Inducted into both the Grammy and Rock and Roll halls of fame, Born to be Wild is credited with giving the heavy metal rock genre its name and, thanks to Easy Rider, has been embraced by bikers everywhere.
When in the late 1960s Bonfire moved to California seeking a solo music career, he loved to drive the state’s beautiful landscape in his first car – a used Ford Falcon. While driving through a thunderstorm one day, the term “heavy metal” came to him from the periodic table he had learned in school. It became the line “Heavy metal thunder/Racin’ with the wind.”
He explained what happened next: “I actually presented Born To Be Wild to three or four publishers, but nobody showed any interest…. Then a few months later [Steppenwolf] asked me if I had any songs I could contribute. That’s when I showed them Born to be Wild.” Although the band’s interpretation was faster than the folk ballad Bonfire had intended, their turbulent arrangement brought Bonfire and Steppenwolf their first hit.
Steppenwolf recorded Born to be Wild in Los Angeles with producer Gabriel Mekler for their self-titled album and released the single in January 1968 (Dunhill/ABC 4138). Lead singer John Kay’s gritty vocal delivery plus the driving guitar and tension-filled organ riffs created a statement perfect for the 1960s’ counter-culture revolution. In Canada it became CHUM Radio’s No. 1 song that July and RPM’s No. 1 by early September. “Billboard” Magazine chose it as a “Best Leftfield Pick” for a single that could go all the way. It almost did: it went to Billboard’s No. 2 spot in August 1968 (The Rascals’ People Got to Be Free was No. 1).
Success piled upon success through 1968 - 1969. The song was No. 14 on RPM’s Top 100 Singles of 1968. In 1969 it received a BMI award, and a throaty cover by Wilson Pickett (Atlantic 2631-M) made Billboard’s Hot 100. But it was the film “Easy Rider” – with its soundtrack version with motorcycle sound effects – that cemented the song’s presence in popular culture.
Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee John Kay explained the song’s success to “Rolling Stone” magazine: “Every generation thinks they're born to be wild, and they can identify with that song as their anthem.” That’s why Born to be Wild was No. 130 on that magazine’s list of all-time greatest songs, and No. 24 on Top 100 Cancon Tracks 1964-1996.
In 1988 M.C. Shan had a Billboard hit with his Born to be Wild rap, which sampled the original. Other noteworthy cover artists include U2, Slade, Blue Öyster Cult, Crowded House, Dr & The Medics, INXS, Jive Bunny & the Mastermixers, Steve Martin, Ozzy Osbourne, Hampton String Quartet, Riot, and the Ventures. The song has also been heard in car commercials.
While still a staple for bike lovers around the world (especially Harley Davidson aficionados), audiences can also hear this classic in family films such as Stuart Little 2, Wild America, Neverending Story III and Recess: School’s Out.
Guitarist and songwriter Dennis McCrohan, also known as Dennis Edmonton or Mars Bonfire, was born in 1943 in Oshawa, Ont. He played in the Toronto blues band Sparrow in the mid-1960s before pursuing a career as a songwriter and session musician in California, while his bandmates went on to form Steppenwolf. McCrohan/Bonfire was honoured with the SOCAN 2015 Cultural Impact Award.