Ever since radios were fitted to cars back in the 1930s, music and motor vehicles have played a role in each other’s existence. FM radio came to vehicles in 1952, followed during the 1960s by tape players and William Lear’s 8-Track cartridge, then CD stackers, MP3 interfaces and Spotify.
The sounds coming out of these devices have changed radically during the past 90 years but through it all has run a genre known as ‘The Driving Song’. These often have cars and driving as their central themes (tunes such as Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’) or convey via their beat and lyrics in the manner of Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’ the driver’s need to stay awake and get to their destination as soon as possible.
The USA with its long-established automotive culture and network of long, straight rural roads was a natural habitat of The Driving Song.
Early examples were mostly obscure and have disappeared into the depths of music history. But in 1951 came ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston; an upbeat blues tune co-written by Ike Turner that paid homage to the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and is regarded among the very first genuine rock ‘n roll hits.
Another African American rocker to draw heavily on US car culture for his material was Chuck Berry. ‘Maybelline’, ‘No Money Down’ and ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ were among the songs that sent a message to millions of young people across the world that a car was their ticket to independence and romantic success. However, Berry’s battle with a romance-stifling seat belt in ‘No Particular Place To Go’ may have set back acceptance of these life-saving devices for some considerable time.
Successful participation in the surf culture invariably involved access to a motor vehicle and literally hundreds of surf/car/drag strip tunes were penned and recorded during the 1960s.
Australia listened and related to the releases coming from such bands as the Beach Boys, but we took until the 1970s before Bob Hudson’s epic ‘The Newcastle Song’ paid homage to the humble FJ Holden. Not quite matching Hudson’s talent for lyrical humour but equally infectious was Ted Mulry’s ‘Jump In My Car’.
People not involved with hot rodding or the sport of drag-racing would have no clue as to what a ‘dual quad’, ‘4:11 gears’ or ‘rail job’ might have been but kids who were ‘hip’ to car-oriented terms would nod approvingly as they cruised in their daggy old Dodge to the drive-in cinema or burger bar.
Americans loved a good teen tragedy song as well and cars provided wonderful backdrops to tales of big crashes and lost loves. Early in the peace came Paul Petersen’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ but the true epic was Jan and Dean’s ‘Deadman’s Curve’. It prophetically told the story of a fateful race between a Jaguar E Type and Chevrolet Stingray along a treacherous section of Hollywood’s Mulholland Drive and was released two years before Jan Torrence’s near-fatal crash on the same road in his own Corvette Stingray.
Music during the past several decades had little chance of commercial success unless accompanied by an evocative video and cars have been vital to this very specific branch of movie-making.
It is worth noting that few of the music videos that feature cars can be bothered at all with current models. The cars they show are invariably ‘classics’ and most often 1960s US-made ‘muscle cars’.
They also incorporate aspects of popular culture, as in ‘Stylo’ by the Gorillaz which mimics the car chase/road trip movies made popular during the 1970s by projects like Smokey and The Bandit and The Blues Brothers.
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