In 1965, photographer Billy Ray and writer Joe Bride spent several weeks with a Hells Angels biker club in California on assignment for LIFE magazine. Their story never ran until today, because America was terrified of biker gangs.
The two were on another gig in California covering Big Daddy Roth when McBride became interested in getting to know more about the Angels, already renown and feared throughout the state. Roth arranged a meeting wit the San Bernadino, or "Berdoo" chapter, and the two were allowed to ride along for several weekends, even spending the night on the floor of a bar with the gang.
Ray and Bride say they spent their time evenly split between being scared of the Angels and feeling empathy for them. Police agencies already believed the Angels were deeply involved in drug trafficking and other crimes, and often showed up in force wherever they went. But the Angels also had a lost boys vibe, one only exacerbated by the occasional dose of out-of-proportion reactions from law enforcers.
Ray says at the time, the Angels were treated like an impending plague in many small towns:
They, of course, didn't have jobs. They despised everything that most Americans pursue — stability, security. They rode their bikes, hung out in bars for days at a time, fought with anyone who messed with them. They were self-contained, with their own set of rules, their own code of behavior. It was extraordinary.
The Hells Angels are still considered havens for criminals by law enforcement agencies, but the exploding popularity of motorcycling has dimmed much of the dread that led LIFE's editors to spike Ray and McBride's piece. To read their recollections and see dozens of more photos, check out the gallery here. [LIFE]