Who was Mars Bonfire? Cool name. His real name was Dennis Edmonton and he was a guitarist with a Canadian band called Sparrow. His brother Jerry was the drummer for Sparrow, and more importantly, Steppenwolf. Bonfire wrote "Born To Be Wild" and several other songs recorded by Steppenwolf.
From out of the wilds of eastern Canada - Toronto to be specific- flew Sparrow. They landed in LA during the mid '60s with the Edmonton brothers, lead singer John Kay, who had escaped from East Germany along with his mother nearly a decade earlier, bassist Nick St. Nicholas and organist Goldie McJohn. Since there was no place to play due to the Sunset riots, Sparrow relocated to San Francisco where they were part of the ballroom scene playing The Matrix along with other S.F. bands like Big Brother & The Holding Co. and Jefferson Airplane. Finally, back in L.A. St. Nicholas split to form his own group eventually working with future Steppenwolf guitarist Larry Byrom. Rushton Moreve took over on bass. Also, Michael Monarch replaced Dennis Edmonton. Edmonton picked up the Mars Bonfire moniker pursuing a short-lived and uneventful solo career. The group hooked up with producer Gabriel Mekler who suggested a name change to Steppenwolf - the title character of a Herman Hesse novel who searches for personal truths.
Steppenwolf came roaring out with the thunderous riff driven "Born To Be Wild," perhaps the ultimate motorcycle song ("Get your motor running, head out on the highway"). The song was the main draw for the group's self-titled debut. Steppenwolf followed that success with a string of LPs, "Steppenwolf II," "At Your Birthday" and the politically oriented "Monster." "Steppenwolf - The Second" had "Magic Carpet Ride." The third LP "At Your Birthday" featured "Rock Me." The controversial "Monster" contained pop hit "Move Over" ("If you want to retire, get out of the way") and "Draft Resister" (there was a war going on).
Along the way, various members came and went. Moreve (co-writer of "Magic Carpet Ride" with Kay) left in late 1968; he was initially replaced by (the returning) St. Nicholas, who was supplanted by George Biondo in early 1970. Monarch exited in 1969, replaced first by Byrom and subsequently by Kent Henry. Each personnel change seemed to lessen the group.
Steppenwolf produced another three LPs but the only outstanding track was "Who Needs You." By '72 the party was over and the band split. John Kay later fronted Steppenwolf with much younger members.
Steppenwolf formed around the nucleus Kay, Edmonton and McJohn. They are known for a brilliant song (their first hit): "Born To Be Wild," and a series of strong Rockers, "Magic Carpet Ride," "Rock Me," "Move Over" and "Who Needs Ya." The self-titled debut with the metallic cover (which looked sharp but peeled quickly - same with "II") has the classic "Born To Be Wild," and a Chuck Berry tribute, "Berry Rides Again." The group shows its Soul influences with a cover of Don Convey's "Sookie, Sookie." Kay provides political commentary on "The Ostrich." Throughout Steppenwolf's career Kay got on his soap box and usually showed a keen eye for America's foibles. The album also contains "The Pusher." Written by Hoyt Axton, the song got a lot of attention due to its drug dealer subject matter. Yet neither the song nor performance are all that impressive. Though "Steppenwolf" is a good start, "Steppenwolf II" is a more cohesive effort with "Magic Carpet Ride," "28" and Bonfire's "Faster Than The Speed of Life." There's also another soul tune that had been a pre-fame staple, "Tighten Up You Wig." Finally, the inevitable late '60s political (anti-establishment) song appears, "Don't Step On The Grass, Sam."
"At Your Birthday Party" features "Rock Me" (with the extended drum/percussion solo), "Jupiter's Child" and McJohn's piano boogie "Cat Killer." "Monster" is a perfect late '60s time capsule. It's a pretty good album once you get past the sophomoric title track - Kay's warts and all musical version of American history. "Move Over," "Draft Resister" and "What Would You Do, If I Did That To You" are the highlights.
Along the way Steppenwolf released two live albums. The first, "Early Steppenwolf," recorded at S.F.'s Matrix Club before the group hit the big time, is best seen as a historical record of the group's development. Steppenwolf influences: mid '60s Rock, Soul and the emerging psychedelic scene are all there along with an extended jam on "The Pusher." About all "Steppenwolf Live" proves is the group can deliver competent versions of their hits ( though a couple tracks appear to be studio recordings with "audience noise" added). And for the third time they haul out "The Pusher." They had to be receiving a kick back from Axton's publishing company. That's the only reasonable explanation. "Steppenwolf 7" and "For Ladies Only" are disasters. At least "7" has "Who Needs Ya." "For Ladies Only" resurrects two Bonfire songs, "Night Time's For You" and "Ride With Me" but it doesn't help. The magic is gone. Realizing that, they called it quits shortly thereafter. "16 Greatest Hits" (not that they actually had 16 of them) does the group justice and contains some of their better album work.