Lost Rock n Roll Stories: “Born to Be Wild”
There are few iconic scenes in cinema history so powerful that managed to shape an entire culture out of nowhere, forever changing the landscape around them. One such moment happened inside the rooms of Beacon Movie Palace, on a warm summer day July, 14th, 1969. It was the day a weird, “counter-culture movie” hit the widescreen. And since its premiere, the world has never been the same…
The scene you’re looking for starts early, beginning at one minute and 58 seconds, and lasts under two minutes. The audience is greeted by a leathered-dressed man riding the southern highways with his iconic red, white, and blue Harley Davidson motor, called “Captain America”. On his side stands his “cowboy” companion with his classy mustache and black sunglasses. The duo, named Wyat and Billy, crosses the Colorado river riding wild and free under a bright blue sky and a scortching sun. Laughing out of excitement, they joke with each other as their motors run like wild steeds.
During their ride, you can’t hear the growl of their motos, nor the wind’s howl. Instead, you’re blustered by a thunderous electric guitar, playing a simple riff that would soon become one of the most famous melodies in rock history. As the rest of the band gets in you are slapped in the face by heavy bass and drums, while a raunchy voice sounding like its made of motor oil, gasoline, and smocked whiskey, narrates tales from the life on the road.
You can feel the music urging you to grab a motor and ride the streets, leaving everything behind for a taste of sweet freedom. Your heart beats faster and just like the movie’s protagonists you began to laugh. As the song reaches its peak, you can’t help but play air guitar with your hands, while shouting the lyrics:
“Yeah, darlin’ gonna make it happen, take the world in a love embrace”
This is the feeling when you hear for the first time “Born to Be Wild”, the song that passed into memory as the soundtrack of the movie “Easy Rider”. The song that defined what freedom meant for an entire generation, the rallying cry of gasoline-smelling rule-breakers and sweaty rockers, dressed in blue jeans and black leather jackets.
From the beginning “Easy Rider” was visioned as a counter-culture movie centered around the rising “biker culture”, which gained fame during the late 50s and throughout the 60s. It seemed natural for the movie’s protagonist, co-writer, and producer, Peter Fonda, to enroll rock bands to produce the movie’s soundtracks. Of these groups, one stood out:
This group was not like all the rest of its era! You did not have your regular flower-powered teens singing about love, peace, and drugs. Originally known as “The Sparrows”, they were coming straight from the icy Canada, where the Toronto rock scene was blooming in the 60s. Hardened by the cold winds and the wild moose running on their streets they hit their southern neighbors with a bang. From New York to Chicago and then to San Fransisco the youth of America was bombarded by their raunchy, electrifying sound, capable of frying your ears in a matter of seconds!
Alas, they were doomed to fall! In 1967 the Sparrows broke up and went on their separate ways. But the group’s singer, John Kay, was not ready to quit. Along with two former Sparrow members and two new friends from LA, he formed a new band, baptized after Hermann Hesse’s novel, “Steppenwolf”.
Charming, mighty, and ever-cunning, just like their lupine spirit animals, Steppenwolf filled easily the space Sparrows had left. Armed with tasty blues tones and high voltage guitar riffs, they were the “AC DC of their era”, strongly emphasizing the role of a hard, driving rock rhythm. Their philosophy, as Kay notes, was “Hit’em hard, make your point, and move on”.
In just one year after their formation, they releashed their debut album named “Steppenwolf” in 1968, a second album (named ironically “The Second”) coming in the same year, and a third one ready four months before the premiere of “Easy Rider” in July 1969! It was a golden era for the Canadian rockers when diamond hits like “Magic Carpet Ride”, “Everybody’s Next One”, and a great cover of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher” saw the light of day.
“Born to Be Wild” was featured on the band’s debut album. It was written by former Sparrow guitarist Mars Bonfire (originally known as Dennis McCrohan). To a great sense of irony, the song was written for a car and not a motorcycle! After months of savings Mars managed to buy a used Ford Falcon. He used to go out and drive for hours in the mountains and deserts of LA. He dedicated his song to the rebellious youth, who used to take their cars and motors and head out to the open highways to cause unrest.
“Born to Be Wild” isn’t a motor’s song. Neither was written as the unofficial anthem of biker culture. It was and still remains a song about freedom on the road. Its positive lyrics praise the sense of unlimited independence, and promote a care-free attitude, where the only thing that matters is you and the road beneath your feet:
“Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way”
Just like rock, riding a motor or a car is a way of living. You can hear their engines, growling like hungry hounds, as they crave to be on the road. It gives you the opportunity to break from the routine, step out of modern society, and reconnect with your inner self while traveling into unknown paths. When you plug a guitar to an amp and hear its haunting tone, or drive through a storm — as Mars did with his car — you get shivers running down your spine. You feel invincible, a true force of nature, racing against lead-colored thunder clouds (lead is a heavy metal and so came the known phrase “heavy metal thunder”), wind, and rain.
“I like smoke and lightnin’
Heavy metal thunder
Racing with the wind
And the feeling that I’m under”
Overall, “Born to Be Wild” is much more than a rock song about freedom. It’s a way of life. Steppenwolf and their “Wolfpack”, as they like to call their fans, keep living under its principles. Which are those? Well, they’re hidden in the song’s chorus! Like true children of nature, we were born to be wild, free, untamed. We have the power to climb so high, to live our lives to the fullest, enjoy the moment, and not worry about the future. “Born to Be Wild” is the heart and stone of Rock’s rebellious nature. And even if we have lost the freedom it praises, Steppenwolf’s magnum opus is still here to always reminds us of a simple, yet life-changing rule:
Stay wild, ride free.
Sexton, P., (2021), ‘Born To Be Wild’: Get Your Motor Runnin’ With Steppenwolf, available at https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/steppenwolf-born-to-be-wild-song/, (last access: 25/05/2022)
Sleazegrinder, (2020), Born To Be Wild: The epic story of Steppenwolf, available at https://www.loudersound.com/features/the-story-of-steppenwolf, (last access: 25/05/2022)
Simpson, D., (2018), How we made Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, available at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/31/how-we-made-steppenwolf-born-to-be-wild, (last access: 25/05/2022)
Steppenwolf, Band Biography, available at https://www.steppenwolf.com/pages/biography, (last access: 25/05/2022)