The backstory to these pictures is a perfect illustration of the magnetism of rebels to simultaneously attract and repel. Taken by Bill Ray for LIFE magazine in 1965, the photographs never saw the light of day.
Ray spent over a month with this particular Hell’s Angel Chapter, based outside Bakersfield, CA. He and writer Joe Bride had been introduced to the group by proxy, through an associate. There was no guarantee that the riders and their ‘old ladies’ would tolerate the ongoing presence of straight-laced photo journalists.
But tolerate it they did.
The original Hell’s Angels motorcycle club had been formed in 1948 in California by veterans returning at the end of World War II. The name had been used by the P-40 Third Squadron in Burma—which in turn had been a homage to the 1930 Howard Hughes movie ‘Hell’s Angels’.
The film, set in the skies of WWI, had introduced spectacular screen aeronautics to cinema audiences—and also the spectacular presence of an 18-year-old Jean Harlow.
Meanwhile, back in California, the Hell’s Angel club became, according to your predilections, either a thinly disguised organised crime syndicate, or a byword for freedom and life sans inhibitions.
As the group became closely associated with the Haight-Ashbury counterculture of mid sixties San Francisco, 1969’s Easy Rider film took this explosive mix and made $60 million out of it at the box-office. Some return against a budget of $400k.
But, four years before that, what Bill Ray and Joe Bride recorded was unscripted, undirected, unfiltered, and somehow inherently unsafe. That is what gives the images their power, and it is also precisely what caused the editor to axe the photographs from the magazine. He didn’t want to give media space to, as he put it, “those smelly bastards”.