Both music and motorcycles appeal to us on a visceral level. They seem to reach down below the thought and behavior that makes us human. Instead, they appeal to our baser side, the side of ourselves that we often lack complete control over. Perhaps this is why so many motorcycle songs have a more hard-nosed rock-n-roll vibe.
So, in our efforts to explore what we (actually, I, the author of this list) think are the ten best motorcycle songs, we laid out some rules. First, the song had to be explicitly about motorcycles, thus ruling out plenty of great road anthems. Second, and perhaps most importantly, none of the songs could be “Born to be Wild” from the Easy Rider soundtrack.
Why eliminate an all-time great rock song? Simple. Everybody knows it – even non-riders. With this list, we hope to expose every reader to at least a few great motorcycle songs that they have never heard.
So, without further ado, here are the Top Ten Motorcycle Songs that aren’t “Born to be Wild.”
Byrds – “Wasn’t Born To Follow”
Okay, I’ll just start off this list by violating the rules on the first selection. The Byrds “Wasn’t Born To Follow” isn’t explicitly about motorcycles. So, shoot me. It is, however, part of the soundtrack of one of the highlights in the pantheon of motorcycle movies, Easy Rider. So, in an effort to smooth over the ruffled feathers of those who are a bit chapped over the exclusion of “Born to be Wild,” I decided to include a different song from the movie that made the Steppenwolf tune a hit.
Getting back to the song, the lyrics capture the wanderlust and nonconformist bent that epitomizes motorcyclists, concluding with the statement that “I wasn’t born to follow.”
The Hondells – “Little Honda”
Remember when you could meet the nicest people on a Honda? Well, The Hondells rode that wave all the way to number nine on the national charts with this 1964 cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda.” The innocent fun of riding motorcycles, coupled with this surf band’s squeaky-clean image made the song accessible to mainstream America. Today, the song serves as a reminder of the tremendous growth of our sport in the 1960s. What could be friendlier?
It’s not a big motorcycle
Just a groovy little motorbike
Its more fun that a barrel of monkeys
That two wheel bike
We’ll ride on out of the town
To any place I know you like
Love and Rockets – “Motorcycle”
Love and Rockets’ goth-influenced, grinding guitar-filled “Motorcycle” is unabashedly from end-to-end about a rider’s feelings about bikes and riding. Don’t look for any meaning beneath the lyrics. The song, at its most introspective point, merely says:
I feel warm inside
On the motorbike
The wind is all around
On the motorbike
We are free
Since riding appeals to our brain-stem levels of functioning, does anything else really need to be said?
“On Any Sunday”
Featured in the main title sequence of the seminal motorcycle film On Any Sunday, this song captures all of the innocence and fun of the movie in two and a half minutes of pure 1970s (for us, now) nostalgia. Any rider who has seen Bruce Brown’s, Steve McQueen-backed movie will almost immediately recognize this song within a few seconds of its beginning. Until recently, On Any Sunday has been considered the best movie ever made about motorcycling, but now, the film has some serious competition.
Give the song a listen. While the lyrics may contain a bit of purple prose, we defy you to not tap your toes to this song. And if you haven’t seen the movie, go rent On Any Sunday.
Eric Idle – “Mr. Sheene”
Released in 1979 by Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) and Ricky Fataar, “Mr. Sheene” gives a comically loving tribute to Barry Sheene and his antics on and off the track. Fans of the British legends (both Sheene and Idle) will expect the song to be suitably bawdy, and it doesn’t disappoint. Let’s just leave it with this:
A girl up in the stands was shouting out, I can see
It’s big and red and throbbing in 500cc
It’s Mr. Sheene, Mr. Sheene
Mr. Sheene’s riding machine
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll”
Although not a song explicitly about motorcycles, I’m including this song on the technicality of it being performed by the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Stylistically, “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll” has the driving force one typically expects from a good motorcycle song. Additionally, the chorus could easily be about riding:
I fell in love with the sweet sensation
I gave my heart to a simple chord
I gave my soul to a new religion
Whatever happened to you?
Finally, the real reason that the song has become inseparable from motorcycles for many riders is the fact that it was chosen by the producers of the 2003 MotoGP documentary Faster to be used in the movie’s trailer.
Arlo Guthrie – “Motorcycle Song”
Great American storyteller and musician, Arlo Guthrie, captures motorcycling in all its inherent wackiness in this (short for Arlo) story/song about a motorcycle, a cop, a ticket and a pickle. Early in the song from the Alice’s Restaurant album he captures the essence of motorcycling by saying:
There was a time I was ridin’ my bike
I was going down a mountain road
I was doin’ 150 miles an hour
On one side of the mountain road there was a mountain
And on the other side, there was nothin’
There was just a cliff in the air
But I wasn’t payin’ attention you know
I was just driving down the road
You’ll just have to watch the YouTube video for the rest because, like riding a motorcycle, it’s not the destination that makes his songs so enjoyable, it’s the journey.
John Doe – “Beer, Gas, Ride Forever”
We can probably agree on the title “Beer, Gas, Ride Forever.” John Doe, one of the founders of the famed LA punk band X, starred in the film Roadside Prophets for which this song plays over the opening credits.
The quizzical movie follows Doe aboard his ‘57 Harley-Davidson Panhead on a quest to bury a friend’s remains in the legendary city of El Dorado. Along the way Doe takes on a sidekick, Beastie Boys frontman, Adam Horowitz, riding a clapped out, old Triumph. Humorous cameo appearances include Arlo Guthrie (see #4), Timothy Leary, David Carradine, John Cusack and Flea.
The song speaks the ubiquitous understanding among motorcyclists of escaping hardship aboard two wheels: “Never had kids, lost my wife/All I got left is this damn motorcycle.” The blue collar tune is classic Americana music and lyrics, and when you boil motorcycling down to the essentials – Beer, Gas, Ride Forever – what more do you need?
Richard Thompson – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” tells the story of a boy, a girl, and a very special motorcycle. While motorcycle activists, who get outraged at any portrayal of motorcyclists as something other than fine, upstanding citizens, will undoubtedly bristle at the lead character being a criminal who’s “fought with the law since [he] was seventeen,” the love story that this trio shares should resonate with any motorcyclist: “Says James, in my opinion, there’s nothing in this world/Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed girl.” Add in Thompson’s incredibly complex folk guitar picking style, and you have a prescription for a classic motorcycle song worthy of runner up status in a top ten list.
Lou Reed – “New Sensations”
Aside from being one of the most influential musicians of our time, Lou Reed was an avid motorcyclist. Once, when asked (during an interview on KCRW in Santa Monica, CA) what he would like to do if he could change his life in any way, Reed responded that he would like to be a motorcycle roadracer. “New Sensations,” the title track of Reed’s 1984 album, may not have the driving beat or raucous guitar that many riders think make a great motorcycle song. Instead, Reed sings in a reserved tone about the issues of adult life – none of which sound particularly appealing.
Not until just over three minutes into the song does Reed reveal that “New Sensations” is really a 5:45 minute love song to his motorcycle. Beginning with the lines “I took my GPz out for a ride/The engine felt good between my thighs,” Reed takes us on a ride into the mountainous Delaware Gap. However, what seals “New Sensations” standing as the best motorcycle song of all time is the closing lines of the song: “I love that GPZ so much, you know that I could kiss her.”
Yeah, Lou, we understand.