(If you’ve missed any of our Birth of Bikers series, click here to catch up.)
Motorcycle Clubs and bikers have changed dramatically in the 90-plus years since they first appeared on the scene. The public perception of bikers has run the gamut, from post-WWII vets with bomber jackets, raising a little hell, to crazed long-haired maniacs on loud choppers, out to take over your town. It has been about backyard builders who create custom bikes by hand, the old fashioned way, to big-name builders that have become superstars thanks to the miracle of television. Though it all, motorcycle magazines have offered a lens through which the riding world has seen itself. They reflect what’s going on out there in the world. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not. Through it all, motorcycle magazines such as Colors, Choppers, Easyriders, Biker, In The Wind, Outlaw Biker, Super Cycle, Custom Choppers, Street Choppers, The Horse, Cycle Source and Born To Ride have succeeded because they are not about nuts and bolts, parts and pieces. Rather, the magazines mentioned above are about the very real people who have an abiding passion for motorcycles.
Bikers have oil running in their veins and live for the thrill of riding their bikes and biker rags have always been dedicated to those guys and gals who truly live to ride and ride to live. Sadly, in this age of online Blogs and digital magazines, the only noteworthy print magazines left for bikers out there are Choppers, Cycle Source, and Born To Ride.
Outlaw bikers and one-percenters were given a voice and a podium to speak from through biker magazines. But outside the motorcycle world, the average Joe Citizen still misunderstood what bikers were all about. The press continued to blow lawlessness out of proportion, first with Hollister, then with Riverside, California, then with an incident which took place in 1965 at the Loudin Classic Rally and Races in Laconia, New Hampshire. This proved to the masses that the one percenter phenomenon was not just a west coast expression of rebellion.
Things really heated up for outlaw bikers in 1965 and 1966. California Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch published his fifteen page “Lynch Report” based on a ten-year study on the Hells Angels and other motorcycle clubs on March 15th, 1965. Newspapers and news magazines used the report as a banner to preach their dim view of all motorcyclists to the public. On May 17th, 1965, The Nation magazine published Hunter S. Thompson’s article, “The Motorcycle Gangs, Losers and Outsiders.” The one, two punch of the Lynch Report and Thompson’s article set the stage for press coverage of the Laconia riot, also known as the “riot that never happened”.
The short version of this story is that the 44th running of the annual Loudin Classic took place on June 19th and 20th, 1965. Thirty-four motorcyclists were arrested and 70 people were injured. The incident made national headlines including Life magazine’s article by Michael Mok. To his credit, Mok was not quick to condemn the bikers in Laconia, siting that crew-cut college kids joined bikers in the supposed riot. He also points out that “brawlers and bystanders alike” were injured by National Guardsmen. While the Hells Angels were blamed for starting the riot, they denied being anywhere near Laconia. Interestingly, damage from the riot was minimal and the races went on as scheduled the next day. But the public generally remembers the words “riot” and “Hells Angels.”
With stories like these bouncing around the wire services, you can see why moviemakers were lining up to exploit the image of brutal bikers from hell. Easy Rider made a bundle at the box office, bringing in over 19 million in its original domestic release, which was huge money for an independent picture at the time. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were old hands at being in biker movies, Fonda having starred in Wild Angels and Hopper having starred as the leader of the Black Souls MC in The Glory Stompers. But the post Easy Rider films that came out of American International Pictures and other low budget film factories focused more on the badass image of violent bike clubs than the idyllic motorcycle touring adventures of Fonda and Hopper.
The new batch of biker exploitation film were not just about motorcycle clubs invading small towns. Once in awhile, some of these movies actually included biting social commentary. Such was the case in The Savage Seven. Popular for his work in B-movies, Adam Rourke starred as the MC club leader, reprising his role from Hell’s Angels on Wheels. In The Savage Seven, Rourke and his club fight to defend a Native American girl from redneck bigots. The club discovers that they have a lot in common with the Indians, since both groups are seen as outcasts in American society.
In Angels From Hell, a Vietnam vet named Mike, played by Tom Stern, returns from war and looks up his old bike club The Mad Caps, only to find that they were run out of town by the local sheriff. Stern gets pissed and decided to create a world-wide club that will go head-to-head with the cops. Alas, Mike can’t even keep his own small club together. End of story.
In a parody of the kind of media coverage that propelled the Hells Angels to stardom, the Fanfare Films production of Run Angel, Run starred William Smith as the member of the Devil’s Advocates Motorcycle Club. Smith sells a story about the club he’s into a national magazine and gets his face on the cover. This doesn’t sit well with the club, however, and Smith has to, well… run Angel, run before the club fits him with cement biker boots.
One of the more popular biker movies of the time was C.C. and Company, starring NFL football star Joe Namath and the sultry Ann-Margret up against bad guy biker William Smith. While the film is big on star power, it is shy a plot. A much more entertaining film is Hells Angels ’69 starring actual members of the Hells Angels including Sonny Barger, and the fun to watch Terry the Tramp. The bank heist plotline is pretty silly, but the Angels look good roaring down the California and Nevada highways.
Other biker movies that tried to cash in on the media blitz of evil biker articles included The Losers, Angel Unchained, and Bury Me An Angel. But none of the slew of cycle cinema could capture the big bucks at the box-office nor the style and sense of freedom found in Easy Rider.
As the flower power psychedelic ’60’s and chopper ridin’ ’70’s made way for the Harley Evolution motor of the ’80’s, doctors and lawyers and other Yuppie Riders made their mark on the two-wheeled culture. At the same time, the world of the One-Percenter continued to expand across the seas and outlaw bikers went worldwide.
To be continued…