Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Who Were the Hell’s Angels?

Seven million soldiers, sailors, and flyboys stationed overseas came home from World War II in the late 1940s. Re-integrating into the society they had left years ago to fight wars against Japan and Germany was difficult. They had learned to live with death (300,000 of their comrades) and danger but were expected to settle down and live quiet, conventional pre-war lives. Buying a motorcycle and joining a club gave military veterans a new way to fill their need for adventure, excitement, danger, and feel a bond with other motorcycling veterans. But it wouldn’t be long before motorcyclists gained a reputation as wild men.

The army gave a huge boost to motorcycling

They sold more than 100,000 surplus army motorcycles cheaply just as the G.I.s were coming home. These military motorcycles were vastly superior to the civilian motorcycles of the day because they had to handle the kind of use and abuse all military machinery was subject to in war.

The Hollister Riot

Hollister, California held motorcycle races every July 4th in their quiet little town of 4,500 law-abiding citizens. Hundreds of motorcyclists from around the county were welcome each year because they were well-behaved and spent money with local businesses. In 1947, Hollister was overwhelmed when 4,000 bikers showed up, ten times as many as had been expected. 

Many say this too-big-to-manage bunch was quickly out of control, drunken men driving recklessly, fighting, and smashing things. Wikipedia says 60 people were injured and 50 bikers were arrested. Others say the media sensationalized a minor incident because most of the bikers were well-behaved. Jalopnik says the incident has been marked by a few facts and a lot of story-telling. A few people claim this photo from Hollister was staged.

Several sources say the American Motorcycle Association reacted to the Hollister Riot by urging the public to not condemn all motorcycle riders for the actions of one small group. Association spokesmen (and they were men) said 99% of motorcyclists are good, upright, honest people and only 1% are drunks, thugs, and criminals. Outlaw bikers adopted the insult as a badge of honor, calling themselves “one percenters” ever since.  

The Hollister Riot was fictionalized and sensationalized in film

One 1953 film cemented the image of motorcyclists as outlaws. In The Wild One, the leader of the motorcycle gang was played by tough guy Marlon Brando. He and his gang rode into a small town, got loud, drunk, and reckless, interfered with the local goings on, and made lots of trouble. You can watch it on YouTube.

Brando’s famous dark and brooding persona was established in The Wild One

Brando played the lead character, Johnny Strabler, as rough and tough (“Nobody tells me what to do”), but with the sensitive side that women fall for in films. 

Hunter Thompson was a gonzo journalist

He was a writer who favored first-person participatory journalism with him at the center of the story. His contempt for authority is well-documented and can be described by his often telling people “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

In 1967, Thompson spent a year living among and riding with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang 

If he had been an anthropologist, the book he wrote about it would have been an ethnography, with him as a participant observer. His first full-length book was about these experiences and was titled Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. The Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang took their name from a World War II Flying Fortress crew known for their heroism and daring.

The B-17 bomber crew took their name from the 1930 Howard Hughes film Hell’s Angels.

The National Air and Space Museum says that Hell’s Angels is considered one of the great early aviation films, in part because it featured authentic aerial combat scenes.

Here is the opening paragraph of Thompson’s Hell’s Angels book:

“California, Labor Day weekend . . . early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur . . . The Menace is loose again.”

Penguin Random House said the book “successfully captures a singular moment in American history, when the biker lifestyle was first defined, and when such countercultural movements were electrifying and horrifying America.”

The U.K.’s Far Out Magazine described it like this: “Thompson’s non-fictional account depicted the gang as built around an image of lawlessness, hedonism, and violence. But the media’s depiction was often exaggerated, because the gang mostly consisted of lost causes, a doomed subclass with limited prospects looking for purpose and a sense of belonging.”

Leo Litwak, book reviewer for The New York Times, had this to say about Hell’s Angels: “For more than a year, Thompson accompanied the Hell’s Angels on their rallies. He drank at their bars, exchanged home visits, recorded their brutalities, viewed their sexual caprices, became converted to their motorcycle mystique, and became so involved that, as he puts it, ‘I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.’ The ambiguity of his position was ended when a group of Angels knocked him to the ground and stomped him,” the Hell’s Angels tradition of beating senseless those who offended them.

San Francisco Weekly described Thompson’s ouster from the Hell’s Angels this way. “Thompson got drunk and stoned with the Angels on the beach, and stuck around when things got ugly – something he had avoided while writing his book. An Angel named Junkie George started beating his wife to a pulp on the rocks. When Junkie George laid into his dog as well, Thompson spoke up. That was all it took for several Angels to start pounding on Thompson’s skull and ribs.”

The Hell’s Angels today?

The United States Department of Justice has designated The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club as an outlaw motorcycle gang. Authorities say the Hell’s Angels “partake in drug trafficking, gunrunning, extortion, money laundering, insurance fraud, kidnapping, robbery, theft, counterfeiting, contraband smuggling, loan sharking, prostitution, trafficking in stolen goods, motorcycle and motorcycle parts, theft, assault, murder, bombings, arson, intimidation, and contract killing.”

Another counterculture motorcycle movie

Twenty-five years after The Wild One, Easy Rider came out. The stars were Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and a young Jack Nicholson. This counterculture film portrayed an attitude and a way of life that ignored the prevailing social norms. Roger Ebert said Easy Rider was a road picture and a buddy picture that celebrated sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and the freedom of the open road.

Film historians say when the Easy Rider actors were smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, and tripping on acid on film, they were ingesting the real things, per director Dennis Hopper’s insistence on realism. Also, the budget didn’t allow for a musical score, so Hopper put together his own soundtrack of rock ’n’ roll standards. He carefully selected the songs to be musical commentary that ran throughout the film. The LA Times said “Easy Rider not only helped defline the counter culture, but also revolutionized the idea of what a movie soundtrack was, rejecting the traditional orchestra in favor of a hip ‘song score.’” Perhaps the best known song from Easy Rider is Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild, and you can hear it here on YouTube as you watch the opening clip from the film.

The United States Library of Congress selected Easy Rider for preservation in the National Film Registry because it was culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.


Brando had a profound effect on James Dean and Elvis Presley. Both of them copied his intense, angry, brooding, snarling, swaggering, black-leather-jacket-wearing, hell-bent-for destruction, and God’s-gift-to-women personality. So have heroes and anti-heroes ever since.

Leader of the Pack is a 1964 song by The Shangri-Las. It tells the story of a 16-year-old girl’s angst over her motorcycling bad boy. You can watch the music video here. Studio engineers recorded the sound of a technician’s Harley-Davidson parked outside by hanging a microphone out the window on a cable that reached the street. Some say the session piano player was a 15-year-old Billy Joel.

Harleys hadn’t become the symbol of outlaw motorcycle gangs yet, so if you know your bikes, here’s a photo of Marlon Brando on the Triumph Thunderbird he rode in The Wild One.

Want to read more stories like this? Click here for the LetsTakeACloserLook home page 


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.