FT5: Songs About Cars
There are few song subjects that lend themselves to expressions of pure happiness. Songs about automobiles seem to be an exception. The sense of freedom that comes from driving a car always seems be a joyful experience in songs. Whether you’re talking about The Beach Boys or The Geto Boys, exalting the virtues of the automobile seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon. Most songs seem to be about American cars too as, to my knowledge, no one yet has written a great pop song about a Honda Civic. Maybe some day. In the mean time, follow the jump for five great songs about (American) cars.
Cake is a car obsessed band. There are three tracks about cars on their breakthrough album Fashion Nugget alone. Of these, the unlikely hit “The Distance” is the most famous, but the strange little ditty “Stickshifts and Safety Belts” is the most fun. Bursts of countrified guitar licks over a rollicking rhythm section makes driving around in Chevy seem like the funnest thing on earth. While admitting that “a lot of good cars are Japanese,” singer John McCrea praises the virtues of American automobiles because they allow him to get a little closer to his girl, safety belts be damned. Not exactly the height of rock and roll rebellion (No seat belt: take that Ralph Nader!), but the simple glee in the sentiment is all the song really needs.
When you hear “Low Rider” now, it’s hard to separate it from the countless commercials, movie montages, and TV shows it has been in over the years. Discarding it because it has been overplayed though, would be a mistake. Low Rider is the rare combination of laid back and brilliant. Somehow, cowbell, dirty funk, and chilled out, barely sung vocals is the ideal blend of unforced coolness. It is difficult to imagine a song that so perfectly encapsulates a sense of culture and place the way “Low Rider” does. Hearing it immediately conjures images of tricked out 70’s rides cruising through southern California. If only a Prius could be so funky.
We tend to remember Johnny Cash for his gravitas. His deep voice lends itself well to anguish, but it’s a testament to the man’s talent that he seems equally adept at comedy. The premise of “One Piece at a Time” is simple: an autoworker who assembles Cadillacs resolves to have a car of his own by stealing it, you guessed it, one piece at a time. Stealing a Cadillac: The American Dream. Grand theft auto has never sounded so wholesome or fun. When the autoworker tries to assemble the parts he has acquired over many years on the job, he finds they don’t quite fit together as he planned. Resolved to go through with his plan anyway, Cash’s narrator patches together his Frankenstein car, even if he has to make a few modifications to make the pieces fit. The end result, a “psycho billy Cadillac,” is a weird kind of success story. Determination and theft. The triumph of the working man.
There are countless Hip Hop tracks devoted to cars (and bragging about cars), but few are as timeless as Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” All of the elements of the style Dr. Dre defines in The Chronic are present here: high pitched synthesizers, funky baselines, and George Clinton inspired grooves. G-funk. Actually, to say George Clinton inspired “Let Me Ride,” is an incredible understatement. The song takes its refrain directly from a Parliament track (which itself had taken it from an old Christian spiritual). Regardless of source material, the end result is pure Dre. Even when Dr. Dre is immersed in gangsta bravado and is spitting lines about hollow points, the song more than anything, is a statement of joy. Boastful or not, it’s good to be Dr. Dre cruising around L.A. in a pimped out convertible.
No song represents the elation of joy riding more than Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go.” Right from the opening lines: “Riding along in my automobile/My baby beside me at the wheel” the song seems like an anthem for bored teenagers. As the title suggests, the song is about cruising around with no destination in mind. Sounds wholesome enough. But when Berry does find a place to park with his lady friend, he complains that her seat belt malfunctions. Though when Berry sings about “trying to get her belt aloose,” it is not difficult to imagine the destination he may have had in mind from the beginning. Despite the sexual frustration bubbling under the surface (which makes the song a weird spiritual precursor to the Violent Femmes “Gimme the Car”), the song itself is jubilant. Chuck Berry, as it turns out, plays a mean guitar. I guess that Michael J. Fox really inspired him.
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