Motorbikes and Pop Culture

26 August, 2016

Motorbikes have for decades been synonymous with the notions of thrill-seeking fun and adventures, and a chance to escape the everyday humdrum. But where did it all begin, and how did we get to where we are now?

Motorbikes were first thrust into pop culture thanks to Marlon Brando’s iconic role as Johnny Strabler in 1953 cult classic The Wild One, which saw Brando ride a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T bike in his famous leather jacket. Brando set the precedent for the 1950s motorbike rider aesthetic, with his distinct haircut and sideburns, leather riding jacket and cap emulated by the likes of James Dean and Elvis Presley. Brando also rode a motorbike around NYC at all hours of the day and night before he found fame.

The Shangri Las immersed the motorbike firmly back into pop culture in 1964 with their global hit “Leader of the Pack”, with lyrics depicting the teen life of Betty who is dating the local leader of a motorbike gang, Jimmy. The 1960s also saw the increase in popularity in the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, heralding the outlaw biker image. Attention was also drawn to the Hells Angels thanks to famed journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who lived with them from 1965-1967.

In 1960s Britain, the evolution of the Mods saw riders take to scooters such as Vespas and Lambrettas. The 1969 release of Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider illustrated a motorbike counterculture, with the two protagonists biking through the American Southwest, triggering a worldwide motorbike obsession.

Easy Rider left a legacy that rolled right into the early ‘70s, with many Hollywood directors trying to mimic the film. It saw singer Marvin Gaye star in the 1971 biker revenge film Chrome and Hot Leather. Off screen, scenes similar to Chrome and Hot Leather were witnessed, as a lot of violence sprung up between rival motorcycle gangs, partly due to many clubs going international and Hells Angels quickly taking over other motorcycle clubs in Britain.

Meatloaf’s 1977 release of Bat Out of Hell featured iconic songs with motorbike culture overtones, as well as the acclaimed album cover drawn by renowned comic book artist Will Eisner Award Hall.

The 1980s saw two pop icons ride motorbikes in the rain: Billy Joel in the lyrics of his 1980 hit, “You May Be Right”, and Prince as The Kid in the 1984 video Purple Rain. Prince’s role is very similar to that of Captain America in Easy Rider, but Purple Rain sees the popular scene of him mounting a motorbike in a bright purple mist, lending itself as one of the most memorable motorbike scenes in pop song history.

1990s - Today
Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the trophy for stealing the motorbike eyes away from Easy Rider with his starring role on a Harley Davison Fat Boy in the 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day film. Rapper DMX also released a biker inspired rap in 1998, with the lyrics brought to life in the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” music video.

With lots of motorbike clubs still thriving today, there is still a keen interest in these iconic forms of transport, with prestigious competitions such as MotoGP very much in the public sphere. However, the motorbike has arguably moved away from being a cultural emblem, to a cultural commodity, with many riders using it as their preferred transportation method.