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Adam Curtis | 17:17 UK time, Friday, 6 August 2010

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.


  • Comment number 2.

    Cheers for putting up all these new things AC.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 ?

  • Comment number 7.

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

  • Comment number 8.

    This looks great!

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


  • 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 @duke.edu.

  • Comment number 10.

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

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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..

  • 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!

  • Comment number 16.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 19.

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

  • 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'.

  • Comment number 21.

    A very interesting piece of film and the best example of (Real) England Hells Angel film I've seen to date.

    I wonder why Buttons himself is not featured in this film, there seems to be no information on him anywhere else either. Anyone know what happened to him from the writing of his book onwards, the club continued to this day but no mention of Buttons after writing his book anywhere. Does anyone know anything?

  • Comment number 22.

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

  • Comment number 23.

    Some good old faces lol Those old patches havent see those in years either. Jock looked well for once, i used go to to the bell pub for him to get his daily whisky lol In his shop he had the angels prayer on the wall and he could not tattoo it on anyone other than a angel. I worked the Raven at liverpool street that the angels used even for their prospect charter in europe in about 74. Also used by the london road rats mc, among teds and rockers of the day.Bubbly Bob run that pub .good old days.

  • Comment number 24.

    As far as I know Andy is still in,the only one I can spot amoungst the lads in the film who is still in.
    Somebody from the club mentioned that they met Buttons in the Limelight,about a year ago.Thats all I can offer,not being an involved,or anything.

  • Comment number 25.

    Outcasts here too please. Remember it well and having a good laugh. Time for a revisit.

  • Comment number 26.

    So, Curtis says that the filmakers were aiming at an alienated take on modern life kind of job - a bit like that wonderful comedy show by Sean Lock that no-one has seen '15 Stories High'.

    Not so sure about this - I think he was just trying to break the Hell's Angels myth. I think he just hated their attitude and the problems such groups they can cause and aimed to take them down a notch. Thoughts, anyone?

  • Comment number 27.

    I'm not sure he was trying to break their myth, unlike today very little real information was really known about the Hells Angels other than the garbage that popped up in newspapers from time to time by writers who thought anyone on a bike in a leather jacket was a Hells Angel. I think he was just trying to make a piece of film that actually told the truth.

    Can we take it from "surreydocks" write up that Buttons is still around, there is no information available anywhere about him after the writing of his book?

    I'll second that request from "Dancaban" for that Outcasts documentary, I remember seeing it at the time, very good!

  • Comment number 28.

    All those asking "Where are they now?" Answer - nowhere (hopefully / probably).
    It's a different time now but hey, grow some b****ocks - look after your kids.

  • Comment number 29.

    I agree with post 25, about time the BBC dugout the documentary film made in the early 80s about the Outcast Biker Gang from Great Yarmouth. I remember the BBC filming it around Great Yarmouth at the time. Very funny and well worth another look. I think their President, Tramp, is still about!

  • Comment number 30.

    This probably about as useful as the BBC Have your Say nonsense which just goes off into digital infinity, but post 28 should Google Bulldog Bash for a current public take on English and Welsh Hells Angels or Google Hells Angels for a worldwide view . . . in a Britain smothered by health and safety with the only outlet being to go and knock six shades of pooh out of people in mud huts in Afghanistan i m glad we've got some homegrown nutters . . . yes they they are psychotically violent. all through history there have been men like that but what is good about the Angels is they can throw a very good party when they want to, and, if you're into bikes they run some exquisite machinery . . . . of course there are dangers involved by being close to them but if you're not a complete tw*t you should be okay, i've been to loads of their shows and i'm still in one piece and i'm p*ssed off with people thinking we are all safe and cosy at home, cos we're not, so be paranoid or whatever but deal with it, we're British for Gods sake, if we as a nation dealt with Adolf then you can deal with your local Hells Angel . . X

  • Comment number 31.

    The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club has moved on massively since 1973. Over the years as a once youthful grebo and motorcyclist the Hells Angels that I have met have been sound people. The club keep their business to themselves just as we do and at the end of the day whose business is it anyway. Other than the so called authorities. I don't like the city council monitoring my recycling bin so why should any one not question authority. The HAMC represent what many of us would dearly love to have. But for whatever reasons we don't. Few people can offer the commitment that the club requires and that is what makes it what it is. Show some respect and support your local 81. Oh, and don't cross the picket line either!

  • Comment number 32.

    Is this content still working for everyone - i keep getting a 'try again later' error?

  • Comment number 33.

    Sorry, works now!

  • Comment number 34.

    What a great film! By 1973 I had already given up being a Hell's Angel for almost three years because I was married and had a two year old daughter, but what I CAN tell you about the Hell's Angels in this film...(If my own experience, and that of my fellow Hell's Angels, is anything to go by)...that most of them probably went on to lead perfectly law-abiding and decent lives, with jobs, wifes, children, and grandchildren.
    They would be in their late fifties or early sixties by now...I'd love to know what became of them.

    President of The Nomads.

    (btw..I'm still riding bikes, in a gang........o.k. a motorcycle club!)

  • Comment number 35.

    Having written Buttons, and spend 25yrs in TV as producer/writer I found it an excellent 'historical' relapse do finally see the film. Am currently trying to reprint Buttons book as am outraged that people are paying thirty quid plus for a paperback and copies of hardback selling for hundreds. May publish book via Kindle for a couple of bucks so that all who really want to have copy can read.... Jamie Mandelkau

  • Comment number 36.

    My name was Scratch, formerly Feathers. I lived at Button's house with his dad in the 60's just for a short while. I was a runnaway and his dad was gona adopt me to keep me safe from the cops picking me up. Anyway, I left and made my own way in the world. Became Miss Whiplash Lindi St.Clair. Whatever happened to Buttons? Did he go to the States? He must be about 60yrs old now. I loved him!!

  • Comment number 37.

    I was in H.A. Ratae which was formed in 1967 and everyone around the world in their own clubs were eventually swallowed up by the American culture. I remember when Buttons got his charter, we was offered one as well in 1969. Buttons got his Charter with Harley Pete. Our President at the time turned the Charter down as we had red on blue, not red on white patches and in 1969 we were well known and we did not want to lose our identity.
    When Buttons returned from california, he was told to stay away from the Hell's Angels, Ratae Chapter by the yanks but he chose to ignore this and arranged a meeting with us at a motorway service station and about 30 members of our club turned up to see what he had to say.
    At the time, I was 21 and I was one of the youngest members of our club. we had people like Big Rog, Leo (who was 47), and plenty of others that were pushing thirty at that time, and then Buttons walkes in, this little tubby looking fella, who was 19 years of age, with his seargent at arms, Tramp, who was 18 or 19, so that was a bad impression straight away. Our club was full of men and these were kids, we sent a message back to Ralph Sonny Barger to tell him we would not be changing our red on blue patches.
    a lot of clubs have since joined the the up to this Hell's Angels World thing now but they have lost their original identities. The Wolvo, the Windsor and the Mofos plus numerous other clubs have all lost something in their makeup.
    It was better when the English clubs all had their seperate identities, the Road Rats still have their identity and out of the old clubs but thats about it.
    The Hell's Angels, Ratae chapter finally finished in about November 1985. Everyone was sent to prison in mid 1986.
    Buttons I heard was with a group called the Family, ex bikers hippies and stuff like that, I heard that in the early 1980s, havent heard much about him since, I still have a photo of him, I love the yank H.A. and the Holland H.A. but I think they are let down by the English H.A. as can be seen by the response from England after the Gerry Tobin affair.
    H.A. England havent really had a gang fight as such, you cant count the New forest incident when they snook up on H.A. Windsor and shot their President in the head (wont mention his name, cos he is a very good friend), and you cant count the time that they done the London Outcasts in the 1990, cos I mean really blood and thunder wars that go on for weeks and months. By for now. Long live H.A. U.S.A.

  • Comment number 38.


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