Biker gangs have always held a unique position in our minds – both scary and glamorous, people to be afraid of, but people too cool to ignore.
News reports tell us about grizzled old bikers, throttle in one hand, gun in the other. Films depict idealistic romantics, men seeking a life beyond the constraints of society, a brotherhood of outlaws. But somewhere between the two, is the truth.
For the next four weeks, Bikesure is taking a look through some of the biggest American bike gangs out there, bringing you the story of how they came about, what they’re doing today and finding out where the facts end and the fiction begins.
Week one – Hells Angels.
They weren’t the first, not by a long shot, but the Hells Angels have become, for many, the archetypical motorcycle club. With a legend bolstered by countless films, television shows and books, the Hells Angels occupy a central position in biker culture whether they want to or not.
Formed in 1948 with members who’d broken away from other clubs, like the magnificently named Boozefighters and the Pissed-Off Bastards of Bloomington, the name was taken from one of the early member’s former USAF squadron. The original source of the name was Hell’s Angels, a film about the Royal Flying Corps directed by future obsessive-compulsive crazy billionaire Howard Hughes.
Throughout the 1950s chapters of Hells Angels popped up across California, as well as inspiring the creation of other motorcycle clubs tapping into various American narratives: that of the romanticised outlaw, the tension between individual freedom and military camaraderie, and a fascination with speed.
The possibly apocryphal statement about the 1% of troublemakers making the 99% of law-abiding bikers look bad was the perfect advertising slogan, and the Angels began to develop a notorious reputation as stories of their antics were passed around.
The next big event that pushed the Angels into the public consciousness was the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the club in 1966. After initially writing a magazine article about them, Thompson spent a year hanging out with the San Francisco and Oakland chapters, and the Oakland president Sonny Barger. He finally cut his connection with the Angels after being attacked for chastising a member – known as Junkie George – for beating his wife. Junkie George sounds like a charmer!
While the Angels had been developing a reputation stateside it was Thompson’s book that propelled them to international infamy. Their outlaw mystique (and their drug connections!) meant that people in the music scene and the counterculture wanted to hang out with them. This mutual fascination between musicians and bikers did not end well, with four people dying and many others injured after the Angels were hired to act as security to the Rolling Stones for the gig at the Altamont Speedway in December 1969, an event often seen as the end of the hippy dream of peace and love.
The Angels were also the first motorcycle club to go international. The first overseas chapter had been set up in 1961 in New Zealand. Existing local motorcycle clubs, if they were a good match for the Angels, would be “patched over” and incorporated as Hells Angels.
Two chapters were set up in London in 1969. Since then the Hells Angels have established a presence on six continents. It’s estimated that there are around 230 chapters in 27 countries. In recent years they have attempted to downplay the actions of their members and associates while moving to protect their trademark winged skull symbol through legal action, a somewhat ironic situation for a group the US Department of Justice classifies as an organised crime syndicate.
Next week we’ll be looking at the Bandidos and the Cossacks, two rival gangs who made headlines around the globe last year in their fatal shootout in Texas.