Tuesday, October 18, 2011

October 18: Steppenwolf, "Born To Be Wild"

Artist: Steppenwolf
Song: "Born To Be Wild"
Album: Steppenwolf
Year: 1968

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Throughout the long history of recorded music, there are a handful of bands and songs that while are without question important to the progression of music, are often misconstrued as the decades pass.  While it is rarely the result of something that the artist in question has done, the actual meaning and impact of a song can be altered by urban legends and simple miscalculations.  However, even when this occurs, it rarely detracts from the artist or music in question, and this can be seen many times throughout the late 1960's.  As various aspects of culture found their way into the music of the time, new sounds and approaches were being displayed, and their distinctive take on the psychedelic sound is what set Steppenwolf far apart from their peers.  In modern times, the name of the band is recognized all over the world, as they are responsible for some of the most treasured songs of the entire decade, and it is also this band that coined one of the most heavily used terms in all of music history.  Finding an amazing balance between the soaring, almost experimental sounds of the world in which they lived, and the slightly more aggressive spirit of a different counter-culture, there are few records that can measure up to Steppenwolf's fantastic 1968 self-titled debut.  While the entire album is impressive in itself, there are few songs that are more important to the progression of music, or simply more iconic than Steppenwolf's unforgettable 1968 single, "Born To Be Wild."

While there are many that can make such a claim, "Born To Be Wild" can easily be argued as one of the most iconic guitar riffs in all of music history, and it remains just as powerful today as it was ore than forty years ago.  The combined sound of John Kay and Michael Monarch is beyond nearly every other riff in history, as it is not only the simple, yet powerful progression that they deploy, but the fuzzy, crunching distortion as well.  From the opening power chords to the small "stings" that lace the verses, the guitar part on "Born To Be Wild" stands as one of the finest in history, and there are few recordings that better display the musical link between blues and rock and roll.  It is this tone and attitude that in many ways defines what "hard rock" is all about, and there are few later bands that did not in some way pull from the guitar work on "Born To Be Wild."  However, while one cannot overlook the guitar work, bassist Rushton Moreve is in top form as well, and it is the massive amount of groove and movement he and drummer Jerry Edmonton bring to the track that gives it a high-energy, almost chaotic feel.  The band is rounded out by Goldy McJohn on a Hammond organ, and it is the presence of this final instrument that sets "Born To Be Wild" so far apart from other singles, as the mood and bite McJohn adds gives the song a sharp, almost Latin-tinged feel that remains unparalleled to this day.

Along with the brilliant musical arrangement all across "Born To Be Wild," John Kay delivers what is now one of the most legendary vocals in all of music history.  Matching the tone and attitude of the guitars, there is a gritty, almost menacing sound to his singing, and yet he manages to deploy this sound without ever sacrificing any of the musicality of his vocal range.  It is the way that Kay seems to be teetering on the edge of pure mayhem within his singing that makes "Born To Be Wild" so exciting, and even after hearing the song countless times, this element remains firmly intact.  While there had been other artists that brought this gritty, perhaps dangerous sound before Kay, he was able to take it in a completely new direction, and his sound remains one of the most pure and outright captivating ever to be captured on tape.  However, it is the way that Kay's attitude matches the lyrics which he sings that stands as the key to the appeal of "Born To Be Wild," and yet he himself did not pen the song.  The lyrics were actually written by "Mars Bonfire," which was a pseudonym for Dennis Edmonton, who was the brother of Steppenwolf's drummer.  Each line of the song finds a way to capture the spirit of youth in a manner that was a far cry from other such songs, and it is this difference and "nod" to a secondary counter-culture that made "Born To Be Wild" so appealing at the time, as well as giving it a truly timeless sound.

Truth be told, "Born To Be Wild" was actually the third single released off of Steppenwolf, as at first listen, the band and label did not thing it had the appeal necessary for good chart performance.  However, the track quickly rose to the second spot on the chart, and it was perhaps made most famous when it was used in the opening sequence of the classic film, Easy Rider.  It was due to its appearance in the movie that "Born To Be Wild" gained its connection to the world of motorcycles, and it is the fact that the song works so well in this environment, as well as that of a general counter-culture that has enabled it to "catch on" with so many different groups and generations.  Yet there is one rather common misconception about "Born To Be Wild," and that is that many people believe it to be the song that "invented" heavy metal.  While the song was the first to use the term on record when Kay sings, "...heavy metal thunder...," it is actually a reference to the sound of a motorcycle engine, and not to the sound or attitude with which the band was playing.  Furthermore, when one looks at the entire history of the "heavy metal" sound, "Born To Be Wild" simply does not fit "the formula," but can easily be argued as a precursor to the later sound.  Regardless of "where" the song fits in categorically, there is no question that it remains one of the most revered and timeless songs ever recorded, and there are few songs from any era that can compare to Steppenwolf's magnificent 1968 single, "Born To Be Wild."

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