anthem for a hard-rocking life. Born To Be Wild has been nominated by many people as the first ‘heavy-metal’ song. This is helped by the lyric ‘heavy-metal thunder’ (which doesn’t refer to a type of music, but is certainly a great nickname for a genre of hard-rock).
Born To Be Wild has become an all-time hard-rock classic. Rolling Stone magazine ranks it #129 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. And the American Film Institute included it on its list 100 Years … 100 Songs of the top film tunes in the first century of American cinema. And just this year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame initiated a category of “top singles,” and Born To Be Wild was included on their first list.
Born To Be Wild also proved to be irresistible to hard-rock bands. Covers of this song have been produced by bands such as Slade, Hinder, INXS, Ozzy Osbourne, Status Quo and Krokus, among others.
Steppenwolf had a few top-charting hits in the late 60s, including also Magic Carpet Ride which went to #3 in 1968. Another song, The Pusher, was released as a single and did not chart, but nevertheless over the years has become a classic-rock staple because of its disdain for purveyors of hard drugs (“God damn the pusher”).
Unfortunately, personality clashes split up the original lineup, and led Steppenwolf down a familiar path, a seemingly endless cycle of repeated personnel changes. In 1968 original bassist Rushton Moreve was fired, because of his inability to travel with the band. Apparently Moreve’s girlfriend had convinced him that L.A. was about to be hit by a titanic earthquake and be swallowed by the sea.
In 1972 Steppenwolf split up and John Kay set off on a solo career. This led to one bizarre incident, where both the John Kay Band and Steppenwolf appeared on the same concert tour. John Kay thus fronted two different band lineups at the same concert!
With so many current and former members of Steppenwolf, it was inevitable that various “Steppenwolf” groups ended up on tour. There was once a “New Steppenwolf” ensemble, and apparently a couple of phony groups toured using the name Steppenwolf, but that included no former members of that band.
Another fairly surreal episode involving John Kay occurred in 2002, when the German city of Calw invited Steppenwolf to a festival celebrating their native son, novelist Hermann Hesse. Since Steppenwolf was named after a Hesse novel, the band accepted the invitation and performed there. The citizens of Calw were stunned to discover that John Kay was fluent in German. Apparently they did not know that Kay was born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in Tilsit, East Prussia!
So, we wish Joachim Krauledat all best wishes in his future endeavors.
Born To Be Wild in the film Easy Rider:
Easy Rider was a 1969 independent film co-written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern. It is a biker-road-trip film that immediately became a cult classic.
Easy Rider tells the story of bikers and drug dealers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper). After smuggling a load of cocaine from Mexico to L.A., the pair embark on a cross-country road trip heading for Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Wyatt and Billy are named after Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, respectively. Apparently Fonda and Hopper modeled their characters after Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, respectively, of The Byrds. At left we show the movie poster for the film.
During their trip, Wyatt and Billy pick up a hitch-hiker who invites them to visit his commune. There, they have sex with some of the women and the hitch-hiker gives them some LSD. Later, the pair are arrested in a small town and meet ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who is in jail for public intoxication.
George agrees to travel with Wyatt and Billy to New Orleans. As the group camp out, they introduce George to marijuana. Traveling through Louisiana, the trio stop at a diner. The women flirt with them, but the men in the diner are menacing.
Wyatt, Billy and George leave the diner and set up camp. However, they are attacked during the night by men wielding clubs. While Wyatt and Billy are slightly injured, George is beaten to death. Wyatt and Billy continue to New Orleans by themselves, and visit a brothel where they pick up two women. The four of them visit a cemetery, where they ingest the LSD given to them by the hitch-hiker; all four of them have a bad trip.
The next morning, Wyatt and Billy are traveling along a country road when they are passed by a pickup truck. A passenger in the truck fires a shotgun, intending to scare them; however, Billy crashes his cycle. Wyatt drives along the road trying to catch the truck; however, the truck makes a U-turn and drives towards Wyatt. The person in the truck fires again. A red stain fills the screen; then one sees the riderless cycle fly through the air and crash, while Wyatt is shown lying on the road, apparently dead.
The film clip below shows the beginning of Easy Rider. It begins with an extreme closeup of Peter Fonda’s chopper. The camera slowly pulls away to show Fonda rolling up several bills into a tube that he then shoves into the gas tank of his motorcycle (the money is part of the proceeds from their drug deal).
Fonda has a helmet with an American flag design, which matches his “Captain America” style vintage Harley-Davidson. At this point, the music is The Pusher, which was also a Steppenwolf song.
Fonda and Dennis Hopper are then seen setting off on a ride along a deserted Western highway (this was shot in Arizona’s Monument Valley). As the opening credits roll, we hear Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild, as Fonda and Hopper are shown riding cross-country.
Born To Be Wild is a perfect fit for a biker film, so it comes as a shock to realize that Peter Fonda, the co-writer and producer of the film, had not intended for that song to be included in the movie. Fonda’s original plan was for Crosby, Stills and Nash to write original songs for the film.
However, Fonda’s plan did not pan out for two reasons. The first was that editor Donn Cambern had used his own record collection to avoid boredom while cutting the film (the first edit of Easy Rider was 4 ½ hours long). As a result, various scenes were cut so they fit perfectly with Cambern’s records, but were then difficult to synch with independently-written tracks.
The second reason that CSN did not write the music for Easy Rider was due to a power struggle between producer Fonda and director Hopper. Hopper eventually prevailed, so Easy Rider ended up using existing rock songs. However, it was one of the first movies that made extensive use of rock songs to enhance the film (the first was probably the 1967 The Graduate).
Easy Rider featured music by Steppenwolf, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, and other 60s bands.
Easy Rider was a blockbuster movie. It was filmed on a budget of roughly $400,000 and grossed $60 million. The film won the First Film Award at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Jack Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (and Easy Rider established him as a budding superstar), and the film was nominated for Best Screenplay.
The success of Easy Rider spawned an entire genre of low-budget counter-culture films. Furthermore, it became more and more common for movies to include rock music tunes in their score.
Due to the popularity of Easy Rider, memorabilia from the movie have become extremely valuable. The American flag patch on the back of Peter Fonda’s jacket sold for over $89,000 at auction. So, one can only imagine what the customized Harley-Davidson motorcycles ridden by Fonda and Hopper would have sold for. At left we show the “Captain America” bike ridden by Fonda in Easy Rider.
Unfortunately, the bikes were stolen at the end of filming of the movie. In 2014, a bike claiming to be one of the Captain America bikes used by Fonda in Easy Rider sold at auction for $1.35 million (this was reputed to be the spare bike that crashed at the end of the movie). However, the seller had previously sold what he claimed was the same “authentic” re-built Captain America bike a few years earlier; so there is considerable doubt as to the provenance of this chopper. It is conceivable that somewhere a couple of Hells’ Angels are riding around on the original Fonda & Hopper Easy Rider choppers.
Despite the fact that Easy Rider is a cult classic, and despite its influence on cinema and culture in the late 60s, it should be noted that Easy Rider is a terribly uneven film. Apparently when shooting began, only the outline of the plot and the names of the characters had been written down. Most of the dialogue was ad-libbed (and it shows).
The cinematic technique makes it extremely hard to follow the movie. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the film’s structure is this:
Easy Rider’s style — the jump cuts, time shifts, flash forwards, flashbacks, jerky hand-held cameras, fractured narrative and improvised acting — can be seen as a cinematic translation of the psychedelic experience.
I suspect that Easy Rider might well be unwatchable today.
According to co-writer Terry Southern, neither Fonda nor Hopper had requested screenwriting credits until the initial screening of the film. Furthermore, as we have noted, the initial rough cut of the film ran to about 4 ½ hours!
Eventually editor Henry Jaglom was brought in to trim the film, while film executives sent Dennis Hopper on a trip to Taos so he could not interfere with the cutting. Jaglom brought in a final version at 135 minutes, or just about half the length of the rough cut; for this Jaglom received credit as an “Editorial Consultant.”
Blue Oyster Cult and Born To Be Wild:
Blue Oyster Cult was a hard-rock band that was formed on Long Island in 1967. Their guru was their manager Sandy Pearlman, who not only secured record contracts for the band, but also supplied them with their name (the band was first called Soft White Underbelly, then Oaxaca, and next the Stalk-Forrest Group).
One of the defining features of the group was that nearly every one of the band’s musicians sang lead vocals on one song or another.
Below is a photo of Blue Oyster Cult performing in New York in 1978.Embed from Getty Images
The name Blue Oyster Cult came from one of Pearlman’s poems. In that poem, Pearlman had envisioned this as
a group of aliens who had assembled to secretly guide Earth’s history.
If this notion was not sufficiently pretentious, Pearlman then provided stage names for each band member (singer Eric Bloom was Jesse Python, bassist Andrew Winters was Andy Panda, drummer Albert Bouchard was Prince Omega, keyboardist Allen Lanier was La Verne, and lead guitar Donald Roeser was Buck Dharma).
The various band members soon dropped the stage names, except for Buck Dharma. A final touch was to add an umlaut to the band’s name (over the O in Oyster). Apparently this was supposed to suggest a connection between the group’s heavy-metal sound and the theatrical aspects of Wagnerian opera. Although I consider this a silly and pretentious affectation, it caught on and soon groups such as Motorhead, Motley Crue, and Queensryche adopted this practice (look them up to determine the location of the umlaut(s)).
The band also featured a “hook and cross” logo, which is shown at left. In Greek mythology, this was the symbol for Kronos, the father of Zeus, and it was apparently the alchemical symbol for the element lead (a “heavy metal,” get it?).
The band aspired to be the American equivalent of the British heavy-metal group Black Sabbath. They signed a contract with Columbia Records and issued their first self-titled album in 1972. They did not score any singles from that album, but it sold well enough to put the band on the bill on tours with groups such as The Byrds and Alice Cooper.
I always thought of BOC (as they were sometimes called) as “one-hit wonders,” as their only top-20 hit was the 1976 Don’t Fear (The Reaper). This song not only made it to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the tune became a hard-rock classic and made BOC, well, a “cult favorite,” so to speak.
However, BOC also had one more significant hit. In 1981 they released the song Burnin’ For You. Although this made it only to #40 on the singles charts, this was the MTV era. The music video released by the band received major airplay on MTV, and this cemented the group’s popularity as a heavy-metal band. So their album sales increased dramatically, and they remained headliners on tours.
So here is Blue Oyster Cult in a live performance of Born To Be Wild.
Here, the band do their best to mimic a psychedelic experience. The stage is filled with billowing clouds of CO2, while the organ is cranked up to “11,” and the drummer flails away for seven full minutes. At the 2-minute mark, there is a cute shout-out to Chuck Berry’s “duck walk” across the stage.
Then at the 5-minute mark, we get a laser strobe-light show that might induce seizures in some viewers. By the way, BOC was one of the first groups to use laser lights in their concerts, and this became a signature element of their live shows. The guitar work becomes rather frenetic, although the audience loves the piece, which is apparently the final song in the BOC concert.
Well, in the mid-1980s Blue Oyster Cult fell on hard times. As with so many ensembles, a number of musicians quit, or were fired and replaced. However, by 1985 the band was down to only three members, so that some fans began referring to them as “3OC” (rather than BOC). And by 1986, they were down to two members (yep, they were called “2OC”).
Between 1987 and 1998, the band did not release any new albums. Furthermore, they went through a “revolving door” phase as musicians regularly joined and left the group. However, the band’s reputation was sufficiently strong that they continued to tour during this period.
Then in 2012, Sony Legacy Records issued a 17-CD boxed set of Blue Oyster Cult’s Columbia Records releases. The set included
rare and unreleased B-sides, demos and radio broadcasts.
That year the original lineup of the band re-united for a concert in New York.
The Blue Oyster Cult Web site continues to suggest that the group may yet release another album. They were a noted heavy-metal band back in the 70s and 80s, with some association with psychedelic rock and (particularly because of their often-arcane lyrics) progressive rock.
I was startled to read that a band with only one top-40 single had sold over 24 million records worldwide – imagine my surprise! We wish the surviving band members health and success as they proceed onward.