The Soundtrack of the Ride
What gets people into riding? Is it the feeling of wind in your face, a bike beneath you, and the freedom that comes with it?
For us, part of that feeling is the sounds of a motorcycle. Of starting a bike, and feeling its engine purr to life. Of revving it, and hearing its full power at your fingertips. Your bike roars down the freeway, in a tunnel, or pulling into town announcing your presence. (Or even hearing your garage door magically open, triggered by a flick of your high-beams?)
That may not be your day-to-day ride, but that’s the mystique of the sound of a motorcycle. People know what a bike sounds like, and it may scare, inspire, or even annoy them, but they recognize it.
And, since the early days of riding, musicians have tried to capture the feeling and sound of motorcycles in their music. To some, music and motorcycles are inseparable. We want to dive into some of the more notable songs inspired by and about motorcycles.
The Shangri-Las – “Leader of the Pack”
“Leader of the Pack,” in many ways, is a great contrast to the fun, groovy feeling of “Little Honda”. Both released in 1964, they tell very different stories of the way motorcycles were perceived in culture.
“Little Honda” played into Honda’s “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign. It was rebellious in the way that pop culture teenagers are rebellious – their parents may disapprove, but they remember what it was like to be a teen too.
”Leader of the Pack,” though sounding light and fun, deals with a much darker side of being a teenager. The singer is forced to choose between her parents and her boyfriend, Jimmy, who rides a motorcycle. “The Pack” refers to his Motorcycle Club, intimating that he’s the head honcho of a biker gang.
This video shows how the masses perceived bikers. “Jimmy” is dressed almost exactly like Marlon Brando’s character in “The Wild One,” a 1953 film about an outlaw biker and his gang.
“The Wild One” was based off of actual events in 1946 when around 4,000 bikers took over a small California town – “The Wild One” engrained the image of the rough biker in popular culture. This is also precisely the image that Honda wanted to change.
It’s also interesting to pay attention to how they present the biker in the song. He supposedly had a rough upbringing, and “he came from the wrong side of town.” The singer says that her dad thought he was bad, but she knew that he was “sad.” The song paints Jimmy as tragic, and riding motorcycles is his way of getting away from his sadness.
So then, riding is seen as his coping mechanism – even as the singer breaks up with him, he rides away crying. This ultimately leads to his death as he crashes soon after the breakup.
Songs like this taught popular audiences how they were supposed to perceive bikers. They see bikers as reckless, dangerous, and rough, all likely because of some trouble with upbringing. Riding motorcycles is seen as filling an emotional hole – no well-adjusted person would ride.
“Leader of the Pack” gives a glimpse into popular perception of motorcycles in the 60s. They were starting to become important in pop culture, later exponentially so with the cult success of “Easy Rider,” and people formed their own opinions of bikers. Of course, it’s up to you to decide whether they were right about bikers being maladjusted detriments to society!