How The Hells Angels Became America's Notorious Black Sheep

Culture | July 5, 2019

Members of the Hells Angels gang, acting as both security and hoodlums, jump the stage with Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane on December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway. Source: (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs)

What's the deal with the Hells Angels? Are they a peaceful band of motorcycle enthusiasts, or are they violent criminals? The group rose to prominence in the postwar years by cultivating ambiguity -- hey, they were just some regular guys out to have fun, right? But then, there was the murder at Altamont. The story of the Hells Angels isn't simple, and the legacy of the organization -- as dangerous thugs or rugged individualists -- endures to this day. Here's a look at the origins and notable traits of the Hells Angels

The first Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in Fontana, California in 1948. They named themselves after a bomber group in World War II who took their name from a 1930 Howard Hughes movie. Following the end of the World War II, men returning from overseas and those who were just done with the establishment started riding together, but the men who made up the Hells Angels were of a different breed.

The group existed underground throughout the 1950s, but by the ‘60s they were a topic of national conversation. Squares were titillated by the Angels and the group was happy to put on a show. The world of the Hells Angels is one of chaos, drugs, and destruction, and in the ‘60s everyone wanted in on their lifestyle. These are just a few stories about the notorious life and times of the Hells Angels.  

They Worked Security Altamont

Source: (20th Century Fox)

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival held on Saturday, December 6, 1969, was the west coast’s answer to Woodstock. Booked by the Rolling Stones on a lark, the festival was held together with duct tape and a prayer, with the Angels, hired as security. The bikers were paid in $500 in beer for their time, which the group slammed while they assaulted the audience.

During the final set of the night, as the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb,” biker Alan Passaro stabbed 18-year-old Meredith Hunter to death after the young man allegedly brandished a gun. Passaro was acquitted after claiming self-defense. The footage of the attack is visible in the documentary Gimme Shelter

Hunter S. Thompson Wrote His First Book About The Group

Source: (pinterest.com)

In 1965, gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson started palling around with a San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels as he wrote about their exploits throughout the Bay Area. After an initial article about the gang, he spent a year with them, studying their tribal-like activities and even coming to enjoy the company of some of the bikers.

Thompson’s experiences with the group formed the basis for his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. The book recounts the crimes of the Angels while dispelling some myths about the group, but it also got Thompson in trouble with the gang. He notes in the book that the gang got tired of him snooping around and beat him to a pulp. 

They Were Fodder For Biker Exploitation Movies

Source: (pinterest.com)

Biker films were around since the 1950s. Marlon Brando’s The Wild One is a sterling example of the genre, but the real glut of biker films began after the release of Hunter S. Thompson’s book. The gangs on film tended to be heroic outlaws rather than drug dealing hoodlums, but they were always seen riding Harleys.

Some films of the era that epitomized the genre were Hells Angels on Wheels, which featured head Angel Sonny Barger, as well as The Wild Angels and Angels: Hard as They Come. The films were low budget and filmed as quickly as possible. Even though the public’s fascination of the Angels still exists, it was only at a fever pitch in the mid to late ‘60s. 

Sonny Barger Is An Antihero Celebrity In His Way

Source: (pinterest.com)

Barger didn’t start the Hells Angels, but he played a major part in turning them into the gang they were in the ‘60s. In his autobiography, Barger wrote that while he’d been in gangs in the 1950s they didn’t have the kind “brotherhood” he was looking for. In 1957, he insisted that the various groups who made up the Angels get matching patches and use specific parameters to decide where each chapter could call home. He explained:

Early on, we decided that if we were all going to wear the same patch, we were all going to function under the same rules. To shore up our territory fast, we made up tactical rules early on. Example: there couldn't be one charter within fifty miles of another, except for Oakland and Frisco.

Barger’s still kicking around as a member of the Cave Creek chapter of the Hells Angels, even after being diagnosed with throat cancer and going to prison for conspiracy to violate federal law to commit murder.

Initiation Into The Angels Isn’t As Crazy As People Imagine

Source: (pinterest.com)

How do you join the Hells Angels? Is there a midnight blood ritual? Do you have to be jumped in? Not exactly. The two things that are required to be a member of this gang are for you to be cool, and your undying loyalty to the group. The gang hasn’t posted their initiation ritual online for obvious reasons (i.e. they’re a group that takes part in illegal activities), but in the ‘60s there were four steps to becoming a Hells Angel.

1. The Hang-Around: The Hells Angels have a ton of hangers-on, folks who love to party and ride motorcycles. During this stage, the club is watching the people around them to see if they’re Angels material.

2. The Associate: People who move up from the Hang-Around crew become “associates.” Recruits in this group spend years hanging with the Angels in order to have their character judged by the group.

3. The Prospect: Prospects are allowed to attend Angels specific events, although they’re not allowed to help make decisions within the gang. This is the last step before club members will decide whether or not someone can be in the group.

4. The Fully Patched Member: Once someone is voted into the gang they’re patched in for life. While there may be something required beyond a vote to make someone a fully patched in member, it’s likely different from chapter to chapter. 

The Lynch Report Warned Californians Of The Angels

Source: (pinterest.com)

In the early ‘60s, California’s attorney general Thomas C. Lynch spent six months studying the Hells Angels after a gang rape charge was levied at the group. While the gang members alleged to be involved dispute their involvement in the crime, the incident lead Lynch to ask law enforcement to reevaluate how they handled motorcycle gangs.

After the Lynch report, the California police started planning emergency security provisions during the Hells Angels Independence Day parties. The group was known for letting loose over July 4th in parties that could absolutely destroy a town. The report created a fervor in the suburbs as regular people became terrified of the bad bikers coming to town.  

They Have To Ride Harleys

Source: (pinterest.com)

Harley Davidson motorcycles are as connected to the Hells Angels as their criminal records. The group has been riding them since the ‘60s, but not because they’re glorious pieces of well-oiled craftsmanship. Hells Angel spokesman Sunny Barger explained:

It’s always been important for Hells Angels to ride American-made machines. In terms of pure workmanship, personally I don’t like Harleys. I ride them because I’m in the club, and that’s the image, but if I could, I would seriously consider riding a Honda ST1100 or a BMW. We really missed the boat not switching over to the Japanese models when they began building bigger bikes. I’ll usually say, f*ck Harley-Davidson.

Hells Angels Love To Kiss

Source: (pinterest.com)

When the fascination around the Angels grew in the 1960s the gang did whatever they could to freak out any squares who were gawking at them. By kissing one another the Angels proved that they were way more far out than the people watching them, and they gave tourists a story that they could take back to their friends. It was a win-win.

In Hunter S. Thompson’s book, he explained that when Hells Angels were kissing each other full force on the lips they were doing it for shock value because the act “is a guaranteed square-jolter, and the Angels are gleefully aware of the reaction it gets. The sight of a photographer invariably whips the Angels into a kissing frenzy.”

Tags: Gangs | Hells Angels | Rare Facts And Stories About History

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.