Friday 6 August 2010, 18:17

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Everyone goes on holiday in Britain. Even Hells Angels.

I've just found a wonderful, very funny documentary made in 1973 about a group of British Hells Angels.

It's about their daily life and culminates in them going on a weekend mini-break on a derelict barge in the pouring rain near Aylesbury.

They're obviously not very nice people (especially as they tend to go on about Nazis). And the film has a disapproving commentary that talks about their "psychotic tendencies" and their "empty daily existence". But as you watch the film you begin to realise that the director (or possibly the editor) was making a completely different film.

It uses the Hells Angels as a comic and exaggerated parody of the emptiness of the daily life for everyone in Britain.

The film is full of wonderful moments. The lead character - Mad John - goes round to see his wife, but completely ignores her because he finds a letter to him from the fountainhead of Angeldom - the California Angels chapter.

His wife stomps off leaving Mad John with his suitcase of memorabilia. Inside the suitcase is a magazine called "Big Chopper" and a real chopper. He sits with his only real friend - his alsatian dog called Hitler.

And the Hells Angels' holiday ends with all them all sitting together on the barge in the rain watching Dr Who on television drinking cans of lager.

Not much change there then.

Here are the stars of the film:

angeljohn.jpg"Mad John" the Vice President of the Chapter. He was named "Mad John" by "Buttons" who was the first official Hells Angel's leader in Britain. (You can see Buttons' legendary autobiography - Buttons, The Making of a President - briefly in Mad John's suitcase.)

angelkarl.jpgKarl - the Sergeant at Arms of the Chapter. He has been cross-eyed ever since his eyes were knocked out of their sockets in a fight.

angelhitler.jpgMad John's dog called Hitler plus a great carpet and some fantastic wallpaper.

angelmickmum.jpgAnd Angel member Mick's mum who comes round to lend them a portable TV for the weekend.

She is asked what she thinks about her son being a Hells Angel - and she gives one of the best quotes I have ever heard. It is brilliantly comic.

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    Comment number 1.

    Remarkably few broken noses, for a gang that likes a good scrap.


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    Comment number 2.

    Cheers for putting up all these new things AC.

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    Comment number 3.

    You can just about romantasise the Hells Angel's lifestyle if you include the California sunshine, the freedom of thousands of miles of Interstate Highway and the West Coast counter-culture. Compared to that a grey bank holiday run out to Aylesbury doesn't quite have the same appeal. Despite the use of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack in the documentary I kept expecting various characters from Withnail and I to make an appearance.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 5.

    The episode of Doctor Who the Angels are watching is Planet of the Daleks, Episode Three. (For those curious, the exact broadcast date was 21st April, 1973, between 5.50 and 6.15 p.m.)

    Interestingly, the colour version of this episode is missing, but was restored recently using modern colourising technology.

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    Comment number 6.

    The usage of the Nazi imagery and references is pronounced throughout, and I have always found this association between e.g. Hell's Angels and Nazism curious. Certainly, whilst they may have been (and remain) bruisers with a basically 'might is right' philosophy, a determined inner hierarchy, a predominantly WASP membership and a contempt for the norms of prevailing society, they have never seemed to me a typically fascist, right wing leaning group; indeed, if anything, their philosophy is existentialist and anti-authoritarian (which is about as far from Nazi politics as you can get). Whilst the Punks (whose politics generally ranged from being completely nihilist to canvassing for socialist, pacifist and racially inclusive values) ocassionally adopted Nazi insigna simply to court Middle English outrage, I think that the link between Angels and Nazis seems to go slightly deeper (though probably not in the ominous 'they are gearing up to lay waste to the world' sense with which the narrator tars them in the documentary).

    As was said by Orthdoxcaveman, the Angels' background lies, in truth, amongst the West Coast counter-cultures of the USA, from the era of the Beats through to that of the Hippies, and many of their traditions (with perhaps the exception of smashing things up) are completely in tune with those cultures - their sense of freedom on the open road, their wearing of long hair and valourising of almost 'tribal' primitivism, their copious interest in, and ingestion of, hallucinogenic drugs etc. etc. So, why the Nazism? There always seems to be have been a 'dark side' to West Coast hippiedom, in particular, whereby, at a certain point, a whole wave of pre WWII Germanic mysticism was adopted in such a way that initially Fascistic concepts became palatable to a wide swathe of those who were otherwise propogating 'Peace and Love'. The works of Thomas Mann, the poems of Rilke and Stefan George, early mescaline experiments, the thought of Nietzsche on the 'coming race' and the 'superman', Aryan 'back to the earth' folk movements etc. etc. are became part of the heady mix that informed the West Coast counter-culture. And, somewhere in amongst this, it was recognised that Hitler had been the 'initiated' man who had attempted to bring these visions of the future into being - he had more in common, certainly in his early years, with the viewpoint of many Hippies and 'alternatives' than some of them liked to admit. Others seem to have gloried in the comparison, and the 'reclaiming' of Hitler. I guess that this had a large part to play in the valourising of Hitler by members of the motorcycle gangs, too (he's a far from uncommon hero figure for them) - not just because they liked to see themselves as a new set of 'storm troops' poised to conquer the world ?

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    Comment number 7.

    How do you ignore you own children ? They deserved better.

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    Comment number 8.

    This looks great!

    BBC please can you show the 40 minute episode called the Outcasts!!!!!


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    Comment number 9.


    You have an old comment on Kabul City Number One, Part 3 (I'm commenting here, because I think you're more likely to read it here), where you say "The whole period of US led and/or inpsired techno-utopianism in the mid-late 50's is a most remarkable aspect of recent world history that I think is generally underplayed in most accounts of the era" I'd really like to hear more about that. Do you have suggested readings/viewings? I'm early on in my graduate work, looking at labor and development. You can contact me at my screenname followed by

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    Comment number 10.

    Of course the obvious question for me is: Where Are They Now?

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    Comment number 11.

    I'm waiting for the follow up. 37 years on these men will be in their 60s. Where are they now? What's the story?

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    Comment number 12.

    Agree that a follow up would be fascinating.

    "..the Hells Angels as a comic and exaggerated parody of the emptiness of the daily life for everyone in Britain."

    "...the Hells Angels' holiday ends with all them all sitting together on the barge in the rain watching Dr Who on television drinking cans of lager.

    Not much change there then. "

    Too true Mr Curtis. Great stuff. Thanks.

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    Comment number 13.

    Excellent work, as always, Mr. Curtis, and some good comments, too.

    The thing that struck me about this film was the almost mild-mannered, even, dare I say, eloquent interviews the Hell-raisers gave. Certainly, they were not model citizens, but they didn't seem to have that air of menace that, say, the football fight-clubs of the era had. The way they so easily acquiesced to the police and decided not to go on the rampage at that local chippy made them seem quite quaint (for want of a better word). It was actually genuinely sad.

    It's interesting the affinity with Nazism, Hitler etc. I'm quite interested in this self-destructive, deliberate self-ostracising from mainstream society aspect. It seems, to me, to be simply self-defeating, perhaps as a way of coping with the failures life can often deliver. Their embracing of this "Nobody likes us and we don't care!" attitude may go some way to explaining the Hitler connection. As, if they associate themselves to such a despised figure they will have already foregone any chance of success in life, which, paradoxically, means they can't fail at anything (at least not feel the pang of failure). In doing this, they'll never be accepted into main-stream society and be in a position to achieve anything and, therefore, to face rejection for non-achievement.

    Again, this is a genuinely sad, if this conclusion has any merit, but I don't think unique to these chaps; just that they embrace this thought-process in a manifestly extreme way.

    On the "cross-eyed because he had his eyes punched out": Anyone else think that that might be a bit of a self-created myth?

    And, I agree, the mother's quote is priceless.

    I think a "Where are they now" type follow-up would be a great and may shed some light on what led them on such a, frankly, pointless and banal rebellion.

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    Comment number 14.

    And next to Mad John's copy of "Big Chopper" we have the famous Hawkwind log book written by Robert Calvert and Barney Bubbles.. Far out! It's just a shame Lemmy wasn't with them that day..

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    Comment number 15.

    A lot of old Hells Angels hang out at the Salisbury Pub by Oxford Road Station in Manchester. They got a little aggravated a few years ago, when there was some craziness among Hells Angels gangs in Canada that was widely reported, but seem back to their old selves now, drinking in their patch and enjoying hanging around being seen and checking out the town. Also, when I was at the main, free tent for the Manchester Jazz Festival last month, a pair of Hells Angels roared up on loud bikes, parked, walked in to check it out, then roared loudly off, obviously bored. That's what I can report of my sightings of Hells Angels jackets.

    Great documentary to post in August. Thanks!

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    Comment number 16.

    Love it! An absolutely delicious documentary. A wonderful find.

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    Comment number 17.

    Great stuff, they are trying so very hard to be rebels. But they come across as irritating and dull. Kind of sweet in a way...
    Pre helmet law days obviously. Also interesting to see the bikes, mostly large-ish british but there is one guy on a Honda and what looks like a BSA Bantam. Definitely not the sort of machinery present day HA would be on. I well remember the days back then when just about anyone would call themselves a Hells Angel and ride around with a home made patch. You could even buy Hells Angels stickers and so on, I even had one on my push bike when I was about 12... This shows a time when so called "outlaw" bike clubs (MCs) were starting to become something more sinister.
    A wonderful find, thankyou.

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    Comment number 18.

    Just to let you know the RSS feed for this blog is broken as it's missed the last two articles. The ATOM feed is fine.

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    Comment number 19.

    Great film, many thanks for posting it. Any chance of seeing the credits?

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    Comment number 20.

    Leeravitz, the Hells Angels' background doesn't lie with the '50s/'60s West Coast counter-culture; the club was formed shortly after WWII. The club may have converged with elements of the counter-culture when it suited them, but they didn't share a philosophy (it's well documented that the HA were involved in beating up anti-Vietnam protesters at Berkeley).

    The Nazi imagery seems to have its origin with the club's original members in the forties who were WWII veterans, returning to California with war trophies including German insignia; these were worn openly to shock the 'citizens'.


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