Pop quiz: name the world’s largest outlaw motorcycle gang.
I suspect most of you answered “Hells Angels,” the notorious California-based organization that more or less invented outlaw biker culture as we know it. But you would be wrong.
The Outlaws, founded in Illinois in the early 1950s, actually has more members around the world than their better-known rivals. But they’ve made a point of maintaining a lower profile than the Angels — to the extent tough-looking guys on Harley-Davidson bikes, wearing a skull-and-crossbones named “Charlie” on their backs, can keep any kind of lower profile — and maybe that’s part of the reason they’ve become so big.
That, and the fact they’ve proven they aren’t afraid to take on the Hells Angels, or other outlaw biker gangs, on their own turf. For decades, the Angels and the Outlaws have been locked in a brutal, worldwide battle for territory — win a city, state, or country and the gang controls the drug trade, prostitution, and other organized criminal activities.
The bloody rivalry is described, in riveting detail, in Charlie and the Angels: The Outlaws, the Hells Angels and the Sixty Years War by Alex Caine. Caine hasn’t just studied the one-percenter lifestyle — he claims to have lived it, as an undercover operative for police forces in Canada and around the world (“Alex Caine,” needless to say, is a pseudonym).
Legend has it the newly formed Outlaws sent messengers to the Hells Angels in the 1950s, proposing an alliance. The Angels allegedly beat the tar out of the Outlaw ambassadors and sent them back home with a two-word response I probably can’t repeat here. The rivalry got worse during the turbulent ’60s, and except for a short-lived truce brokered at the infamous Sturgis biker rally in 1984, it’s been total war ever since.
The most fascinating parts of Charlie and the Angels describe the network of support clubs and prospects set up to cultivate full-patch Outlaw members. The third-largest American biker gang, the Bandidos, is closely allied to the Outlaws (and often do much of their dirtiest work for them). Both the Outlaws and the Hells Angels sponsor smaller clubs, usually in cities that are just starting to open up to outlaw biker culture, which have different names but wear the same colors as their parent organizations — black-and-white for Outlaws, red-and-white for Angels.
In North America, police forces have infiltrated the Outlaws and rival gangs, often straddling the line between merely reporting on criminal activities and actually encouraging them. Interestingly, Caine notes in Germany and other European nations dealing with the biker threat, such undercover operations aren’t allowed — leaving the police with little to do until after the Angels or Outlaws do something illegal (the Dutch, in a move that even the most jaded satirist couldn’t dream up, actually built a clubhouse for the Hells Angels when they showed up in the 1970s).
Charlie and the Angels is a somewhat disjointed work that skips around the world, and back and forth in time, giving the impression that many of its chapters were initially written as stand-alone articles. But it is rare for someone to infiltrate this mysterious, often romanticized world, and live to tell about it. That alone makes the book well worth reading.
Caine admits to a kind of grudging respect for the Outlaws, for how the club has been able to survive and thrive for so long. “If drugs became legal tomorrow, that would be the end of the Hells Angels,” he writes, “but I’m convinced the Outlaws would survive. If the Outlaws lost everything, the houses, the cars, the money, they would get on their bikes and tear up a stretch of highway, looking to see what was over the hill.”