The Sto­ries Be­hind The Songs

Steppenwolf

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Fraser Lewry

‘Get your mo­tor run­ning’… How Born To Be Wild be­came a time­less clas­sic and an an­them for a whole gen­er­a­tion.

The song was in­spired by a thun­der­storm and the stun­ning scenery around LA, and its in­clu­sion in the 1969 film Easy Rider turned it into a time­less clas­sic and an an­them for a whole gen­er­a­tion.

Mars Bon­fire can pin­point the ex­act mo­ment he knew his song Born To Be Wild was go­ing to be more than just a hit. “I re­mem­ber go­ing to a screen­ing of Easy Rider. I went into the re­stroom and there was a guy stand­ing at the uri­nal, piss­ing away and singing Born To Be Wild. He’d only heard it once in the movie and it had al­ready con­nected with him.”

Easy Rider, re­leased in 1969, was one of the first suc­cess­ful films to use pop­u­lar mu­sic that wasn’t a back­drop to the danc­ing and singing on screen. Like the pre­vi­ous sum­mer’s hit film The Grad­u­ate, it used mu­sic as pure sound­track, with Born To Be Wild ac­com­pa­ny­ing Peter Fonda and Den­nis Hop­per rid­ing their chop­pers down Route 66.

It’s one of cinema’s most iconic mon­tages, but the per­fect chore­og­ra­phy was a fluke. “I didn’t cut the film to the mu­sic,” said Hop­per, “I cut it to the pic­ture. But later, when I put Born To Be Wild on there, it just worked, man.”

But the song nearly didn’t make the film at all. Hop­per and Fonda were run­ning low on funds as pro­duc­tion neared com­ple­tion, and they didn’t have enough money to li­cense the mu­sic they wanted. So they slapped the songs in place, in­vited the var­i­ous mu­si­cians to pri­vate screen­ings and sug­gested they ne­go­ti­ate. It worked, and the rest is his­tory.

Cut back to the be­gin­ning of the 60s. The young Mars Bon­fire (born Den­nis McCro­han) is taken by his fa­ther to see a mati­nee show by Ron­nie Hawkins And The Hawks (who later evolved into The Band) in a Toronto club.

“I had just got my first elec­tric guitar,” Bon­fire re­calls. “As soon as they launched into Hey Bo Did­dley, with Rob­bie Robert­son us­ing a pick be­tween thumb and first fin­ger and steel fin­ger picks on the next two, play­ing a Tele­caster run through an amp with dis­tor­tion, I knew I’d heard the guitar sound of my dreams!”

In 1964, young Den­nis joined lo­cal band The Spar­rows, along with his drum­mer brother Jerry. The band were led by English ex­pat Jack Lon­don, and the McCro­han broth­ers changed their sur­name to Ed­mon­ton to sound more Bri­tish. With a re­volv­ing-door mem­ber­ship pol­icy that may or may not have wel­comed Neil Young at one point (it’s com­pli­cated), the band even­tu­ally fired their singer and re­placed him with John Kay. They all wound up in Cal­i­for­nia, where Den­nis changed his name again (to Mars Bon­fire) and be­gan a solo ca­reer, while the rest of the band be­came Steppenwolf.

But Bon­fire’s re­la­tion­ship with the band didn’t end there. He had de­moed Born To Be Wild, and af­ter it had been turned down by sev­eral pub­lish­ers, he took it to his old band­mates.

The song still needed some work to turn it into the an­them we know to­day.

“I had been kicked out of my pre­vi­ous apart­ment for play­ing my guitar am­pli­fied, and had al­ready got com­plaints in my new apart­ment,” says Bon­fire, “so I did the demo singing qui­etly and us­ing an un­am­pli­fied Tele­caster. Luck­ily, when Steppenwolf agreed to do it, their guitar player Michael Wilk gave it the big guitar sound that I was dream­ing of.”

And those fa­mous lyrics?

“I got to be a staff writer for Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic,” Bon­fire explains. “I had a reg­u­lar in­come and could af­ford to buy my first car. I drove out to the beach, then I drove

“Steppenwolf’s guitar player gave it the big guitar sound that I was dream­ing of.”

out to the desert and up to the moun­tains, and I had a sud­den re­al­i­sa­tion that the area around Los An­ge­les was re­ally stun­ning. It’s very dra­matic. So that’s what caused me to come up with ‘Get your mo­tor run­ning, head out on the high­way’. At one point I was in the moun­tains dur­ing a thun­der­storm. It was so heavy I had to pull aside and park. And that’s when the phrase ‘heavy me­tal thun­der’ came to me.”

Steppenwolf’s record­ing was a huge hit in the sum­mer of 1968, reach­ing No.2 on the US Bill­board chart. Bon­fire recorded more re­laxed ver­sions of the song for his first two solo al­bums. But it was its in­clu­sion in Easy Rider in 1969 that turned it into an an­them for a whole gen­er­a­tion. It’s been cov­ered and lam­pooned to the point of ex­haus­tion (see side­bar, left), sound­tracked dozens of ad­verts, and ear­lier this year it was one of six ini­tial

in­ductees into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s new Sin­gles cat­e­gory. Steppenwolf them­selves have never been in­ducted.

Iron­i­cally, the song that has be­come per­haps the ul­ti­mate road an­them has given writer Mars Bon­fire with a steady in­come that funds a low-key, off-road life­style.

“If it weren’t for the in­cred­i­ble good for­tune I’ve had with Born To Be Wild I’d prob­a­bly be back on the pro­duc­tion line at Gen­eral Mo­tors of Canada in Oshawa, On­tario – that was the only job I had been trained for,” he says. “Its suc­cess has al­lowed me to pur­sue my life­long in­ter­ests in hik­ing, snow­shoe­ing, weightlift­ing and tar­get prac­tice. All I ever re­ally need are a pair of run­ning shoes and some old clothes.”

Born To Be Wild is on Clas­sic Road Trip, out now on UMOD.

Got their mo­tors run­ning: (l-r) Den­nis Hop­per, Peter Fonda and Luke Askew in the Hop­per-di­rected Easy Rider.

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