So many lives were deeply affected by the radio in our parent’s car. When I was a young boy, my school was pretty far from where I lived. So my father would drive my little brother and me. It was a 30 minute ride and there was a draw-bridge on the way which was frequently raised, which added another quarter of an hour. So there was plenty of time to listen to music. Sometimes, my father would play tapes he’d made, sometimes he’d just turn on the radio. Regardless, that half hour spent in the back of his car, enveloped by exciting new sounds, felt like an escape to a different place.
One day, we bought a new car, a Ford Focus, and the dealership offered us a little present, a branded tape with songs related to cars. Quickly, that little tape would turn into our most cherished possession. Songs like “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf, Prefab Sprout’s “Cars & Girls” and “Play it Cool” by German formation Münchner Freiheit (no idea how that piece connected to the car theme, but I loved it anyway) were suddenly the soundtrack to my life.
An obsession was born: To find as many songs about cars as I could.
As it turned out, I had embarked on an endless mission. Automobiles have been a source of inspiration for many generations of songsmiths. Through them, we can trace many social and political developments, broken by the prism of history.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at that development. We’ll go through a vast collection of songs from the past seventy years. In the end, you’ll have learned all about the way cars turned into muses. On top, you’ll also get plenty of great music recommendations.
Phase 1: The naive years
Let’s begin our long and winding trip at a time when the car world was still rose-coloured.
In the 50s, no one worried about the ecological impact of driving. Gas was cheap and your first car was your entry into a promised land. Cars seemed as healthy as fresh milk and a succulent steak.
Woody Guthrie’s “Riding in my Car (Car Song)” is the perfect example of this perspective. Written in 1951, it is a kids’ song about the many different noises that cars make. Guthrie was a highly political artist, but even he could find nothing to criticise about automobiles. They were fun, plain and simple.
Quickly, cars would turn into a lot more than that.
In the 60s, the car was an object of desire and admiration for many different reasons.
For one, it sped up life and created a sense of freedom. When Chuck Berry (and, prior to him, Nate King Cole) talked about getting his kicks on “Route 66”, he was singing about the unprecedented dimensions of travelling by car. The composition describes a trip through “two-thirds of the U.S. from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California.” Journeys like these were previously unthinkable and could only be performed by train, if at all. Now, everyone could experience this sense of immense liberty.
Secondly, car design improved significantly. Automobiles were suddenly slick and elegant, ornamented with fins and shining chrome detailing. Within a decade, they had gone from being functional yet dirty to sexy. Artists started singing about them like they would sing about a friend or loved one.
Little Deuce Coupe
The Beach Boys were one of the first bands to capitalise on this trend. Early in 1963, Capital Records had released a hot-rod-themed compilation record by the name of Shut Down. It was a big success and contained twelve tracks all revolving around the “fun, thrill and excitement of the road”. The sampler was titled after and built around Brian Wilson’s song of the same name, which had been a big hit. However, the label had not asked the band for permission.
[As an aside: The band may have been particularly irritated by the fact that the collection also included pieces by groups like The Super Stocks, who were clearly copies of the Beach Boys’s sound. As a reference, check the Super Stocks’ “Thunder Road”, which is almost note to note identical with “Surfin’ USA”. On the other hand, the Super Stocks’ first album is one of the very first car-concept-albums of all times and pretty interesting for collectors. The same goes for Shut Down as a whole, which is a very fine release in hindsight and a true treasure trove if you’re into songs about cars.]
Wilson set about putting together his own hot-rod album at brakeneck speed. Within a mere month, he had not only written enough new songs, but also recorded and pressed them. The result was Little Deuce Coupe, a collection of songs all dealing with car culture. It may not have been an instant classic. But it was pretty great nonetheless and almost singlehandedly established car songs as a genre in its own right.
On the title track, Wilson sounds almost like he’s in love with his car:
“Well I’m not bragging babe so don’t put me down
But I’ve got the fastest set of wheels in town
When something comes up to me he don’t even try
‘Cause if I had a set of wings man I know she could fly
She’s my little deuce coupe
You don’t know what I got.”
It wouldn’t take long before others would follow suite. Songs like Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally”, which stuck close to the template established by the Beach Boys’, populated the upper regions of the charts for years.
I love my car
The tradition established by Brian Wilson would remain intact well into the early 80s.
In fact, there may never have been a more passionate declaration than Queen’s “I’m in Love with my Car”, an ode to the deep understanding between a driver and his four wheeled lover:
“Told my girl I’ll have to forget her
Rather buy me a new carburetor
So she made tracks saying this is the end, now
Cars don’t talk back they’re just four wheeled friends now”
As with a lot of Queen songs, the words were always slightly tongue in cheek. But the underlying sentiment was dead serious: In the 70s, nothing could heal a broken heart like a long drive.
A far more personal song was Neil Young’s “Long May You Run”, an elegy for his first car. What may seem somewhat embarrassing to some is actually a moving tribute to others. When Young, in his typically blunt lyrical style, speaks about “trunks of memories” or “your chrome heart shining in the sun”, he actually means it. So many of us car lovers will totally be able to relate to these sentiments.
Easily the most grandiose song about cars was Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard light”. Writer Jim Steinman wanted it to be the “the ultimate car/sex song” and accordingly took the arrangement to the limits of what was possible in a pop song. Although the single version was cut to a modest five and a half minutes, the album cut runs just over eight minutes. There are rumours that some unreleased edits ran for almost half an hour.
In “Paradise by the Dashboard light”, the car serves as the main stage for an entire love affair, from its promising and passionate beginnings to its unfolding into a mature relationship and its eventual demise. In the end, everything goes horribly wrong. The heavenly glow of the dashboard light has faded into a faint glimmer filled with regrets and blame.
Steinman’s unique vision was a throwback to the golden days of car songs during the surf- and rock n roll years. But the way he presented them, somewhere between progressive rock and miniature opera, made them feel fresh rather than nostalgic.
The Hippie Years
It was hippie culture which brought a subtle change in tone. Contrary to what we might today expect, hippies were not critical of car culture as such. They, too, loved the sense of freedom that automobiles and motorbikes offered. To them, the ecological issues caused by massive petrol use, were not yet a problem. In fact, they may have loved car culture even more than the bourgeois generation before them which they’d come to disrespect.
Cars and bikes offered a way out of the big cities and into the wide open, where life was simple and the rules of society did not exert their chokehold.
It wasn’t a 180 degree turn around, when Steppenwolf described the pleasures of cruising in their anthem “Born to be Wild”:
“Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way
Yeah Darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace.”
As drugs shifted towards mind-expanding substances, the wildness of Steppenwolf changed into an almost meditative driving state. This is what songs like “Take it Easy” by the Eagles and War’s “Low Rider” were really about: The sensation of complete peace you experience when floating along the highway:
“Low rider drives a little slower
Low rider is a real goer”
What hippies were really against was inequality.
A great example for one of the first critical songs related to an automobile is undeniably “Mercedes Benz”.
Far from being an appraisal of the German car manufacturer’s products, this is a song with a clever, not instantly obvious message. In fact, in the lyrics, Janice Joplin talks not just about wanting a Mercedes Benz. She’d also love a colour TV and pay for a night out in the town.
There is, of course, a twist to the track, which has helped in making it so utterly timeless. When Joplin sings:
“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”
she is not celebrating the American dream. In fact, she admits that she’s worked hard all her lifetime, but still didn’t make enough money to afford her dream car. Rather, she turns towards God to grant her her wishes.
The luxury gap
Joplin therefore doesn’t criticise consumerism as such, as has sometimes been claimed. She genuinely thinks the products she pines for are great. The point is they’re out of her reach completely. Some cars had become luxury items and symbols for the growing inequality in many Western societies. Joplin’s legendary anthem was a smart reflection of that changed image of cars.
A similar sentiment is expressed in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a time” from 1976. In the song, Cash is a worker at an assembly line, putting together Cadillacs. Although each day, several of these beauties are passing him by on the line, he knows he will never ever be able to afford one in real life.
And so, he devises the plan to steal one little piece for a finished car each day, figuring no one will notice. In the end, he does manage to put together an entire car. But since the different components are from different cars from different model generations, the outcome is bizarre rather than beautiful. Still, Cash finds peace in the thought that at least he has something that is entirely his own:
“You’ll know it’s me when I come through your town
I’m gonna ride around in style
I’m gonna drive everybody wild
‘Cause I’ll have the only one there is around.
Ugh!, what model is it?
Well, It’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56
’57, ’58’ 59′ automobile
It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67
’68, ’69, ’70 automobile.”
But it wasn’t all bad. At least back in the 70s, cars were not just tools to get you from point A to point B. They also served to connect people with each other. Many songs reflected this – a marked difference to today, where most car-related songs deal with private emotions.
Three classic songs exemplify this thought:
Rose Royce – Car Wash
You may not get rich washing other people’s cars, Royce says. But you can at least meet a lot of interesting people while doing it.
In the 70s, cars were no longer niche items. They had become part of the mainstream and almost everyone owned one, no matter how run-down or cheap it might be.
We may look very different on the outside, the song seems to say, but underneath, we’re all drivers.
Iggy Pop – The Passenger
An eternal punk classic, “The Passenger” shifted the balance from the driver to the person by her side.
What sounds like a pure fun and pop song is actually filled to the brim with deeply romantic and poetic descriptions of how wonderful it can be to let someone else take the wheel and revel in the magic of landscapes flying by your window.
Later, other artists created their own variations on the same topic. Notable examples include Wilco’s “Passenger Side” (1995) and Death Cab for Cutie’s “Passenger Seat” (2003).
John Prine – Automobile
This one approaches the topic from another angle: Imagine, the song seems to say, all the things you can not do and all the social events you can not attend, if your car doesn’t work or if you can’t find the key.
It may not be a particularly strong political statement. Still, these lyrics are among the funniest and best you’re likely to find in this entire article.
Phase 2: Futurism and apocalyptic visions
The romantic notion of car culture remained a vital force in music. As we’ll see in a bit, it would develop a new sister-strand of songs about the pure fun and excitement of driving. And yet, towards the end of the 70s, lyrics tended to become a whole lot darker and gloomier. Society as a whole began to see technology more critical or even with fearful eyes. Cars were a large part of that development.
There had been precursors. The most obvious one being Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. It was written in a visionary premonition in 1970. In this song, Mitchell describes how she yearns for a more organic and pure lifestyle. She wants spots on her apples rather than pesticides. She wants a true sense of nature rather than an artificial reproduction in a museum. Cars and concrete represent everything she despises.
As the famous lines go:
“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot.”
And it’s certainly no coincidence that it’s a big yellow taxi which takes away her baby and leaves her home and alone. Mitchell was not a recluse and she lived life to the full. But she was weary of what technology was doing to our sense of being human. Unlike Rose Royce, she saw cars not as tools for bonding. She thought they separated us from those around us and made us more isolated.
Fahrn, Fahrn, Fahrn
Just like Mitchell, many artists felt both fascinated and scared by the rise of a technological society. Technology, they realised, held many opportunities for the better. But at the same time, it was changing us more deeply than anything else had before, creating a sense of unease.
No band was able to encapsulate this duality more clearly in their songs than Kraftwerk. The German formation did not make any overt statements about the value of the future. They simply described how they imagined it to be: Ruled by robots and machine logic. We can recognise this future, because it is an obvious extension of the world we live in. But it is also weird and strange, alien and quirky.
Cars as a centrepiece
Little wonder, then, that Kraftwerk made car culture the centrepiece of their legendary breakthrough album Autobahn. On the title track, lyrically, nothing of any relevance is happening. The words – extremely brief for a 24 minute epic – merely describe, or rather hint at, a trip on the German highway. The music, however, brought to life by early sampling techniques and electronic effects, makes this idea palpable in a way that a song like “Route 66” never could.
There were moments, where the gentle beats and feathery melodies recreated in sound the experience of gliding over that ‘grey strip’ with your Benz, every road bump perfectly smoothed out by its shock absorbers. At other instances, the mood was spaced out and confusing, as the late stages of a long trip can be, when everything outside looks the same and you loose all sense of space and time.
The power of “Autobahn” was that it first presented us with a totally bizarre and otherworldly experience and then made us realise that it was the very world we were living in. The future was already here. This wasn’t futurism, but presentism.
The Science Fiction Years
It took the rest of the music industry a while to catch up to Kraftwerk’s vision. When it did, however, it would hit the scene like a tsunami.
In 1979, Gary Numan scored an international chart topping hit with “Cars”, a song that still sounds every bit as powerful and overwhelming as it did when it was first released. Numan used the same Utopian synths that Kraftwerk did and his lyrics seemed to come from the same galaxy.
He was, in a way, creating a counter image to Joni Mitchell’s technophobia. Yes, cars were tools for social exclusion. Yes, they distanced you from the people around you. But in a strange and inexplicable way, they also made you feel comforted and safe. He may not have been thinking about it this way, but Numan’s ideas seem extremely perceptive, almost clairvoyant, in the age of the smartphone.
Even ignoring this, his sounds and ideas were massively influential. A certain way to tell is how many artists would later sample the song or write responses to it. One of the instances of the latter is “White Car” by British progressive band Yes, which feels like an ironic take on Numan’s pitch black, over-serious science-fiction fantasy.
Numan could have chosen any other technological item. In fact, from our current point of view, his choice may seem strange. Weren’t there better metaphors for the dark side of the force?
The fact that he did go for cars proves that at this point in time, they were still very much symbols of progress. And indeed, many revolutionary concepts in car design were being developed during this period, new materials tested and traditional approaches questioned.
In 1983, Paul Simon pitted cars and people against each other, describing the former as a mass product and the latter as an assortment of mistakes and imperfections who make us who we are:
“Cars are cars
All over the world
In a motorcade
Abandoned when they’re old
But people are strangers
They change with the curve
From time zone to time zone
As we can observe.”
Although the love for cars hadn’t disappeared, critical voices like Simon’s were quickly gaining ground. You don’t have to agree with their position to enjoy their musical magic.
The Kraftwerk factor
We mentioned Kraftwerk before. Despite the success of Autobahn, which had ranked high on European charts, the band were still at the very beginning of their influence. This isn’t just true with regard to their own success and before they would reach the top spot in France with “Radio-Activity” and across Europe with “The Model”. Most of all, the 80s saw them increasingly turning into the main factor driving the development of the fledgling synth pop genre.
The influence could be felt both in terms of sound and concepts. When Rush released “Red Barchetta” in 1981, the song sounded nothing like the famous pioneers from Dusseldorf. Rather, this was progressive rock at its finest. The story, however, did seem to come from a similar place. The song was based on the short story “A Nice Morning Drive” and, according to the Guardian “imagines a world where the internal combustion engine is banned and everyone knocks about in eco-friendly “gleaming alloy air cars” – apart from our hero, who visits his uncle’s country house to drive the fantastically preserved Ferrari 550 Barchetta the old chap’s been keeping under wraps for 50 years. Includes the none-more-Julian-and-Sandy line: “Tyres spitting gravel, I commit my weekly crime.”
The future is bewildering.
Others were clearly inspired by the use of novel production technology in Kraftwerk’s fascinatingly forward-thinking work. One of the most bewildering takes on their sound is Neil Young’s Trans. This is an album so far out that it almost seems to exist in a parallel universe. It actually caused his record label sue him!
Young, known for his trance-like, hands-on take on folk and noise, had discovered synthesizers and vocoders. On Trans, he re-imagined some of his songs as being written in Germany. Other pieces on the album were still arranged in the more traditional rock style of his earlier albums. The result was a hybrid which was either brilliant or whacky, depending on your perspective.
Trans was not an album with songs about cars.
But it was no coincidence that its cover art work featured a futuristic vehicle chasing down the highway. Stand-out track “Computer Age” opens with the lines
“Cars and trucks
Fly by me on the corner
But I’m all right
before the signal
When I see the light
I know I’m more
than just a number.”
Young was, like Kraftwerk before him, seeing the present through the lens of futurism. Trans, to the uninitiated observer, might have sounded like an ode to a dehumanised future. But Young did not paint a picture of things to come. He described what he was seeing and he did not like it one bit. He knew that we were, in many respects, really just numbers and that technology could never save us.
Some of the greatest music of Kraftwerk and its many imitators was instrumental. There’s a certain logic to this. This music essentially dealt with a world in which machines were gradually taking over. The human voice no longer had a place in it. If they did make an appearance, vocals were accordingly warped and sent through vocoders to create voices at the cusp between the organic and synthetic.
As already Woody Guthrie’s Car Song had reminded us, autos were sources of great sounds in themselves. And so it can’t come as a surprise that instrumental music would soon turn into a fertile field for car related compositions.
One of the greatest albums of this category was Drive Inn by Rainer Bloss and Klaus Schulze. Schulze, one of the big innovators of electronic music during the famous ‘Krautrock’ years (a term he himself passionately rejected), was also, anecdotally, a car lover. And so, it seemed only logical to record an album which could serve as a soundtrack to a day on the Autobahn.
Bloss, with whom he’d already recorded a string of classic records in the 80s, was the ideal sparring partner. Whereas Schulze relied on intuition and feeling, Bloss’s formal education grounded the music and provided it with some decidedly hummable melodies. Some of the tracks on Drive Inn truly work like program music: “Truckin'” conjured up images of heavy juggernauts pushing through the fog. And you could put the epic “Road Clear” on a loop during endless night rides.
Bloss followed the album up with an agreeable second instalment in 1986, which focused more on lightweight melodies and pop structures and a bizarre, techno-influenced third part. But in terms of pure, driving music, nothing beats the moody concept music of the first Drive Inn.
Phase 3 Road Fever & Car Fun
Drive Inn was also a visionary work in terms of leading into a new phase in the long history of songs about cars. Although dark and mysterious in nature, it was an album which celebrated the fun and excitement of driving. As quickly emerged, Schulze and Bloss weren’t the only artists who felt this way about cars.
Much earlier, Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” in 1972 had jumpstarted a whole genre of pieces dealing with the adrenaline rush of driving. As Deep Purple put it:
“Nobody gonna take my car
I’m gonna race it to the ground
Nobody gonna beat my car
It’s gonna break the speed of sound
Oooh it’s a killing machine
It’s got everything
Like a driving power big fat tires
“Highway Star” was followed by the Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” in ’73. It’s a song in a similar vein, although just a little less about car love. After all, the protagonist of the Dutch rock stars’ iconic single is not speeding for speeding’s sake, but headed for his baby …
Some of the songs in this vein were obviously written by people with very little regard for car safety reports or respect for the law. The B52s even described the frenzy of racing like having the “Devil in my Car”. And in what is probably the most well-known hymn of speed devils, “I can’t Drive 55”, Sammy Hagar reports:
“Go on and write me up for 125
Post my face, wanted dead or alive
Take my license, all that jive
I can’t drive 55, oh no, uh”
Hagar’s anthem, whose title can now be found on bumper stickers and t-shirts all across the USA, wasn’t the last of its kind. Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay, known as a huge admirer (and owner) of expensive luxury racing cars, wrote “Black Devil Car”. The lyrics read like a collection of every single cliches associated with driving. Megadeth’s “1,320′” and Dream Theater’s “Viper King”, took things one step further, describing the speed rush of high speed racing.
Associated with this need for speed was a sexual tension and an association between the two. Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta my dreams, get into my car” is actually a bit scary if you read the lyrics, but a perfect example for a song in which cars act as an adult playing ground.
It wasn’t just men who used cars to lure potential mates.
Women were increasingly discovering their love for automobiles and the energy associated with them, too.
In “Sleeping in your car”, the late Marie Fredriksson of Roxette announced:
“Sleeping in my car, I will undress you
Sleeping in my car, I will caress you
Staying in the backseat of my car, making up, oh”
In a similar vein, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann wrote the following lyrics to her “Car Song”:
“You could call me a car lover
‘Cause I love it in a motor
And the way it feels
To ride around on new wheels.
I hardly know you
But I think I’m going to
Let’s go siesta
In your Ford Fiesta”
Clearly, these ladies meant business!
Cars & Emancipation
Fredriksson and Frischmann were not the only female car lovers. But their number has remained low even as emancipation and female empowerment became more prominent.
This may seem surprising at first, since there are currently more female drivers than male ones in many European countries. Also, most of them have very strong ideas about what they want out of a car and have a more than adequate technical know-how.
Perhaps the lack of songs about cars written by women can be explained by the fact that they don’t share the same romantic notions in relation to their vehicle as many men. Instead, they seem to embrace more practical criteria.
This doesn’t mean you won’t find any car songs by women at all. Nanci Griffith’s “Ford Econoline” was inspired by tangible love for cars. The same goes for Kathy Mattea’s “455 Rocket”.
But when it comes to pure passion, nothing beats Iggy Azalea, who alludes to beautiful cars several times in her lyrics. Here’s an excerpt from the incredible “Team”:
“My time wherever I go
I took a chance like I’m from Chicago
Hundred-plus in that Murcielago”
The 80s: A new romanticism
Cars could be seen in many music videos of the 80s. Strangely, they did not feature in all that many mainstream songs. Perhaps they had simply become too commonplace to make for suitable lyrical topics. Or maybe attention had merely wandered off somewhere else. Either way, in terms of classic songs about cars, the 80s mark a bit of a dip.
If cars and driving did however feature in songs, artists found interesting new ways of talking about them. A new romanticism took hold, in which car culture was a vital element, but no longer the only factor.
The Cars’ “Drive” embodies this spirit perfectly. It is not a song about driving in any shape or form. In fact, the key line
“Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?”
is the only reference to cars. And yet, it gives life to the entire song, whose words are otherwise very hard to decipher precisely. In many respects, “Drive” may well be the greatest song with car references which is actually not a song about cars at all.
Songs against songs about cars
The same can be said about Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls”, which is, arguably, a song AGAINST songs about cars. After all, the lyrics contain a thinly disguised stab at Bruce Springsteen’s limited topical scope for his compositions, claiming that “some things hurt more, much more than cars and girls”.
Although it may be ironic that precisely this song ended up on so many car-themed compilations (including the one spinning on my father’s radio), it is also ironic that Prefab Sprout, in trying to write an ironic piece about the ridiculous romanticism of cars, wrote possibly the greatest and entirely unironic romantic car hymn of all times.
Phase 4: Hip Hop and Cars
Which brings us to the most recent development in the history of songs about cars. Whereas rock was the main muse in the first decades, hip hop took the appreciation of car culture to a whole new level.
Starting roughly in 1987 with Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours” and extending into the present day, hip hop would celebrate every aspect of fine cars, from their design to their image as status symbols. Many of the tropes explored by rock re-appeared, but now regarded through a different lens. For anyone with more than a fleeting interest in songs about cars, the genre provided some of the most exciting contributions in a very long time.
Songs like “Picture Me Rollin'” by 2Pac featuring Big Syke, CPO & Danny Boy, Will Smith’s “Just Cruisin'”, Chamillionaire’s “Ridin” or The Game featuring Techniec, E-40, Crooked I, Chingy, Lil Rob, WC & Ice Cube’s “My Lowrider” are classic tunes celebrating the pleasures of driving. More recently, tracks like Ace Hood’s “Bugatti” cover the bling-aspect of cars and how they elevate the driver of a luxury car into someone special.
Let me Ride
Still, the biggest and possibly unsurpassable rap song about cars is Dre’s “Let me Ride”. From its cheaply cult video clip to the smooth, cruising flow of the beats and the lyrics, the track defines a way of life built around automobiles.
“Let me Ride” was not a huge hit when it was initially released, peaking at 34 on the billboard charts and failing to leave a big impression overseas. After Dre triumphed at the Grammys, however, it experienced a second wind. Over time, the song has come to be regarded as one of his most important tunes and an inspiration to a whole new generation of producers and rappers. It has frequently been mentioned in the lyrics of later pieces, further cementing its status as a standard.
What makes the song so special is not just its outstanding production, which samples Parliament and James Brown to great effect. It also ingeniously combines Dre’s recognisable West-Coast-Funk licks and gansta rap tropes with a chorus which references gospel classic “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:
“Swing down, sweet chariot stop and, let me ride”
Here was a track which was real, raw and rugged, and yet sweet, sensual and spiritual at the same time. Few have written about driving this deeply ever before or after.
The future of songs about cars
When cars conquered the world it was obvious that artists would sing and write about them. They provided new experiences, they turned into symbols of freedom and independence. They also documented a rise in wealth and affluence for society as whole. In Hip-Hop, life turned around them as it were.
Now the thrill of those early years has gone, how will this affect songs about cars? Granted, lyrics could again reflect technological advancements. They Might Be Giants already wrote what is possibly the first song about an electric car, called … err … “Electric Car”. Maybe we need more music in that vein.
It seems likely, though, that the future will lie elsewhere and that we simply don’t know it yet. Just like television, cars have proven remarkably resilient to the changes taking place around us. Once driverless cars become commonplace, the driving experience will be revolutionised once again. Not to mention the impact of cars being able to travel into higher realms of the atmosphere or even into outer space.
Are we dreaming? Perhaps. But that’s what cars have always been about. And that’s also why so many artists, for so many decades and from all corners of the world, have felt the irresistible inner urge to write and sing about them.
A final list
To close things off, here’s a final list of songs which didn’t make it into the text of the article, but which will be of interest to fans of songs about cars.
Some of them are arguably not even about cars, but only make use of car terminology. Before you criticise, however, lend these tunes an ear first. Chances are the quality of the music will make you forgive us.
Tom Cochrane — “Life is a Highway”
Of course, this is strictly speaking not a song about cars. Everything here is metaphorical, from the highway to the geographic mentions of Mozambique, Memphis, the Khyber pass and Vancouver.
Interestingly, Cochrane did get the experience from travelling. Upon his return from Africa, where he’d seen and witnesses both wonderful and horrible things, he needed something to take him out of his rut. The pent-up tension was so intense that “Life is a Highway” was written in an hour. No wonder it still sounds so fresh and direct even today.
But even if the lyrics of this song did not contain any car references, it would still feel like one of the best driving tunes ever. The band lay down a magnetic strut, the harmonica propels it forward with charming insistence and Cochrane belts through the chorus as though his life depended on it. It all makes you take your place behind the wheel and slam down that gas pedal.
Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road”, written five years later, almost feels like a continuation. And just like Cochrane, Crow isn’t really talking about cars here, but merely using its terminology to paint vivid mental pictures.
Modest Mouse — “Dashboard”
We have no clue what, exactly, this song is about. Of course, it could possibly deal with how great it can be to listen to your car’s radio even if things are bad. Or maybe it’s a very clever metaphor for something different entirely.
We can’t be sure. What we do know that this is an incredibly funky song driven by powerful horns and sensitive ad-libs. And every reason to feature Johny Marr in a music article is a good one.
Belle & Sebastian — “I Love My Car”
“I love my car
I’ll admit today I’ve gone too far
To enamour myself of my little motor car”
These are the first lines of this song, not one of the better known ones from the catalogue of one of the greatest leftfield pop bands of all times. So, clearly, this is a song about cars?
Well, as quickly becomes apparent, Stuart Murdoch likes a lot of other things, too. Including his dog, pussy cat, a rat and often despised Beastie-Boys-member Mike Love. The only thing he does not appear to like at all is the person the song is addressed to.
Lucinda Williams – “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
Lucinda Williams’s album by the same name is one of the most widely praised records. It would remain her arguably greatest achievement until today and a classic record consistently found in critic’s best of all times lists.
In the lyrics to the title track, Williams uses the sound of car wheels to evoke childhood memories:
“Sittin’ in the kitchen, a house in Macon
Loretta’s singing on the radio
Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon
Car wheels on a gravel road”