Sam A Harris
Mark Geoffrey Thompson
Hells Angels, Lemmy, the custom bike scene and a hero in Grayson Perry. We sit down with Reino Lehtonen-Riley over kedgeree and coffee to discuss The Great Frog and more.
I meet Reino in Jim’s Cafe, a biker hang out and bar in east London owned by his close friend Andrew “Drew” Clarke. It’s an appropriate meeting place for two reluctantly-reformed petrolheads, with its diner styling and walls hung with leather jackets. Reino Lehtonen-Riley is the second generation to run The Great Frog Jewelry Company, the legendary purveyor of skull rings and Gothic accoutrements loved by the biker community, rock royalty and really anyone whose look is anchored by a leather jacket. The store was founded by his parents in 1972 in a small Carnaby back street, and Slayer, Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Ozzie and even Jay-Z have all commissioned The Great Frog to produce handmade pieces over the years. From that oddly piratical little store off Carnaby Street, The Great Frog has since expanded to locations in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, east and west London and, very soon, Japan.
Reino took over the business in 2006, around the time I first met him, when I was also lurking around the biker scene in London. As you might expect for a man building a jewelry empire, he is heavily glittering in the finer pieces of his work when we meet. At any time, you’ll find him wearing tens of individual skulls, and in the years I’ve known him he’s never worn anything but black. But despite being six-foot and skull-adorned Reino is far from unapproachable.
A lot’s changed since we last properly sat down to talk.We’ve both settled down; partners, mortgages and kids. In the intervening years, I’ve had to sell my motorcycles to pay for a new kitchen, he apparently flogged a few for a ‘tax thing’. The only difference is I only had two bikes to sell. I don’t even bother asking how many the prolific collector still has littered around various workshops.
M: We used to talk a little about business, but never really at any length. So I guess, ‘for the record,’ tell me a bit about how it all began?
R: The obsession with skull rings was in part my dad’s childhood obsession with comics — particularly the Phantom. In the back of a comic you could send off for a replica of the Phantom’s skull ring. Being a boy in New Zealand he waited months for it to be delivered. It finally arrived and of course it was plastic — he was so disappointed. There was no way he was going to be able to thwart his enemies. But The Great Frog as it exists now started in Soho when he moved over to London. He chased the music of the time and for a young lad who wanted nothing more than to be in the Stones or the Beatles, he of course gravitated towards Carnaby Street. The swinging ‘60’s was just about over and it was the time of early rock. You had bands like Sabbath and Hawkwind starting-up and my dad was hanging out with them all — I don’t think the term Heavy Metal had really been coined yet but it was the start of a shift from Rock to something heavier. A skull ring was part of the uniform and went with the music. It was an overt symbol of being an outsider, to signify that you weren’t part of mainstream culture. Bikers too were starting to come onto the scene and essentially if you wanted to look like that, there were few places you could get it.
It used to be that people would cross the road to avoid The Great Frog. People were terrified of it. It was all black, played heavy music, motorcycles parked outside and we had real human skulls in the window — it was like nothing else. There would be guys in suits clutching bibles screaming at us in the shop to ‘repent our sins’. People thought it was some kind of Satanic death cult or something.
M: We first met through bikes, though it’s worth mentioning I cut a very different figure — more of a broken kite and quite obviously not a hard man. My relationship with motorcycles involved far fewer symbols of death and tattoos than you and many of the crew we hung out with. We had the same hardtail choppers but I often caught myself wondering, is my relationship with bikes authentic if I’m not wearing the prescribed uniform?
R: It’s something I always thought about too, the masculinity around motorcycle culture. So a real hero of mine is Grayson Perry and his recent book The Descent of Man [Penguin] talks around this and he uses this idea of ‘the default male’ to land his point. He talks about these guys who have all this armour up — all these motifs and symbols that are protecting them, things that protect them from talking about their feelings. So you’ll be hanging out in the lock-up and a dude will be like ‘so what carbs you runnin’ on there mate?’ and what this person really means is ‘I wanna’ talk to you, I’m lonely’.
You see that a lot within motoring. You can go on the PistonHeads forum, which is super interesting — It’s lovely actually. On the surface, it’s this no frills manly forum about motoring but it’s also where real friendships are formed. This blokey tire-kicking chat combined with the motifs and symbols are also about fitting in. Often, it’s more for bonding than battle.
M: So you‘ve always had bikes but you’ve started collecting a few cars recently. You’ve bought an ’80s Buick Grand National. It’s the kind of Americana I always thought you would own — it’s very you. You’ve also just got hold of a Porsche 993, now that feels like quite a different object. You went to your first Porsche club meet, how was that as an experience?
R: It was a strange one, they encouraged me in and I chatted to a few people but I don’t know… I had a brief moment of reverse snobbery. I was like; “I don’t get any of these people. Who are all these rich pricks?” and then I had to remind myself — “Oh, I’m a rich prick”. I was expecting to not be accepted but everyone was really nice. It’s just not like the motorbike scene which I understood a lot more, it’s arguably not as accessible. At entry level you have to have a Porsche; right? You have to come from money or have money. With the bike scene you can spend 200 quid on a C90 rock up to the Black Skulls and be involved — it was seriously inclusive.
M: It’s interesting because I guess I had a relatively solitary relationship with motorcycles — riding in packs wasn’t on my radar until I found you guys. It felt like a really special time and seemed to coincide with a surge in custom motorcycle culture, I guess I’m talking around 2010 and the start of those east London lock-up hangouts like Kingdom of Kicks, Bolt and of course your own The Black Skulls. There was also a global presence with Deus that still managed to feel more cult than commercial. Personally, I think it truly spiked around those early Wheels and Waves festivals in Biarritz around 2012 and 13. Did we just mature into a scene that was already there or was this unique?
R: It was quite a special time that may take a while to repeat again. It was really fun. I remember once we did a ride to the Ace Cafe — I think it was a special Cafe Racer night. We got invited down there by the old guys on the scene. White roll-necks, turn-ups, Perfecto jackets, mutton chops; all those old rockers. Anyway, they invited us to come down and we turned up; twenty of us on every type of bike. I was on a shitty XS650 held together with cable ties. Ben was on a Japanese scooter, Maxwell on his Cub with an acid face for a rear wheel, and every bike in between. Sports bikes, Harleys, Choppers, a real mongrel collection. We turned up and everyone’s jaws dropped. Mark Wilsmore owner of the Ace Cafe was like; “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen, it reminds me of when we first got into it, the bikes we used to ride and how the scene used to be”
We were worried that they were all gonna turn their nose up at us and our machines but I guess it reminded them of their youth. I think the whole club saw themselves in what we were doing. The bikes they used to ride were Triumphs, Nortans… These were the cheap bikes at the time because nobody wanted them, the Japanese bikes in comparison were lighter, more economical, better built, more reliable. So these British bikes that are so coveted now and so often upwards of 10k were actually the machines that they once customised, and defined their tribe.
M: I didn’t realise it at the time but the main attraction was that it opened up this whole new peer group of people I may not otherwise have been friends with. We weren’t just into motorcycles on an individual level but also on a more social one. It was about people looking for connections; right?
R: Yeah, but there were a lot of people that took it and themselves too seriously as well. And of course you’ve always had the outlaw clubs in which you have to be very committed, they’ve always been there.
M: You mean The Hell’s Angels?
R: Well I mean; I know the club. All my life I grew up around that world. My dad was a good friend with the president of the London chapter at the time. It was just so normal to me. Back at the start The Great Frog would sell at all the motorcycle shows, The Bulldog Bash, The Kent show… all that stuff. That’s how mum and dad made their money, that was our market. There wasn’t really anybody that did that back then and the people that we would sell to would be the metal scene and there would often be outlaw biker members there too. That was our audience, Metal Heads and Bikers — sounds like a big market now but it was niche back then. It was a hobby, a lifestyle.
There was no money in it. Even the Metal stars like Iron Maiden, Sabbath and Motörhead that we were hanging with; they didn’t have any more money than the rest of us. They were sleeping in the backs of their vans between gigs. I remember my uncle (who also used to work in the workshop) was commissioned by Iron Maiden back then to do this big belt buckle of Eddie. At the time they couldn’t afford to make it in silver so we had to make it bronze and paint it because they didn’t have the money. And it was the same with Lemmy, my dad always grumbles “oh he still owes me a tenner’”. Now of course, these guys are the biggest paid bands in the world. Lemmy was a big wearer of The Great Frog and a good friend of the family, such a lovely bloke, we’ll miss him — I actually think he had a crush on my mum.