I have been writing a column for the French magazine Café Racer for a decade or more, and, when I remember, I post some of them on this blog. Here's one from earlier this year. GI
Imagine the scene. I’m sat in my office, looking out of the glass patio doors at the rain failing in sheets. It’s the end of January 2021. I’ve just been trying to unblock a drain that is in danger of over-flowing into the house. Nearly everything I lay my eyes on is dull, grey or brown. I live in a country that will soon be forced to change its name to Plague Island. Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon & Garfunkel plays quietly in the background. I struggle to imagine how I could feel any more melancholic.
It hasn’t been too hard for me to remain positive for the last 10 months, because I’m in a very comfortable position, I’ve stayed healthy, and busy with work. Work is important to me and my sanity. Being self-employed, or running my own business, for 20 years has been great, but I’ve never been successful enough to be able to relax. Being busy comforts me. Stops me worrying.
The main aid for my mental state is remembering to never watch the news, but today I’m suffering one of the occasional dips and trying to pull myself out of it by reflecting on better times. Working on a big, coffee table book for a client has caused me to spend eight hours a day, every day, for the first month of 2021 looking at custom bikes, going back 15 years, built by one particular, influential company. I have to keep quiet about it for now, but it in turn made me think of the Wrenchmonkees and how they changed how I thought about motorcycles.
I know this is a terrible sign of being old, but I’m looking back at flying to Copenhagen to meet them, in 2008, and I can’t imagine ever stumbling on anything as exciting in the same way again.
Back then, the Wrenchmonkees were three friends, Nicholas, Per and Anders. If I remember rightly, Nicholas and Anders were both photographers, Per was the best mechanic of the three and worked at the airport. They had built four bikes at that stage. Maybe five. One for each of the Monkees and one, a Yamaha SR500, for their friend, who I remember was a nursery school assistant or teacher. They had rented a basement workshop, and had to wheel bikes up or down a short, steep staircase, with wood laid on it to access the space. It wasn’t ideal, but it was theirs.
I fell in love with the Wrenchmonkees, and don’t think I ever fell out of love with them. I’ve always been into custom bikes, starting with scooters, then streetfighters, but I’ve never been into choppers. Every now and then I think about owning one, then I imagine myself pulling up somewhere and climbing off a chopper and realising I’d look a fraud. Like those other influential primates, The Arctic Monkeys, sang, ‘You're not from New York City, you're from Rotherham.’ Well, Leeds, it’s close enough. The Wrenchmonkees built tough, Japanese superbikes back then, GSXs and Zeds, that next to no one cared about. They fitted upside-down forks and fat swingarms in pre-’85 four-cylinders. Nothing was too shiny, or sharp, or new. They had a defined palette of colours from day one and rarely strayed from it. Black, grey, white. I can only think of one bike they built that had a colourful paint job. Those early bikes were exactly the style of machine I could imagine myself climbing off.
The motorcycles were only one part of the appeal from that first meeting. How they dressed was different too. Black North Face coats, plain Arai helmets, dark jeans and trainers [sneakers]. They didn’t fit into what any other bike cult was wearing. It was also the photography and typography they used. It was carefully considered, but not meant to be the centre of attention. The Wrenchmonkees always seemed quiet, and modest. I loved that about them too. They didn’t want to be the main attraction, the ringmaster in the circus, the flashiest. Years later Nicholas would explain, ‘In some ways we are really Danish. We don't like to stand out too much. Danish furniture design is not showy. We were a nation of farmers, everybody made their own furniture – a chair should be a chair not a pedestal, it should be good to sit on – sit down, shut up and eat your dinner, and should last and look good for the next 50 years.’
Before long, Anders left, but the bikes kept coming, and so did the patronage of Yamaha, when Wrenchmonkees starting turning out Yard Built XJRs. The Wrenchmonkees influence was massive. Of course, they’d been influenced themselves, by Brat Style, perhaps some of the period correct chopper scene, bits of streetfighter, Church of Choppers, maybe a splash of early-Deus Ex Machina, but they brought their own style to it. It felt fresh because they were in Copenhagen, on a limb, not in a motorcycle custom hot spot. Bikes were expensive and hard to import, that’s why they ended up using the old Japanese bikes they made their names with. They weren’t trying to prove they knew more than everyone else, or that they had the rarest parts, or the most inside knowledge. There’s so much cock-waving in custom motorcycles now. I’m guilty of that, too. I want rare parts on my bike. I’d like to investigate what that’s all about one day.
Per once explained, ‘We have the Danish Janteloven - the rule that you are not to think you are anything special, it's more about the community than the individual. Having a big car or trying to be the centre of attention is not cool in Denmark.’ Can you imagine an American custom bike builder saying that? The only one who comes close, that I can think of, is Thor from See See, and he has strong Norwegian roots.
The Wrenchmonkee name became famous, in our world, anyway. Then came the opportunity to be a motorcycle and clothing brand, designing in conjunction with Danish workwear company, Kansas, but that only lasted a few years. In the end they made over 80 bikes, then they tuned out. It’s over a year since anything was on their Instagram. Perhaps they got burnt out. It’s hard being a custom bike company for that long, it was 12 or so years, if you go back to their earliest days. I wonder if they yearn for those amateur days, when everything was fresh and less contrived. I bet they do. I do.
I cleared the drain, by the way. That made me feel better. Looking at old photos of the Wrenchmonkees riding around Copenhagen did too.