“Heavy Metal Thunder”: 5 Classic Steppenwolf Songs in Honor of Frontman John Kay

Here’s wishing a Happy Birthday to Steppenwolf frontman John Kay, who turned 80 on April 12, 2024. Kay was born Joachim Krauledat in the town of Tilsit in what was East Prussia, Germany, and is now in Russia.

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His family eventually moved to Toronto in 1958, then to Buffalo, New York, in the early 1960s. In 1965, Kay joined the Toronto-area band The Sparrows, who shortened their name to Sparrow before relocating to California in late 1966. After a couple of lineup shifts, the band was rechristened Steppenwolf, name after German author Herman Hesse’s 1927 novel.

[RELATED: Behind the Band Name: Steppenwolf]

Led by Kay’s powerful vocals, Steppenwolf became one of the premier hard rock bands of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The original band broke up in 1972, then reformed in 1974 before splitting again in 1976.

A number of incarnations of the band without Kay existed from 1976 until 1980, when the singer launched a new version of the group called John Kay and Steppenwolf. Kay and Steppenwolf released several albums during the 1980s and early ’90s, and continued to tour until 2018 Since then, Kay has played occasional solo shows. His most recent performances took place in March 2024 as part of the Flower Power Cruise.

In honor of Kay’s milestone birthday, here’s a look of five of Steppenwolf’s most enduring tunes:

“Born to Be Wild” (1968)

“Born to Be Wild” appears on Steppenwolf’s 1968 self-titled debut album. It’s Steppenwolf’s signature tune, and one of the most famous hard-rock songs of the era. Although Kay didn’t write “Born to Be Wild,” his booming, growling voice was its centerpiece.

The song, a celebration of the rebellious spirit of motorcycle riders, was written by Mars Bonfire, a.k.a. Dennis Edmonton. Edmonton’s brother, Jerry, was Steppenwolf’s drummer, and the siblings also had been members of The Sparrows along with Kay.

“Born to Be Wild” features the lyric “heavy metal thunder,” making it the first popular song to feature the phrase “heavy metal.”

“Born to Be Wild” spent three weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 1968. The song was then immortalized when it was used at the beginning of the 1969 counterculture film Easy Rider.

Reflecting on the enduring appeal of the tune, Kay once told Rolling Stone, “Every generation thinks they’re born to be wild, and they can identify with that song as their anthem.”

“The Pusher” (1968)

“The Pusher” also appeared on the Steppenwolf album. It’s a cover of a tune written by country-folk singer/songwriter and actor Hoyt Axton. While “The Pusher” wasn’t a hit single for Steppenwolf, it also was made famous by its appearance in Easy Rider.

In the movie’s opening scene, Steppenwolf’s version of the gritty blues tune is heard as the film’s stars—Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper—complete a cocaine deal with a character called the “Connection,” played by music producer Phil Spector.

“Magic Carpet Ride” (1968)

Steppenwolf’s second-biggest hit, “Magic Carpet Ride” was featured on the band’s sophomore studio album, aptly titled The Second. Kay co-wrote the tune with Steppenwolf bassist Rushton Moreve.

“Magic Carpet Ride” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1968. Kay says he was inspired to write the song’s lyrics while listening to a demo of the tune on the new high-fidelity stereo system he’d recently purchased.

“Rock Me” (1969)

“Rock Me” appeared on Steppenwolf’s third studio album, At Your Birthday Party. The catchy rock song, which was written by Kay, reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1969.

Kay wrote the song for the 1968 film Candy, a sex farce that featured a variety of stars, including Ringo Starr, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau.

“Straight Shootin’ Woman” (1974)

“Straight Shootin’ Woman” appeared on Steppenwolf’s seventh studio album, Slow Flux. The song, which was written by Jerry Edmonton, is a revved-up blues-rock tune driven by a vibrant horn section.

As usual, Kay’s vocals help lift the song to the next level. “Straight Shootin’ Woman” was Steppenwolf’s last song to reach the Top 40 of the Hot 100, peaking at No. 29.

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