To paraphrase Neil Young, "Hey Hey, My My, biker music will never die."
The connection between motorcycles and rock and roll got kickstarted as background music for groups of restless World War II veterans who took to the road in the 1950s. Biker soundtracks have evolved over time, from Marlon Brando and the Black Rebels gang in the 1953 biker movie classic "The Wild Ones" to Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as Wyatt and Billy in 1969’s "Easy Rider" to the recent FX network show "Sons of Anarchy."
To the get low down on classic Milwaukee motorcycle music, we ride with local music expert Steve Palec. As the host of the weekly Sunday morning "Rock and Roll Roots" radio show on WKLH 96.5 FM for nearly 30 years, Palec spins records, stories and interviews that are as authentic as the wheels on a vintage Harley.
Palec has dabbled in riding motorcycles over the years and understands the journey of riding and playing or listening to music.
"My show is spontaneous, just like jumping on a bike to head out for a ride," he said. "It starts with an idea, but it’s live and I never know exactly where it’s going to go. WKLH has given me freedom to play whatever I like, and the audience enjoys anything from a Bon Jovi song about riding steel horses to Arlo Guthrie rhyming pickles with motorcycles to Bridget Bardot singing in French about Harleys."
Listeners can hear some unique insight into biker music culture this Sunday, Feb. 21, when Palec’s "Roots Salute" goes out to musicians who ride motorcycles.
"The Doobie Brothers started out playing for biker parties, and we’ll talk about the tragedy of the Allman Brothers," Palec said. "The underlining theme of biker music to me is attitude and the uniqueness of the music of riders. That’s why Steppenwolf’s 'Born to be Wild' is the quintessential biker song. Groups like BTO have songs that are more focused on driving cars or trucks, but it’s the same thing about the road and freedom."
Palec highlights Alice Cooper, Willie Nelson, Dave Grohl, Jimi Hendrix and even Led Zeppelin as riders using motorcycles for musical inspiration. He also notes that some artists specifically reference hometown favorite Harley-Davidson in their songs like Neil Young’s "Unknown Legend," Eric Burdon and The Animals in "San Franciscan Nights" or Bruce Springsteen’s "It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City."
Harley influenced the late rock legend Lou Reed enough that it dominated an interview he did with Palec.
"When he found out I was from Milwaukee, he only wanted to talk about Harley," Palec said. "I’ve since researched other interviews he did over the years, and he had a disdain for dumb questions, but I didn’t have to worry about that. We just talked about Harleys, their history in Milwaukee and the attitude."
As someone who collects motorcycle album covers myself – including those from Cheap Trick, Meatloaf and the James Gang – I asked Palec what are some of the most influential and interesting biker images on vinyl.
"Lots of those awesome album covers come to mind including some that are pretty obscure like Jeannie C. Riley, Maynard Ferguson or the 1910 Fruitgum Co.," he said. "I still have a copy of the 'Electra Glide in Blue' soundtrack. In fact, the guys from the band Chicago are in that movie. That’s not a great film, but 'Easy Rider' is a classic that still holds up to capture that era, the music and the attitude."
Palec’s album collection even includes a spoken word LP from Evel Knievel. He also cited the Janis Joplin’s 1973 greatest hits album for its memorable cover shot.
"If I remember correctly, she didn’t even ride," he said. "I think it was just done for the photo shoot, but again, there’s that attitude."
As noted above with the Allman Brothers, incidents and accidents are the down and dark side of biker culture. Longtime rider Bob Dylan’s brush with death on a motorcycle in 1966 at the peak of his popularity was a major milestone.
"Dylan’s accident wasn’t just about wiping out," Palec said. "It came at a time when he was burning out. As gifted and unique as he was back then, the rigors of that era’s music business took a toll on him. The time off was perfect for the clarity of a career that still goes on."
Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson made celebrities of the Hell’s Angels biker gang in the '60s, culminating with an infamous stabbing death and other violence during a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Racetrack in California in 1969.
"I don’t know that one can watch the scenes at Altamont and not feel disturbed," Palec noted. "I use the term 'attitude' to describe the parallel of music and bikers. It works, but that open road, rebellion and thrill has nothing to do with murder. Violent people with hatred are just as apt to ride a bus as a bike."
On a lighter note, Palec witnessed two of Milwaukee’s biggest biker shows.
"Like many others, I went to the Harley 100th concert without inside knowledge of the headline act," he said. "Someone told me Elton John was in town, and I thought they were kidding. I like Elton John and did an entire show devoted to closure on the issue and played three hours of his music. I did get right up to the stage for Springsteen at the 105th. Perfect night. Perfect choice."
Bikes and Brews: Wisconsin Harley-Davidson in Oconomowoc presents its 3rd Annual Bikes and Brews Beer Sampling Extravaganza and Festival on Saturday, March 3 from 5 until 10 p.m. Tickets include a commemorative pint glass, over 50 unique beer and cider samplings, live music and food ticket. VIP packages provide a T-shirt, VIP lanyard and early entry. Designated driver packages and special room rates are available at Staybridge Suites.
Mama Tried: This weekend, Feb. 19-21, marks the third annual Mama Tried Motorcycle Show featuring Flat Track Friday indoor racing at the Panther Arena, motorcycle shows Saturday and Sunday at Milwaukee Cold Storage at 124 N. 2nd St., and ice racing Sunday at McKinley Marina on the Lakefront.
Warm it up: February is Moto Month at the Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee including motorcycle-themed Bike Nights, Mama Tried promotions, a Bloody Mary brunch and special artist nights showcasing local artist Mathew (Boo) Hintz.
Mike Morgan rides retro, whether on his 1976 Harley Aermacchi 250 or Heritage Softail. Mike has been a motorcyclist since 2001 having ridden in Sturgis, Daytona Beach, the California coast, New England and everywhere in between, including in the last three Milwaukee Harley Anniversary parades.
Mike worked in communications and marketing at Harley-Davidson for more than 12 years, writing and editing all kinds of content, including award-winning media kids in 2009 and 2012. He had ridden the Harley several times before Brewer games at Miller Park, and ran in one of the last sausage races at the old County Stadium when he was Communications Manager for the Stadium District Board.