When I was in college, a friend lent me a copy of Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson; once I started reading the book I couldn’t put it down. Maybe it was Hunter S. Thompson’s inimitable writing style, maybe it was the vicarious thrill I got reading about all the debauchery and violence, but something compelled to read that book again and again. Many years later, Sonny Barger – former president of the Oakland Hell’s Angels and godfather to outlaw bikers – published his autobiography. (Titled, of course, Hell’s Angel) The same morbid curiosity that made Thompson’s book so fascinating to me compelled me to buy a copy. I guess the book sold pretty well; the movie rights have been sold and a screenplay is being developed. As John Kerry might have said, “Who among us doesn’t have a twisted fascination with outlaw bikers?”
The crime novelist James Elroy never minced words when discussing Hollywood producers who option his books. “It will never get made, and if it does you’re gonna f*** it up!” The same can probably be said of Barger’s biography: if the movie is actually made we’ll likely be treated to a made-for-cable travesty starring a bunch of former Dawson’s Creek cast members and crammed with product placements by everyone from Harley Davidson to The Gap. But, hey, we can still dream, right? Barger’s website actually has a message asking people to please stop e-mailing him suggestions for who should play him in the movie. I don’t have any strong opinions about who should play Sonny, Terry the Tramp or Mouldy Marvin. However, I’ve got a few ideas about what kind of music ought to be in the soundtrack of a Hell’s Angels movie.
Before I start talking about music, let me lay down a few ground rules. Rule Number One: no song which has been flogged to death by “classic rock” radio is allowed. No Skynyrd, no ZZ Top. No “White Rabbit” when the Angels are turned on to LSD by Kesey and the Pranksters. And, for the love of God, nothing by George Thorogood! Rule Number Two: nothing from the Easy Rider soundtrack. I know that film featured some outstanding music, but why re-invent the wheel? And finally, Rule Number Three: this list is strictly a reflection of my personal musical tastes. I’m a huge fan of blues, funk and vintage soul. I don’t know if that’s the kind of music outlaw bikers listen to in real life, but that’s the kind of music my imaginary movie soundtrack will feature.
Soul music doesn’t get any deeper than the sides James Carr recorded for Goldwax Records in the sixties. Carr’s most famous song was the gut-wrenching ballad “Dark End of the Street.” The raw intensity of Carr’s vocals transforms a simple tale of forbidden love into a brooding meditation on the nature of danger and recklessness.
In a similar vein, there’s “Blackjack” by Ray Charles; on the surface it’s a slow blues about a gambler down on his luck, but Brother Ray’s aching vocals transform the song into something deeper. There are a number of blues songs that convey a tangible sense of menace, making them all suitable for a movie about outlaw bikers.
Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” combines hard-bitten lyrics with Albert’s stinging guitar and a strong backbeat courtesy of Booker T and the MG’s. On the opposite end of the musical spectrum is Junior Kimbrough’s “You Better Run.” Junior Kimbrough plays in a style called Mississippi Hill Country blues; his music is droning and hypnotic, with few chord changes.
One of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s deepest, darkest blues tunes was the minor key workout “Tin Pan Alley.” Any one of these tunes would make an excellent background for the Angel’s many turf wars and run-ins with the law. In his autobiography, Barger describes the seventies as a “gangster era” for the Angels; Barger himself got heavily into drug dealing during that era.
No song better captures the bleak mood of America’s inner cities-Oakland included- in the seventies than War’s “Slipping into Darkness.” The Neville Brother’s “Brother Jake”, “Gun” by Gil Scott-Heron and Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” are other great examples of funk tunes that reflect the turmoil and violence of inner city life.
Of course, there’s more to the life of an Outlaw Biker than crime, violence and jail time. These guys really know how to party; Hunter S. Thompson thoroughly documented this side of Angel life in his book. There aren’t many people around these days who remember Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites, but back in the 60s and 70’s, they made some incredible music together. Nick had a gruff, soulful voice and wrote some great lyrics; Bloomfield was a guitar virtuoso. “Drinkin’ Wine”, Nick’s ode to alcohol abuse, is one of the best tunes recorded by the short-lived sixties band Electric Flag. “Dancing Fool” is another great Bloomfield/Gravenites collaboration-it can be found on Bloomfield’s Live at the Old Waldorf album. John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun” has been recorded too many times to count, but the version he did with Canned Heat on the Hooker and Heat album has got to be the most Dionysian rendition I’ve ever heard of Hooker’s signature tune. In my day, the ultimate soundtrack for any type of debauchery was the music of Parliament and Funkadelic. “Super-Stupid” and “Cosmic Slop” are two of my favorite songs by the more rock-oriented Funkadelic. Some of the more memorable tunes by the dance-oriented Parliament include “Up For the Down Stroke” and the anthemic “Give Up the Funk.”
Outlaw Bikers biggest contribution to mainstream society may be their unique sense of style. Both Thompson and Barger provide readers with vivid descriptions of the stripping down and customizing which transformed stock Harley Davidson “full-dressers” into outlaw choppers. As Barger writes, “(Choppers) weren’t the easiest bikes to ride, but what the hell, we looked cool.” Presumably, a movie about the Hell’s Angels would include lots of great shots of those chromed out, flame painted choppers cruising the streets of Oakland. A great musical background for these scenes would be “What is Hip”, the grinding funk workout by fellow Oakland residents Tower of Power. “Superbad”, by godfather of soul James Brown, is another funk tune that embodies the strutting machismo that is such an essential part of the biker mystique. Of course, no musician will ever do “macho” as well as Muddy Waters; “Mannish Boy” has got to be one of the most testosterone-drenched songs ever recorded.
Well, that concludes my imaginary soundtrack. Maybe one day you’ll be at the local multiplex, and find yourself watching a promo for a movie about the Hell’s Angels featuring Justin Timberlake pretending to ride a 2005 Harley Fatboy while wearing a few thousand dollars worth of faux-biker gear from The Gap. When you hear Lenny Kravitz start to sing a really bad cover version of “Born to Be Wild”, don’t say I didn’t warn you.