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GUITARBUYER Magazine - October 2009

ON THE RECORD

Steppenwolf - Born To Be Wild

In 1968, Steppenwolf took the charts by storm with a guitar anthem that helped define an era. Matt Frost talks to guitarist Michael Monarch.

When cult road movie Easy Rider hit the cinema screens in 1969, it helped change the face of Hollywood, showing the powers that be that low-budget, avant garde films with counter-cultural themes could rake the cash in like the best of them.

Directed and produced by its two main anti-stars, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Easy Rider would gross nearly 20 million dollars in 1969 alone,  launch Jack Nicholson's illustrious career and - last but by no means least - provide one of the most scintillating soundtracks of the era, featuring The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Roger McGuinn, The Band and, of course, Steppenwolf.

The Band's song 'The Pusher" is used during a notorious drug deal scene, while 'Born To Be Wild' kicks proceedings off during the opening credits, when Hopper and Fonda are captured riding their choppers across the rugged and beautiful landscape of the American West in what is one of the most memorable opening montages in cinematic history.

SPARROWS AND WOLVES

Although Easy Rider would go on to cement Steppenwolf's legacy, undoubtedly turning on new ears for generations to come, the LA heavy rockers had already broken through to the big time, when third single 'Born To Be Wild' shot up to number two in the US Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1968.

The roots of Steppenwolf hark back to Toronto garage rock five-piece The Sparrows, who began life in 1964. For the next couple of years, the group was pretty fluid in terms of line-up, physical location and chosen moniker.

By '67, however, things had settled down somewhat, with an LA based line-up now simply titled 'Sparrow", consisting of singer and guitarist John Kay, keyboard player Goldy McJohn, drummer Jerry Edmonton, bassist Rushton Moreve and 17-year-old guitar whiz Michael Monarch.

"I'd seen them play a few times on the Sunset Strip and was taken by the musicianship of Goldy on organ and Jerry on Drums," Michael Monarch recalls. "They asked me to play with them as Dennis Edmonton had decided to leave at that point and we played clubs in California for a number of months. We were rehearsing in John's garage in Hollywood when Gabriel Mekler first heard us."

This meeting with Gabriel Mekler, who lived only a few doors down from the sweaty garage that was serving the guys as a rehearsal space, would be a turning point, as Mekler happened to be a producer for local label Dunhill Records. After scoring them a record deal, Mekler also suggested a new name, prompted by the book he was reading: Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse.

FROM THE BONFIRE

In the early months of the newly named Steppenwolf, Michael Monarch remembers the band presiding over a gritty mix of rhythm and blues standards such as 'Messin' With The Kid' and 'Get Ready Cause Here I Come', much the same as had been the case with Sparrow. However, the new material that would form the bulk of the group's debut LP was also starting to take shape. One of these tracks was 'Born To Be Wild', originally presented to the band in demo form by ex-Sparrows axeman Dennis Edmonton, who was now trading under the moniker Mars Bonfire. It wasn't long before Steppenwolf had spiced up the arrangement.

"Everyone in the band liked 'Born To Be Wild' once we started playing it - I don't think we thought that it was necessarily a hit but it was a good up-tempo song," says Monarch. "I think we started playing it a short time before we started recording the first album. I don't really recall playing it live in the clubs much before the recording sessions, but we pretty much used the arrangement that was on the demo. The main difference was the guitar tone.

"Dennis's demo had an ultra clean guitar part. I played it the way he wrote it but I guess I turned up the heat quite a bit from his version. Of course Goldy's organ was a big part of that song, as was John's unusual vocal style and Rushton's bass parts. As I recall, Rushton added that distinctive bass intro line. I think I could fairly say that, although Dennis wrote a great rock song, I don't think his version of it could have ever been a hit. I think that Steppenwolf did take that song to a different level."

AMERICAN EXPRESS

'Born To Be Wild" was just one of a glut of songs Steppenwolf took into LA's American Recording Co. Studios with Gabriel Mekler, engineer and studio owner Richie Podolor and his assistant, Bill Cooper. The aim - as was the norm in the '60s - was to record an album in as short a time as humanly possible. Michael Monarch remembers well both the studio and the impression if had on him at that time.

"It was my first time in a pro studio and I was fascinated with the equipment," he enthuses. "There was a small L-shaped tracking room and one isolation booth, a Scully eight-track tape recorder and a half-inch two-track. I think there was another two-track that was used for tape delay. They had a real echo chamber - a 12 foot long concrete room with a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other and all curved corners. You could open a small door and get inside of it to change the mic. All the pots were rotary pots taken from military equipment - there were no linear faders - and there was also some nice outboard equipment."

"The album went by pretty quick," Monarch continues. "I think we spent a week recording the whole thing and then a week to mix it.... very fast by today's standards. Gabriel was great - very creative and I think he and I got on well. He wanted to try unusual things in the studio and he had a very open mind when it came to music and recording. I also worked with him on a Janis Joplin record Kozmic Blues, and he wanted to use me on other projects. I missed him when he was no longer involved. He died later on in an auto accident."

HOWLING WOLF

Michael Monarch, who counted Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Cropper and Pete Townshend as his personal heroes, played a Fender Esquire across Steppenwolf's eponymous debut album.

My first guitar was a Mosrite surf guitar but it didn't sound too good so I switched to a Fender Esquire," he remembers. "I don't remember where I got it but I remember seeing Jeff Beck with one and thought it looked cool. It was not modified and it was old when I got it. I used it on and off after the first album but I bought a Fender Strat before the second album and mainly used that from then on. I gave the Esquire to Ritchie Podolor years later - I wish I had kept it."

As far as 'Born To Be Wild' goes, Michael Monarch doesn't remember too much about the actual sessions in which the nailed the definitive version. "I think it went pretty fast - not too many takes," he says. "I remember being told that my amp was turned up too loud and that it was distorting. I was 17 years old and thought, 'Oh yeah? I'll turn it up even louder'. I was using a Fender Concert Amp for those sessions, which was like a Fender Super Reverb without the reverb. I don't really remember using any effects at all, just turning the amp up for sustain. There might have been a Fuzz Face or something on some of the tracks."