The Revolutionary Soundtrack To 'Easy Rider'

A goundbreaking use of pop and rock music in a movie score.

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The Revolutionary Soundtrack To 'Easy Rider'
On September 4th, 1969, the film 'Easy Rider' starring Jack Nicholson Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper opened at The Classic in London England.

The young and rebellious director and producer of the movie, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, chose to work outside the studio system. In 1969 they released their landmark counterculture film with a budget of $360 000. It had a $60-million box office intake, $41.7 million of which was domestic gross. The movie has marked a revolution in Hollywood filmmaking and became the third highest-grossing film of 1969.

One of the groundbreaking aspects of Easy Rider is its music. Hollywood soundtracks until then were usually an instrumental background score or a collection of songs written specifically for a film. The extensive use of pop and rock music for a film's soundtrack was unusual at the time, especially since the film lacks a classical score.

The idea came from Donn Cambern, the editor who used various music from his own record collection to make watching hours of the bike road movie footage more interesting during editing. Cambern and Hopper selected songs for the Easy Rider soundtrack based on stuff they heard on the radio in 1968. The licensing cost $1 million, more than the total budget of the movie. It featured The Band, The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Steppenwolf.

Originally, Peter Fonda had intended the band Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young to write an entirely original soundtrack for the movie. But Hopper increasingly got control over every aspect of production and decided to throw CSNY out behind Fonda's back, telling the band:
"Look, you guys are really good musicians, but honestly, anybody who rides in a limo can't comprehend my movie, so I'm gonna have to say no to this, and if you guys try to get in the studio again, I may have to cause you some bodily harm."

"The Pusher" Steppenwolf

The song was originally written by Hoyt Axton, but the version used in the movie to accompany the opening scenes was recorded by Steppenwolf.
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Born to Be Wild" Steppenwolf

The song was written by Mars Bonfire and first performed by the Steppenwolf. This was the band's third single off their 1968 debut album “Steppenwolf.” It became their most successful single, reaching # 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts
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"The Weight" Smith

The song was written by Robbie Robertson, a member of the Canadian-American group The Band. "The Weight" has significantly influenced American popular music, having been listed as #41 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time published in 2004.

Smith's version of "The Weight" was included on the epochal Easy Rider soundtrack because, due to contractual reasons, The Band's version was unavailable.

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"Wasn't Born to Follow" The Byrds

"Wasn't Born to Follow", written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, displays country and western influences, albeit filtered through The Byrds’ psychedelic and garage rock tendencies.
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"If You Want to Be a Bird (Bird Song)" The Holy Modal Rounders

The song was written by Antonia Duren and recorded by The Holy Modal Rounders, an American folk music group, whose unique blend of folk music revival and psychedelia gave them a cult-like following from the late ‘60s into the ‘70s.
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"Don't Bogart Me" Fraternity of Man

Fraternity of Man, the American blues and psychedelic rock band from the ‘60s is actually most famous for this song.
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"If 6 Was 9" The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The song was written by Jimi Hendrix and recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It appeared on the release of their 1967 album “Axis: Bold as Love.”

The lyrics portray the underlying conflict of the counterculture of the 1960s: the "social and cultural dichotomies" between the hippies and the "white collared conservative" business world of the establishment.

Beginning with a blues riff, the lyrics accompany a "spacey" free-form jam, with Hendrix epitomizing the existentialist voice of the youth movement:

"I'm the one that's gonna have to die when it's time for me to die/so let me live my life/the way I want to."
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"Kyrie Eleison/Mardi Gras (When the Saints)" The Electric Prunes

An eerie version of the opening track, "Kyrie Eleison", released on the band’s “Mass in F Minor” (1968) album, became somewhat of an underground favorite when it appeared in the soundtrack of the movie.
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"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" Roger McGuinn

Peter Fonda, had originally intended to use Dylan's version of the song in the film but after failing to secure the appropriate licensing he asked The Byrds’ frontman Roger McGuinn to record a cover of it instead.

Dennis Hopper explained to Sabotage Times:

“I thought it would be so cool if the movie ended with Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma. The problem was Dylan didn’t like Easy Rider or the song so much. He thought the track was pretentious and he had a real problem with the end of my movie: ‘You can’t end it like that! Peter should go back and blow those guys away.’”
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"Ballad of Easy Rider" Roger McGuinn

This song was written by Roger McGuinn with input from Bob Dylan.

Fonda also wanted Dylan to write the film's theme song but Dylan declined, quickly scribbling the lines onto a napkin, before telling Fonda to "give this to McGuinn. He'll know what to do with it."

The lines were:

"The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be/Flow, river, flow.”
The lyric fragment was dutifully passed on to McGuinn, who took the lines and expanded upon them with his own lyrical and musical contributions to produce the finished song.
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The “Easy Rider” soundtrack was released by ABC-Dunhill Records in August 1969. It peaked at #6 on the Billboard album charts in September of that year, and was certified gold in January 1970.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Need more people taking risks and making good films these days.  The Hollywood "system" is cancer and needs to be uprooted.
    Didn't know about the Dylan connection of "Ballad of Easy Rider". One of my favourite songs. Thanks for the article!
    Solid movie, but let's not waste the term "revolutionary soundtrack" on it.
    It was back then. This movie opened the door to many other films that came in the 70's. The "Art Decade" for film, as I like to call it. Just like David Bowie and Brian Eno's song.