I am inclined to cut Steppenwolf a little bit of slack, because frontman John Kay was born in Tilsit, Germany, (as Joachim Krauledat) in April 1944, which can’t have been the best time and place to start out in life. His father had already died in a Russian prison camp. Little Joachim and his mother fled East Germany in 1949, helped along by some smugglers who cut through barbed wire fences for them on their way to a refugee camp in West Germany.
Despite the singer’s provenance and the band’s name, Steppenwolf was really a Canadian band, Kay’s family having moved to Toronto in 1958. The band formed in 1961 and knocked around Canada under a couple of names before releasing the album Steppenwolf in January 1968. “Born to Be Wild” was astonishingly enough, the third single from that LP.
The song went to Number Two in the late summer of 1968, and thus was already a big hit before it was used on the soundtrack to Easy Rider, which wasn’t released until July 1969. (“The Pusher,” from Steppenwolf’s first album, also appeared in the film.) “Magic Carpet Ride,” the lead single from Steppenwolf the Second, followed, reaching the Top Ten in late 1968. “Rock Me” was their third and final Top Ten single, although they knocked around the lower reaches of the Top Forty for a few years after that.
Steppenwolf broke up in 1972, re-formed in 1974 for no particular purpose, broke up again, re-formed as John Kay & Steppenwolf, ad infinitum. The original working band was only around for about five years; as a cultural force, they lasted about two.
The Case For “Born to Be Wild” is a landmark song, used to great effect in one of the cultural touchstones of the Sixties, living on via rock radio for several decades, and lending its lyrics to an entire genre of music. Really, inventing the term “heavy metal” might be Steppenwolf’s most significant achievement.
The Case Against “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” is a great one-two punch, but after that, their only Top Ten hit was “Rock Me,” which is terrible, and that ought to count for something. Steppenwolf had four other songs slither into the Top Forty (none going higher than 29), none of which I’d heard before researching this article, which may not mean much, except that I’ve heard them now and they’re not good, except possibly for the swinging “Hey Lawdy Mama.”
And they didn’t even invent the term “heavy metal.” “Born to Be Wild” was written by a guy calling himself Mars Bonfire, whose previous stage name had been Dennis Edmonton, but was born Dennis McCrohan. His brother Jerry Edmonton was Steppenwolf’s drummer, and Dennis had been part of an earlier version of the band called the Sparrows, but he wasn’t in Steppenwolf when he wrote the song.
The Cool Factor Jerry Edmonton is a very cool stage name for a Canadian, kind of a Great White North version of Randy California. Bass player Rushton Moreve, who co-wrote “Magic Carpet Ride,” was fired from the band when he stopped showing up for gigs and rehearsals in California, convinced that an earthquake was going to plunge it into the ocean. He was eventually killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, so maybe he knew what he was doing.
The Verdict “Born to Be Wild” is not only a great single (Rolling Stone had it at No. 129 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time) but has had a huge footprint on the culture in the nearly 50 years since its release. But that’s basically all Steppenwolf has in its dossier for immortality. I vote no for Steppenwolf.