Heavy Rider: Why Motorcycles Are Metal

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By Laina Dawes

While what many people would consider as hard rock or metal music today certainly didn’t exist in 1953, it was the movie The Wild One that first represented the perfect symmetry between rock and motorcycle culture. Not only was the dashing (and at that time, quite thin) Marlon Brando playing the quintessential rebel, clad in a tight fitting leather jacket and tight jeans, it was his attitude – apparently shocking for that era – that resonated with film watchers. Some argued that the movie ruined the reputation of motorcycle enthusiasts, fearful that the film portrayed bikers as promoting rebellion among youth. But others embraced the freedom and the apparent disregard to societal conformity that Brando and his fictionalized gang, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club displayed and despite the controversy, it sparked a new generation of motorcycle enthusiasts.

When rock n’ roll first emerged as a peculiar hybrid spawned from blues music, it also garnered a questionable reputation and its listeners were perceived as not only rebelling against youth culture but as social degenerates. The previously unfamiliar, more aggressive playing and faster tempos brought a more energetic response to the music– at least for some, whom instead of complaining about painful ringing in their ears, wanted more. Comparisons were soon made between the new style of music and the feelings of energy and freedom listeners felt when they used every muscle in their body to commandeer a powerful machine to rip down a highway.

Despite the social consternation that both rock music and motorcycles shared, the coupling of the two eventually created a seamless union between man and machine. “Today there are not too many avenues to feel that sense of freedom, and I think that’s an exciting thing for people who ride motorcycles,” says Chris Barnes, frontman for Florida’s Six Feet Under and proud owner of a custom 2005 Harley Davidson. “How rock and metal culture relates to cycling is pretty obvious: It’s another form of personal freedom that we all hold onto dearly. For any music lovers, whatever type of music you listen to, you think of your music as freeing your mind. Whatever type of music, it taps into the primitive soul, I guess.”

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It was motorcycles and what they represented as an American cultural icon that became Judas Priest’s signature trademark and a regular staple in their live shows. “When we were touring in England (during the Killing Machine / Hell Bent For Leather tour), we thought that it would be cool if we could bring the bike on stage when we did “Hell Bent for Leather”, says singer Rob Halford. “It seemed like the right thing to do.” When they toured the U.S, they initially borrowed bikes from Harley Davidson and eventually Harley sold them a 1981 Low Rider for a dollar. “It’s the official one that you see now, which has been customized. The frame, the wheels, the engine all the internal stuff are the original components.”

“They are American and the represent America. It’s the independence, the rebel streak – all of those are attached to being on a Harley,” he adds. Barnes agrees that there is something symbolic about cycling and what it means to temporarily eschew modern traditions and get back to what’s real. “A car is not really similar to (riding). You are more like, tucked in and you don’t get that same freedom. It’ kind of goes back to the times of the old west when you would get on a horse and get on the countryside.”

In music videos and magazine spreads, rock and metal artists have always used bikes as props – whether they actually ride is suspect – the bike seems to be a traditional and easily accessible symbol for representing the personal toughness of the musician. But for NILE drummer George Kollias (who currently rides a ’97 Honda XR 600R modified to 610cc “with lots of racing parts and with an XR 400 look”) he rides purely to get away from his hectic touring and recording schedule. “I’ve never mixed my love for bikes with my music. I’ve never written any songs about it. To me, biking is a personal thing and I don’t want to mix it with anything else.”

Is there a difference in the coolness factor in whether you ride a classic bike or a more modern sports or a racing bike? The iconic rocker cycle dude / dudette always seems to be riding the most intense, hardcore bike you can find, like a classic Harley Davidson Low Rider with beach bars, versus someone who is riding a fluorescent racer bike on a downtown city street. Despite what you ride, you have to keep an air of coolness about you – remember, you have an image to protect.

“Well, there were these hot chicks lining the track in their bikini tops, and we had been watching them all day,” says Bleed the Sky’s Justin Warrick, who rides a 2 stroke YZ 250 vintage racing bike. “I was out on the track and saw them next to the fence by the finish line jump. Of course, I was going to impress them, so I hit the corner hard and went full-force into the jump. Unfortunately, I hit it too fast and over-jumped about 15 feet and landed on the flat ground from about 20 feet in the air. It shot me off the corner of the next jump and knocked me out cold! Needless to say, at best I made those girls laugh or something, but they didn’t go home with me that day!”

More accessible, portable and affordable than a car, its design shows off the intricacy of its composition and with the classic bikes, the exterior is as aggressive and masculine as metal music. Both provide a temporary escape for listeners and purveyors from societal constraints – dabbling in social debauchery without being carted off by the Po-Po.

“I’ve always said that the Harleys are synonymous with Heavy Metal because like Heavy Metal music, Harley’s are big and loud and brash and they smell and they piss some people off,” adds Halford. “They have all the same attributes that Heavy Metal does. So it’s a very close correlation between Rock n’ Roll, Heavy Metal and motorcycles.”

(Rob Halford photo by Amanda Ayre, courtesy of judaspriest.com)

Six Feet Under‘s newest album Death Rituals was released in November, 2008 by Metal Blade.

Judas Priest will tour North America this summer and have a new live album entitled A Touch Of Evil – Live set for release in July on  Epic Records.

Nile enters the studio on June 8th with producer Neil Kernon and will have a new album out on Nuclear Blast later this year.

Bleed The Sky‘s most recent album Murder The Dance was released in June of 2008 by Nuclear Blast.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.