Born To Be Wild – The unlikely backstory behind an iconic hit record

Life is an evolutionary art. We are in a constant state of becoming and never know at the beginning how things may turn out.

“Mars Bonfire”

Such was the case for Canadian Dennis Eugene McCrohan. He and his brother Jerry, changed their names to “Edmonton”, in honor of one of their favorite cities. They felt the brand might generate some memory traction when they were recruited by Dave Marden to join his band, The Sparrows, in 1964.

Marden was a British emigree who changed his name to Jack London. The Sparrows endeavored to capitalize on the British Invasion, affecting English Accents and attempting to channel the vibe that was making the Beatles and the Stones famous.

John Kay

The group also attracted the attention of Joachim Fritz Krauledat. Born during the Second World War in what would become East Germany, Krauledat learned English the same way he learned to love Rock & Roll, listening to American Forces Radio. Plagued by vision problems as a youth, he developed an enhanced ability to hear the nuances of the music and taught himself how to play the guitar. By the late 1950s, he had relocated to Canada, changing his name to the more pronounceable “John Kay“, joining Dennis and Jerry in The Sparrows in 1965.

The group took a circuitous route to Los Angeles, connecting with musician, songwriter and producer, Gabriel Mekler, who urged Kay to reconstitute the Sparrows as Steppenwolf, a nod to Hermann Hesse’s novel of the same name. The group landed a deal with ABC Dunhill, home to The Mamas & The Papas, and went into the studio to with Mekler try and concoct a hit.

By then, Dennis Edmonton was no longer with the band and had rebranded himself as the ethereal Mars Bonfire. At the time, he was broke and failing as a would-be Hollywood songwriter. When he acquired a used Ford Falcon, the ability to explore the California’s mountains and dip his feet in the Pacific Ocean felt liberating. He told Canadian journalist Juliette Jagger, “The feeling that came with being out on the road in my car was total freedom.”

It inspired him to write a song.

“‘Get your motor running. Head out on the highway.’ Those lyrics,” he told Jagger, “just flowed right out of me.”

He presented Kay with what was, at the time, a ballad. Bonfire had pedaled it, unsuccessfully, to a half dozen other groups and three music publishers. Kay saw potential. Steppenwolf sped it up, morphing the tune into a power rock rendition, and Born to Be Wild was born.

There are numerous examples of acts that transformed original recordings to faster tempos and greater chart success. Consider Shorty Long’s Devil With the Blue Dress On. Few remember the original, but I bet you started humming the Mitch Ryder version when you read the title. The Eddie Floyd rendition of  Knock On Wood holds its own as one of the best to come out of the Stax hit machine. But it was Ami Stewart who reimagined the tune into an percussive disco classic.

Tom Hanks may have been thinking about Born to Be Wild when he plotted “That Thing You Do”. In the story, Jimmy wrote it as a love song. Drummer Guy Patterson’s split second decision to speed it up at a talent show that started The Wonders’ rise to fleeting fame.

The first attempt to get Born to Be Wild down on tape didn’t have the magic the band was looking for. So they switched venues, re-recording the tracks at the Don Polodor‘s American Recording Company, located on Hollywood’s legendary Sunset Boulevard.

The Synchron S10

Until then, engineers didn’t quite know how to handle amps turned up to full volume. Polodor’s partner, Bill Cooper, was just fine with it. He remembers that the facility, “had an echo chamber lined with big sheets of metal that Richie (Don’s brother) glued to the walls. It also, to our knowledge, was the first studio to have solid state preamps that were run on car batteries because they were such a pure source of DC current.”

Mix Magazine’s Gary Eskow chronicles the recording of Born To Be Wild in his Classic Tracks column.  Cooper placed highly directional Syncron microphones in front of Steppenwolf’s Fender Dual Showmen amplifiers, mic’ed Jerry Edmonton’s bass drum, put John Kay behind a Sony C37 to maximize his raspy vocals (Neumann U47s were the accepted standard in the day) and let the Scully 8-track tape recorder roll.

At the time, no one in the band thought it was anything special.

Kay told Mix, “During the sessions, it got no more or less of a response than anything else we were working on. ‘Sookie, Sookie’ came out earlier and did fine, but it got no airplay in the South. It was vaguely suggestive, and our sound didn’t make it clear whether we were a black or white band. A song called ‘A Girl I Knew’ was actually the first single off the album, but it got very little airplay. We knew we’d only have the opportunity to release one more single off the album before it got buried. The label was leaning toward ‘Everybody’s Next One,’ a song that I’d co-written with our producer, Gabriel Meckler, but our manager, Red Foster, was also a disk jockey at KRLA in L.A., and he put feelers out to friends of his who were also jocks, and the consensus opinion was that ‘Born to Be Wild’ was the strongest contender.”

As usual, the people closest to the audience were right. Born to Be Wild exploded onto the charts in 1968. It was the first record to use the term “heavy metal thunder”, which would define a musical genre.

When Dennis Hopper was looking for music to accentuate the soundtrack of his forthcoming indy film, “Easy Rider“, Born to Be Wild ended up front and center along with contributions from The BandThe Byrds, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (Video)

The record peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard charts, unable to unseat the tamer People Got to Be Free by the Rascals. With the passage of time, Born To Be Wild surpassed the Rascals’ 60s freedom anthem, as new generations identified with its universal appeal.

In an era of digital downloads, it still sells. When I penned this piece, Born To Be Wild ranked at #319 on the current list of best selling songs at People Got to Be Free stood at #71,981.

Steppenwolf took their act on the road, earning rave reviews for a performance at the Fillmore East with an eclectic bill that also included Buddy Rich and The Children of God. Later that same year, they opened for Iron Butterfly at the Baltimore Civic Center.

Meckler went on to helm successful albums for Three Dog Night, and Janis Joplin. He also partnered with  Etta James for two critically acclaimed LPs in the early 70s. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1977.

Mars Bonfire moved with his wife to Western Nevada and became renown in California’s “Hundred Peaks Section” as a hiker. The LA Times reported that, by 2008, the “affable” hiking leader had conquered the Sierra Club’s 276 top California summits 8 times.

The abandoned American Recording Company Studios – 2008

American Recording Company, the birthplace of dozens of hit records for everyone from The Beach Boys and the Blues Image and Alice Cooper and the Souther, Hillman Furay Band, ultimately had to relocate. According to Bill Cooper, “Eventually, Lawrence Welk (who owned the building) said we were making too much noise and we had to move.”

Welk was never able to lease the facility again.

As always happens in every chapter of the history of Rock & Roll, the original Steppenwolf ultimately broke up. There were several unauthorized incarnations between 1976 and 1980. Kay again became involved with the project that year and  continued to tour with a revolving cast of musicians backing him. He delighted audiences with Born to Be Wild and the rest of the Steppenwolf cannon until a final concert appearance on October 14, 2018.

Kay, writing for the band’s official blog after that performance, thanked his loyal fan base for “one hell of a ride.” He now concentrates on his non-profit, The Maue Kay Foundation, which “supports individuals and organizations engaged in the protection of wildlife, the environment and human rights.”

In April of that same year, Born to Be Wild was among the first group of singles to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Steppenwolf, long considered worthy of induction is still awaiting that honor.