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Born to Be Wild - Steppenwolf

Here is the complete text of a letter from a resident published in the Highbury Fields Association monthly newsletter for October 1989:

"I was shocked to read, in the minutes of HFA's latest committee meeting, that there had been no complaints about the French circus which arrived on the Fields in September.

Well, I want to complain about it. Loudly and publicly.

Quite frankly, I'm not keen on circuses. And I'd heard enough about the Archaos Circus of Character to be put off completely.

They used motor-bikes and fork-lift trucks. They set off fireworks. - noisy ones. They juggled with chain-saws. Sometimes their acts went wrong. Horribly wrong. Well, I wasn't going and neither were my children. No way.

It took them a good week to wear me down.

But I'm glad they did. It was marvellous. It felt like a circus ought to be. A bit shabby, a bit down-at-heel, but thrilling, odd, unexpected. Sometimes I laughed and sometimes I gasped. Most of the time I just gaped.

Then came Tuesday evening. I noticed a line of lorries, trailers and caravans trundling across the Fields in the near darkness. The beams from their yellow headlights flared through an early autumn mist. The procession seemed to go on for ages.

The next morning, where their amazing Big Top had been, there was only grass.

So that's my complaint. They've gone. And they haven't said when they're coming back.

Richard O'Keefe."

Steppenwolf have always been an underrated band, largely because their most famous track, "Born to Be Wild" has proved to be their most successful and most definitive. It was the most iconic song from the bestselling soundtrack of the 1968 film "Easy Rider", playing over the opening credits as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper sped down the highway on their "chopper" motor bikes. Many people never got beyond their first album, the eponymous "Steppenwolf", which contained both "Born to Be Wild" and "The Pusher" another track featured in "Easy Rider". "Born to Be Wild", now eternally the theme tune for all biker groups, included the lyric:

"I like smoke and lightning,

heavy metal thunder,

racing in the wind

and the feeling that I'm under"

which subsequently gave the name to the whole genre of "heavy metal" rock music.

Curiously, keyboardist Andrew Chapin who was a member of the band for their 1975 and eighth album "Hour of the Wolf", later joined Ricky Nelson's backing band and died in the plane crash that killed Nelson in 1985 (see yesterday's post).

Around twenty years ago, I deejayed for a for a fundraising beach dance run by a windsurfing club (very English southern counties). I was assured that there would be no trouble as they had arranged some good security for the event. After a couple of hours, when everybody was dancing away like crazy, a couple of bikers demanded I play "Born to Be Wild" next record. I demurred saying I'd play it later when the time and music sequence was right. One of them grabbed me by the shirt collar, lifted me off my feet and told me it had to be next or else he'd kick my head in. I duly obliged and then sought out the organiser and asked her where the hell the security had got to. She indicated the dancefloor, now crammed full of large, leather-clad bikers and said, "there they are, they're all dancing". I played "Born to Be Wild" five times that night.

Back in the late eighties Circus Archaos single-handedly revolutionised circus related performing arts, introducing motor cycles, rock music and, as the letter above said, chain-saws into their act, completely doing away with the need for animals, leading the way for "new circus" and the likes of Nofit State Circus and the much too "nice" Cirque du Soleil. None of them were nearly as exciting, or as funny or as dangerous as Archaos, who we, at Islington Council Arts and Entertainments department, brought over for a week of shows in Highbury Fields, in 1989, for only their second appearance in London. The letter is one of those things that makes an arts administrator's life worthwhile. Thank you Mr O'Keefe.


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