Biker Rock

Biker rock isn’t a genre, exactly. It might qualify as one if you’re a person whose taxonomical boundaries are wide enough to encompass terms like “freedom rock” or “butt rock,” and honestly, biker rock rides smoothly between those two, its thighs quivering from the vibrations of a Harley-Davidson.

It’s not music made by bikers, though some of its creators have definitely spent time riding hogs; it’s not necessarily songs about motorcycles, though there are plenty of those. It’s more ephemeral than that. Biker rock is music that you could imagine a guy on a tricked-out motorcycle listening to over the roar of his engine as he blasts down the highway or just idles outside your window in the middle of the night, annoying your pets and keeping your children awake.

It all starts with guitarist Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble,” a simple but ominous workout that started life as an arrangement of the 1950s slow-dance tune “The Stroll” but, thanks to Wray’s scorched amp, quickly became something else — the first instrumental ever to be banned thanks to its potential to incite violence. The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” honored the motorcycle-riding bad boy as illicit (and tragic) love object. Guitarist Davie Allan had been a mild-mannered maker of surf instrumentals before discovering a fuzz pedal which turned him into a monster; his theme music for the 1966 biker exploitation movie The Wild Angels (dialogue from which is sampled on Primal Scream’s breakout single “Loaded”) made everyone who heard it want to do wheelies on the interstate. But the ultimate biker rock anthem is of course Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” which anchored their debut album and the soundtrack to the 1969 movie Easy Rider. At the same time, the power trio Blue Cheer — managed by an actual Hell’s Angel — bridged the gap between garage rock and what would become heavy metal, and in Japan, Flower Travellin’ Band were working up their own answer to Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and Cactus.

Plenty of artists in the hard rock and metal realms have adapted biker iconography over the years, from Lemmy of Motörhead to Manowar and, perhaps most famously, Judas Priest singer Rob Halford, who took the black leather and gleaming studs of gay subculture and turned it into a headbanger uniform. Halford has been riding onstage on a Harley for the encores at Judas Priest concerts for decades. Others, like guitarist Victor Griffin of Pentagram and Place of Skulls and Scott “Wino” Weinrich of the Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Spirit Caravan and more, have created the niche subgenre of biker doom, playing riff-heavy anthems that throb like a Harley in low gear. Japanese acts like High Rise, Guitar Wolf, and Mainliner push psychedelic rock all the way into the red, and Davie Allan’s legacy of themes to movies that exist and ones that don’t is safe in the hands of the Canadian act the Death Wheelers, who wink at the Satanic biker image with affection and good spirits.

Phil Freeman

Motörhead

Motörhead
Motörhead cover

Motörhead’s debut album kicks off with its title track, perfecting the ultimate metal trifecta (artist/album/song, like Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” from the album Black Sabbath). Funnily enough, it’s technically a cover, since bassist/vocalist Lemmy wrote it for his previous band, Hawkwind, on his way out the door. Anyway, it’s a hard-charging anthem for speed freaks and teeth-grinding maniacs everywhere, driven by Philthy Animal Taylor’s rockslide drumming and featuring a battle for supremacy between Fast Eddie Clarke’s punk rock ’n’ roll guitar and Lemmy’s ultra-blown-out bass. The album includes two more reworked Hawkwind songs, “Lost Johnny” and “The Watcher,” plus a version of the R&B classic “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” Still, the album overcomes its somewhat patchwork feel thanks to the strength of originals like “White Line Fever” and the biker anthem “Iron Horse/Born To Lose,” and the sound is pure proof of concept. Motörhead sounded like Motörhead from the first notes of this album, and Lemmy spent the next 40 years on the road.

Vincebus Eruptum

Blue Cheer
Vincebus Eruptum cover

Blue Cheer, a Bay Area power trio led by bassist/vocalist Dickie Peterson and featuring guitarist Leigh Stephens and drummer Paul Whaley, were managed by Allen “Gut” Terk, an inactive member of the Hell’s Angels. This 32-minute debut album opens with a completely blown-out version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”; they also cover B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” (here retitled “Parchment Farm”). The music is recorded with breathtaking crudity — Whaley’s drums sound like they’re coming through a staticky phone connection, and Stephens’ guitar is so distorted it’ll make your eyes tear up, while Peterson’s bass is a massive boom, his vocals raw but earnest. The nearly eight-minute “Doctor Please” is pure biker-rock ecstasy, the band speeding down the highway in a cloud of black smoke and blown-out roar.

Crow Music

Crow
Crow Music cover

Crow were a heavy blues-rock band from Minneapolis; Crow Music, their debut album, was released in 1969 and is notable for including the song “Evil Woman,” which Black Sabbath covered on their own debut. But Crow are worth hearing on their own. Their version of “Evil Woman” includes blaring Blood, Sweat & Tears-style horns, while the next song, “White Eyes,” is a stomping psychedelic hard rock anthem seeming to take the Native American perspective and decry the white man’s perfidy. “Busy Day” is a surprisingly funky jam, while “Time to Make a Turn” brings the horns back for more hard-charging soul-rock, while “Listen to the Bop” is an unfashionable-for-1969 embrace of 1950s rock ’n’ roll. Crow are mostly forgotten, but this is a surprisingly vital album that sits right between Steppenwolf and early Chicago.

Time Traveling Blues

Orange Goblin
Time Traveling Blues cover

The second album by British metal band Orange Goblin features a female biker giving the viewer the finger on its cover, and literally starts with the sound of a motorcycle rumbling to life. Their lyrics are mostly about dragons and wizards, with the occasional spaceship thrown in, but the music is pure biker rock, with massive bluesy riffs seemingly played through amps the size of walk-in freezers, vocals like a bear vomiting, rattletrap drums, and the occasional injection of Deep Purple-ish organ on slow songs like “Shine.” This is music to be played at high volume while traveling at high speed, immediately prior to losing it on a bad curve.

Jug Fulla Sun

Spirit Caravan
Jug Fulla Sun cover

At the end of the 1990s, Scott “Wino” Weinrich broke up his band the Obsessed and formed a new trio called Shine with bassist Dave Sherman and drummer Gary Isom, both of the Maryland-based doom band Wretched. After one 7”, they changed their name to Spirit Caravan and recorded their debut album for Tolotta, a label owned by Fugazi bassist Joe Lally. The songs are classic Seventies-style doom, with fuzzed-out guitar riffs that will remind you of Master Of Reality-era Black Sabbath, including some extended instrumental passages (like the intro to “Cosmic Artifact”) that will have you nodding your head in a trance of joy. Sherman and Weinrich are a perfect tag team, the bassist filling the room with thick, booming chords as the guitarist unleashes economical but fierce solos, as Isom keeps a heavy but supple backbeat.

I Tread on Your Grave

The Death Wheelers
I Tread on Your Grave cover

The Death Wheelers are an instrumental four-piece from Canada who make doomy biker rock with track titles like “Roadkill 69,” “Sleazy Rider Returns,” “Motö Vampiro,” etc., and occasionally drop in samples of dialogue from late-Sixties/early-Seventies horror and exploitation movies, or Divine screaming “Kill everyone now” from Pink Flamingos. The joke is a good one, but what keeps the whole thing actually worth one’s attention for more than fifteen minutes is that the music rocks. Bandleader Max “The Axe” Tremblay writes and produces their jams, and he’s got a real skill at carving out a riff, as well as the sense of economy to recognize that instrumental rock has to get in and out fast — these are three-minute blasts of energy that waste no time in getting to the point.

Live At Roadburn 2009

Wino
Live At Roadburn 2009 cover

Scott “Wino” Weinrich is one of the most important musicians in the US doom/biker-rock underground. His band the Obsessed was playing Sabbathian doom at the dawn of the ’80s, but went nowhere, so he joined Saint Vitus for several albums before reforming the Obsessed in the early ’90s. After running through several other band names (Spirit Caravan, the Hidden Hand) without ever really changing his sound, he finally went solo on 2009’s Punctuated Equilibrium. This album comes from the tour behind that record, on which he was backed by bassist Jon Blank and Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster. The songs are fuzzed-out and headbang-worthy, set to a throbbing backbeat; Wino’s vocals are hoarse and vulpine, his lyrics incantatory and just vague enough to be compelling, but his guitar tone and his scorching riffs and solos are the draw here. Every song sounds pretty much the same, but it’s a hell of a song.

Kings of Metal

Manowar
Kings of Metal cover

Manowar are easy to laugh at, but the theatrical machismo of their lyrics are part of a vivid hard rock tradition that stretches from Meat Loaf to Monster Magnet, and the jokes at their expense often seem to come from people insecure about admitting to their own pleasures. Most of Manowar’s best songs are about the awesomeness of being Manowar, and the title track from their sixth album, 1987’s Kings Of Metal, is in that glorious/hilarious tradition, with its chorus “Other bands play/Manowar kills.” “Kingdom Come” and “Hail and Kill” are pretty potent fist-in-the-air anthems, too, but it’s important to note that the list of things that Manowar likes to sing about (metal, fire, steel, brotherhood, swords, hammers) also includes motorcycles, and “Wheels of Fire,” which opens this album, is one of their fastest and most furious songs, from the opening chorale of roaring engines to its galloping, almost thrashy riff.

The Second

Steppenwolf
The Second cover

Steppenwolf’s second and most commercially successful album was released mere months after “Born To Be Wild,” from their self-titled debut, brought them nationwide fame and a permanent spot in the biker-rock pantheon. It contains a second, almost as memorable hit in “Magic Carpet Ride,” but it’s their jammier side, reflected on “Tighten Up Your Wig,” which featured frontman John Kay’s lyrics set to the music of “Messin’ With The Kid” by blues harmonica wizard Junior Wells (acknowledged in the lyrics: “But just before we go/I’d like to mention Junior Wells/We stole this thing from him/And he from someone else/Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, he plays the blues like few before/May he play forevermore”), and the five-track medley on Side Two, that hinted at the grimy blues-psych direction they’d travel on subsequent releases.

War of the Superbikes

The Meatmen
War of the Superbikes cover

The Meatmen started out as a stupid, offensive hardcore band whose “songs” were a platform for frontman Tesco Vee’s “jokes” at the expense of women, children, gay people, other bands…you get the idea. But by 1985’s War of the Superbikes, they’d gone full-on metal/hard rock, a shocking development considering that their lineup included Minor Threat guitarists Lyle Preslar and Brian Baker, and Negative Approach bassist Graham McCulloch. This is a real “never woulda thought they had it in ’em” record, full of blasting riffage, screaming guitar solos, powerhouse drumming, and hooky choruses. The title track tells a story of a motorcycle race gone wrong, somewhere in between the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and ZZ Top’s “Master of Sparks,” and there’s a surprisingly credible cover of Nazareth’s “Razamanaz,” too.

Hell Bent for Leather

Judas Priest
Hell Bent for Leather cover

Judas Priest’s fifth album was a transitional effort; they stripped the songs down, opting for a hard-charging style closer to punk than their previous, somewhat progressive work. This was also the record on which they adopted the black-leather-and-studs image that became not only their own trademark, but something to be regarded as essentially metal. There were still plenty of surprises, though, like the almost Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque guitar solo on “Rock Forever,” their somewhat silly attempt to write their own Queen-style stomp-and-shout anthem, “Take On The World,” and the funk-metal “Burnin’ Up” with its eerie synth intro and disco drum flourishes. But the title track is a speeding-down-the-highway anthem, and on the tour for this record, frontman Rob Halford began riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle onstage for the encore.

Easy Rider (Music From The Soundtrack)

Various Artists
Easy Rider (Music From The Soundtrack) cover

Easy Rider was a huge hit upon release in 1969, and one of the movies that propelled the so-called “New Hollywood” movement that lasted until the mid ’70s. Its soundtrack features two songs from Steppenwolf’s debut album — the motorcycle anthem “Born to Be Wild” and the anti-drug song “The Pusher” — as well as Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” a cover of the Band’s “The Weight” (the movie used the original) by also-rans Smith, the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” and a semi-title track, “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” by that group’s Roger McGuinn. Honestly, the Steppenwolf and Hendrix songs stand out like someone walking into a hippie party with a jambox and a jug of LSD-laced wine, but hey, even motorcycle enthusiasts need to mellow out every once in a while.

Painkiller

Judas Priest
Painkiller cover

Judas Priest’s twelfth album was a comeback of sorts — 1987’s Turbo had been a synth-drenched controversy magnet (though the tour was a massive success), and 1988’s Ram It Down had been an attempt at retrenchment so craven it verged on self-parody. On Painkiller, they reckoned with speed metal and thrash; the opening title track was one of the fastest, most shredtastic things they ever recorded, and it set the tone for an absolutely crushing collection of pure metal. It wasn’t until eight tracks into a ten-track album that they slowed down a little, and even then, “Touch Of Evil” was Depeche Mode meets grand opera meets power metal. This is exactly the music the demon biker on the album cover would be listening to.

Chains & Black Exhaust

Various Artists
Chains & Black Exhaust cover

This 2002 mix disc (calling it a compilation would imply that someone paid for the rights to the music) assembled by record collector Dante Carfagna gathered 15 ultra-obscure tracks by US Black funk and rock bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s. In some cases, these groups only ever released a single, one side of which is included here; others managed to put out an album or two before vanishing into obscurity. The music is all clattering backbeat, fuzzed-out guitar and ragged-but-right vocal harmonies, making the Chambers Brothers and Westbound-era Funkadelic sound like the Fifth Dimension by comparison. Black Merda’s “Cynthy Ruth,” Iron Knowledge’s “Show Stopper,” and Blackrock’s “Yeah, Yeah” in particular are head-spinning heavy psych. The front cover is a photo of the headquarters of the Thunderbirds motorcycle gang, and it’s easy to imagine these songs cranking on the stereo inside.

Devil’s Rumble: Anthology ’64-’68

Davie Allan
Devil’s Rumble: Anthology ’64-’68 cover

Davie Allan, a guitarist from Southern California, specialized in lightweight and moderately successful surf instrumentals like “Apache ’65” when he got the job of scoring the biker exploitation movie The Wild Angels. His opening theme for the movie, “Blues’ Theme,” was built around a ferociously fuzzed-out riff and became a sensation; other pieces included on this two-CD set, like “The Devil’s Rumble,” “Pete’s Orgy”(!), “Action On The Street” and others are so blown-out they’ll make your teeth rattle. Allan’s melodies always stayed simple and mostly major-key; he’s more interested in making your foot tap than scaring you, but there’s still a blasting-down-the-highway fervor to his best stuff that’ll make any listener feel like jumping on a bike, and weird side-trips like “Mind Transferral” blur the line between surf and psych.

Anywhere

Flower Travellin' Band
Anywhere cover

Flower Travellin’ Band were an early ’70s Japanese hard rock act formed by producer Yuya Uchida and featuring vocalist Joe Yamanaka, guitarist Hideki Ishima, bassist Jun Kozuki, and drummer Joji Wada. They didn’t last long, making only four albums between 1970 and 1973, but their sound was surprisingly potent, very much in the vein of Western acts like Cream, Cactus, ZZ Top, the James Gang, and early Black Sabbath. Anywhere is notable for its gatefold cover photo of the four members riding motorcycles down the road nude, and for its scorching sound; despite their dirtbag image, these guys had a decent recording budget, and the album can easily compete with any hard rock of the era. Ishima’s guitar playing is fierce and effective and Wada’s drumming is minimalist but focused, maintaining energy throughout the long (13- to 15-minute) jams on Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues” and King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” that make up the bulk of the album.

Durophet

High Rise
Durophet cover

The cover of this live album by world-destroying Japanese garage-rockers High Rise is a photo of a booted foot stepping on a distortion pedal, and that really about says it all. Recorded in Paris in November 1998, it’s a 35-minute journey through eight of their most ferocious, head-stomping tracks. The power trio is led by bassist/vocalist Asahito Nanjo, joined up front by shredtastic guitarist Munehiro Narita and driven by drummer Shoji Hano. Their songs are simple, based on high-test riffage and leaving plenty of room for screaming guitar solos as Nanjo’s bass bulges like a vein about to pop. The mix is deliberately blown-out; it sounds like the music is being played through a malfunctioning subway PA horn. And yet, it’s never just noise — it’s a convulsive blast of live-giving rawk.

Late for an Early Grave

Victor Griffin
Late for an Early Grave cover

Guitarist Victor Griffin got his start in Tennessee, forming the band Death Row, who changed their name to Pentagram once they moved to Washington, DC and found singer Bobby Liebling. He’s also led the Christian-themed doom band Place Of Skulls, which for a time also included Scott “Wino” Weinrich. Late For An Early Grave is a collection of demos, cover songs and castoff tracks recorded with unknown personnel; Griffin’s guitar frequently has a scooped-out, distorted roar here that may remind some of Chris Holmes’ work with W.A.S.P., but his soloing is uniquely his own and his vocals have an infectious earnestness. You get demo versions of Pentagram songs like “Wolf’s Blood” and “Vampyre Love,” but the real gems are the title track and a medley that combines Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” and Motörhead’s “Iron Horse.”

Rumble! The Best of Link Wray

Link Wray
Rumble! The Best of Link Wray cover

Link Wray’s “Rumble” is one of the most important pieces of music in rock ’n’ roll history. Its simple but ominous riff, played through a for-the-time ultra-distorted amplifier and set to an implacable backbeat (it was inspired by an attempt to work up an arrangement of the vocal group the Diamonds’ hit “The Stroll”), laid the groundwork for an incredible amount of music to follow. Wray’s ferocious guitar sound inspired basically every amp-frying, leather-jacketed six-string maniac after him, and the other instrumentals on this compilation, like “Raw Hide,” “Big City After Dark,” “Run Chicken Run,” “Deuces Wild” and “Switchblade,” have the same glowering, Harley-revving energy.

Louder Than Hell

Manowar
Louder Than Hell cover

Manowar’s eighth album doesn’t have any metal-rules lyrics as classic as “Metal Warriors” from its predecessor, 1991’s The Triumph Of Steel (“Heavy metal/Or no metal at all/Wimps and posers/Leave the hall”), but it does kick off with another of their biker anthems, “Return Of The Warlord,” which is likely a sequel to “Wheels of Fire” from 1987’s Kings Of Metal, though the biker life is a lyrical theme that goes all the way back to “Death Tone,” the first track on their debut album, 1981’s Battle Hymns. As there, the lyrics portray someone completely and proudly outside of mainstream society — the intended romanticism gets dark pretty fast, as Eric Adams shrieks about being broke and on the brink of homelessness, but he’s got his bike, so he’s fine.