I think cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean, the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image, if not in usage, by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.
–Roland Barthes, in the 1957 anthology of his magazine essays, Mythologies
There’s something about cars that go to the very soul of rock and roll – A fair case could be made for Jackie Brenston’s 1951 celebration of the car, “Rocket 88”, as the first rock and roll record, and you can find similar themes through pretty much every sub-genre to surface over the following sixty years (I guess emo bands never sing about cars, and when they do its about breaking up in a car, not rocking out). Cars are integral to spirit of rock and roll, an essential accessory to its lifestyle and ultimately not only a symbol of vigor and youth but also of potential and redemption.
What’s more, a certain 80s rock group called the Cars is playing in town on their limited reunion tour this week. I’m told the first couple shows on the tour haven’t been very good, but you can be sure First Avenue will be full of Xers looking to shake it up. Strangely, the Cars really didn’t sing a lot of songs about cars. I’m assuming they’ve shelved the handful of hits that the late Benjamin Orr sang, so “Drive” is off the set list. Its not a very happy song anyway. Today’s playlist is all about our rock and roll love for cars…No, our rock and roll lust for cars.
8 Rock and Roll Celebrations of Auto Lust
8- I’m in Love with my Car by Queen
What better way to start this playlist, even if this track from Queen’s celebrated A Night at the Opera album is satirical, its some pretty sweet auto lust.
7- Don’t Look Back by the Knack
Chosen for two reasons: #1 its by Bruce Springsteen. Any Springsteen fan knows it would be hard to make a playlist of ten great Boss tracks that don’t mention cars and driving, so he had to turn up here somewhere. The ten best Springsteen songs about cars would probably read like a Greatest Hits, so this is his only appearance here, heard vicariously through hit-or-miss powerpop quartet the Knack. #2 Dirty auto lust.
6- Precision Auto by Superchunk
Here’s a track that first appeared on one of my favorite Superchunk records, On the Mouth, and later re-appeared on a single, remixed by Mark Robinson. The first part of Robinson’s remix is hidden at the end of Superchunk’s Incidental Music, but to hear the second side (“Precision Auto Part 3”), you’ll have to track down that obscure single (Merge 050).
Superchunk made great videos for an indie rock band likely to get little airplay outside of 120 Minutes, and “Precision Auto” is no exception.
5- Long May You Run by the Stills-Young Band
This is the title track from one of several CSN&Y albums that seem to have been forgotten by fans over the years. Long May You Run originally featured Crosby and Nash on harmonies, but their tracks were cut when the duo left to record Whistling Down the Wire, a fairly forgetful collection. Neil Young wrote “Long May You Run” about his first car, a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, and has kept the sentimental elegy in his live repertoire all these years.
4- Stickshifts and Safety Belts by Cake
Never the best thing you heard today but always just about there, Cake is the band we’re all a little uncomfortable loving. “Stickshifts and Safety Belts”, from the album Fashion Nugget, is a pretty representative sample, and a pretty good song about auto lust and lustin’ in an auto.
3- Low Rider by War
“Low Rider” made its film debut in Up in Smoke, and followed that auspicious introduction with appearances in dozens of movies and television programs (And it became a staple of the Cheech & Chong franchise). It has certainly become more famous than any other song recorded by War, even more famous than the band itself. Today War is more likely to appear in court than on stage, having endured years of legal conflicts with a greedy record producer who owns the band’s name and having recently sued Pepsi for millions after the soda company used “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” in a television commercial without permission.
A sad legacy for one of the most unique groups of its era, and one of the only bands talented enough to gracefully combine nearly every divergence in American popular music into a single record – Remarkably, War recorded not one but several albums free flowing and easy going enough to settle the band comfortably into most sections of a record shop – 1975’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?, from which came “Low Rider”, being no exception. Side two opens with “Smile Happy”, a seven-minute instrumental highlighted by its jazz and latin sound built around a melody that could have been borrowed from a traditional string band. Its a testament to the band’s unique talents that outside of this ubiquitous single War is best remembered for its albums, still reliable sellers even in a humble little shop like ours.
If you have never listened to War but you’ve been in the market for a new favorite band, I recommend Deliver the Word as a great introduction to their records. If you’re going to build a low rider, I recommend an early 80s El Camino, when the little truck/cars were built on Malibu frames.
2- Car Song by Woody Guthrie
Not a lot of songs capture the absolute splendor of driving in an automobile like Woody Guthrie’s “Car Song”. We are quick to forget that anyone who remembers our world before the automobile is not long for this world, if around at all. Earlier this year I read about the passing of America’s last World War I veteran, and just last week about the last surviving World War I combat veteran in the world. Hard to say if there’s still anyone who can explain riding in an automobile the same way Woody Guthrie does in this song.
Cars transcend cultural ubiquity. They’re so much a part of our lives that we can’t live without them even when we try. The real tragedy is that classic cars, the beautiful machines Roland Barthes was writing about, have become a luxury of the rich. Its probably best not to think about the fact that the things most of us work so hard to buy, insure and feed have become short-lived, brittle eyesores. The worst part is that they’re not even comfortable, let alone fun to drive.
I think of Red Henderson’s little epic “Automobile Trip through Alabama” (1928) as the first of many great automobile songs. Like all great songs of auto lust, “Automobile Trip through Alabama” celebrates the potential for power and freedom not likely found anywhere else.
There is an undercurrent, dark and deathly auto songs best represented by Roy Acuff’s “Wreck on the Highway”, but even as it hit its peak with a string of early 60s hits – “Last Kiss”, “Leader of the Pack”, etc – its doom and gloom couldn’t cloud over contemporaries like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. If anyone saved songs of auto lust it was the Beach Boys, and “409” or “Little Deuce Coupe” ought rightfully to be on this list.
“Car Song” was written after Woody left a job in New York City, moving his family to California in a new car. He had been hosting a radio program that was called – I am not making this up – Pipe Smoking Time, but left because they told him what to sing. Its sometimes assumed “Car Song” came from Guthrie’s album for children (Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child), but it was actually recorded sometime in 1944 by Moses Asch alongside many of his most famous compositions.
“Car Song” captures a child-like sense of wonder, and may have been rooted in Woody Guthrie’s own childhood in Oklahoma and Texas – The great folk singer was born only four years after the Model T, the first affordable automobile, was introduced.
1- “No Money Down” by Chuck Berry
At his best Chuck Berry expressed rock and roll’s finest auto lust (“Maybelline”, “No Particular Place to Go”), but on the forgotten 1955 Chess single “No Money Down” he takes a satirical tone not so far from the Queen song that started this list. “No Money Down” implies perilous aspirations on the part of the narrator abandoning a “broken-down, ragged old Ford”. This must be a favorite of Bruce Springsteen’s because the Boss, no stranger to quoting Chuck Berry lyrics, lifted lines for his concert narratives for years (Especially in the Born in the USA tour’s extended “Pink Cadillac” introduction). Its also likely the inspiration for Springsteen’s “Used Cars”.
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