For about a year now, I have been actively working on an original outlaw biker-themed pen-and-paper RPG (tentatively known as Biker World, since it is Powered by the Apocalypse), and since my creative intent was to play out the cultural archetypes and motifs associated with bikers (rather than to capture gritty details of biker lifestyle and motorcycle operation), I've done a lot of research on biker-themed media. What I've discovered was that the contemporary image of a biker was shaped by a sequence of cultural milestones, both fictional and real-life, and this essay is an attempt to present these in a somewhat structured narrative .
The following text is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, with the explicit intent for it to be reproduced on the TV Tropes wiki article Useful Notes / Biker Media.
All biker-themed media are a reflection of the real-life biker subculture, with some works of fiction being truer to the reality than others. While understanding the outlaw motorcycle club culture and its origins will help in understanding biker media, the focus of this essay is on the latter, not the former (the interested reader is referred to Hunter S. Thompson's classic book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs as a good starting point).
The earliest motorcycle clubs (MCs) in the modern sense have been founded in the American Southwest soon after World War II, often by war veterans who had difficulties readjusting to civilian life. The seminal event for bikers' pop-cultural image was the so-called "Hollister riot" in early July 1947, when 4,000 inebriated bikers from different clubs made a ruckus in a tiny Californian town. While nobody was seriously hurt (there was property damage, though), sensationalist media reports blew the event way out of proportions in the public consciousness.
In the aftermath of the event, the American Motorcyclist Association (an NPO that governs most motorcycling clubs in the US since 1924) was quick to distance itself from the rioters. AMA's alleged claim that "99% of motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens" (there are no records of them ever actually saying that) is the origin of the "one-percenter" moniker adopted by those motorcycle clubs who chose to cut ties with AMA in response, becoming the "outlaws".
The most notorious and iconic of these outlaw MCs, the Hells Angels, weren't in Hollister, mainly because they wouldn't even be founded until March of the following year. Reportedly named after a WW2 fighter unit (themselves inspired by Howard Hughes' movie of the same title), the HAMC shot to prominence in the public eye after Thompson published his book in 1967 and are currently among the four largest outlaw MCs in the world.
The Wild One
It took Hollywood six years to dramatize the events of the Hollister riot: The Wild One (1953) starred Marlon Brando (himself an avid motorcyclist) and almost single-handedly established many of the outlaw biker film staples, from the opening shot of outlaws revving down an empty highway and into an unsuspecting town, through their unprovoked and disproportionate aggression, to the iconic Perfecto leather jacket – a personal preference of Brando that has since been adopted by many real-life bikers as a result of the movie's success. It is worth noting, however, that the motorcycle of choice in this movie wasn't a Harley-Davidson, but Brando's own Triumph Thunderbird 6T.
Narratively, The Wild One introduced the power triangle of the Bad Biker (Johnny), the Evil Biker (Chino), and the Upstanding Cop or Veteran (Harry Bleeker) that would become ubiquitous in the biker genre. It also featured all four of the essential biker movie conflicts: power struggles within the club (Johnny and Chino's backstory), rivalry with other clubs (Johnny and Chino in the present), tensions with the police (Johnny and Harry), and latent animosity with ordinary citizens (Johnny vs. the mob).
Exploitation Era (ca. 1966–73)
While The Wild One was a critical and commercial success, the outlaw biker film really took off after the media craze that followed the alleged rape of two women by the Hells Angels in September 1964 in Monterey, California. Thompson's 1967 book (which, in fact, opens with the Angels' account of the Monterey incident) also contributed a lot to bring bikers into the popular consciousness, and the latter half of the decade was arguably the golden age of biker cinema, thanks in no small part to the countercultural movement of the '60s. The quantity-over-quality approach was dominant, however, so the vast majority of the films from this time have been forgettable exploitation movies, dubbed "bikerploitation" by some sources.
"Wild Angels from Motorcycle Hell on Wheels"
The movie that kicked off the biker boom was Roger Corman's The Wild Angels (1966), and over the next few years, it was followed by a cascade of low-budget, formulaic bikerploitation flicks mostly produced by the same four studios: Corman's own American International Pictures, Crown International Pictures, Independent-International Pictures, and Fanfare Film Productions. Many of them shared the actor pool, too, often starring Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Tom Stern, Jeremy Slate, Adam Roarke, or Jack Nicholson in lead roles.
Even more so than The Wild One, these exploitation films have codified the default biker appearance: long unkempt hair (or a completely shaved head), dirty Levi's jeans, a leather jacket or vest (even during scorching Arizona summers), and weird and disturbing paraphernalia (up to and including Nazi iconography). The creative void of these productions is perhaps exemplified by their extremely limited title pool: it's hard to find a movie from this period whose title doesn't include "angel", "wild", "wheels", "(motor)cycle" or "hell".
Ralph Hubert "Sonny" Barger is one of the most prominent apologists of the outlaw biker subculture and a recurring figure in the history of biker media. A founding member and then-president of the Oakland charter of the Hells Angels MC, he was a prominent character in Thompson's book and has consulted on several of the better movies of the Exploitation Era, as well as starring in two of them, Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and Hell's Angels '69 (1969).
Barger was among the Angels at the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and subsequently featured in Gimme Shelter (see below). He also indirectly contributed to Nam's Angels / The Losers (1970), which was reportedly inspired by a telegram he sent to President Johnson in 1965, offering his charter to serve as a guerilla fighters in Vietnam (the President never replied). Finally, in the current True Crime Era, he has played the aging biker Lenny "The Pimp" Janowitz in several episodes of Sons of Anarchy between 2010 and 2012.
One movie stands above the mass of exploitation flicks of the late '60s: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969). While the film focuses on a pair of bikers, they do not belong to an outlaw MC and are presented – in a sharp contrast to most of its contemporary movies – not as feral and disruptive savages, but as sentimental outcasts lamenting the loss of the American spirit. Easy Rider was foundational in establishing this more sympathetic narrative about outlaw bikers, one that positions their lifestyle as a quest for personal freedom and their motorcycles, as means of attaining said freedom.
The film was a countercultural sensation and has won multiple awards. Jimi Hendrix, The Band, The Byrds, and Steppenwolf all contributed to its soundtrack, with the latter's "Born to Be Wild" soon becoming one of two unofficial biker anthems. Finally, Peter Honda's bike from the movie, nicknamed "Captain America", has become an iconic and much-replicated custom chopper design.
Altamont Free Concert
The next watershed event that had informed the popular perception of bikers in general and of Hells Angels in particular was the Altamont Free Concert in December 1969. Intended to recapture the magic of the Woodstock festival earlier that year, Altamont was plagued by bad management calls – in particular, by that of hiring Hells Angels as a security force and paying them upfront in beer.
To no one's surprise, the concert was marred by drunken violence (including against the musicians), but what really capped it off was the fatal stabbing of a student named Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angel Alan Passaro. Hunter was high on methamphetamine and threatened the people around him with a loaded revolver, so Passaro's actions were officially ruled in self-defense, but the damage to the counterculture, to the '60s, and to whatever goodwill Easy Rider managed to garner for bikers half a year earlier had been done. The next year, the whole affair was widely publicized by the documentary Gimme Shelter (1970).
Novelty Era (1970s–1980s)
In many ways, biker flicks of the late '60s followed in the footsteps of the classic Westerns, from adopting a lot of their tropes (outlaw gangs, upright sheriffs, terrorized townsfolk) to their overall trajectory in terms of genre popularity. By the mid-'70s, public interest in biker movies has dropped off sharply, as the freshness of the biker menace wore thin under the barrage of boilerplate formula plots, and in an attempt to keep the audience's attention, film producers began mixing up pure bikerploitation with other genres.
Sexploitation has been part of the biker movies since at least the 1968's The Hellcats / Biker Babes, The Mini-Skirt Mob, and She-Devils on Wheels, and these genres' unholy matrimony continued well into the '90s with Barb Wire (1996).
Horror genre, of course, was a natural fit, given the outlaw bikers' predominant portrayal as terrifying and/or disgusting monsters in film. An early example of this was Werewolves on Wheels (1971).
Perhaps the biggest new lease on cinematic life for the bikers were the dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies, where violent biker gangs became a mandatory staple ever since Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Mad Max (1979).
Finally, the late '80s brought about biker comedy, from the straight up satire of Masters of Menace (1990), through romantic comedy of Easy Wheels (1989), comedy horror of I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990), to the comedy-horror-sexploitation of Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989).
Revisionist Era (early 1990s)
By the early '90s, outlaw bikers had become sufficiently ingrained in the American pop-culture that screenwriters were beginning to question the established bikers-as-feral-savages narrative, nudging their image towards something less marginal and edgy and more traditionally (anti-)heroic. Perhaps the most telling manifestation of this revisionism was the genre's leap into kid-friendlier media, such as the cartoons Biker Mice from Mars (1993–96) and Avenger Penguins (1993–94). Still, the fact that both chose to depict them as anthropomorphic animals is indicative of how hard it was for them to shed the aforementioned feral savage image.
Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Beyond the Law
Two iconic biker movies of the early '90s exemplify the Revisionist Era: Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) and Beyond the Law / Fixing the Shadow (1993). Harley Davidson echoed Easy Rider by focusing on the two biker protagonists' (Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson) struggle for personal freedom as the object of their lifestyle. While Harley Davidson and the Malboro Man had not been as influential or successful as the older film, it, too, has become a cult classic upon video release.
Beyond the Law, meanwhile, took the premise of Stone Cold (1991) – a cop going undercover with a drug-trafficking biker gang – and turned it on its ear by having the lawman Dan (Charlie Sheen) embrace the outlaw biker lifestyle (even if he ultimately rejects it on moral grounds) and by portraying the bikers and particularly their leader (Michael Madsen) as more alive and liberated than Dan's own superiors. In doing so, Beyond the Law had presented the biker subculture as a valid (if disruptive) alternative system of values and beliefs – a far cry from its dehumanizing portrayals in earlier films.
The movie had also featured Chris Rea's 1989 song "The Road to Hell", which thereafter became the other one of the two unofficial biker anthems (alongside "Born to Be Wild").
In 1993, the cult game designer Tim Schafer pitched the concept of a biker-themed point-and-click adventure video game to LucasArts, which would eventually be released as Full Throttle (1995). Inspired by tall tales about bikers and by Thompson's book, Schafer forewent the traditional outlaw biker narratives and instead focused on one afforded specifically by the video game medium – bikers-as-power-fantasy. The playable protagonist Ben (Roy Conrad) is the leader of an outlaw MC that is wrongfully accused of murder and defies corporate powers and other gangs to clear their name – this distinctly sympathetic portrayal shaped the outlaw biker image in many gamers' heads. The game also had a strongly themed hard rock soundtrack, featuring songs by the San Francisco band The Gone Jackals.
After Schafer left LucasArts, the studio has started work on a Full Throttle sequel twice: Payback entered production and was canceled in 2000, while work on Hell on Wheels began in 2002, before being canceled in late 2003. While Schafer's new company released a remaster of the original game in 2015, he himself has never envisioned any sequels, also noting that Conrad (who died in 2002) was irreplaceable as Ben.
Quebec Biker War
The Revisionist Era came to an abrupt end around 1995, coinciding with the outbreak of the Quebec Biker War (1994–2002), which followed the escalation of violence between the Hells Angels and the Sicilian Mafia-backed Rock Machine MC over the traffic of Colombian cocaine in Quebec, Canada in late 1994. The ensuing turf war had claimed well over 150 lives, including, most infamously, the eleven years-old Daniel Desrochers, who was killed by a car bomb meant for an Angels-affiliated drug dealer.
The Canadian government responded to the escalation of violence in 1995 with Operation Carcajou, a joint task force of the federal, Quebec, and Montreal police. Its work was impeded by inter-service rivalry and corrupt local officials, so it wasn't until 2001 that full-scale crackdowns on both sides of the biker war started taking place. The war officially ended in May 2002, when Maurice Boucher, the leader of Hells Angels' Quebec charter who masterminded their involvement in the conflict, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
True Crime Era (2000s to present)
Since around the mid-2000s, the outlaw biker genre has been going through a slow-burn revival across multiple media, with the once-dominant image of feral savage bikers mostly giving way to the post-Quebec narrative of biker gangs as fronts for drug- and/or gun-smuggling rings (hence the "true crime era"). Nevertheless, the revisionist portrayal of them as sentimental freedom-seeking outcasts has survived, too, and is sometimes used for dramatic juxtaposition. As a result, biker films of the 21st century have run the gamut from the good-biker-vs.-criminal-outlaws racing action in Torque (2004), through the affectionate parody of everymen-motorcyclists-vs.-criminal-outlaws in Wild Hogs (2007), to the Quentin Tarantino-produced pastiche of the '60s bikerploitation in Hell Ride (2008).
Sons of Anarchy
While the first major live-action television series about bikers was The Last Chapter (2002), a Canadian mini-series dramatizing the events of the Quebec Biker War, it is the FX-produced Sons of Anarchy (2008–14) that remains the most influential biker-themed TV series to date. It success came in part from pitting the two contemporary narratives about the outlaw bikers (idealistic freedom seekers vs. ruthless criminal enterprises) against each other and making it the overarching internal struggle of the series protagonist Jax (Charlie Hunnam). Upon its conclusion, Sons was followed by a spin-off, Mayans MC (2018–ongoing), and has had a considerable impact on film, as well, such as the Australian 1% / Outlaws (2018).
The biker genre in video games has been dormant for years following LucasArts' fruitless attempts at a Full Throttle sequel, but in 2009, Rockstar put the player in the midst of a Sons of Anarchy-esque gang drama in the Grand Theft Auto IV expansion pack The Lost and the Damned. Ride to Hell: Retribution (2013) was perhaps the closest that a video game has come to being a shoddy Exploitation Era flick, while Days Gone (2019) instead took the late Novelty Era path, putting its ex-outlaw biker protagonists in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.
Meanwhile, in pen-and-paper tabletop gaming, Full Throttle had inspired Fudge-based games like Mutant Bikers of the Atomic Wasteland (1997) and an unofficial adaptation by James Wedig in 2002, both of which stayed true to Schafer's bikers-as-power-fantasy narrative. Robert Nolan's 1%er: The Outlaw Motorcycle Game (2013), on the other hand, shows a strong Sons of Anarchy influence, going all-in on the bikers-as-criminal-enterprise narrative instead.