Phil Collen (l) is the lead singer and guitarist for Manraze, the band who laid down the lead tracks for both of Mark Sloper’s ‘I, Superbiker’ films. The second movie in the series focuses primarily on British Superbike rider Tommy Hill (r) who won the championship last year after edging out rival John Hopkins in the final race by a mere 0.006 seconds.
It starts with a wail, like the revving engine of a snarling 200 horsepower superbike the second before it shoots off the line, followed by a rapid guitar blitz with the aggression of blazing down the Silverstone straight full tilt. Before you know it, your head is bobbing as Phil Collen breaks into the chorus, singing “Speed thrills, speed kills, on two wheels that fly” on the fast and furious theme song for the documentary “I, Superbiker.” Collen then demonstrates his command of the electric guitar with a lightning quick solo in the middle of the song, an edgy tribute by the band Manraze to the brave souls who risk life and limb in the British Superbike series.
The fact the beginning of the song “I, Superbiker” sounds a bit punk should come as no surprise considering Manraze consists of Collen on guitar, former Sex Pistols member Paul Cook on drums and Simon Laffy on bass, who jammed with Collen back in the day as part of the band Girl. The up-tempo of the song is fitting for a movie about the British Superbike (BSB) Championship, a series of bar-banging motorcycle road races featuring some of the most talented riders around.
British film maker Mark Sloper has made two documentaries about this brash entity known as British Superbike racing. The first, “I, Superbiker” features the BSB paddock as a whole while part two, “The Showdown: I, Superbiker II” focuses almost exclusively on 2011 BSB champion Tommy Hill, who beat out American John Hopkins in the last race of the season for the title by a scant 0.006 seconds. Manraze provided the anthem for both, debuting its single also called ‘I, Superbiker’ for the first film and “Take on the World” featuring the vocals of Debbi Blackwell-Cook for the second.
We got an opportunity to talk motorcycling last week with Manraze’s mad guitarist and vocalist Phil Collen, who also happens to pluck guitar for a little band called Def Leppard. We were curious as to how the “I, Superbiker” gig came about.
“Mark has directed all the Manraze videos and has been one of the champions of the band. When he was doing “I,Superbiker” he asked if I thought I could write a song for the movie. Sloper showed the band some of the clips and it was amazing. It was really cool that we got to be part of that movie, providing the sound track at least. It was just so exciting. I have total appreciation for what they’re doing,” Collen said.
Last year’s British Superbike Championship was the stuff of legends. Former MotoGP rider John Hopkins looked destined to become the first American to win the British Superbike Championship as the season boiled down to a winner-take-all scenario in the final race between Swan Yamaha’s Tommy Hill and Samsung Crescent Suzuki’s Hopkins. Hill would cross the line 0.006 seconds ahead of Hopkins to win the title by two points, etching his name in the history books as 2011 British Superbike Champion.
Collen also plays lead guitar for a little band called Def Leppard, who just started their summer-long tour last week. Def Leppard’s music has been getting plenty of air play recently thanks to the release of the movie ‘Rock of Ages’ starring Tom Cruise.
“The second movie, it’s more specifically about Tommy winning the whole thing. So it was easy to write the song because we had met Tommy and we kind of knew his personality,” Collen said.
Besides talking to Tommy, Collen benefited from visiting Sloper’s West London Studios to see clips from the upcoming movie. He also knows a thing or two about riding around the mean streets of London himself after being a motorcycle courier in his younger days, all of which helped him capture the essence of British Superbike racing in song.
“I used to be a dispatch rider, that was my day job for three years in London. I used to fly around in the ice and the snow and rain sliding around on a Suzuki 250,” he said.
Collen also rode a Honda 250 for a few years, saying he never upgraded it because he needed something light and small to maneuver in London traffic.
“This was in the ‘70s, so they were really quite fast for the day. Then there were the Yamahas and Kawasaki 900 Z 1, they had some really cool bikes back in the day. When you’re a kid, 17 or 18, you have no fear. I know what it’s like to hit someone’s car and go over it,” Collen said with a laugh.
Though he doesn’t ride any longer, motorcycles have been a recurring theme in his life. Besides the “I, Superbiker” tracks he produced with Manraze, he just finished recording the theme music for a SPEED network motocross show with Brett Michaels.
“Kind of weird that all of these songs involve motorcycles. It’s called “Get Your Ride On” and involves motocross and supercross and stuff like that. Again, very cool, but it’s pretty crazy what those guys do.”
Collen is also a Sturgis veteran as Def Leppard played at the Legendary Buffalo Chip last year. He said they also played the rally back in ’98 or ’99 and one of his favorite activities in Sturgis is checking out all the cool custom bikes. With heavyweight competitions like the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building and the Rat’s Hole being held in Sturgis, there definitely is no shortage of world class customs running around the Black Hills.
Tommy Hill and Phil Collen hangin’ out at Brands Hatch, site of Hill’s championship-winning race and the spot where they shot Manraze’s ‘Take on the World’ video.
Our conversation then turned to the relationship between motorcycling and rock & roll. When asked why he thought the two go so well together, Collen opined “Rock & roll is a different kind of art form than other types of music, it’s got a rebellious nature to it. It’s the same with riding. There’s an element of freedom attached to it, you can get out there because it’s liberating riding a bike on an open road. I think the same thing relates to rock & roll. It’s supposed to evoke those kinds of feelings, more so rock & roll than other forms of music.”
Nowhere was the love of rock & roll and motorcycles more evident than the Def Leppard gig at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis last summer where we witnessed the crowd singing along with every song. When asked about Def Leppard’s longevity and the timelessness of their songs, Collen gave a big shout-out to their former record producer.
“I think the credit should go to Mutt Lange. He said we can be a good band, we can be kind of a tour band, and ordinary, or we can be fantastic and great and put in the extra effort to make those records. It was a lot of hard work, even the song writing of it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of hard work and I think if you want success, if you want to be special, whatever you do, you’ve actually got to put the hard work into it.
“The other thing is we’ve been actually been through all these weird things together, and we can relate still through all these weird things, whether they be really high or really low, we can relate to them together, whether its Rick’s accident or Steve’s passing away,” Collen added.
The music of Def Leppard is seeing resurgence thanks to the hit movie “Rock of Ages” with Tom Cruise in the head-banging lead role as Stacee Jaxx. The movie features two Def Leppard songs, the ever-popular “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and the title track “Rock of Ages.” Collen said he “had a blast” catching the premier recently at the House of Blues.
To say Collen is a busy man is an understatement. In addition to fronting Manraze and cutting a song with Michaels, Collen just began a summer long tour with Def Leppard in Salt Lake City last week. He also somehow maintains his rigorous fitness routine and is a devout student of famed Muay Thai Coach Jean Carrillo. Though he’s a veteran rocker, Collen could still kick your ass, but prefers to do his ass-kicking on stage with his guitar. And though Joe Elliot is the only band member Collen said that still rides, he has been a proponent of motorcycling through his recent projects and still carries the mindset of a motorcyclist. Once you ride, it’s in your blood for life, be it worn on the surface or underneath the skin like a tattoo. In Collen’s case, it lives vicariously through his music.