Going back to 1955’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots by the Cheers, motorcycles have been a symbol of rock and roll’s rebellious attitude. When Easy Rider hit movie screens in 1969, its soundtrack of recent rock hits cemented the association of music and motorcycles.
Whether your ride is a wicked chopper or a souped-up moped, enjoy Rock Cellar’s Top 11 Motorcycle Songs… no helmet required.
11. Ballad of Easy Rider by the Byrds
In 1969, counterculture film classic Easy Rider followed two outlaw bikers on their journey from L.A. to New Orleans. While the film’s groundbreaking soundtrack was largely composed of rock hits like If 6 Was 9 by Jimi Hendrix and The Band’s The Weight, Bob Dylan was asked by producers Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to write the film’s theme song. After seeing an early cut of the film, Dylan refused. But Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said that Dylan instead wrote a few lines on a paper napkin, handed it to the producers and said, “Here, give this to McGuinn, he’ll know what to do with it.”
“Peter Fonda took this napkin and comes back to L.A. and he came over to my house and this napkin was like the Holy Grail. He presented it to me, he said, ‘Bob wants you to have this, man.’ I read it, it said, ‘The river flows, it flows to the sea. Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be. Flow, river, flow.’ I got my guitar out and I made up a tune for it and finished off the words and we called it Ballad of Easy Rider.” McGuinn sang and played acoustic guitar on the song that was used to close the film; the Byrds later recorded a group version that featured an orchestral arrangement.
10. Little Honda by the Hondells
Little Honda, the Hondells’ peppy 1964 Top 10 hit, is a cover of the Beach Boys’ ode to the Honda Super Cub. Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, the song first appeared on the Beach Boys’ All Summer Long LP. The song’s potential as a hit single was recognized by producer Gary Usher, who had written 409 and In My Room with Wilson.
Usher put together L.A. studio musicians like guitarists Glen Campbell and Richie Podolor with background singer Ritchie Burns to re-record Little Honda as the Hondells, a group that didn’t yet exist. As the song rose in the charts, a rotating group of musicians were recruited by Usher to perform as the Hondells.
9. Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las
Despite their tough-girl persona, the Shangri-Las in 1964 were clean-cut high school students when their first hit, Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand) made the Top 10. Its follow-up, Leader of the Pack, was a dark tale of teen love and angst that ends in a deadly motorcycle crash. Shangri-Las’ lead singer Mary Weiss revealed to the Telegraph the inspiration for her dramatic vocals: “I put a lot of my own pain into that song. I don’t think teenage years are all that rosy for a lot of people – they certainly weren’t for me. They are the most confusing time of people’s lives and there is a tremendous dark side to the record, which I think teenagers related to. The studio was a great place to let the pain out.”
To promote Leader of the Pack, Red Bird Records changed the group’s image; the Shangri-Las soon cultivated a bad-girl attitude and wore tight slacks and spike-heeled leather boots – shocking in the era of Father Knows Best. The song’s theme of rebellion and death would have it banned by some radio stations, but Leader of the Pack would reach number one, the Shangri-Las’ biggest hit.
8. Long Lonesome Highway by Michael Parks
Young people were in revolt in 1969 America, demonstrating against the Vietnam War and the corrupt Nixon administration. Then Came Bronson premiered that year on NBC television; the series struck a chord with disaffected viewers who longed to escape the system. The show starred Michael Parks as Jim Bronson, a reporter who quits his job and rides off on his Harley-Davidson Sportster in search of the meaning of life. Bronson, who is committed to pacifism, travels the American West, influencing the lives of people he meets while remaining unchanged himself.
The show’s ending theme, performed by Parks, was Long Lonesome Highway, written by James Hendricks. A successful writer who had penned Summer Rain for Johnny Rivers, Hendricks’ road song became a Top 20 hit thanks to Parks’ understated vocals and lyrics that spoke to the era’s restlessness: “One of these days I’m gonna settle down / But ‘till I do I won’t be hanging round / Going down that long lonesome highway / Gonna live life my way.”
7. Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi
With its outlaw biker vibe and lyrics like, “I’m a cowboy / On a steel horse I ride / I’m wanted / Dead or alive,” Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive has been used as the music behind motorcycle movie scenes in everything from Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man to Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Written by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, the 1986 release was a Top 10 hit. Jon said on Inside the Actors Studio that his inspiration came with the realization that rock bands live much like outlaws in the Old West: “A young band of thieves, riding into town, stealing the money, the girls, and the booze before the sun came up.”
Despite the song’s Western theme, it was written thousands of miles away in the basement of Sambora’s mother’s New Jersey home. In concert, Jon has introduced the song by saying, “Thanks to Richie’s mom for not doing the laundry the day we wrote this song. It’s called Wanted Dead or Alive.”
6. The Motorcycle Song by Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie’s album Alice’s Restaurant was one of 1967’s strongest yet funniest anti-war protests; the LP’s single was The Motorcycle Song. Some believe the song shows Guthrie’s disregard for authority or celebrates individual freedom. Guthrie simply says, “It’s about the time I was riding my motorcycle, going down a mountain road at 150 miles an hour, playing my guitar.” Its unforgettable opening lyrics: “I don’t want a pickle / I just want to ride on my motor-sickle.”
During a 1977 concert, Guthrie called it a “dumb song”: “You know, it’s been about 12 years now that I’ve been singin’ this dumb song. You know, it’s amazin’ that somebody can get away with singin’ a song this dumb for that long. But you know what’s more amazin’ than that is that somebody can make a livin’ singin’ a song this dumb. But that’s America.”
5. Bad Motor Scooter by Montrose
One of the most popular songs by hard rockers Montrose is Bad Motor Scooter, written by singer Sammy Hagar. Hagar told Rolling Stone that the song helped cement his working relationship with guitarist Ronnie Montrose. “I had no experience whatsoever. I just wrote the first four songs in my life, which were Bad Motor Scooter, Make It Last, One Thing on My Mind and I Don’t Want It, played them for Ronnie upon first meeting, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s start a band.’ I went from zero to a hundred.”
The band struggled with the song in the studio, believing that it lacked a memorable hook. That changed when Ronnie stumbled upon a unique guitar sound while experimenting with a slide and a fuzz box; Montrose was able to mimic the sound of a revving motorcycle engine. Throughout the 1980s, metal bands including Mötley Crüe would rip off the effect for their own records.
4. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by Richard Thompson
Singer-songwriter Richard Thompson described his most popular song, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, as “a simple boy-meets-girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a motorcycle.” It’s much more than that. The tale of James and Red Molly, united in their love of danger and fast bikes, ends tragically when James is killed attempting an armed robbery. Before he dies, James gives Molly the keys to his Vincent, an extremely powerful and rare British motorcycle; just 30 were built in 1952.
Thompson, called the greatest guitarist in British folk rock, displays his finger-picking prowess on the song; he plays at a speed that evokes the power of the classic bike. Thompson explained that he chose the Vincent because it’s “an object of myth… a rather wonderful, rare and beautiful beast.”
3. Motorcycle Mama by Sailcat
The breezy 1972 hit Motorcycle Mama was recorded by Sailcat, a Southern pop/rock group that was essentially John Wyker and Court Pickett, two veterans of the Muscle Shoals music scene. The one-hit wonder band was hastily assembled after Motorcycle Mama became a hit. Motorcycle Mama was the title track of a concept album that capitalized on the popularity of biker films. “I called it a rock opera,” said Wyker. “The storyline behind Motorcycle Mama is really simple to understand. It’s about a no-good riding motorcycle tramp that is really a latent romantic, and has dreams of settling down and having a family.”
But the song was almost roadkill before it was even released. The night it was recorded, Wyker said, “We get a motel, come back, listened to what we did, and I said, ‘Oh, man, this is the worst thing I ever heard in my life.’ And I took the tape and literally threw it in the garbage can.” Fortunately, Elektra Records heard a copy and signed Sailcat. Despite its success, Wyker remained dismissive of the tune. “I cussed the label out from the stage of Carnegie Hall. Somebody said ‘Motorcycle Mama!’ I said, ‘You know, I hate that song. It’s just so wussy. I had thrown it in a garbage can and somebody fished it out and these double-domed eggheads from L.A. thought it could be a hit, and they made it a hit, and I’m ashamed of it.”
2. Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf
Born to Be Wild, a Top 10 hit in 1968, became forever identified with motorcycles and the open road after its appearance in the opening sequence of Easy Rider. During the film’s production the song was a placeholder, as producer Peter Fonda intended Crosby Stills & Nash to write and record the soundtrack. When CSN backed out, it became apparent that the song was ideal for the film. “Every generation thinks they’re born to be wild,” Steppenwolf singer John Kay told Rolling Stone. “And they can identify with that song as their anthem.”
The song’s inspiration, writer Mars Bonfire told Songfacts, came while walking, not riding. “I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard one day and saw a poster in a window saying ‘Born to Ride’ with a picture of a motorcycle erupting out of the earth like a volcano with all this fire around it. Around this time I had just purchased my first car, a little secondhand Ford Falcon. So all this came together lyrically: the idea of the motorcycle coming out along with the freedom and joy I felt in having my first car and being able to drive myself around whenever I wanted.”
1. Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf
Written by Meatloaf’s longtime collaborator Jim Steinman, Bat Out of Hell was inspired by teen tragedy tunes like Leader of the Pack and Tell Laura I Love Her – songs of doomed relationships that end in a fatal motorcycle wreck. Bat Out of Hell outdoes them all, the tale of a fateful ride on a sinister black Honda Phantom: “And I never see the sudden curve / ‘Till it’s way too late / Then I’m dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazin’ sun / Torn and twisted at the foot of a burnin’ bike.” In the song’s documentary, Steinman said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a more violent crash… the guy basically has his body opened up and his heart explodes like a bat out of hell.”
Steinman, who hoped to create the ultimate motorcycle crash on record, lobbied to include sound effects of a real bike. The idea was vetoed by producer Todd Rundgren, who instead mimicked the roar of a motorcycle in a tour de force guitar performance, which led straight into the solo without a pause.