The Hell’s Angels formed in San Francisco/Oakland, California a few years after the end of WW2. Not long after, photographers begin documenting this new and exciting force on the American social landscape.
Life magazine did a spread on the group in the 50’s, and celebrity journalist Hunter S. Thompson made his name by “embedding” himself with the group in the late 60’s.
For a brief moment, right at the height of the counter-cultural movement, the Hell’s Angels were at the very center of the American Zeitgeist…until they turned sour, just like America itself.
Public perception of the MC began to turn bad after an Altamont, California rock concert in late 1969. The Angels had been hired to provide security for the concert in a deal that involved $500 worth of beer. The atmosphere was tense, many of the concertgoers as well as the bikers working security where under the influence of heavy drugs, and when 18 year old black concertgoer Meredith Hunter attempted to come near the stage he was roughed up by several of the bikers.
Hunter apparently wanted retaliation and rushed the stage, leading to a brief but deadly scuffle. According to Grateful Dead associate Rock Scully “I saw what he was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent. There was no doubt in my mind that he intended to do terrible harm to Mick or somebody in the Rolling Stones, or somebody on that stage.”
Hunter definitely had a gun and may have tried to pull it, and though the incident was filmed as part of the infamous Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter”, its unclear if Hunter was really tried to pull the gun. Whatever Hunter’s intent, he was met with extreme force: Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, armed with a knife, ran at Hunter, parryying the gun with his left hand and stabbing him with his right.
Passaro went on trial and was acquitted, but drowned in 1985; police said “the death is kind of suspicious“, though foul play was never confirmed.
By the late 70’s the Federal government considered the Hell’s Angels one of the largest and most sophisticated organized crime groups in the world, though this is disputed by many. Criminologist Karen Katz said in 2011 that the Hell’s Angels were the center of a moral panic in Canada involving the media, politicians, law enforcement, and the public that sensationalized the importance of isolated criminal acts
These are photos from the first wave of Hell’s Angels life; before, perhaps, they became just another organized crime entity.