Steppenwolf, Born to be Wild (June 1968) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 5

Born to be Wild is the unofficial anthem of all bikers everywhere — partly due to its use in the film Easy Rider (see the video below), but also partly because, hey, it’s Born to be Wild. It’s an infectious song that just cries out for you to sing along with the chorus.

It’s the first hard rock song to use the words “heavy metal” in the lyrics — although the musical genre wasn’t yet known by that name, and in context the term clearly refers to the sound of motorbikes.

While the trebly, crunchy distorted guitar sound was something of an innovation, the historical importance of Born to be Wild is probably as much in its attitude as in its music. While My Generation claimed independence from the social structures of the day, it did it in a wholly negative way — as the sneering quality of the vocal makes clear. It was all about what The Who wanted to escape from; but Born to the Wild is about what Steppenwolf want to escape to. It’s not only one of the earliest expressions of the hard-rock desire for freedom, but also one of the most positive: “Get your motor running / Head out on the highway / Looking for adventure / and whatever comes our way”.

That positive attitude may be why the song is still so universally loved nearly half a century on: joy is not an emotion often connected with heavy metal, but Born to be Wild is essentially a joyful song. Perhaps for this reason, it’s been used in a hundred films and TV shows and covered by a thousand bands — notably Blue Öyster Cult on their monolithic live album On Your Feet or On Your Knees. Heavy metal isn’t always doom and gloom!

[Side note: I used to have a friend who was a member of the Christian Motorcyclists Association UK. I suggested to him that their anthem should be Born to be Mild, but he didn’t get it. It was a sad waste of a fine joke, if I say it myself.]



18 responses to “Steppenwolf, Born to be Wild (June 1968) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 5

  1. Richard G. Whitbread

    Michael, you have always been a purveyor of sadly-wasted fine jokes. I fear it shall be your epitaph.

  2. I really like the vocals on this one. From what you’ve posted until now, I think it’s the first one to have vocals closer to what would expect of a heavy metal voice in modern times.

  3. Well, Richard, I was recently told in an email from the session moderator of the sauropod talks at the recent Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy that my “[cetacean needed]” joke was, and I quote, “unquestionably the best gag in a presentation in York … absolute brilliant genius”.

    That’s a good point about the vocal, Andrei — one that I should have made.

  4. Richard G. Whitbread

    It would have gone down even better in Wales…

  5. I’m not a paleontologist, but wikipedia says: “The order Cetacea /sɨˈteɪʃ(i)ə/ includes the marine mammals commonly known as *whales* […]”

  6. Oh! Having made the clever joke, I completely missed the all-too-obvious homophone!

  7. Or we could have the unofficial anthem of people with anger-management issues, Born to be Riled.

    Or the anthem of bathrooms, Born to be Tiled.

    I’ll stop now.

  8. I’ve just realised this is the earliest song on the timeline to have been released after I was born. I was three months old. To be honest, I didn’t really appreciate it back then.

  9. To be honest, I didn’t really appreciate it back then.

    You were even too young to be, “way big into raisins at the time.

  10. Richard G. Whitbread

    Your anger-management title’s been taken, I’m afraid, at least in book form:

    Anyway, just one more?

    My local Tax Office’s favourite, ‘Born to be Filed’.

  11. To independently invent a joke that someone else has also come up with: there’s no shame there.

    But when that person is Jeremy Clarkson … uh-oh.

  12. True fact! One of my old comic strips (which in a shameless plug I’m going to mention is still available here) featured a band of dorks. And, inevitably, one of the songs I gave them was ‘Born To Be Mild’. I also wanted to have them singing ‘Do You Know What It Means To Miss Milton Keynes?’ but couldn’t fit it in. Later I saw a Steve Bell cartoon on John Major which used the line. Ain’t nothing new under the sun.

    Obligatory song-related comment – hard rock songs tend to venerate individualism and outsider-hood, with the lone biker image quickly becoming a stalwart. Previously, Sixties songs had been more collective, “we-are-the-young”. ‘My Generation’ would be a good example, but I suppose it reaches it’s ultimate in the Doors singings “they’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers” or Jefferson Airplane “your enemy is we”. (Not particularly grammatical, but you knew what they meant.) In that sense ‘Born to Be Wild’ seems lyrically transitional at the same time it’s musically transitional. You escape society rather than confront it, but at the same time it’s talking about a band of outlaws rather than the lone rider. I had honestly never noticed the lyric is ‘Our way” before now!

  13. Pingback: MC5, Kick Out the Jams (February 1969) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 8 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  14. I have just now, for the first time, heard Mars Bonfire’s original recording of Born to be Wild. It’s a fantastic demonstration of how something flaccid and lifeless can be turned into a stone-cold classic by the right cover version. Mars Bonfire may have written this song, but Steppenwolf made it into something beautiful.

  15. David Starner

    Wikipedia makes it unclear if Mars Bonfire recorded it before Steppenwolf; it looks like he was writting it for other bands and it ended up with the band his brother was in. It certainly doesn’t sound like he heard Steppenwolf’s version before recording his own.

  16. Well, that is interesting. A bit of poking around in other sources doesn’t elucidate, either. Who recorded it first? I’d like to know, if anyone’s able to find out. (But I know who recorded it best!)

  17. Pingback: Scorpions, I Can’t Get Enough (February 1979) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 15 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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