Rock and roll has long been obsessed with the automobile. The two art forms are spiritually linked: the emergence of youth culture with the societal invention of the “teenager” in the 1950s coincided with the freedom celebrated by this new musical genre and realized by the flood of cheap used cars that followed the post-war production boom.
For the first time, young adults could enjoy their own personal bubble, where the music was loud, friends were riding along, and shenanigans were sure to ensue. Rock and pop quickly picked up on this trend, first celebrating and then commingling with car culture.
It's been almost 70 years since Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats wrote Rocket 88, a song that, appropriately enough, celebrated the Oldsmobile 88 and is widely considered the first rock and roll song. Cars and the freedom they bring has remained a common theme in everything from doo-wop to hip hop in the years since.
Let's take a closer look at what rock and roll singers sing about when they sing about cars.
Long Stroke Crankshafts
Many consider rock and roll’s sometimes-suggestive themes to be traceable straight back to Elvis’ gyrating pelvis on the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. Arguably, it goes back a bit further, even.
Rocket 88 may have kicked off the rock and roll revolution in 1951, but Chuck Berry took up the mantle in 1955 with his break-out single Maybellene, in which the protagonist chases down his two-timing lover in his V-8 Ford after catching her out and about in a rival's Cadillac. About a decade later he told us about having No Particular Place To Go, an ode to cruising your crush that used a jammed seatbelt as a metaphor for sexual frustration.
Americans didn’t have a lock on the genre. Paul McCartney wrote the Beatles classic Drive My Car in 1965, a song that might as well have been an open invitation for midnight marauding, while Deep Purple’s 1972 hard rock workout Highway Star would go one step further in directly comparing the attributes of a lover to the tire-shredding capabilities of a finely-oiled machine.
Although disco might have largely ignored the automobile as a bedroom concept, by the early ’80s America was emerging from its glitterball hangover. Three years into the decade Prince would record Little Red Corvette, that rare track expressing male regret at a one-night stand with a woman and loveless meaninglessness of it all. Elastica would shift the gaze to the woman's perspective with Car Song in 1995, with singer Justine Frischmann lamenting that 'every shining bonnet / makes me think of my back on it.' The chromosomal swing in sexuality from Berry to post-millennium would be completed by Miranda Lambert's 2012 Fastest Girl In Town, with her imagery of police chases, whiskey, and starting a fire while “wearing nothing but a tattoo and a smile.”
Highway To Hell
The flip side of humanity's drive to procreate is of course its tendency to destroy, which makes the twin concepts of death and tragedy perfect fodder for vehicular balladry. This is especially true when considering just how dangerous early automobiles truly were, in all of their steel-dashboard, bias-ply glory.
One of the earliest cars-and-graves tracks was The Ballad Of Thunder Road, a Robert Mitchum tie-in to his 1957 movie Thunder Road, which told the tale of a young bootlegger’s doomed back-road escape (“The Devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day”). By the 1960s the “teenage death song” was a full-fledged sub-genre of its own (Leader of the Pack, Ode To Billy Joe), and it would gain a famous automotive entry with Jan and Dean's classic Dead Man's Curve, a song that immortalized the fatal results of a drag race between a Corvette Stingray and a Jaguar XKE.
In 1972, Kiss would combine booze, late-night driving, and “speed kills” with Detroit Rock City, one of the band's most popular songs and one that vocalist Paul Stanley called an examination of the lightning-fast transition between the here and the hereafter that happens every day out on the road. Golden Earring would cash in with a similarly-themed Radar Love a year later, with its more ambiguous ending leaving it up to the listener to decide whether the singer actually fell asleep at the wheel or made it home to their lover.
Bass-heavy band Primus would resurrect the idea of reckless living ending in a mess of tangled chrome and steel with Jerry Was A Race Car Driver in 1991, as the titular protagonist lost control of his 442 after one too many at the local bar. As time went on, however, and cars became that much safer, contemplations of automotive mortality would take on a more spiritual tone: David Ball's recording of Riding with Private Malone in 2001 takes the listener back in time to the purchase of a classic ’Vette from the mother of a deceased Vietnam war soldier, whose ghost then goes on to pull the new owner out from a wreck before the paramedics arrive.
If You're Not First, You're Last
When teens weren't making out in their rolling chrome palaces, they were lining them up on boulevards, fire roads, and drag strips to see who could stay in the throttle the longest and win either bragging rights or pink slips.
A significant portion of early rock was devoted to the glory days of on-street action. Hot Rod Lincoln is the most well-worn ditty from this era, first recorded in 1955 but subject to a number of covers over the ensuing years until Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen took the track to ninth on the Billboard charts in 1971. Its longevity is no doubt linked to original writer Charlie Ryan's ability to cram in as many street racing elements as possible in this grudge match between a high-dollar Cadillac and a home-built, Lincoln-motivated Model A underdog.
Jan and Dean make their second and third appearances here with Drag City, which in 1963 was one of the first songs to paint a picture of official drag strip action (with the catchy 'burn up that quarter mile' chorus). In 1964, the pair would follow on with The Little Old Lady From Pasadena, perhaps the least-traditional street racing song ever put on wax, inspired by a series of SoCal Dodge commercials that placed an elderly woman behind the wheel of a big-block muscle machine.
As drag culture faded from the popular consciousness, fewer musicians tackled the topic on a regular basis. That being said, there are two more recent recordings of note from a pair of diametrically-opposed artists. In 1978 Bruce Springsteen released Racing in the Street, a fresh and meditative look at the concept of wrenching and racing as an escape from the soul-crushing drudgery of everyday living. Nearly two decades later, Metallica would drop Fuel, an ode to adrenaline crashes, nitro junkies, and driving “one hundred plus through black and white,” defining the modern era's invitation to “take the corner, join the crash.”
Not every trip is a good one, and there are a number of artists who twisted the lens of the automobile until it reflected some of the bleaker aspects of society.
One of the first to do this was Gary Numan with Cars, a song that hides behind a seemingly upbeat lyric that in reality is a clarion call of the paranoia and fear that some were feeling in 1979 as the uncertainty of the future and the chaos of the recent past began to blend together in the New Wave scene. The spirit of dystopia would be picked up by a very different band—Rush—just a couple years later with their release of Red Barchetta, a track that describes a world 50-years hence where driving pleasure is illegal and the ultimate act of sci-fi rebellion is to evade pursuit from evil flying overlords in the titular machine.
Springsteen would again climb behind the wheel in 1982, but this time it was in the context of the stripped-down album 'Nebraska,' which featured one of the most haunting tracks in his oeuvre. State Trooper is a haunting dispatch from the thin line between madness and violence, sung the perspective of a tortured soul driving down the New Jersey turnpike in the wee hours of the morning.
Almost as crushing were examinations of relationship and family like Fast Car by Tracy Chapman and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams—’90s songs that revealed the link between constantly being motion and yet always feeling stuck, regardless of how hard you pinned the accelerator.
The Open Road
Of course, as much as automobiles can stand in for ennui and despair, they can also symbolize the endless possibilities offered by the open road. At their best, this particular set of car songs embody the energy and freedom provided by a full tank of gas.
The Beach Boys kept things local in 1964 with Fun, Fun, Fun, but the entire spirit of the song—a young girl who borrows daddy's T-Bird and becomes a local celebrity as a result—encapsulates the independence of a teen with wheels and the exuberance that flows from that state of mind. Just over 10 years later, Bruce Springsteen would catapult those same feelings from the hamburger stand to the earnest optimism of early adulthood with Born To Run, which mythologized being “sprung from cages on Highway 9 / chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line” on their way to a future as-yet undefined.
In 1980, Willie Nelson would broaden these themes with On The Road Again, a track that looked at the highway with a more mature perspective and found it full of friends, life experiences, and new horizons. It was a similar angle to what Tom Cochrane's Life Is A Highway would embody in 1991 in his a defiantly optimistic boast of perseverance and self-discovery from the driver's seat.
A Flat Circle
Music has evolved immensely since Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats wrote what many consider to be the first rock and roll song. In that time, cars have become less avatars of personal freedom and driving pleasure and more appliances whose characteristics are increasingly mandated by focus groups and government regulations.
It's perhaps not surprising, then, that their inclusion in popular tunes has become more and more sparse, limited primarily to boasts about material wealth rather than any insightful social commentary or pontification about the feel behind the wheel. That being said, pop culture is one big circle rotating on an infinite axis that could very well swing around to shine its spotlight on automotive sex, death, and everything in between at any moment.
Don't be surprised if one day you plug your brain-implant into the Entertaino-Tron 2.0 and hear a robotic voice singing to you about what the wonders of fully-autonomous automobiles have done for its mid-commute love life.