Leader of the pack

The Rise of Teen Tragedy Songs

Leader of the pack
Ron Case/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The motorcycle has long been synonymous with disenfranchised youth. The influential 1953 film The Wild One, which starred Marlon Brando as the young leader of a California biker gang, helped permanently shape the look and attitude of the pop-culture motorcyclist. Given the film's success, it was only a matter of time before record labels took notice. In 1955, the classic songwriting duo Lieber and Stoller penned the Cheers' "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots," a song inspired by biker culture. Despite being about a motorcyclist who crashes his bike into a diesel truck, the song became a worldwide smash single, and the "teenage tragedy song" was born.

Singles like Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss" and Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" maintained this sad pop genre's popularity, but the teenage tragedy song really hit its peak in 1964 with the Shangri-La's legendary "Leader of the Pack." Named one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, "Leader" tells the story of a teenage girl named Betty who disobeys her parents by falling in love with Jimmy, a biker from "the wrong side of the tracks." She finally gives in and tells the leader of the pack that they're through. Jimmy speeds off angrily into the rainy night, and despite Betty's pleas to slow down, he crashes and dies.

Not exactly feel-good stuff, but "Leader of the Pack" was cloaked in enough sugary-sweet melodies and top-notch production to catapult it to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. The Shangri-La's became the laureates of the teenage tragedy thanks to hits like "Out in the Streets," "Dressed in Black" and "I Can Never Go Home Anymore," but by 1968, the girl group had disbanded. Their influence continued to resonate through the decades, however: Everyone from Blondie to the Jesus and Mary Chain to post-2000s girl group-inspired bands like Vivian Girls have cited them as an influence.

The Wild Angels Soundtrack

Davie Allen and The Arrows

The Wild Angels
American International Pictures/American International Pictures/Getty Images

Three cutting-edge guitarists sum up the sound of their respective scene in the 1960s: the surfers had Dick Dale, the garage bands had Link Wray and the bikers had Davie Allan. In the mid-Sixties, inspired by the growth of the real Hells Angels, legendary (and infamous) movie producer Roger Corman hired a session guitarist named Davie Allan to score a handful of quickie motorcycle and hotrods films he was producing. What Corman didn't count on was Allan and his backing band, the Arrows, creating music that would long outlive the cheapo films.

Allan's instrumentals were similar to Link Wray's and Dick Dale's, but his songs had a lot more fuzz, a lot more Morricone and a lot more attitude. It was on The Wild Angels — a Corman-directed Peter Fonda biker flick that preceded Easy Rider — that Allan and his Arrows crafted their biggest hit, "Blues Theme." The instrumental wound up on the Billboard Top 40. Allan went on to score several more films in the biker genre, including Devil's Angels, The Glory Stompers, The Born Losers and the documentary Teenage Rebellion.

While the films themselves are all but forgotten now — good luck getting finding them on Netflix — Allan's scores inspired filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who used the Arrows' "Devil's Rumble" in Inglourious Basterds, and Jim Jarmusch ("Cycle-Delic" in Night on Earth). By the late Sixties, though, Allan was out, and Steppenwolf were in. The guitarist continued to release music throughout the next few decades without the Arrows, and Allan still performs live to this day.

John Bonham’s Wild Ride

The Chateau Marmont

John Bonham’s Wild Ride
Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Led Zeppelin's tours were infamous for leaving a trail of ruptured eardrums and destroyed hotel rooms in their wake. There is the legend of the Mudshark, which may or may not have actually happened. And then there's the classic tale about Led Zeppelin's first visit to Los Angeles in December 1968. During this trip, drummer John Bonham allegedly rode a Harley-Davidson — his 25th birthday present — up and down the halls of L.A.'s most famous hotel, the Chateau Marmont.

Like the Mudshark incident, this story was never confirmed, although if the Zeppelin history book Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin is correct, Bonham's hallway motorcycle ride is probably the least debauched activity he participated in during his stay at the Marmont. (Bonzo also supposedly rode his hog through the lobbies of the Continental Hyatt House and the Andez West Hollywood hotels.)

Whether or not the Marmont motorcycle incident is fiction, we know one thing: Bonham was an avid fan of the two-wheel vehicles, and he collected antique motorcycles and other automobiles. Bonham's son, Jason, established the John Bonham Memorial Motorcycle Camp for Kids, which offers lessons to underprivileged youths.

John Bonham’s Wild Ride
Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda

Easy Rider
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No one could have predicted that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's small budget B-film Easy Rider — fueled by motorcycles, LSD and amazing music — would have redefined pop culture. It's impossible to think about the film without the opening riff of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" echoing in your head; rarely in cinema had a film and its soundtrack been so equally groundbreaking. While Easy Rider was an immense success commercially and culturally (and inspired an entire genre and a hundred knockoffs), the impact of the soundtrack was nearly revolutionary.

"The idea was to have the music which accompanies the cross-country cycling scenes reflect current times," Fonda told Rolling Stone in 1969. By compiling prerecorded tracks and music specifically created for the film to make a "musical commentary" and companion to the movie, Easy Rider's soundtrack laid the blueprint for Michelangelo Antonioni's Pink Floyd-led Zabriske Point the following year and nearly every classic film soundtrack of the next four decades, from Singles to Forrest Gump to Drive.

The soundtrack paints a portrait of the counterculture on the brink of the Seventies: Steppenwolf's get-on-your-bike-and-ride anthem "Born to Be Wild" and bluesy dealer epic "The Pusher," alongside classic cuts from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Holy Modal Rounders and the Byrds (whose Roger McGuinn also scored the film). As the story goes, Bob Dylan was recruited by Peter Fonda to pen the film's theme "Ballad of Easy Rider," and after jotting out a few lines, told the actor to give the lyrics to McGuinn to flesh out.

Motorcycle Mama

Sailcat and Neil Young

Motorcycle Mama
Dick Barnatt/ Getty Images

Easy Rider was a box office hit, and Sailcat's "Motorcycle Mama," a track inspired by the film, turned into a Billboard smash as well. Sailcat formed in Alabama in 1971 and featured Muscle Shoals veteran Johnny Wyker along with Court Pickett. The group quickly signed with Elektra Records and promptly rewarded the label when "Motorcycle Mama" became AM Gold. The song was popular enough to earn Sailcat a performance on American Bandstand. As the chorus goes, "Be the queen of my highway, my motorcycle mama, we'll the world from my Harley."

"Motorcycle Mama" was actually the title track of an album of the same name. The single was part of a concept album that revolved around an Easy Rider-like character who's tired of the road and just wants to settle down. With songs like "Highway Rider/Highway Riff" and "Ambush," the album also documents the adventures the biker encounters along the way, all to the sound of Sailcat's soft country-rock tunes. The title track eventually hit Number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, while the LP peaked at Number 38 on the Billboard 200.

Despite the success of "Motorcycle Mama," Sailcat never greenlighted a sequel: The band soon called it quits, motoring them right into one-hit wonder territory. And the single's popularity wasn't enough to deter Neil Young from recording his own song called "Motorcycle Mama" for his 1978 album Comes a Time. Which means somewhere, Neil Young has a barn roof made out of 200,000 vinyl records with "Motorcycle Mama" on them.

Advertisement

Meet Paul Yaffe from Biker Battleground

PREMIERES TUES JULY 1st 10/9c

Meet Paul Yaffe from Biker Battleground

Meet one of the top motorcycle builders from HISTORY’s newest nonfiction series, Biker Battleground: Phoenix.

The Motorcycle Movie Craze

Marvin Gaye, Chicago and More

The Motorcycle Movie Craze
Everett Collection

In the wake of the box office and culture-shifting success of Easy Rider, every production studio from Hollywood to Bollywood attempted to copycat the film with quickie knockoffs in the 1970s. With so many roles to fill, producers recruited musicians looking to make the jump to the silver screen. Marvin Gaye made his first and only theatrical appearance in the 1971 biker revenge flick Chrome & Hot Leather, about a Green Beret who seeks retribution against the biker gang that killed his fiancée.

In 1973, four members of the band Chicago — Peter Cetera, Terry Kath, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider — made brief appearances in the Robert Blake-starring cult flick Electra Glide in Blue. (Electra Glide's director was Grammy-winning producer James William Guercio, who also produced the band's debut LP The Chicago Transit Authority.) Chicago also appeared on the film's soundtrack. Similarly, Easy Rider's spiritual cousin Two Lane Blacktop — which replaced motorcycles with GTOs — starred James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.

Musicians weren't just getting involved onscreen in these biker flicks; they also used these films to get some scoring experience. Queen's Brian May lent his talents to the score for 1979's Mad Max and the Monkees' Michael Nesmith crafted the music for 1976's outlaw biker film Northville Cemetery Massacre.

While these biker flicks were made quickly and on the cheap, they remained relevant decades later. One such film, a 1976 Japanese biker film dubbed God Speed You! Black Emperor later served as the titular inspiration for the Quebec post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Bat Out of Hell

Meatloaf

Bat Out of Hell
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Meat Loaf's 1977 landmark LP Bat Out of Hell is one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and boasts some of the most iconic use of motorcycles in music history. The title track, "Bat Out of Hell," was inspired by those "teenage tragedy songs" of the mid-Sixties, and songwriter Jim Steinman cited the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" as a chief influence. "I'm gonna hit the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike. When the metal is hot, and the engine is hungry and we're all about to see the light," Meat Loaf sings on the cut, which tells the story of ill-fated love and a motorcycle accident.

Studio wizard Todd Rundgren both produced and played guitar on Bat Out of Hell, and is responsible for the famed "motorcycle solo" that tears through the opening title track. As Steinman explains, there was a gap in "Bat Out of Hell" that he wanted to fill with motorcycle sound effects. Rundgren instead replicated that noise using only his guitar. "Is it a Yamaha, a Kawasaki or a Harley-Davidson," Rundgren jokingly asked Steinman before crafting the effect in one take, a stunt which countless guitarists would attempt to copy. "You hear it rev up, you hear the motor, you hear the fire coming out of it," Steinman said.

And of course, there's that famous album cover, created by comic book legend and Will Eisner Award Hall of Famer Richard Corben, a renowned artist who drew for Heavy Metal magazine. While the album art for the '77 LP featured our hero and his motorcycle escaping a graveyard in purgatory, the cover of the 1993 sequel Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell, painted by sci-fi great Michael Whelan, shows the bike eagerly approaching the giant bat perched atop the Chrysler Building.

Ghost Rider & Gypsy Biker

Suicide and Bruce Springsteen

Ghost Rider & Gypsy Biker
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Created in 1972, Ghost Rider was the most badass superhero in the Marvel Universe, with his leather jacket and spiked gloves, low rider motorcycle and skull engulfed in hellfire. The story of the crime-fighting stunt motorcyclist once named Johnny Blaze who sells his soul to Satan spawned countless comic book issues, two cult Nicolas Cage films and, in 1977, an influential song by a New York proto-punk duo called Suicide.

Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, "Ghost Rider" singlehandedly bridged the gap between punk and New Wave. With its pulverizing bass line and synthesizer stabs, the album-opening track announces its arrival like a cavalry of Triumphs roaring into town. The lyrics are simple, but as sung by Alan Vega, they sum up the angst of the Marvel hero: "Ghost Rider, motorcycle hero/Baby, baby, baby, he's screamin' the truth." Suicide would later land on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Suicide didn't just lay the groundwork for the synthpop and electroclash genres that followed; Bruce Springsteen, upon hearing "Frankie Teardrop," was inspired to pen the track "State Trooper" for his stark, desolate Nebraska. Thirty years after Suicide's "Ghost Rider," Springsteen wrote his own song about a motorcyclist, "Gypsy Biker," which was released on his 2007 album Magic. "We pulled your cycle up back the garage and polished up the chrome. Our gypsy biker coming home," Springsteen sings in this heartbreaking track about an army vet's funeral.

Quadrophenia

The Who

Quadrophenia
Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Turf wars between biker gangs are commonplace in motorcycle lore. In the United Kingdom, the mods and the rockers fought for possession of the streets in the early 1960s. Mods, named because they were assumed to be "modern jazz" fans, were Vespa-riding beatniks who drank coffee and were devoted to bands that worshipped the R&B and blues music in America. Rockers, meanwhile, were more typical of the bikers found in American movies like The Wild One. Rockers preferred Triumphs and Tritons and straight-up rock & roll.

Mods typically were more affluent than their rocker counterparts, wearing suits rather than the rockers' leather jackets. In the early Sixties, these two groups frequently clashed, though England's press often exaggerated the altercations. Still, it was this cultural rift that set the scene for the Who's 1973 classic Quadrophenia.

The Who's Tommy had Tommy, and Quadrophenia had Jimmy, a young Mod who — over the course of Pete Townshend's narrative — becomes disenchanted with the scene and his life in general. The double album, one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest, only tangentially deals with the mod vs. rocker beef; Quadrophenia the 1979 film based on the Who's album, puts the friction between the two scenes in the forefront, culminating in riotous behavior in the town of Brighton.

While the album itself is held in higher regard than the film, and more people can recite the lyrics of "5:15" or "Love Reign O'er Me" than tell you who starred in the film (it was actor Phil Daniels, who later lent his voice to Blur's "Parklife"), Quadrophenia the film is likely the only movie based on an album that has perfect 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (A Hard Day's Night comes close with 99 percent, Tommy scored 76 percent and Purple Rain tallied a 74 percent.)

Purple Rain

Prince

Purple Rain
Everett Collection

Four years after Billy Joel rode his motorcycle in the rain, Prince rode his motorcycle in Purple Rain. In the 1984 semi-autobiographical film, Prince portrays "The Kid," a purple-motorcycle-riding young musician in Minnesota who's similar to Peter Fonda's Captain America in Easy Rider: He's a man of few words, misunderstood, prone to fits of violence, and as Neil Young would sing a half-decade later, an "unknown legend" in their own time.

Purple Rain topped the Billboard 200 in 1984 and has sold more than 13 million copies, which means that iconic album cover (Prince sitting atop his motorcycle, bathed in a purple fog and surrounded by what looks like floral wallpaper) might be the most popular motorcycle-related image in music history. In the film, Prince takes his love interest Apollonia on a purple motorcycle ride to purify her in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. The bike also serves as comic relief when Prince strands a soaked Apollonia at the water's edge for a few minutes. "Don't get the seat wet," Prince jokes before giving Apollonia a ride back to the Twin Cities.

"I put her on the back of my bike and we went riding down to old man Johnson's farm," Prince would later sing on "Raspberry Beret." Prince's motorcycle obsession, coupled with "Little Red Corvette" and the entire Purple Rain soundtrack in general, likely inspired The-Dream to pen the fantastic Prince rip-off "Yahama" 25 years later.

1984 also brought us Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher," and with it, drummer Alex Van Halen's famed near-perfect impersonation of a motorcycle sputtering using just a double bass drum and fills.

Purple Rain
Everett Collection

Advertisement

Dierks Bentley
“Ride On” Music Video

PREMIERES TUES JULY 1st 10/9c

Dierks Bentley “Ride On” Music Video

Watch this behind-the-scenes video of Dierks Bentley recording “Ride On,” the featured track for the Biker Battleground: Phoenix campaign.

Kickstart my Heart & Motorcycle

Mötley Crüe and Love & Rockets

Kickstart my Heart & Motorcycle
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It's easy to mistake Mötley Crüe's 1989 smash single "Kickstart My Heart," with its revving guitars and need-for-speed lyrics, as another song indebted to motorcycles. While the track makes a few references to bikes — and has soundtracked everything from car commercials on TV to chase scenes in movies — the song is really about something much darker.

Despite lyrics about motorcycles, funny cars and sky-diving naked, the song is actually Nikki Sixx's ode to the two adrenaline shots that literally kickstarted his heart after a drug overdose in 1987. "Always got the cops coming after me, custom-built bike going 103," Vince Neil sings on the cut. Like Todd Rundgren on "Bat Out of Hell" a decade earlier, Crüe guitarist Mick Mars managed to turn his instrument into what sounds like a motorcycle shifting gears. As the story goes, Sixx was clinically dead before his heart was kickstarted. At least the traumatic experience inspired one of the band's greatest hits.

While "Kickstart My Heart" merely alludes to motorcycles, Love and Rockets' song "Motorcycle," also released in 1989, is truly about its subject matter. The layered guitars on the track make it sound like a biker gang congregating as the stomping drum orders them into formation. The song's lyrics, while simple, confess a love of the vehicle and the act of riding: "Me and the motorcycle, me and the motorbike/We just running around, my feet are off the ground, she's not gonna let me down." The music video is equally simple but effective: nearly four minutes of motorcycle imagery through the prospective of a lava lamp.

You could be mine

Guns N' Roses and Terminator 2

You could be mine
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle". And with that line, spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger early in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, audiences were catapulted into the most badass motorcycle scene the silver screen had seen since Easy Rider. It became one of the most iconic cinematic images of the early Nineties: Arnold in full leather regalia cruising down the L.A. River on a Harley Davidson Fat Boy, shotgun in hand, aiming at a truck. The song forever tethered to that scene: Guns N' Roses' "You Could Be Mine."

In what was one of the coolest cross-promotions of its era, Terminator 2 linked up with Guns N' Roses' recently released Use Your Illusion I & II to create one amazing music video. Using clips from the film — including the legendary chopper vs. semi-truck scene — we follow the Terminator as he pursues a new target: GN'R.

Finding the band in concert, the Terminator stalks the crowd and watches the band perform "You Could Be Mine." After the song fades, there is a bonus scene where the Terminator finds the band outside the venue and prepares to assassinate Axl Rose, but his mainframe determines that this would be "a waste of ammo."

"You Could Be Mine" was also used twice in the film itself: Angsty teen protagonist John Connor listens to the track early in the movie, and it returns during the end credits. In another iconic scene from T2, the Terminator is seen pulling a rifle out of a long box of roses: literally guns and roses.

Rob Halford’s
Famous Rides

Judas Priest

Rob Halford&quote;s Famous Rides
Fin Costello/Redferns

Heavy metal gods Judas Priest celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, and the motorcycle has served as a major motif for the band nearly that entire time, from their trademark leather outfits to the metal saw motorcycle on the cover of Painkiller to, most famously, singer Rob Halford's concert entrance. Every gig, Halford comes riding out onstage on a Harley-Davidson.

According to Halford, the idea to bring a motorcycle onstage came in 1978 when the act was touring behind Killing Machine, featuring the track "Hell Bent for Leather," which ultimately inspired Halford's leather-and-studs wardrobe and biker entrance.

However, the famous arrival took a dark turn in August 1991 when Halford inadvertently drove the Harley into an elevated drum riser during a concert in Toronto. Halford remained unconscious for about three minutes while the band finished "Hell Bent for Leather" without him. He eventually came to and remarkably, despite a broken nose, performed the rest of the show. It'd be his last Judas Priest show for over a decade though: After going to the hospital that night, Halford flew back to England. A few days later, he quit Judas Priest by fax.

Twenty years after the Toronto accident — and following a 11-year hiatus from Judas Priest — Halford was involved in another onstage motorcycle incident, falling off his bike during a concert in Brazil. Halford wasn't hurt this time around, but he was probably pretty embarrassed.

Unknown Legend

Neil Young

Unknown Legend
Fin Costello/Redferns

Neil Young may be known for his electric cars and model trains, but he also has some great motorcycle-inspired tracks in his immense catalog. In 1992, 15 years after recording Comes a Time's "Motorcycle Mama," Neil Young opened up his rootsy LP Harvest Moon with a song that truly captured the feeling of riding on the open road. While many motorcycle tracks are soaked in testosterone and charged guitars, Young's tale is a sweet and delicate portrait of a female biker.

"Somewhere on a desert highway, she rides a Harley-Davidson, her long blonde hair flying in the wind," Young sings on the chorus. "She's been running half her life/The chrome and steel she rides colliding with the very air she breathes." The song tells the story of a restless waitress and the tug-of-war between riding free and planting roots. The music video takes this story and expands on it with Young himself singing the track in a diner along the famed Route 66.

"Unknown Legend," inspired by Neil's wife Pegi Young, was once a mainstay in Young's concert set lists, including a particularly breathtaking rendition during Young's MTV Unplugged performance. However, Neil hasn't played the song live since 2008, the same year "Unknown Legend" was covered by TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe in the film Rachel Getting Married.

Ruff Ryders' Anthem

DMX

Ruff Ryders' Anthem
Scott Gries/ImageDirect

In May 1998, Yonkers rapper DMX dropped a biker anthem for a new generation thanks to its mesmerizing beat and mantra, "That's how Ruff Ryders roll." From the moment the "Ruff Ryders Anthem" video fades in, you can see how biker culture had changed since the Easy Rider days: Instantly, we're introduced to a helmetless rider on a pimped-out bike popping a wheelie on the highway.

DMX never actually gets on a hog, opting to deliver his verses from atop a school bus and the prison yard, but the "Ruff Ryders Anthem" video concludes in the middle of a huge inner-city biker rally. Thanks to its earworm beat (courtesy of then-unknown producer Swizz Beatz), the song became a surprise hit. When "Anthem" was first released, it was as a B-side on DMX's "Slippin'" single. However, "Anthem" managed to outshine the A-side and ended up becoming the rapper's most memorable hit.

Like the motorcyclists in the "Ruff Ryders Anthem" video, DMX has a knack for driving recklessly: For a Rolling Stone profile in 2000, DMX took writer Touré on a joyride in an Escalade through the streets of Los Angeles that featured death-defying 180-degree turns and other traffic violations. To top it all off, the rapper was motoring around with a suspended driver's license at the time. In 2013 alone, DMX was arrested four times in South Carolina for a litany of reckless driving, DUI and driving under suspension charges. But that's how Ruff Ryders roll.

Advertisement

Check out Biker Battleground: Phoenix

PREMIERES TUES JULY 1st 10/9c

Check out Biker Battleground: Phoenix

Watch this promo for HISTORY’s newest nonfiction series, Biker Battleground: Phoenix, featuring the custom track “Ride On” by Dierks Bentley.

Return of the Biker Movie

Kid Rock and Ice Cube

Return of the Biker Movie
Everett Collection

In the early 2000s, the spirit of Easy Rider was back in cinemas. Except instead of the open road and classic rock, these renegade bikers were speeding through the streets of major cities to a hip-hop and nü-metal soundtrack. Where Peter Fonda once found freedom on his Captain America bike on Southern U.S. highways, the new millennium saw Ice Cube barreling through an empty Los Angeles after midnight on a Triumph Daytona searching for his own brand of liberation.

This biker flick renaissance — and we use the term loosely, because these films were mostly critically maligned — came in the wake of pimped-out-car movies like Gone in 60 Seconds and The Fast and the Furious, with producers deciding to replace the four-wheel vehicles with the two-wheel variety. And like the quickie biker flicks of the 1970s, these films also served as a platform for musicians looking to act. Biker Boyz arrived first in January 2003, and while it was a box office disaster, it provided Kid Rock with one of his first feature film roles as Dogg, a motorcycle street racer trying to stake his claim as South Cali's best.

A year later, Torque arrived with Ice Cube, Onyx's Fredro Starr and Christina Milian in the cast. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers gave Torque just one star when the film hit theaters in January 2004, calling it a "quick-buck fusion" of The Fast and the Furious and Biker Boyz. Ice Cube portrayed the leader of the Reapers biker gang in the drama helmed by music video director Joseph Kahn, who was behind the camera for a pair of DMX videos but surprisingly not "Ruff Ryders Anthem."

After both Biker Boyz and Torque barely recouped their production budgets at the box office, the biker flick revival quickly tapered off.

Biker Rock Renaissance

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and
the Raveonettes

Biker Rock Renaissance
Wendy Redfern/Redferns

While "Ruff Ryders Anthem" and Biker Boyz showed the mainstream how the hip-hop community had adopted and shaped their own motorcycle culture, two bands that exploded onto the rock scene in the early '00s once again conjured up memories of the 1953 classic biker film The Wild One: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Raveonettes.

Not only did B.R.M.C. bring back the classic motorcyclist look, their band name was even borrowed from the biker gang Marlon Brando and his Triumph Thunderbird belonged to in The Wild One (although they were the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club in the movie). They sounded like the second coming of fuzzed-out noise-pop rockers like the Jesus and Mary Chain and Love and Rockets, who gave us their own "Motorcycle" a decade earlier.

Soon after B.R.M.C. dropped their self-titled debut, Copenhagen's Raveonettes, comprised of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo, arrived with their debut EP Whip It On. "Attack of the Ghost Riders," their breakout hit, was inspired by Ghost Rider, both the Marvel superhero and the Suicide song. (Martin Rev of Suicide would later guest on the band's album Pretty in Black.)

Like the Shangri-La's and the Crystals four decades early, the Raveonettes specialized in the teenage tragedy genre, except backed by a lot more distortion. The cover of the duo's first full album, Chain Gang of Love, featured Wagner and Woo atop motorcycles in full-on Wild One gear, while the album's tagline promises "This Is Whiplash Rock N' Roll."

Biker Rock Renaissance
Wendy Redfern/Redferns

Born this way

Lady Gaga

Born this way
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

In February 2011, a strange motorcycle entered the spotlight on what was then music's biggest stage: The front cover of the much-anticipated new album from Lady Gaga, Born This Way. In the months leading up to its release, every whiff of information about BTW was treated as headline news, whether it was a stray song title, producer credits and of course, the big reveal of the album art. Conceived by photographer Nick Knight, the cover features Lady Gaga fused together with a bike to become a motorcycle minotaur. Gaga's head takes the place of the headlight and her arms form the twin-beam frame of the old-fashioned cruiser.

The cover image shocked fans, which delighted the pop star. "The vision is of me in an endless journey. I am a vehicle. I am a vehicle for all of the ideas," Gaga said of the Motorcycle Monster cover. "And I'm not riding away or towards anything, I'm just in [an] endless state of creativity."

With arena-rock-leaning tracks like "Yoü and I," "Heavy Metal Lover," and "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" on the album, it wasn't surprising that Gaga leaned toward the Judas Priest spectrum of biker culture for her album art. "It's one thing to sing about a motorcycle, and it's another to sing about a unicorn. But when you put your motorcycle song and your unicorn song in the same song? And call it 'Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)'? Now that's a pop visionary," Rob Sheffield wrote in his Rolling Stone review.

Born this way
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Bound 2

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West

Bound 2
Courtesy of Def Jam

Call it Sleazy Rider. In November 2013, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian sat atop a motorcycle and hit the open road — or at least made out in front of a green screen showing expansive images of the West — for the music video for Yeezus' closing track "Bound 2." Directed by Nick Knight, Kanye and Kim treat their motorbike like a softcore porn set, ignoring basic traffic safety as the vehicle itself once again becomes a euphemism for a different activity. Not since Purple Rain has a motorcycle seen so much action. (Knight was also the photographer behind Lady Gaga's motorcycle-centric Born This Way cover)

While the music video was received with rolled eyes, the best thing about "Bound 2" ended up being all the parodies it spawned. There was the Christmas-themed Saturday Night Live sketch that replaced the motorcycle with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, then the South Park gang — which has a long history of teasing West — skewered the video.

But by far the best spoof was "Bound 3," starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. The spoof eviscerated the original music video, but it was later revealed that both West and Kardashian loved "Bound 3" so much so that they reportedly asked Franco and Rogen to perform their take at the Kimye wedding, an invitation the two actors declined.

Team

Lorde

Team
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

Motorcycles have already rolled their way into two of 2014's biggest hits. In the pre-apocalyptic Mad Max-esque music video for Lorde's "Team," several teens engage in a violent game of motorcycle joust. It's like the jousting of medieval times, but horses are replaced with dirt bikes and football pads take the place of chainmail.

And then there's Pharrell Williams' "Come Get It Bae," the singer's follow-up hit to "Happy." On "Bae," Pharrell croons in the chorus, "You wanna ride it, my motorcycle/You've got a license, but you got the right to/Gonna pop a wheelie, don't try too high too/Take it easy on the clutch, 'cause girl I like you." Pharrell, like The-Dream and Prince and many artists before him, is a master of euphemism.

Advertisement

Behind the Scenes of Biker Battleground

PREMIERES TUES JULY 1st 10/9c

Behind the Scenes of Biker Battleground

Check out this sneak peek at HISTORY’s newest nonfiction series, Biker Battleground: Phoenix.

NEXT

Index

Select a moment below