One offshoot of motorcycling that has garnered a healthy share of press over the years is that of the most notorious biker gangs. Certainly most recognizable is the Hells Angels.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson embedded himself within the notorious motorcycle gang to write in 1966 "Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga".
The Angels were appropriately maligned, copied, ridiculed, feared, adored, hero-worshiped and imitated in a number of exploitation biker films in the 60s (often being hired as technical advisers and background players).
The group reached a zenith of press in 1969 when the motorcycle club was hired to provide security at a major free rock concert in Altamont, Calif. featuring the Rolling Stones.
A fan was stabbed to death by the appointed security team right in front of the astonished English rockers when he reportedly brandished a gun. One of the Angels was tried but it was declared he had acted in self-defense.
While the Angels may have become the poster children of bad-ass-incurring a kind of slightly misconstrued iconoclastic romanticism they are not the only motorcycle club out there with somewhat proudly dubious leanings.
Before we count down the top ten most notorious biker gangs, some history is in order.
When World War II ended in 1945 America was flooded with returning G.I.s who had been plucked from small towns and forced into premature manhood by the abject horrors of the battlefield.
They had been unwittingly hardwired into adrenaline by daily confrontations with death. For many the prospect of returning to rural America, casually sweeping the obscene visions of war under the carpet with the assumption that they could settle back into sedate existences expected to get their kicks now at the local soda fountain and picture show was out of the question.
Due the unfathomable impact of war on the human conscience, a large number of returning soldiers suddenly found themselves alienated from the very America they had risked their lives for.
Unable to re-acclimate to their former lives, the only solace a good number of vets found was in reuniting with their former army buddies, embracing the intense bonds of friendship forged under fire overseas.
In a kind of collective consciousness many of these men set out to recapture the youth that had been taken from them. And what better way to wash away the horrors of war and retrieve aborted adolescence than a motorcycle?
Fast, loud, invigorating, motorcycles possessed the same quintessential affirmation of life through danger they had experienced on the battlefield.
A surplus of military-issue motorcycles helped spark the movement of hard-earned, well-deserved fun. It was only natural that returning G.I.s wanted to experience some of the freedom they had fought so dearly for.
They snatched up crated Harley-Davidson motorcycles with their unspent risk pay, surgically removing the excess weight of over-sized fenders and a glut of useless metal in the ritual that would become known as chopping and bobbing.
Straight pipes unleashed extra power to push the lightened bikes in profoundly robust declarations of heightened decibels that they had, in fact, returned from the front.
Motorcycle Clubs formed with hints of the same chemistry of war: a strangely unique combination of ardent independence amidst devoted camaraderie, and the motorcycle gang was born.
Ironically there is a cadre of motorcyclists today who borrow the iconic colors, styles and attitudes from these deeply symbolic roots, taking detours from their legitimate, dress code-enforced day jobs and home chores to go parading around on weekends in alter ego garb.
The vast majority are simply chasing a good time albeit in costume and remain well within the law, having never held the business-end of a sawed off pool cue in their hands or squared off in a dimly lit parking lot.
However, there remains a very legit aspect of true biker gangs who qualify for the infamous 1%er title. The moniker comes from statistics that declare that 99% of all motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens, with the remaining one percent engaging in some realm of illegal activity.
Below is a list of noteworthy motorcycle clubs that have established themselves not only in America (birthplace of the biker gang) but which have chapters in other countries.
In a somewhat random and unofficial listing of famous biker gangs by name recognition, the top ten motorcycle clubs, from 1st to 10th are:
- Hells Angels (Founded in California, the Angels have active chapters across the U.S. and have established themselves in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South America and Russia)
- Mongols (Founded in Montebello, California, have chapters across the western U.S., Canada, Mexico and Italy)
- Pagans (Founded in Maryland, concentrated on the eastern coast of the U.S.)
- Outlaws (One of the oldest. Founded in 1935 in Illinois, now has spread throughout the U.S. as well as Australia, Asia, Europe and South America)
- Sons of Silence (Founded in Colorado, with chapters across the U.S., primarily in the east, with chapters in Germany)
- Warlocks (Founded in PA, have chapters across the U.S., Germany and the U.K.)
- Highwaymen (Founded in Detroit, with chapters across the U.S., Norway and the U.K.)
- Bandidos (Founded in Texas, with chapters across the U.S., Asia, Germany and Australia)
- Free Souls (Oregon and Vancouver)
- Vagos MC (Western U.S. and Mexico)