To most bikers the complex world of motorcycle back patch clubs is pretty much a mystery. To non bikers it’s not a mystery because they simple have no idea how large, complex and, occasionally, dangerous this world can be, despite it being all around them. It happens below their social, economic and cultural radars.
This doesn’t stop them making assumptions of course. Most people simply assume anyone who rides a big motorcycle and wears a leather or denim cut off bearing patches is “a Hells Angel of some sort”.
What is true though is that a mix of myth, urban legend, movies and occasional appearances on the TV news lead many to presume that all these people are violent armed criminals living in some sort of greasy underworld.
The reality is vastly more subtle, and interwoven, with the UK (although the principles outlined below might apply in most countries) cut up in to territories occupied by a hierarchy of clubs, or “gangs” to the uninitiated or the tabloid press, some of whom are little different to mobile versions local golf clubs, some of whom are a little more..er..focussed and some of whom really should give you sleepless nights if you happen to get on the wrong side of them.
So after being asked by lots of friends over the years, thanks to a hairy mis-spent youth spent in leather and denim, what means what when it comes to bike clubs, I thought I’d lay it down on paper, or at least in pixels, on the basis that my mates can’t be the only ones who are curious.
Bit of housekeeping first.
One – nobody knows what goes on inside an MC (Motorcycle Club) other than the members of that MC. Whilst many share certain principles and even values, they’re all different. I don’t intend to try to explain the inner workings of anything here, on that basis. Nor could I.
Two – Because MCs (and MCCs, MRCs and others – see later) are all different it’s impossible to write an article like this without someone declaring it to be “bullshit”. In other words, we have to stay general and some people will take generality to be inaccuracy, compared to the world they know. Valid call, but I’m trying to cover the basics. Many people will be part of clubs which do things differently, of course.
Three – if you’re reading this because you’ve got some kind of interest in joining an MC, stop here, close your computer and do something else. If you need to research it on the internet you’re vastly too far removed from even the edge of the scene you’re interested in to either get close to or, I would contend, to want to get to its murkier centre. It’s almost certainly not for you.
So let’s start with the good news. The vast majority of “patched” bikers you might see roaring about are not going to shoot you, kidnap your daughter, fight pitched battles in your street or bite the head of anything more lively than a Cornish pasty.
This is because, statistically, they are likely to be members of an MCC or “Motor Cycle Club”. That space between “Motor” and “Cycle” is hugely significant. Remember I mentioned MCs, or “Motorcycle Clubs” above? An MCC is to an MC what Dad’s Army is to the The US Marine Corps. One’s a loose affiliation of like-minded friends enjoying a shared social activity, the other is a regimented and disciplined way of life, and potentially death.
An MCC might be formed by friends who enjoy riding together. It might be formed by people who do the same thing for a living, engineers let us say, who also enjoy bikes. It might be formed of people who enjoy a certain kind of bike.
In the main the only commitment required is to turn up, have fun, behave within the accepted social norms of the club and pay your subs or share. Pretty much anyone can join.
MCC members will almost always wear the identification patch of their club on the front of their jacket or cut-off. Once in a while this might be worn under the armpit as a “side-patch”, although even this is close enough to the “uniform” of an MC, and drifting towards those groups’ holiest of holies, the back patch, for some to dislike the practice.
Technically (in as much as there are set “rules”) it is accepted that an MCC should have the blessing of the MC which controls the territory in which it exists if it wants to avoid trouble. In reality this depends very much on the nature of the MC in question. Some rigidly enforce these rules, especially those involved in tense or occasionally violent territorial disagreements with other MCs. Others are generally more accommodating if the MCC in question is no obvious threat, doesn’t try to look like an MC and is not too big.
There are plenty of examples, though, including one a few years back where I live and ride, of MCCs forming in blissful ignorance of the fact they’re being watched; existing, growing and then suddenly getting a visit they didn’t want and disappearing very quickly. Usually this requires little more than a firm explanation and “request” and, occasionally, matters can be repaired to allow the fledgling MCC to continue existing. An MC wouldn’t ask twice though…
Similar to MCCs are MRCs, or “Motor Cycle Rally Clubs”. Again, a social group whose reason for forming in this case is to attend bike rallies and have fun. They too might sport front patches.
Just above an MCC/MRC sits a rarer beast, the “side patch brotherhood”. This is a little more lifestyle oriented than purely social, but is effectively an MCC+ whose identifying patch is worn on the side.
Between these social clubs and the full MCs, to which we shall come now and then return to later, are the “back patch brotherhoods”. We need to touch on MCs now because it’s hard to explain these back patch brotherhoods without first touching on what a full-blown MC, such as the Hells Angels, Outlaws, Satans Slaves or Blue Angels, actually is.
An MC is often thought of by those outside it as a “gang”. The MC would insist, rightly, that it’s a “club”, but the first word suggests belonging, shared values, risking all for other members, and that begins to get close. Not close enough though. Membership of an MC, and the right to wear that MC’s full colours, takes years. We’ll talk more about that in a bit, but it’s important to understand that for those who join, the MC is the single most important entity in their lives, including family.
Tight, secretive, proud and, most importantly, united, an MC’s members will do whatever is asked or expected of them by the club. Club business and events take precedence over career, or family, every time. For this reason MC members tend to be in relationships with women (let’s remember that most MCs are made up of brothers, very rarely sisters) who are also wholly submerged in the scene, or prepared to accept constant absences from home. It’s hard, although not impossible – some manage – to do it any other way.
The MC is family, blood and belonging. Its colours (particularly the back patch with both top and bottom rockers) are sacred. They are to be protected with your life. This isn’t an exaggeration, people have died over their colours.
We’ll return to MCs, but now you have an idea of what they’re about, you’ll better understand why a “back patch brotherhood” can be reasonably described as a kind of halfway house between an MCC/MRC and a full MC.
Membership of a BPB has to be earned, it’s not just given. Rules are much tighter and many of the members’ shared values, and the lifestyle they enjoy, would look, at least from the outside, similar to those of an MC. Also like an MC, the BPB sports a back-patch, thus the name.
Given how close to an MC, in image at least, these brotherhoods are, you would be right to presume that MCs take a close interest in them. No BPB is going to exist without the blessing of its local MC (or, as is often the case, its nearest MC – which may not be local but still claims the territory and, if necessary, will travel to protect it).
It can take months or even a couple of years to earn your back patch, and you’ll spend time around MC members at bike related social events or gigs. General opinion seems to be that the once absolute dividing line between BPBs and MCs has become less rigid in some parts of the country, to the point where meetings to discuss issues of shared interest can happen.
The key word in a BPB is “brotherhood”. Members take their belonging seriously, they do what they’re asked to do when necessary. The most significant difference with an MC is the BPB recognises that you have a life away from it, competing demands on your time and so on. An MC simply wouldn’t recognise anything as competition, emotionally or logistically.
Personally I think life’s better when you treat everyone with respect, and in bike terms that applies, for me, to all groups of riders, clubs and associations. But in terms of bike sub-culture, which this article is about, a BPB should be regarded as effectively non-threatening, or at least non-aggressive. Like any tight group, insulting it is likely to lead to issues but no more so than choosing to mouth off at a group of football supporters or soldiers.
Which brings us, finally, to MCs, or “outlaw” or “1%” bike clubs.
Dozens of books, TV shows, newspaper articles have been devoted to this subject and there seems little point in rehashing them here. Let’s just continue in the vein we’ve been in, which is a light-touch explanation of what it is you see out on the road.
An MC is a life. People join it because they want to live their life that way, and all else is secondary. For many it provides a family bond which is stronger than anything they have known before. Most, although not all, hold territory. It is also true that most will be aligned with one of the big, international, MCs – the Hells Angels or the Outlaws in the main in the UK, but not exclusively.
An MC member is identifiable by the club name on the “top rocker” above the club’s emblem on his back patch. “MC” will appear on the back patch, or more rarely after the club name. The “bottom rocker” will show where the club comes from. Occasionally you might see a rider with the main back patch and the bottom rocker, but no top rocker. This will be a “prospect”, someone making his slow way through the lengthy procedures required for initiation.
Contrary to popular belief, this is less about biting the head off a bat and more about demonstrating over a number of years your willingness to subsume your old life within that of the club, to show your unstinting commitment, to prove you mean it. For the Angels this long road is also a chance for brothers to run the rule over you, not just those from your own locality, but elsewhere.
Some clubs, it is said, do require prospects to do a “thing”, sometimes violent or risky, to show their loyalty and bind them to the club. I can’t say whether this is true.
The diamond-shaped “1%” patch worn by almost all MCs on the front of their colours relates to a notorious, violent riot in the US in 1947 at a major bike event. Amid public outcry, the very respectable American Motorcycle Association or AMA, declared that 99% of attendees had been well-behaved, and it was only the 1% that were trouble. The AMA insists it never said this, but whatever the truth, a legend was born.
You’ll occasionally also see the number 81 on patches, t-shirts or even stickers on non MC bikes (usually saying “support 81”). This is a bit of an oddity. 81 relates to the eighth and first letters of the alphabet, H and A. This has grown hugely in recent years as many Hells Angels charters (not chapters) have found a useful sideline in flogging “support gear” to non members. Someone who isn’t an Angel can’t wear the club’s colours, but they can wear a “Support your local 81” t-shirt. Personally I find this a bit alarming, not least because some clueless fashionista with a debit card and an internet connection can very easily buy himself something which, worn in the wrong place, will result in serious trouble, Still, each to their own.
On the subject of trouble, the police in the UK regard a number of back patch gangs as pseudo criminal organisations (in the US the FBI rates the Hells Angels as an organised crime outfit). High profile murders and fights, such as those in recent years stemming from the rivalry between the Hells Angels and the Outlaws in England and Wales, have led the police to accuse both clubs (and others) to be responsible for racketeering, drug dealer, arms dealing and all sorts. Again, there’s no point in any of us speculating on the truth of these allegations. What is true though is that an MC will protect its territory, honour and reputation with violence. Rather like the principles of NATO, an attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all, and the offending person makes an enemy of the entire MC on the spot, up until such time as things are resolved, one way or another.
Despite rivalries and inter MC violence, there is one thing which can unite all MCs, and that’s going to the police about one of them. At that point you’ve broken a code which they all share, and take very seriously.
Finally there is much rumbling in the media that big MCs like the Bandidos and others are aiming to start trying to “take territory” in the UK from rivals, territory the papers which have got hysterical about it recently (looking at you here The Guardian) say is about organised crime. Again, I have no idea if that’s true, but from reading the papers you’d think it was going to be post-apocalyptic anarchy on the streets.
I can only speak from my own, very limited, experience. In many years around that scene when I was young, and many more years since much further away from it but occasionally on the fringes, I’ve only ever had one bit of trouble. An MC member threw me across a table in a pub. It was a bit like one of the bar fight scenes in a western movie. I was pissed, and mouthy, and I wholly deserved it. No serious damage done, I apologised, no grudges.
Other than that I’ve found most MCs to be friendly if distant, which is normal for any very tight-knit group. I’ve been able to enjoy myself with a couple socially in “their” pubs in a few places and been made to feel perfectly welcome. I think part of that stems from learning how to behave when I was around the fringes of that scene as a young man and having two very old friends who are now Hells Angels, but mostly it’s about not being a twat.
I’m sure there’s some terrible people in some MCs, and I’m sure some MCs themselves do things which are unpleasant and morally questionable. I’m not here to defend them, nor do they need any help in that regard anyway (or, in some cases, give much of a shit in the first place). What I do know is that are also some terrible people in your office, and many of you will work for companies which do things which are morally questionable without the tabloids having kittens. People are people, good and bad.
So, bit lengthy but I hope helpful for those who’ve asked over the years and others who may be curious.
I know it’s not comprehensive, I’m sure it’s got its errors and omissions, and I apologise for those to those of you who know more than I do. I also hope there’s nothing which any club member, of whatever sort, could take offence at.
Finally, whatever you ride, whether you’re in a club or not, ride safe, and as free as you can at least.