Rock 'n' roll and the interstate highway system both mushroomed in the mid-1950s. Coincidence? Not so much — the two go together like, well, smooching and backseats. Take a quick spin through the best songs ever written about America's love affair with the automobile.
Chuck Berry — "Maybellene" (1955)
Nobody's fool, Chuck Berry picked up on what Americans were hungering for. He took an older song called "Ida Red," added a few blistering electric guitar licks then started singing about a beautiful woman driving a souped-up roadster. Boom! A forefather of rock had his first big hit.
The Beach Boys — "Don't Worry, Baby" (1964)
It's hard to think of a Beach Boys song that isn't about cars: There's "Little Deuce Coupe" and "409," of course — and who could forget "Fun Fun Fun"? But take a listen sometime to the B side of "I Get Around," because nothing surpasses "Don't Worry, Baby." Brian Wilson's keening falsetto conveys insecurity in every note. At first the lyrics turn his anxiety about an upcoming drag race into a metaphor for fear of sex. But then they drop any such pretense, yielding one of the finest blends ever written about sex, cars and rock 'n' roll.
Wilson Pickett — "Mustang Sally" (1966)
How's this for a change of pace? Rather than pleading with his girl for a little lovin', the singer worries that she's a little too ardent a driver, if you follow me. As Pickett admonishes her recklessness in vain, his backup singers coo encouragingly, "Ride, Sally, ride!" Guess who wins? (Intriguing trivia: The song was titled "Mustang Mama" until Aretha Franklin heard it and suggested "Sally" might flow better. Queen of Soul, is there no end to your greatness?)
The Who — "Goin' Mobile" (1971)
Sung by Pete Townshend, this is one of the most carefree numbers on the Who's mighty Who's Next album. The lyrics depict a future where pollution has restricted travel, but not everyone is bound by such limits: "Watch the police and the taxman miss me, I'm mobile!" Propelled by Keith Moon's characteristically frenetic drumming and Townshend's heavily processed guitar solo, the song strains to stay below the speed limit when the volume is cranked.
Janis Joplin — “Mercedes Benz” (1971)
“I’d like to do a song of great social and political import,” Joplin said the first time she sang this tune. Her lyrics are generally considered a hippie-era rejection of the consumerism she saw around her while growing up as a self-described “middle-class white chick” in Port Arthur, Texas. She sang, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? / My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends …” Yet the night she died, it was her famous Porsche — albeit one painted in psychedelic colors — that was parked outside her hotel.
NRBQ — "Ridin' in My Car" (1977)
A crazy-tight ensemble, NRBQ (originally the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet) gigged tirelessly for decades but never quite hit the big time, despite attracting such high-profile fans as Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt along the way. This song — a melancholy lyric of what might have been wedded to a pitch-perfect pop melody carried by a guitar line that will have you thinking George Harrison — was a minor hit in the band's home base of New England. It deserves to be known nationwide (and it's never too late!).
The Pointer Sisters — “Fire” (1978)
The group featured six different family members over its three-decade heyday: June, Bonnie, Anita and Ruth — plus Ruth’s daughter Issa and her granddaughter Sadako. But it was the lineup of June, Anita and Ruth who recorded Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" as their first single together. It went to No. 2 (and became their first gold single) on the pop charts. What’s going on in the car in the opening line of the song? A date-night ride, of course. And, of course, fire.
Rush — "Red Barchetta" (1981)
Music fans know Rush's Neal Peart for three things: his love of motorized vehicles, his distrust of those in power and his lyrical prowess. OK, make that four things: Peart is also one of the most precise drummers in rock. Those traits shine forth in this tune about a dystopia where sports cars such as the narrator's prized Barchetta (a type of racer) have been outlawed. This being rock 'n' roll, though, you think a little thing like the law's gonna stop our hero from taking his wheels for a spin?
Bob Seger — "Makin' Thunderbirds" (1982)
No metaphors here, and no girls — just a straightforward if somewhat wistful (and slightly angry) recounting of Detroit's glory days. With the mighty Silver Bullet Band backing Michigan's own Bob Seger, the song roars like the assembly line it poignantly recalls.
Bruce Springsteen — "Pink Cadillac" (1984)
No rocker is more closely associated with cars than Bruce Springsteen. From such a rich catalog, how can one possibly choose? When in doubt, go with the blues: "Pink Cadillac" is driven by an unstoppable backbeat, courtesy of the E Street Band's unerring rhythm section, and dirtied up by the late, great Clarence Clemons's honking sax. Unlike the Beach Boys, there's no fear of sex here; unlike Wilson Pickett, no one's asking anyone else to slow down; and unlike Rush or the Who, Bruce evidently doesn't feel the need for speed. Instead, he croons, "We don't have to drive it/Honey, we can park it out in back/And have a party in your pink Cadillac." Vroom, vroom.
Originally published June 15, 2012
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