Cycle Sounds Part One: Bikerbilly

You’d think that rock ’n’ roll and motorcycles were made for each other, but truth be told for every 1950s banger about bikes there are a couple of dozen about cars if not more. Bike songs were more of a sub-genre of hot rod rockabilly, and, like biker movies, most of them aren’t all that good. Clearly communicating the riding experience through music and lyrics is difficult, which is strange given the thousands of songs written about love, sex and heartbreak. Surely that covers the same sort of ground. That said, there are some good ones out there, and every decade has ’em, although the high point is definitely the 1960s, when evolving biker style was alchemically blended first with rebel songs, then death discs, and then psychedelia. These are my favourites, anyway. Call me old fashioned, but well, you know…

The more I started to think about what the industry used to call ‘Motorcycle Pop’ and American bikers called ‘Sickle Songs’, I realised it was too big a subject to adequately explore in one shot. Instead, this’ll be the first of an irregular series on two-wheeled tunes, probably on a decade-by-decade basis. Some of these’ll be well known to you, like ’em or loath ’em, others perhaps less so. Anyway, like most good things, it all goes back to Marlon Brando, James Dean, and the dawn of rock ’n’ roll…

#1

The Cheers were a novelty trio from LA who’d scored a couple of hits on Capital written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller weren’t at the absolute start of their career, but they were close. Their most significant composition at that point was ‘Hound Dog’, recorded by Big Mama Thornton in the summer of 1952, and yet to pass to Elvis. Leiber and Stoller wrote The Cheers’ first hit (and their own), the vaguely doo-wop ‘(Bazoom) I Need Your Lovin’’, which got to Number 3 on the Billboard chart in 1954. Historically, this is one of the first true rock ’n’ roll hits by a white group, following The Crew Cuts (‘Sh-Boom’, ‘Earth Angel’) and Bill Haley and the Comets (‘Rock Around the Clock’). This was followed by ‘Chicken’, based on the ‘chicken run’ scene from Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and ‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots’, which capitalised on the new breed of ‘rebel’ motorcyclists both reflected in and inspired by The Wild One (1953).

In the tradition of the folk ballad, ‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots’ has all the lyrical markers of the ‘teenage tragedy’ or ‘death disc’, in which a melodramatic story of star-crossed lovers is told – a good girl and a bad boy, her disapproving parents – ending in the death of one of the protagonists. Arguably, it may also be the first modern example of the genre, foreshadowing the high watermark of ‘Leader of the Pack’ by The Shangri-Las in 1964. In this case, the ‘Terror of Highway 101’ is hit by a train, after the long-suffering but loyal ‘Mary Lou’ begs him not to ride, though inexplicably only his clothes remain. The bike and the body are gone. Like the other Cheers’ singles, it feels almost a pastiche, but played dead straight, like The Dellwood’s satires on the Mad ‘Twists’ Rock N Roll album (1962), which were lyrically ridiculous – ‘She’s Got a Nose Job’, ‘Agnes the Teenage Russian Spy’ etc – but also really good rock ’n’ roll songs. Here it is, anyway:

‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots’ reached Number 6 on the Billboard chart, given a morbid push by the death of James Dean in a car crash on September 30, 1955. The song was covered the same year by veteran band leader Vaughn Monroe, just creeping into the Top 40 at Number 38. The next year, it was recorded in French by Edith Piaf as ‘L’Homme à la moto’.

#2

As the traditionally black medium of R&B and white trash rockabilly merged and diverged, and Elvis broke through on Ed Sullivan, the familiar cultural landscape of teenage rock ’n’ roll took hold in the States. Post-war middle-class affluence made cars a major part of growing up for many American kids, especially the white suburban ones, from hanging out at the five an’ dime and cruising the strip to fumbling in the back seat down some lover’s lane. Cheap classics were often stripped down and souped up, in the tradition of the modified cars used by bootleggers during Prohibition. By the 50s, Hot Rods and Drag Racing were popular teen hobbies, the National Hot Rod Association forming in 1951. Rockabillies loved their cars, and thus started to sing about them almost as much as sex. Mostly forgotten now, released on small local labels for small local radio stations, there were hundreds of these things recorded, with the cream rising to the top, for example Gene Vincent’s iconic ‘Race with the Devil’, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ by Vince Taylor and the Flips, and ‘Black Cadillac’ by Joyce Green. But if you look hard enough among this lot, down past lost 45s like ‘Speed Crazy’ by Slick Slavin and ‘Hot Rod Boogie’ by Jack Kitchen, you’ll find the odd song about bikes.

Johnny Roane’s ‘Drag Strip Baby’ (1958), sounds as if it ought to be about a car, but it isn’t. The lyrics move between hanging out with the gang at weekends – like Perry King on his Duo Glide in The Lords of Flatbush – and motorcycle drag racing:

Now when she glides out on the runway, she got just one thing in mind

That cute little wiggle as she shimmies off the line.

If you ever cracked a throttle, you know just what I mean,

She’s a hot motorcycle and a real gone machine.

Cut on the tiny Wagon Records label out of Baltimore, with a B-side called ‘Wasted Past’ which probably says it all really, nothing more was ever heard of Johnny Roane. But at least we have this to remember him by:

#3

Jimmy Stevens was a rockabilly out of New York State about whom I know nothing else, aside from that in 1959 he cut the memorable single ‘Scramble’ for Viaphonic with the equally mysterious Dela McCarthy on guitar. They do not appear to have done anything else. But ‘Scramble’ is enough. I’m not sure if by ‘scramble’ he means motocross or just a run, and the lyrics could take you either way – ‘I’m gonna gun my wheel and make the rubber peel at the scramble tonight!’ – but the energy is great, as is the guitar and all those throaty engine noises. Check it out, anyway:

#4

R&B, meanwhile, had beat the rockabillies to the punch in 1957 with ‘Bad Motorcycle’ by The Twinkles out of Philly on Al Browne’s Peak label. The Twinkles were the black duo Ann and Lillian Storey, and this masterpiece of sexy, suggestive R&B was, so legend has it, provisionally entitled ‘Bad Motherfucker’, putting it in the same camp as those filthy jazz and R&B songs from the 40s and early-50s like Fats Noel’s ‘Ride Daddy, Ride’ and Bull Moose Jackson’s ‘Big 10 inch (record of the band that plays the blues)’. ‘That’s one bad motorcycle’ was a catchphrase of the Baltimore DJ Jocko Henderson, meaning hip, cool and generally boss. Whether this counts as a ‘sickle song’ is therefore open to debate, but they do make ‘vroom, vroom!’ noises too, so I reckon that clinches it in the same way that ‘He’s a Rebel’ by The Crystals (1962) doesn’t mention bikes but is an ode to a bad boy that featured an illustration of a greaser on a motorcycle on the single’s picture cover:

The following year, the song was picked up by Cameo-Parkway Records of Philly and given national distribution, ‘The Twinkles’ becoming ‘The Storey Sisters’. ‘Bad Motorcycle’ made it into the Top 40 and the girls moved to Sol Rabinowitz’s influential Baton Records in New York, but after a couple of lack-lustre singles they gracefully dropped off the radar forever.

#5

Finally, staying with the ladies, the decade came to an end with ‘Motorcycle Jack’ by Terry Ann & Lafferty-Furth Gang – whoever they were – on Cleveland Records. This is a great bit of boogie-woogie driving music, complete with kickstart and engine noises plus screeching tyres. This one’s a weird death disc. There’s no love story, and the tone is oddly upbeat. Motorcycle Jack, we are told, is so hardcore that ‘He would give up his life if he could ride on that bike’, and that’s exactly what he does, getting rear-ended by a truck at 105 mph. He then ascends to heaven and can still be seen ‘on cold dark nights’ roaring across the sky, apparently quite happily:

In roughly chronological order, then, this is my personal Top 5 from the 1950s, but if you know any others from this decade or anymore about these artists then please do give me a shout. The true Renaissance of the cycle song, however, was the 1960s, and that’s where I’m heading next, so watch this space. That’s when I fell for The Leader of The Pack…

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