Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Hells Angels

In the news due to the recent shooting on the M40, this article ripped from The Independent makes for interesting reading for those for a passion for two wheels:

The legend that was to become the Hells Angels was born on 17 March 1948 when Second World War veteran Otto Friedli formed a new bike gang out of the remnants of two notorious fighting and drinking clubs.

Dozens of loose-knit biker groups had sprung up across America in the mid-1940s. Motorcycles were cheap, and appealed in particular to the hundreds of former soldiers and airmen who found it hard to cope with uneventful lives following the end of the war. They came together at weekends, riding hard and drinking even harder. For those who had nowhere to go when Monday came, the club turned into a surrogate family.

In 1947, at a drag-racing meeting organised by the American Motorcycle Association in the quiet town of Hollister, California, a gang called the Pissed-Off Bastards rode in drunk and created mayhem, fighting anyone and everyone and ripping the place to shreds. The local sheriff later described the scene as "just one hell of a mess".

In the months following Hollister, Bastard member Friedli broke away and took a few like-minded souls with him. Basing himself in San Bernadino, he adopted a name favoured by fighter pilots – Hell's Angels – structured the gang along military lines and continued the theme on the gang's crest: a grinning, winged death's head wearing a pilot's helmet. (Friedli's seamstress forgot to include the apostrophe and it has been officially omitted ever since.)

Their exploits reached a new level of public awareness with the 1953 Marlon Brando film The Wild One (based loosely on the Hollister incident). That same year, the original Hells Angels chapter merged with San Francisco's Market Street Commandos to spawn the club's second chapter, and soon more chapters popped up along the California coastline.

In 1964, four Angels were accused of rape in the oceanside town of Monterey. The high-profile case not only saw the first of many, many headlines demonising the biker gang, but also allegedly marked the beginning of the Angels' move into international drug-trafficking, to pay legal bills.

Infamy bred notoriety, and in the mid-1960s The Nation magazine sent a young Hunter S Thompson to write about the Hells Angels. Soon afterwards, Hollywood came calling again and Jack Nicholson starred in the 1967 release Hell's Angels on Wheels. Rock stars such as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead struck up friendships with the bikers, which Garcia admitted was a bit scary because they were, as he put it, "good in all the violent spaces".

That was proved beyond doubt on 6 December 1969, when Angels were hired – for $500 worth of free beer – as security guards for a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco. Armed with pool cues, they attempted to keep order while drinking, smoking marijuana and dropping acid. At one point a black, 18-year-old Stones fan named Meredith Hunter rushed the stage, just as the band finished playing "Under My Thumb" , and was beaten back. He rushed again, was pushed back, pulled a gun, and shot a Hells Angel in the arm.

An eyewitness, Tony Sanchez, described the ensuing scene thus: "Five more Angels came crashing to the aid of their buddy, while Meredith tried to run off through the packed crowd. An Angel caught him by the arm and brought down a sheath knife hard in the black man's back... then the Angels were upon him like a pack of wolves. One tore the gun from his hand, another stabbed him in the face and still another stabbed him repeatedly, insanely, in the back until his knees buckled."

When the Angels finished with Hunter, several people tried to come to his aid, but an Angel stood guard over the motionless body. "Don't touch him," he said menacingly. "He's going to die anyway, so just let him die."

Now, with their bad-boy reputation squarely in place, the Hells Angels began to emerge as a more sophisticated outfit. They formed a corporation to protect their legitimate business interests, trademarked the infamous death's head logo and opened more chapters around the world.

The first British chapter was formed in London in mid-1969, and it took only three years to achieve the same kind of status as their American brothers. In late 1972, 18-year-old Ian Everest, along with two others, abducted a 14-year-old Girl Guide off the streets of Winchester and dragged her along to an Angels party, where he raped her in front of cheering clubmates. At the subsequent court case the girl told a horrified jury that Everest had laughed throughout the assault.

Sentencing him to nine years, Mr Justice Waller launched a thousand tabloid shock-horror headlines: "We have heard of Hells Angels as an utterly evil organisation, evil and corrosive of young people. I do not sentence you for being a Hells Angel, but no doubt the evil nature of that organisation has led you into this situation."

Every few years something new happened to keep the image alive, often helped by the media's inability to tell the Hells Angels apart from other biker gangs. And each summer, the Angels organise the Bulldog Bash, Europe's premier biking event, which now attracts around 40,000 bikers from all over the world for a non-stop, four-day party at the Long Marston Airfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Inside the grounds there is a massive beer tent, open 24 hours a day, hundreds of food stalls, a shopping village, bungee-jumping, mini-motorbike tracks and tattoo parlours. In the evening there is a giant musical stage with top rock and heavy-metal bands. Up on stage, the grinning death's head skull is replaced by a far more family-friendly image – a cute bulldog sitting astride a Harley, its little paws up on the handlebars.

The event is policed by Angels themselves and, despite the vast numbers attending, is now recognised by Warwickshire Police as their least troublesome public event. Teams make regular "security" patrols in customised black Ford Escorts that have had all the glass removed and large white swastikas painted on the sides

And a couple of quick witted tales:

But even when caught red-handed, many Angels are bolshie enough to beat the rap. When one senior member was stopped in his car soon after leaving a rally and found to have a bag containing nine kilos of high-quality cannabis resin beside him, he didn't hesitate.

"What a coincidence," he told them. "I was just on my way to the police station to hand this in. I found it at the rally. I think it might be drugs." Fingerprints were found on the outside of the bag, but not on the packets of drugs inside. It was impossible to disprove his story – no matter how unlikely – and charges were dropped.

It was a similar story when another Angel was stopped with half a kilo of cocaine and a loaded handgun hidden behind a door panel of the vehicle. " You've got me bang to rights," he told the officers. "I stole the car." All those connected to the vehicle were later acquitted of all charges.

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