The Infinite Jukebox: Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’

Some people have claimed Steppenwolf as the progenitors of Heavy Metal. It’s a serious charge but on the strength of their best known track, ‘Born to be Wild’, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and acquit them. Besides, ‘Born to be Wild’ has too much of a melody to ever be a forerunner of Heavy Metal.
‘Born to be Wild’ was another of those songs that regularly got tracked into Radio 1 shows as a Golden Oldie, to the extent that, when I got my first book of Chart Music (Simon Frith’s Chart Files, summarising the Top Twenty from 1955 to 1969), I was flabbergasted to discover that the band didn’t feature anywhere. But it got that airplay because of its distinctive, aggressive sound and it’s rebel lyrics, and I suppose you have to give credence to the progenitor argument if only because the song includes the term ‘Heavy Metal’ early in the lyrics – it’s first appearance in music – though the predominant organ sound looks to a different tradition.
Oh, what the hell, does it matter who calls this what? It’s a classic piece of music, a song of power and massive appeal, the sound of wanting to be free to do your own thing, to reject rules and regulations and the suburban ways of life and just get out there on the road, free and alone, just you and your motor-cycle, and the band fit the perfect sound to singer John Kay’s snap and snarl and that glorious howl of the title line.
Get your motor running, it begins. Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure. And whatever comes our way. It’s an immediate statement of intent and the band hits it at pace, the riff already striking, the organ squealing between each line.
Yeah darling, gonna make it happen, catch the world in a love embrace. Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space.
This is the point in a lesser song that the chorus line would break in but, in a touch of genius the band withhold it, preferring to rush into a second verse, that praises the sound and feel of the bike (the line about heavy metal thunder is meant to refer to its roar) racing with the wind and the feeling that I’m under.
Yeah darling, again, but this time the song bursts forward, building towards its peak. What Kay and the band are doing, their rejection of the world we others occupy, comes from within. They are the true nature’s child, they were born, born to be wild and being wild they can climb so high, they never wanna die…
And in that moment, everything stills except for the residue of Kay’s growl and the sensation of the organ, for a pause that is brief but infinite, until Kay throws back his head and hollers into the wind, with a howl that is proclamation and supplication in one: Born to be Wild, his voice caressing the last word and refusing to let it go, and the guitar screams out its riff in a tone like the earth splitting, Born to be Wild, and the band career in with a searing, juddering organ solo that scorches the tarmac until the song collects itself again, and begins anew its assault: get your motor running…
We run through the first verse again, and that bridge, until Kay throws back his head again, and everyone who listens to this throws back their head, either in voice or metaphorically, and tries to emulate that imperishable line: Born to be Wild, as if we could sound like that or live like that, except in those regions of the imagination that this song reaches into and incarnates.
‘Born to be Wild’ isn’t just a song, it’s a statement. It’s sound is the sound of its lyrics. Would you believe, could you imagine that this was originally written as an acoustic ballad by a guy who was the drummer’s brother and who went under the stage name of Mars Bonfire? Steppenwolf’s version is a classic example of seeing things in a song that it’s composer couldn’t, of tearing it down and building it up differently, of making it into a thing of beauty and a rush forever. And it has a fierceness that nowadays is wasted on things that don’t matter worth a damn.
Never wanna die? The song has already done that for you.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’

  1. The term Heavy Metal might come from this song, but Heavy Metal was invented by Black Sabbath.

    Oh, and Mars Bonfire is one great name.

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