Something a bit different for the weekend.
I’ve just finished reading Tony Thompson’s book Outlaws, which tells the story of Britain’s Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs. It is, as you would expect, packed with stories of biking, boozing and brawling but it also tells how, over the past four decades, gangs of freewheelin’ street-corner rebels have become highly sophisticated international organisations. If you have ever been involved with motorbikes you will probably find this book interesting but, even for those not familiar with the biker world, it is still a fascinating sociological study. The bikers might seem like the epitome of screw-the-world rebellion but their clubs have been shaped by the same forces as any other organisation; forces which have caused some to grow into multinationals and consigned others to oblivion.
For those unfamiliar with the biker scene, one motorcycle club probably looks pretty much like any other. There are, however, some important differences. Whether you abbreviate your motorcycle club name as MC or MCC makes a statement. In MCCs, the majority of motorcycle clubs, provided you meet the membership criteria, you just turn up, pay your subs and you’re in. The MCs, also known as outlaw, one percenter or back patch clubs, are different. They are hardcore organisations which demand total commitment. If you were to turn up to join your local MC, even if they liked you and you had the right bike and the right attitude, it would probably be three years or so before you’d become a full member. Most clubs have a two stage probationary period designed to weed out those without the necessary commitment. That’s why their three-piece back patches are so important to them. They take years to earn. This advice to members from a firefighters motorcycle club explains the whole thing in more detail.
Thompson’s book is based largely on the testimony of a former MC member who agreed to talk to him on condition of anonymity. He is referred to by the pseudonym Boon throughout the book. Thompson, a former Observer crime correspondent, fills in the background with his own research. The result is a three-layered story; of Boon and his club, the Warwickshire Pagans; of the British MCs and of the incorporation of bike clubs worldwide into huge international organisations.
Outlaws covers a lot of ground, from the 1960s, when Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs first appeared in the UK, to the present. It takes in most of the legendary biker battles, from the 1970 confrontation on Chelsea Bridge to the bloody scrap at Birmingham Airport in 2008. Perhaps inevitably, as it relied so much on the recollections of one man, the book came under attack almost as soon as it was published. Reviewers on a number of websites, some of them bike club members aggrieved at the way they had been portrayed, challenged Thompson’s version of events. Questions about who did what to whom, who was scared of whom and who won or lost are, no doubt, of interest to those who were there at the time but they don’t detract from the overall picture. Even if some of the details are wrong, the broad sweep of the story, the steady amalgamation of the MCs into ever larger organisations, is corroborated by pretty much everything else I have read and been told.
Go back to the late 60s and nearly every small town and suburb had its own gang of Hells Angels or other outfits with similarly satanic names. According to this hippy memoir there was even a Richmond chapter! Much of the blame, or credit, for this must go to Hunter Thompson (no relation to Tony, I believe), who spent time with the California Hells Angels and, in 1966, wrote a book about them. It goes into some detail about the rules and protocols of the Angels and the book was used by British bikers as manual for organising and structuring their new clubs. According to some former MC members interviewed by the Leicester Mercury a couple of years ago, it was Hunter Thompson’s book that got them started. Anyone wanting to join the club had to have read it before being considered for membership, presumably to understand what they were letting themselves in for.
Over the course of the 70s, most of the MCs gave up or were closed down by others until each county and major city was left with one dominant club. Only in the largest cities was there room for more than one. As teenagers growing up in the Midlands and hanging round the punk and heavy-metal haunts, we knew who they were, if only by reputation. In Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, the Mofos, with two chapters, were the main MC. In Derbyshire it was the Road Tramps, in Warwickshire, the Pagans, in Wolverhampton, the Wolvos, in Birmingham, the Cycle Tramps and in Leicestershire, the Ratae. That last one always impressed me. At the time, I thought naming a bike gang after Leicester’s Roman name showed class.
During the 1970s, the Hells Angels, the first of the MCs to go international, began to sign up those British clubs it considered worthy of the name as official Angel chapters. This process is known as patching over. They also started breaking up those clubs who were using their name without permission. Tony Thompson recounts this in some detail and explains the impact it had on the other clubs. Fearing that they would be absorbed or closed down, many of them amalgamated into regional and then national organisations. A few brave and stubborn clubs clung to their independence and a handful still exist. Most, though, became part of larger outfits. What happened in the Midlands demonstrates the process. Of the aforementioned clubs, all except one are now part of international organisations. The Mofos and Wolvos became Hells Angels and the Cycle Tramps, Pagans and Road Tramps became part of the rival Outlaws. The Ratae were dissolved when most of their senior members were sent to jail.
Because Outlaws focuses so much on one man’s story, many of the things that happen look as though they are the result of decisions taken at certain critical points which, had things been different, might have led to different outcomes. For example, if the Midland Outlaws had changed their name, as the Hells Angels asked them to do, they might never have become involved with the American Outlaws and might never have been dragged into that club’s long-running feud with the Angels.
Possibly. But probably not. The process by which local bike gangs have become part of these international clubs is similar in every country in Europe and in many other parts of the world too. In all probability, in some way, the big global bike clubs would have become established in Britain, just as they have everywhere else.
And that’s what really struck me about this book. The story focuses on the individual and local but the forces shaping it were global. The parallels with the corporate world are striking. Organisations trying to maintain their independence but realising they can only do so by amalgamating with others or outgrowing takeover by taking others over. A few manage to survive as small operations but many go to the wall or are swallowed up by the big boys. Over time, the organisations that are left become fewer, larger and more sophisticated. In short, it is a story of globalisation and corporatisation.
That’s why I find the bike clubs so fascinating. Something that has its roots in California’s laid back counter-culture has developed its own strict sets of rules and standards of behaviour which are now enforced internationally among thousands of members. In the space of a few decades, the chaotic rebels portrayed in this 1973 documentary have become part of global organisations with a hierarchies, ranks and grades. They have started to behave like corporations too. The Hells Angels are the Coca Cola of the MC world; an international operation with brand recognition almost everywhere. Their logo is trademarked and they are every bit as litigious as Apple and Microsoft when it comes to protecting it. They have sued, among others, Walt Disney and MTV and, in 2010, forced Alexander McQueen to recall and destroy all the products it had sold which featured the club’s insignia.
The MC bike clubs have changed a lot over the last 40 years. They are certainly very different from the ones I remember from the early 1980s. These days, they even count the odd BBC reporter and Tory councillor among their members. The big bike clubs often have national and international conventions. The Hells Angels had theirs last weekend in Cardiff. I had always assumed the main activities at these events centred around bands, bike races and booze. But I can’t help wondering if, nowadays, they have presentations and PowerPoint slides too.