"Eyeballs ruptured in 'ferocious Hells Angels attack'" is the headline that flashes through my mind as an elderly guy in thick glasses and loose fitting jeans pulls up and offers me a lift to Harrow Leisure Centre. It's not my usual Saturday night haunt but tonight I'm heading to a Rockers Revival and so is Lez. I see his name emblazoned on his leather waistcoat before he announces it and I decide he's not a Hells Angel or a threat, he's just lost. I have Google Maps open on my Samsung so I clamber into his cluttered car.
It’s a cold Saturday evening in suburbia. Hooded crowds huddle in the leisure centre car park and point their phones up at the sky, immortalising Harrow’s annual fireworks show in a flurry of blurred pixels. We walk around them, passed a blue van with Elvis’s head stencilled on the side, step through the double doors of Byron Hall and into the 1950s.
The dance floor is lined with greying Teddy Boys sporting overblown quiffs, freshly dry-cleaned drape jackets and buffed creepers while rockers swig pints in baggy jeans and badge-covered leathers. For most, this isn't fancy dress. The whole room carries a confidence that can only come from forging an identity in youth that has been fetishised in pop culture ever since.
I'm here to meet Lenny Paterson, 68, founder of the Spirit of 59 Club. In its heyday, the club was a Hackney Wick hangout for Britain's hard-nosed bikers. More recently, it's become the subject of not-yet crowdfunded animated documentary film, Dog Collar Rockers (so-called because the 59 Club had a priest at its helm). The trailer promises to tell the "true, untold stories of what it meant to be a 50s/60s rocker."
I thank Lez for the lift and wander over to the Spirit of 59 Club table, where Paterson introduces me to Chris Tew, the young filmmaker who set up the Indiegogo page. Tew reels:
A lot of the old guys are dying off and their stories too, so it's important to get this film out there. Just look at what they're wearing, they're proper characters, loveable rogues.
While hovering at the table I'm introduced to Pete, a lanky guy in his 60s with thinning blonde hair tucked behind his ears. But Pete is more interested in finding out if I have a single twin sister than chatting about the Hells Angels.
"Great fun," he replies with a tightlipped smile when I ask what it was like to be in a biker gang. I'm not sure if he has something to hide or just wants me to think he does. Before I return to the swaying crowds, he digs around in the pocket of his faded Levis and pulls out a Samsung phone old enough to qualify as retro. On the matchbox screen, there's an out-of-focus photo of a black and chrome Harley. “If you want, I’ll take you for a ride one day, boyfriend permitting and everything," he adds.
I get the feeling biker gangs mostly consisted of wayward lads substituting chat-up lines with the roar of their motorbike engines.
For Paterson, like many other bikers, the attraction began when Marlon Brando strutted onto our screens in 1953’s The Wild One, wearing snug-fitting Levi’s 501 and a smouldering pout. Now happily married, Paterson too is keen to paint himself as a young Casanova, pulling girls at Battersea Fun Fair and taking part in illegal burnouts, where bikers would race, often helmet-less, from Chelsea Bridge to the 59 Club and back again.
When we speak on the phone, Paterson says:
There was definitely a macho, bad boy image that came with being a rocker, and it helped that the girls were into it. It always surprised me how the Hells Angels managed to pull these attractive, middle-class girls while wearing these smelly, piss-soaked jackets,
Paterson remembers how young Teds and rockers would get involved with the Hells Angels. He likens the transition to Jim Carrey’s maniacal transformation in The Mask.
Once you put the jacket on, you had to live up to the expectations it came with. As a prospect you had to do what they said, if they asked to start a fight with a random guy in a pub, you did it.
Propects were Hells Angels in training. To me, it sounds like a group of disaffected young men swapping out one patriarchal system and its rules for another. “The only difference being, it was a system they could identify with and perhaps they found the terms more agreeable,” Paterson offers.
It took James Anderson three years to go from prospect to fully fledged Hells Angel. I meet him by chance, the following Sunday afternoon at the Original Tea Hut in Epping Forest. It's been a biker's stamping ground since it opened back in 1930.
As we sit on a bench surrounded by ancient woodland and revving engines, the 66-year-old tells me he rode with Hells Angels England from 1969-73.
The main bulk of the original lot are probably dead by now, but when I was with them there was about 14 of us.
He reels off the nicknames of his fellow bikers with fondness:
You had Sad-Happy, Uncle Nick, he was a little fella, blonde hair, blue square glasses, Mad John, (who became president after Buttons was put away for eight years for beating someone up in Ilford who later died) and there were two guys from Wolverhampton’s Blue Angels, who were simply known as Big Blue and Little Blue.
And Anderson’s nickname? “Tiny, on account of my being 15 and a half stone and just about the tallest bloke around until a 6ft5, 20-stoner called Albert turned up. It was just a laugh from beginning to end,” He pauses before adding, “there's a lot of things I wouldn't change and a lot of things I would change.”
I ask him what kind of things he got up to. “Well, at one stage I was stealing motorcycles,” he says, before describing how a manufacturing glitch meant the then-new Norton Commandos were particularly easy targets for entrepreneurial hoodlums. But the glint in his eye tells me this might not be the worst thing he got up to with the Angels.
You only need to scan the Wiki page dedicated to ‘Hells Angels MC criminal allegations and incidents’ to see how seemingly minor disputes were settled.
I recall a conversation from Saturday night with an amiable chap in his 50s, Tony Gay. His brother Paul swapped his quiff for a Hells Angels jacket and chopper. I later learn he had taken his own life. “Oh yeah, they’ve got their own way of dishing out the law," he said as we waited for the headline act.
"There's a lot of drugs involved in the Hells Angels. But my brother didn't join them to make money, he joined to make friends. They help each other out — when my brother died they gave him the best send-off you've ever seen. But if you cross one, you upset the whole family".
Shootings weren’t exactly commonplace but they did happen. Paterson recalls seeing a young guy with his guts hanging out on Chelsea Bridge. He’d been shot by a Hells Angel because his gang, the Road Rats, had refused to join them.
“We all wanted to be the same thing, but there was so much politics and aggravation in between. The England Angels were hated throughout the country because we were the originals. And when you’ve still got the original, how can you have a copy?” asks Anderson.
Much like the stabbings of today, the violence boiled down to gang rivalry and the colours you wore. Drama ensued if you were caught wearing a patch that wasn't officially issued to you: "You can buy copies off the website now," says Anderson "but I'm quite sure if you got caught wearing one, they would tear your head off and wee down the hole that's left behind, basically." I laugh but Anderson maintains his steely gaze.
Club meetings took place in a two bed flat above a tobacconist opposite the old bingo hall on Essex Road, Islington and you weren't allowed to miss one. In Hunter S Thompson's 1967 book Hells Angels, the main feature of initiation "is always the defiling of the initiate’s new uniform”. But Anderson firmly rebuffs this claim: "All this urinating on your jackets stuff is absolute poo, it's just about proving you're a reliable person and guaranteeing you're going to be there if there are any problems."
For Anderson, becoming a Hells Angel wasn't just about tinkering with his BSA ("because Harleys were way too expensive back then for the average Joe"), it was a way of life. "It's like joining a tribe". So why did he hang up his patch?
"I met my missus. To be honest, if I hadn't met her, it would have been a whole different kettle of fish because I was heading towards a big, black hole — fast."
In a BBC documentary from 1973, you can see then-president Mad John, his dog Hitler and a motley crew of unkempt Angels tearing around London and boozing under overcast skies. But the tough-nut image seems to be just that. Instead of trashing a cafe, whose owners refuse to serve them, they spend the night cooped up on an abandoned barge watching Doctor Who.
A comment underneath the video puts it this way: “it was all about trying to find identity and purpose... this need to prove your manhood, to stand your ground for yourself and your 'tribe' stays with you for a long time. It did with me, it's only when I got into middle age that I began to realise how stupid I was.”
Although Anderson's time with the Hells Angels was shortlived, he, Paterson and Tony's brother Paul sought friendship and a sense of identity and belonging from their respective biker gangs. Thankfully, we don't need to be put on piss-soaked leathers to understand that.
Read more about Len Paterson's time in the 59 Club here.
Support the Indiegogo page for Dog Collar Rockers here.