Spacing magazine, which launches its first national edition tonight, is holding a road trip mix CD contest. Make a CD for Matthew Blackett’s cross-Canada drive and get a free subscription. Gotta like that.
To get you in the mood and give you some ideas, here’s the Car Song Appendix from my book Drive: A Road Trip through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile. But please don’t steal too many of the songs from this list.
No matter what the audio system is, music rarely sounds better than when it’s cranked up during a road trip with friends. And automobiles never seem more full of promise—more essential—than in the lyrics of a good song about a beloved set of wheels, driving or the road. And there are a lot of them. I aimed to craft a killer playlist of car tunes, but that’s no easy task, especially since I wanted them all to fit on an eighty-minute CD, a limit that turned out to be quite painful. I ended up cutting a lot of tracks I didn’t want to lose. That caveat aside, here is an annotated version of my completely idiosyncratic playlist of the most indispensable car songs:
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (1951)
This may be the first rock ’n’ roll song. Even if it isn’t, it’s a classic about cars, boozing and cruising. (Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm actually made the recording, but since Brenston, normally the group’s saxophone player, did the singing, the band used the Delta Cats moniker.)
“No Particular Place to Go”
Chuck Berry (1964)
Although Berry, who worked on an auto-body assembly line, recorded several noteworthy car songs, including “Maybellene,” “No Money Down,” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” I’ve chosen this rocker about a guy and a girl “cruising and playing the radio.” They park but the girl has a “safety belt that wouldn’t budge.”
“Little Red Corvette”
Prince, 1999 (1983)
Sure, using a car as a metaphor for a woman is nothing new, but this funky pop song is Prince at his best.
War, Why Can’t We Be Friends? (1975)
This Latin rock take on lowrider culture is hard to resist.
“Little Deuce Coupe”
The Beach Boys, Surfer Girl (1963)
No car song playlist would be complete without the Beach Boys. Although the great American pop band has plenty of automobile-related material to choose from—“Fun, Fun, Fun” and “409” would also have been fine selections—I’ve chosen this hot rod ode because of the stunning vocal arrangement.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (2000)
A lovely song about travelling with a woman who won’t navigate because she’s afraid she’ll be wrong. A metaphor for a doomed relationship.
“Brand New Cadillac”
The Clash, London Calling (1979)
Although Vince Taylor wrote this song, the Clash recorded the definitive version. A great tune from what may be the greatest rock ’n’ roll album of all time, so of course it’s going to make this list.
The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976)
This infectious garage rock anthem is about avoiding loneliness by listening to the radio and driving fast in Massachusetts. “Radio on!”
Iggy Pop, Lust for Life (1977)
My playlist includes more songs from the 1970s than any other decade. Perhaps that’s because I was a teenager back then and not because the era was the high-water mark for car music. Still, this popular proto-punk song about cruising around at night, when the city is asleep and the stars are out and “everything looks good,” is an obvious choice.
Kraftwerk, Autobahn (1974)
An improbable hit on both sides of the Atlantic, this hypnotic bit of electronic pop—complete with cars zooming by, squealing tires and other road sounds—captures the exhilarating monotony of long-distance highway driving. The fact that most English-speaking listeners misheard the song’s oft-repeated line “Fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” as “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” only makes it better. (Fahren means driving in German.) There are various versions available, ranging from three minutes to nearly twenty-three minutes in length—I’ve chosen the nine-and-a-half minute one so this playlist will be burnable on a CD.
Golden Earring, Moontan (1973)
Widely considered the best driving song of all time—just try sticking to the speed limit while this song blasts from the car stereo. Just try.
Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland (1968)
Cars as sexual metaphor again—this time from one of rock’s most revered guitarists. The narrator, who will only drive ninety miles an hour, compares a “hard to get through to” woman to heavy traffic because she is slowing him down.
“Old Blue Car”
Peter Case, Peter Case (1986)
Although it earned a Grammy Award nomination, this song from Case’s solo debut is perhaps the least known on this playlist. But everyone can relate to what it’s about: he and his friends pile into an old car that will take them anywhere they want to go.
“Long May You Run”
The Stills-Young Band, The Stills-Young Band (1976)
Today, Neil Young is a devoted car collector. But back in 1965 (not in 1962 as the song suggests) he had to abandon his beloved first car—an old hearse nicknamed Mort—after it broke down near Blind River, a small town in Northern Ontario. This is his elegy to Mort.
Wilco, A.M. (1995)
A whimsical alt-country ballad about a driver who has lost his licence and must rely on his friends to drive him around. The wasted passenger doesn’t like riding shotgun—or that his equally wasted designated driver is swerving all over the road.
Son Volt, Trace (1995)
The narrator of this alt-country anthem sure loves the road trip he’s on. I’m particularly fond of the part where he finds an all-night AM radio station from Louisiana that reminds him of 1963 and “sounds like heaven.”
The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree (2005)
This song is not about cars; it’s about a seventeen-year-old kid determined to survive one more year with his abusive stepfather. But I’ve included it here because songwriter John Darnielle does such a masterful job of using the car as a narrative vehicle. On Saturday morning, he finds freedom by getting in the car and driving away, fast. He gets drunk, plays video games and then meets his girlfriend (they are, he sings, “twin high maintenance machines.”) The car, stuck in second gear, screams as he turns into the driveway when he arrives home at dusk to face another inevitable ugly confrontation with his stepfather.
“(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night”
Tom Waits, The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
I’m tempted to pick “Ol’ 55,” from Waits’s Closing Time album, but I ’m going with this tender, melancholic ballad about cruising around on a Saturday night in an Oldsmobile.
“Racing in the Streets”
Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Given that The Boss grew up in New Jersey, it’s no surprise that cars make appearances in many of his songs, but this one from the last of his four great albums is my pick as the best of the genre. Springsteen often masks dark lyrics with rousing music, but this is no rocker; it’s a slow, seven-minute masterpiece and an unabashedly poignant portrayal of adult despair and what a car can really mean to someone. Springsteen’s working-class characters rarely see cars as simply freedom or adolescent salvation despite all their talk about promised lands: the man wooing the porch-bound Mary in “Thunder Road” knows any redemption from their loneliness that he and his car can offer will be only temporary and the cruising kids in “Born to Run” have nowhere to hide on the broken hero–jammed highways. But the narrator in “Racing in the Streets” is past even that; for him, the car represents survival. Unlike other men his age—most of whom have given up and started slowly dying—when he’s finished working at his dreary job he goes out and races his souped-up 1969 Chevy for money. His aging girlfriend wallows in her shattered dreams and even when he says he’ll drive her to the sea to wash away their sins, it’s hard to sense any optimism about it. His car and his ability to beat other drivers are all he has left.