Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


I've always had a strange fascination with biker movie soundtracks. Partly because most biker movies are terrible and the music is pretty terrible too.
What did bikers listen to? Whatever it was that was of no interest to the people who made the films or the music.
Most biker soundtracks are pure exploitation. Wrapped in the dangerous mystique of nihilistic outlaws the records promised wild unfettered angry music. Instead what was usually presented was very tame.
Rather like the soundtracks to other exploitation pictures of the day the music was supposed to evoke the feelings of being wild and carefree, of being young and dangerous, of having nothing to loose except your virginity!
However, these records cover a wide range of different musics - jazz, rock, funk, easy, country, surf - sometimes it seems as though anything was worthy of being in a biker film.
Biker soundtracks usually include a title theme which is often the most rocking track. They often have a theme for the main character, which is slower and intended to indicate that he is thoughtful and above the animalistic bikers. They have a theme for the lady of the film, a 'freak-out' track and, weirdly often something with a country element. This may have something to do with bikers being depicted as essentially modern cowboys.
The movies started with bikers as, basically, misunderstood individualists, existential heroes who just wanted to be left alone to do their own thing. However, by the end of the biker fad they had become wild, savage beasts who raped and murdered their way through any unsuspecting squares who were unlucky enough to meet them.

Follow me for a mad dash across the desert of biker soundtracks, picking up some of the best tracks along the way.
It all started with Marlon in the Wild One. To my mind one of the most improbable biker leaders ever, he definitely set the tone for the wilder sixties screen bikers.
For the soundtrack Leith Stevens was brought on board. Stevens had written soundtracks previously, although mainly in television.
It was his use of jazz that was the deciding factor in hiring him. In 1953, jazz was the baddest music around. Rock had yet to take over as outlaw music and jazz still had all the connotations of sex, drugs and even a little bit of race!
The record on the left is a four track 45 EP recorded by Shorty Rogers of the main tracks from the movie.
He's accompanied by other West Coast luminaries such as Bill Perkins and Bud Shank.
For reasons that don't seem very clear, Decca brought out another version of the soundtrack.

This time its credited to the Leith Stevens All Stars. The All Stars included Shorty Rogers (for some reason called Roger Short on the sleeve), Bud Shank, Jim Guiffre, Shelly Mann (or Manny Shell as he is called on the sleeve), Maynard Ferguson and Russ Freeman.
Much less 'wild' than the EP this is great stuff nonetheless.
However, as with the majority of biker soundtracks I struggle to believe that the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club would really have been listening to this kind of thing.
Decca released a further LP with some extra tracks from the soundtrack but I don't have that!

It wouldn't be until 1966 that bikers returned to the screen. This time in the American International Pictures' Wild Angels.
Starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra and the amazing Bruce Dern this is one of the classics of the genre.

For the soundtrack AIP supremo Roger Corman turned to Mike Curb. Curb, who would go on to prominence in the Republican party after releasing a slew of cheap records on the world, turned to Davie Allan.
Curb and Allan had worked together previously on a film called Skaterdater - about a skate board gang!
Allan is to exploitation movies what Dashiel Hammett is to hard-boiled detective books. In a word he is the 'boss'.
Coming from the world of surf guitars, Allan would add a ton of wild, crazed fuzz action. It was raw, it was loud, it was the sound of a Harley on the open road.

However, the soundtrack album also introduced all of the other elements to biker soundtrack LPs. On a short LP there is a lot of filler.
As well as Blue's Theme for the Fonda character Heavenly Blues, there was a party/freakout track and there were tracks by imaginary bands. Everything was played by Allan and the Arrows, whatever the names on the back cover said.

Mike Curb was completely unprepared for the success of the Wild Angels.
But not for long! He got Davie Allan back into the studio and before long they had knocked out another 35 minutes.
To be honest, if you've got the original soundtrack there isn't much reason to get Volume II.
By now however, Allan and his Arrows were relegated to a footnote on the record sleeve and Curb took full credit for writing all the music - a situation that would continue much to the detriment of Davie Allan - although he would stick with Curb for quite a while.

Wild Angels had been made for next to nothing and had been a huge box office success. Everyone involved in making it wanted to repeat the magic.
The result was Devil's Angels released in 1967.

 This time though Curb teamed Davie Allan's phenomenal fuzz with the Wrecking Crew, particularly Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye.
It was a winning combination and the music on this record is, to my mind, some of the best the Allan committed to vinyl.
In true exploitation style most of the best tracks reappear on other records, most notably Cycle-delic Sounds. But don't let that put you off finding a copy.
As usual there is a track by a fictional group, in this case Jerry and the Portraits, which is terrible. There is a theme for the main character, Cody and a psych-out number as well.
The Devil's Angels soundtrack is consistent and rocking in a way that few others would be. The rhythm section really pushes Allan to produce some of his best, most freaked out, guitar lines and at little over half and hour it never outstays its welcome.

The onslaught did not let up and in 1967 Born Losers was also released.
This again came from the Corman stable and again featured music by Davie Allan, but this time masquerading as the Sidewalk Sounds (Curb's production company being called Sidewalk Productions).
The film introduced the character Billy Jack who would later star in his own movies and it is a reasonably fun film.
It also featured Jack Starrett who would go on to direct his own B Movies eventually making Ride With The Devil amongst others.
The music is good but repeated the same formula as the other Curb soundtracks.
Overall not as consistent as the earlier efforts, perhaps reflecting the pressure the Allan must have been under to produce the music.
Allan's guitar playing is as superb as always but the quality of some of the songs is not very high.
Also featuring on here is Terry Stafford, another member of the Tower Records roster. His contribution is best described as weak but that didn't stop him cropping up on other Curb soundtracks.

1967 was a very busy year for cinematic bikers as AIP released The Glory Stompers.
Suffering from the same problems as the Born Losers soundtrack there are far too many fillers here.
Max Frost and the Troopers, Eddie and the Stompers and Cassey Kasem all put in below par appearances.
The Sidewalk Sounds (Mr Allan of course) also seem to be sleepwalking through what, by now, had become biker record cliches.
The cover, however, is one of my favourites.

In 1967 Hells Angels of Wheels came out and introduced another name that will be familiar to soundtrack collectors, Stu Phillips.
Phillips was involved in a number of biker films, not all of which saw the release of his music - although some tracks have recently been released on CD.
His music tends to be less rocky and more funky than Allan's as well as more varied.
There are some great tracks on Hells Angles on Wheels, and as its not that hard to track down, I recommend it to everyone.
The only fly in the ointment is the track by the Poor, which is just that - poor.

The Savage Seven Soundtrack makes an effort to include music that real bikers might have listened to.
Cream provide Anyone for Tennis, a typically hard rocking instrumental and Iron Butterfly contribute two tracks, The Iron Butterfly Theme and Unconscious Power, both good examples of West Coast heaviness.
The rest of the record however, is given over to none other the Mike Curb and true to form we have two tracks by Barbara Kelly and the Morning Good - both of which are terrible and some instrumental tracks which sound very much like Davie Allan on an off day.

Released on Tower Records the Angels from Hell soundtrack is a real corker.
This is what biker soundtracks from the sixties should really be all about. For once some real bands were brought on board to provide some original material.
The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and the Lollipop Shoppe did better stuff elsewhere but their contributions here are still pretty good examples of West Coast psych.
The rest of the music is from Stu Phillips who mixes some funky tunes with some great faux hippy vibes and some great titles.
If you only get one biker soundtrack, get this one!

Hell's Belles is another great little soundtrack.
Released on Sidewalk records (its Mike Curb again) this is entirely given over to music composed by exotica-master Les Baxter and is surprisingly funky.
Almost every track has great drums pushed up in the mix and it has some wonderful orchestral funk moments.
I have to admit that my copy is the re-issue/boot
Hot Wind is a very funky little number!

I'm cheating slightly by including The Sidehackers soundtrack as its not really a film about bike gangs, more about psychotic people who race bikes with sidecars.
I have no idea who The New Life were although there is a picture of some moody looking guys on the back.
Its another Curb product and this time he's brought his friend Jerry Styner along for help.
As with most Curb productions the majority of the songs are pretty weak.
The exceptions are Ha Lese (Le Di Khanna) and the shockingly titled Psychedelic Rape which is the best freakout track on any biker soundtrack.

Come back for Part II where we'll run through more hairy biker soundtracks such as Satan's Sadists, Hell's Angels 69 and Psychomania.
See you later.


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