Almanac Music: Songs and Cars

 

 

Janis Joplin’s Porsche, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, 2014. [Wikimedia Commons.]

 

Almanac Music: Songs and Cars

 

Cars – like teenagers and high school – are a common element in songs of the rock‘n’roll era, as we all know. The roles they play vary, in accordance with the ideas contained in the song under discussion. (The years mentioned below relate to the version of the song being written about.)

 

‘409’, written by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Gary Usher, performed by the Beach Boys (1962)

 

This early Beach Boys song about a drag racing car, a ‘four speed, dual quad, Positraction [Chevy] 409’ contains the expected elements: pristine, beautifully-arranged harmonies; a sense of summer; a feeling of sun, and youth. Americana is a byword here. And it’s all over in two brief but joyful minutes, including a guitar solo in the middle!

 

 

 

 

 

‘Drive My Car’, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, performed by the Beatles (1965)

 

Look just about anywhere in the Beatles’ body of work and you’ll find a great song. About cars? Certainly – ‘Drive My Car’ is a classic from the Rubber Soul album. The song, mainly written by Paul McCartney, is notable for a range of aspects, including the combined lead vocals of McCartney (higher) and Lennon (lower), the witty turnaround in the final verse when the main character in the song declares, ‘I got no car and it’s breakin’ my heart / But I’ve found a driver and that’s a start’, and Ringo’s use of the cowbell (he could always add a little icing on the cake in a Beatles song, when required). Wikipedia notes: ‘According to McCartney, “‘Drive my car’ was an old blues euphemism for sex.” This expression was more common in the pre-automatic shift era of automobiles.’ Surprise, surprise!

 

 

 

 

 

‘Life in the Fast Lane’, written by Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, performed by Eagles (1976)

 

Edgy, wonderfully riffy, and punchy, this Eagles song of the late seventies uses the car in a metaphorical sense. A ‘life in the fast lane’ is depicted as one of risk and danger, like being in a car that is going too fast and therefore difficult to control – catastrophe is ever-threatening.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Running On Empty’, written and performed by Jackson Browne (1977)

 

‘Running on Empty’, primarily because of the intelligence of its lyrics and ideas, is one of the top fifty or so songs of the rock and roll era, to my way of thinking. Fundamentally, it is about charging through life not really knowing where one is going and then finding out that all those you know are doing the same thing. I’m reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Dockery and Son’, probably because of the sense that here, also, life is represented as never taking a pause – it is continually passing by: ‘Life is first boredom, then fear / Whether or not we use it, it goes.’

 

 

 

 

‘Cars’, written and performed by Gary Numan (1979)

 

This moody piece of English post-punk synth-pop is very much of its time, and the role of the car feels dichotomous – on the one hand, a car is a place of refuge: ‘Here in my car / I feel safest of all …’. However, it can also be a kind of prison: ‘Here in my car / Where the image breaks down / Will you visit me, please / If I open my door …’. At any rate, the notion of a car as a place where one spends a great deal of one’s life is central.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Boys of Summer’, written by Don Henley and Mike Campbell, performed by Don Henley (1984)

 

This Don Henley song is my current obsession du jour – I’ve found it impossible to get out of my head recently. ‘The Boys of Summer’ is about many things: summer … young men and women … long-lost love and the desire to regain it … the nature of remembrance … yearning … nostalgia … the futility of attempting to bring the past back combined with the desire to try to. For me, the iconic last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby comes to mind: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

 

Musically, there’s a sense of continual movement in the song, too, in part provided by the insistent rhythmic qualities of the piece, but also by the interwoven recurrence of cars and driving in the lyrics. Verse 1 concludes, for example, ‘I’m driving by your house / Though I know you’re not home.’ Verse 3 commences: ‘Out on the road today / I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. / A little voice inside my head said / “Don’t look back, you can never look back.’’’ The final chorus starts: ‘I can see you / Your brown skin shining in the sun / You got the top pulled down and the / Radio on, baby.’

 

The title of the song, incidentally, was obtained from a famous American baseball book by Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (1972), which in turn got its title from a Dylan Thomas poem.

 

 

 

 

‘Drive’, written by Ric Ocasek, performed by the Cars (1984)

 

The basic issue of this wistful pop-rock song seems to be directed by the singer towards the person he is singing to in the context of the song – what are you going to do now that you are alone? The refrain ‘Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?’ underlines this notion.

 

‘Drive’ was the biggest international hit for American band Cars. It seemed logical, too – perhaps inevitable – that they’d release a song involving automobiles.

 

 

 

 

‘Fast Car’, written and performed by Tracy Chapman (1988)

 

‘Fast Car’ is an evocative folk-rock song about a couple’s (especially the female’s) attempt to escape the clutches of poverty and unhappiness – an attempt that is, fundamentally, doomed from the outset, due to societal issues outside their control. The role of the car in the song is, at least in part, as a means of temporary escape from the trapped position in which the couple find themselves. Being in their ‘fast car’ offers brief periods of freedom, of release from life’s problems. When I first heard the song in 1988, for me it had ‘timeless classic’ written all over it – my opinion of the song hasn’t changed.

 

 

 

 

‘I Drove All Night’ written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, performed by Cyndi Lauper (1989)

 

This driving (pardon the pun) rock song about spending many hours behind the wheel to be with a lover, receives a passionate vocal performance from Cyndi Lauper, with more use of the lower end of her vocal range than in much of her previous work. She looks stunning, too, in the accompanying video clip. Lauper decided to record the song, according to Wikipedia, because she liked the notion ‘of a woman driving, of a woman in control’.

 

Roy Orbison recorded a version of ‘I Drove All Night’ about two years earlier than Lauper, but it was released posthumously (1992) – it is also a fine interpretation, somehow dreamier and more mysterious in feel than Lauper’s, with typical Orbison vocal highlights, especially when he hits the highest notes.

 

 

 

 

‘Shut Up and Drive’, written by Evan Rogers, Carl Sturken, Stephen Morris, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Gillian Gilbert, performed by Rihanna (2007)

 

Sex. ‘Shut Up and Drive’, an early Rihanna track strongly influenced by new wave music (it includes an interpolation of the 1983 song ‘Blue Monday’ by British band New Order), is basically a fast paced song about sex, in which the female singer is encouraging the male to ‘get it on’. Here the female assumes the position of power and tells the male what to do in a very forthright way:

 

[Verse 1]

 

‘I’ve been lookin’ for a driver who is qualified
So if you think that you’re the one, step into my ride
I’m a fine-tuned supersonic speed machine
With a sunroof top and a gangsta lean

 

[Pre-Chorus]

 

So if you feel me, let me know, know, know
Come on now, what you waitin’ for, for, for?
My engine’s ready to explode, explode, explode
So start me up and watch me go, go, go, go …’

 

 

 

 

Yes. I think we, the listeners, get the picture very clearly!

 

………………………………………………….

 

Finally, Almanac readers, it’s that time again – please add your own songs about cars in the comments section, if you’re so inclined, along with any other points you’d like to make.

 

 

[Note: Wikipedia has been a good general reference for this piece, particularly when it comes to checking dates and other details.]

 

 

 

For more from Kevin, click HERE.

 

 

To return to the www.footyalmanac.com.au  home page click HERE

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.

 

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE

 

 

 

About

Kevin Densley is a graduate of both Deakin University and The University of Melbourne. He has taught writing and literature in numerous Victorian universities and TAFES. He is a poet and writer-in-general. His fifth book-length poetry collection, Please Feed the Macaws ... I'm Feeling Too Indolent, was published in late 2023 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.

Comments

  1. Rick Kane says

    Strange Night, North of the Equator, Australian Heat, all by Dave Warner.

    Racing in the Streets, Cadillac Ranch, Used Cars and a shir ton more by Springsteen.

  2. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says

    A few quick ones while I’m on the train KD

    Fast Cars – Buzzcocks
    In The Wild – Hoodoo Gurus
    Endless Grey Ribbon – Nick Lowe
    Drive She Said – Stan Ridgway
    This Charming Man – Smiths
    Pull Up To The Bumper – Grace Jones

    Roadrunner – Modern Lovers tops them all

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Rick, for these.

    Great to see Dave Warmer get some representation, while Springsteen is a specialist when it comes to songs about cars

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Swish, for your contributions – an interesting and varied bunch of songs. Good stuff!

  5. Rick Kane says

    Springsteen is a specialist at cars and driving as metaphors!

    Which is what Prefab Sprout, Cars and Girls went for.

    Great idea KD, more to come.

  6. Colin Ritchie says

    These are few car related songs that came readily to mind KD.

    Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
    Deadman’s Curve – Jan & Dean
    From A Buick 6 – Bob Dylan
    Wheels On A Gravel Road – Lucinda Williams
    Car-Car – Peter Paul & Mary

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks again, Rick. I can certainly see a strong ‘Springsteen and Cars’ branch of the current general topic developing.

  8. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks so much for your contributions, Col. The songs you put forward are an excellent addition to the present developing list.

  9. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says

    Three quick ones from Billy Bragg

    Sexuality
    Greetings To The New Brunette
    From A Vauxhall Velox

  10. Kevin Densley says

    Great! Thanks, Swish.

    Believe it or not, at one point when I was a kid (late sixties) our family car was a Vauxhall Velox – a stylish, medium sized car, particularly from the perspective of now.

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Another dive into my hard, er drive

    Dodge Veg-O-Matic – JR and the Modern Lovers
    Brand New Cadillac – Clash
    Driving In My Car – Madness
    Car Headlights – Ed Kuepper
    Always Crashing In The Same Car – Bowie
    Back Of A Car – Big Star
    Car Wash – Rose Royce
    Boys! What Did The Detective Say – Sports
    Gimme The Car – Violent Femmes
    Hit By A Car – Wonderstuff
    In Your Car – Dugites
    Jump Im My Car – TMG
    Mint Car – Cure
    Police Car – Larry Wallis
    Stop This Car – JR and the Modern Lovers
    Driver’s Seat – Sniff n The Tears
    Long Way To The Top – AC/DC
    Never Turn Right At Burke Road Malvern – Greg Champion

  12. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks again, Swish – fabulous list. For fun, I just had a listen to Greg Champion’s ‘Never Turn Right At Burke Road, Malvern’, with its bluesy 12/8 tempo and interwoven harmonica – and, of course, amusing, witty lyrics. What a hoot! – and it reminded me, having once lived in inner suburban Melbourne – what a nightmare the city could be to drive around.

  13. ‘Used Car’ by Springsteen is superb.

    But I find it amazing that possibly the greatest ever car/driving song has yet to be mentioned. That track:

    ‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earring

  14. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks Smokie.

    Rick Kane mentioned Springsteen’s ‘Used Cars’ in the first comment about this post – and yep, it is superb.

    ‘Radar Love’ is a ripper – and you’re certainly making a big claim about it: ‘possibly the greatest ever car/driiving song’.

    Interestingly, in the context of the discussion of this post, a little song by Springsteen called ‘Born to Run’ hasn’t yet been mentioned, so I’ll do so here.

    What an opening verse!:

    ‘In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
    At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
    Sprung from cages out on highway nine,
    Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
    Oh, baby this town rips the bones from your back
    It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
    We gotta get out while we’re young
    ‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run … ‘.

  15. I didn’t include BtR as it’s about a motorbike (lol) but I should have included Thunder Road.

    My vote for bestest car song evers, Maybellene by Mr Berry.

  16. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Rick,. Thanks again. ‘Maybelline’ is of course a classic!

    But ‘Born to Run’ features cars throughout. As for its being about a motorbike – what do you mean? I don’t get the joke.

    Springsteen himself has said, in relation to ‘Born to Run’: ‘I was writing about a guy and a girl that wanted to run and keep on running, never come back. That was a nice, romantic idea, but I realized after I put all those people in all those cars, I was going to have to figure out someplace for them to go, and I realized in the end that individual freedom, when it’s not connected to some sort of community, can be pretty meaningless. This is a song about two people trying to find their way home …’

  17. Kevin Densley says

    Yep – Maybellene (note spelling)!

  18. Rick Kane says

    Hi KD, sorry for the confusion. I’ll hopefully explain it a little better. In BtR the protagonist is riding a motorbike, inviting Wendy to join him seek freedom a long way from where they are. My joke was referencing a previous chat in this thread re cars being metaphors. In BtR the motorbike is the sexual metaphor. That was all :)

  19. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Rick, for the additional material.

  20. DBalassone says

    Just an old half-ton shortbed Ford
    My uncle bought new, in ’64
    Daddy got it right, ’cause the engine was smoking
    A couple of burnt valves, and he had it going
    He’d let me drive her when we haul off a load
    Down a dirt strip where we’d dump trash off of Thigpen Road
    I’d sit up in the seat and stretch my feet out to the pedels
    Smiling like a hero that just received his medal

    It was just an old hand-me-down Ford
    With three-speed on the column and a dent in the door
    A young boy, two hands on the wheel
    I can’t replace the way it made me feel and
    And I would press that clutch
    And I would, keep it right
    He’d say, “a little slower son; you’re doing just fine”
    Just a dirt road with trash on each side
    But I was Mario Andretti
    When daddy let me
    Drive

  21. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, DB, for this response – quoting lyrics from this Alan Jackson song, ‘Drive (For Daddy Gene)’, certainly bring home how much this song is about cars. Good one!

  22. Kevin Densley says

    HI Rick. Just harking back to your previous comment about the protagonist of the song ‘Born to Run’ ‘riding a motorbike’. In the interests of being thorough, research-wise, I’ve done some further work and everything I’ve read points to the vehicle being a car, as in a hotted-up one, a kind of hot rod. For example, in Wikipedia, the protagonist is described as ‘the hot rod-riding protagonist’ – various other discussion threads concerning the song point in the same direction – including ones in Quora (not always a reliable guide, I know, but it does contain some quality material). In fact, I haven’t seen anywhere online today, and I’ve looked quite extensively, where a motorbike is even mentioned in the context of the song we’re talking about.

    This is, of course, an issue aside from the numerous mentions of cars in ‘Born to Run’ generally.

  23. Rick Kane says

    Hi KD, look my view of it being a motorcycle is base on the following lyrics:

    Wendy, let me in, I wanna be your friend
    I wanna guard your dreams and visions
    Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims
    And strap your hands ‘cross my engines
    Together we could break this trap
    We’ll run ’til we drop, baby, we’ll never go back
    Oh, will you walk with me out on the wire?
    ‘Cause, baby, I’m just a scared and lonely rider
    But I gotta know how it feels
    I want to know if love is wild
    Babe, I want to know if love is real
    Oh, can you show me

  24. Rick Kane says

    Now, back to your post. Here’s a few more suggestions:

    Little Red Corvette
    Pink Cadillac
    Long Black Limousine
    White Mercedes
    Big Yellow Taxi
    Red Barchetta

    oh, and Greg, the Stop Sign

    Cheers

  25. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks Rick for getting back to me. You’re always an intelligent, stimulating person with which to discuss music. I enjoy our interactions – and I’ll DM you about that beer we should have!

    I thought you’d quote the ‘velvet rims’ and ‘engines’ stuff, which could equally apply to a car as to a motorbike, and the does song say ‘strap your hands’, as opposed to legs, cross my ‘engines’ – ‘hands’ to me does not make for a particularly ‘motorbike’ kind of image here. And in the preceding, opening verse of ‘Born to Run’ the protagonist sings:

    ‘In the day we sweat it out on the streets
    Of a runaway American dream
    At night we ride through the mansions of glory
    In suicide machines
    Sprung from cages on Highway 9
    Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line …’

    The protagonist (part of the first person plural ‘we’) doesn’t say ride ‘on suicide machines’ (as would be the case with motorbikes), but ‘in suicide machines’ which to me has the distinct connotation of being enclosed inside a car of some kind.

    And thank you also, for the additional car songs you’ve put forward to add to the overall list being compiled. I’ll contribute another: ‘I’m in Love with My Car’, by Queen (1975).

  26. Liam Hauser says

    My favourite among all of these is definitely Gary Numan’s Cars.
    I also thought of Queen’s I’m in love with my car, but I see it was eventually mentioned.
    Another song to add to the list is Mondo Rock’s Keep the motor running.

  27. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Liam. Thanks for your selections. Glad you really liked my initial inclusion of Numan’s ‘Cars’ – I was debating whether to include it among the songs in the article, but am particularly pleased I did now.

    Another to go on the the list is the Beach Boys’ ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ (1963).

  28. Ol’ 55, by Tom Waits.(A 1955 Cadillac, I think.)
    So good that friend of The Almanac Wilbur Wilde was in a band named after it.

    Last Kiss, by Wayne Cochrane.

    Is Copperhead Road a stretch? Certainly some car work in there.

  29. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks so much for these great selections, Anson. Love ’em all!

    ‘Copperhead Road’ deserves singling out for its particularly fine narrative.

    And I suppose I should mention at some stage ‘Mercedes Benz’ by Janis Joplin (released 1971), which, after all, connects in its own way with the image of Joplin’s Porsche that occurs at the outset of my article.

  30. Luke Reynolds says

    Enjoying this thread Kevin.

    A few other suggestions-

    Green Limousine- The Badloves
    Driving Wheels- Jimmy Barnes
    One Headlight- The Wallflowers (loved this song as an 18 year old in 1997)
    6L GTR- The Chats
    Night Driving- Mark Seymour & The Undertow (one of Mark’s best post Hunters & Collectors songs)

  31. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Luke – glad you’re enjoying the thread. I certainly am, too!

    You selected a wonderful and diverse bunch of songs. The ‘cars’ topic seems to be ‘gold’ as far as assembling a fine and varied list.

    Here’s another: Dave Graney ‘n’ the Coral Snakes ‘Three Dead Passengers In A Stolen Secondhand Ford’ (written by Dave Graney and Stephen Cummings). Released 1993 on the Night of the Wolverine album.

Leave a Comment

*