2017 Motorcycle Social

The dust has settled. The passing of hundreds of bikes kicked it into the air above Canal Mills...

“Bike culture has changed, giving rise to shows such as Motorcycle Social. The 80s and 90s were a time of race-bred technology, high speeds, bragging rights and lost licences, reinforcing that old “death trap” myth. These days, cool is back”

Words by Christian Gallagher, images by Christian Gallagher, Jonny Wilson, Paul Craig

The dust has settled. The passing of hundreds of bikes kicked it into the air above Canal Mills, where it mixed with the fragrance of spicy food and the metallic tang of fresh exhaust fumes, and was held there by an updraft of voices, laughter and music throughout the weekend. Not until the gates finally closed post load-out on Sunday evening did a contented solitude return to the place. A single photo posted by Kev on the Facebook page, showing a now-empty cobbled alley between red brick building, told of the stillness after the passing of a carnival, the quite aftermath of a riotous time just ended.

By now, writing this, the traffic of everyday life will be rolling past the old mill as if it never happened, but we remember: the good times had by many visitors, the efforts of all those involved in Motorcycle Social, that satisfaction at actually pulling it off. It’s a real kick to be involved in the creation of something like this and then experience it blossoming on its first outing. We too were suspended in the buoyant atmosphere and floated merrily through the weekend, somehow untouched by the fatigue that had already wiped many of us out by Friday evening.

At the centre of all this is Kevin McGonnell, who – whether he likes it or not – has created a Leeds scene out of existing fragments, with him very much in the frame. He’s brought some of the better-known names in UK bike building together with authentic unknowns from the north of England, and made a low-budget DIY custom show the surprise highlight of this summer’s season. “We’ve created a monster!” was his jovial comment as we packed up on Sunday, with no end in sight to the follow-up work, interviews and negotiations needed to press on for next year. This first show was just the beginning.

This approach to our machines has been going on for decades. Bikes are much easier to work on at home than cars, and this brings out the latent tinkerer in people. It’s what that biker down the street does in his (or her) garage, while drinking beer and chatting to friends. It’s what bikers in sheds have been doing since our grandparents were kids. If you grow up into bike culture, whatever age you may start, you grow up doing this: fixing, modifying, learning and dreaming about your bike, or the next bike. Or all bikes. Sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night. We all love this culture; there’s no obvious compulsion to share it – each does what they do, has a few biker mates, and just gets on with it. There’s no need for anything else. But to have the best of all this out in the open, all in one place, with the warm, blunt and sarcastic tones of the north binding it all together is a dream: like a brilliant truth wrapped up in a single line, or a prism held up to draw several beams into one.

Bike culture has changed, giving rise to shows such as Motorcycle Social. The 80s and 90s were a time of race-bred technology, high speeds, bragging rights and lost licences, reinforcing that old “death trap” myth. These days, cool is back. The bikes we saw at the show were beautiful, concrete expressions of individuality, demonstrating that the creative urge affects all types of people; skills, tools and taste leading each to a different result. There’s little real distinction between professional and amateur, in terms of which is ‘better’, as quality is not entirely predicated on materials used or performance, leaving scope for ideas to play a key part. So what’s happening here is that messing around with motorbikes, in the way the activity operates and is pursued, has become grassroots art. Anybody can have a go, from any starting point. It’s not about how impressive the finished machine is so much as the vision and graft of its creator. It is process, not product: the latter is the ongoing testament to the former, as most projects never truly end.

What’s more, inviting all this out into the open created a show in the real sense: it’s like the circus coming to town. The big top was the interior of Canal Mills, where the main exhibitors had their stylishly-lit work elevated on pallets, but the car park itself was part of the showground, where most visitors spent a good quarter-hour browsing before going inside. Among my own favourites on the day were found here: bikes that get ridden year-round: a bit scruffy, with functional modifications as well as kooky touches of style, stripped of all surplus components but still personalised, beautiful in their simplicity, bold and weathered. Each fresh pack of bikes arrived like a carnival float, all noise, glamour and pride, the riders beaming satisfaction. This was a show where everybody took part, and I can’t think of another type of exhibition at which the visitors bring their own work along.

The idea originated the previous year, gathering momentum and obstacles in equal measure as autumn turned to winter. Venue costs, complex logistics, and legal and civil considerations all had to be weighed up. Urban versus rural was considered (as was postponing the whole plan) but persistence paid off. Kev, having organised the Leeds excursion of the charity-fundraising Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride in recent years, found many of the contacts and the goodwill needed were already there, and everybody loved the plan. So he took on the financial risk, essentially staking his gorgeous, modified Harley 48 – a bike I would kill for, and use to make a rapid escape – on the show at least breaking even. Having put hundreds of hours into the bike, which is always an expensive and very personal investment, this is the kind of risk that would really hit you if things went wrong.

For months we had delays in confirming exhibitors, offers of help that never materialised, and had to map and re-map the ground plan for the show countless times. Venues such as Canal Mills operate under stringent legal requirements, requiring many hours of dull logistics and administration, not to mention the difficulties involved in getting dozens of bikes loaded in to the venue. Thankfully for the rest of us, Kev managed the bulk of this single-handed, while I took on some press work, badgering magazine editors to promote the show via editorials and articles, and Ross Morris of Leeds-based Freckle Creative designed the graphics, flyers, adverts and the stylish logo, which now adorns a few hundred t-shirts, riding around the north. Kev’s wife Tina, of The Event Decorator, used her expertise to ‘dress the set’. Between Kev’s unflagging goodwill and energy, and this joint effort to really make the show look and feel impressive, we managed to exceed our expectations and turned out something really special.

This is one of those events whose ethos its participants inherently get, reminding me of the sound system / free party movement of the 90s, to which the term ‘DIY’ was also often applied. Everybody’s involved because they want this thing to happen, with no concern for who is or isn’t interested, and the only financial concern is that nobody’s hit too hard in the process. This venture isn’t about how we do things up this end of the country, but there’s certainly a northern ring to “do it yourself” when added to the phrase “If you want something doing…” what’s more, there’s no need to feign authenticity when the two-wheeled reality rips noisily past you on your drive home, barking exuberantly through open pipes. These bikes are out there, burning around Leeds. I’m no stranger to this city or to bike culture, but the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met through working on the show have opened even my eyes to how much of this new custom scene is going on all over the place. The people aren’t acting cool, as if they’ve chosen a lifestyle. They are cool, because they’ve chosen a life, one that suits them and brings them joy.

Nothing was actually discussed in terms of a working approach to the show, however, and I didn’t really hear Kev’s story behind it until a few days after Motorcycle Social and we were sitting in the office at Independent Leeds. Originally from Durham, where anybody who wanted decent gigs and events had no choice but to make their own, Kev moved to Leeds in the 90s, drawn to the local punk rock scene, and continued to play in bands, stage gigs, organise tours and so on. There’s never any interest in – and more likely contempt for – deals, contracts, or anything that smacked of sponsorship or external influence. Having found a depth, energy and inventiveness to this apparently rough scene that fascinated him, he noticed parallels when he got into biking – people going about doing what they love in just the same manner: their passion all the stronger because they identify with it. This was around the time that the ‘new wave’ custom scene was emerging, typified by shows such as The Bike Shed, in London. This show caught my attention, too, when it emerged, but the prospect of a 400-mile round trip and the expense of travel and accommodation were enough to put me off.

Conversations had at the weekend of the show revealed that this was a common sentiment, and is, I suppose, the nail whose head Kev so effectively hit – we need a show up here. All those who contributed – exhibitors, traders, artists, food vendors etc – were neither charged nor paid to be there; all simply wanted to be part of the whole. The collective efforts of the hundreds of people involved, which probably amounts to tens of thousands of hours’ work, is a stronger statement on what this whole custom bikes deal is about than anything that could be written here.

So that’s the bottom line – Kev catalysed the various elements and the rest of us liked the idea and got on board. Plans are already on the table for other events and activities, and a great show for next year – bigger, perhaps, though Canal Mills is the ideal venue. Better will be the real challenge. Best of all, Kev got to keep the 48 – it was a sweet ride in the first place, but I imagine now that it’s sweeter still.

Gallery images by – Christian Gallagher, Jonny Wilson, Paul Craig