The Stories Behind The Songs
‘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.