Orillia’s Rock ‘n’ Roll tribute and classic car show is coming soon. It’s one of our biggest summer events and although it’s still a month away, we start gearing up now (pun intended). But why do we couple cars and music?
Transportation has always been a central theme in the musical arts. The ability to go wherever you want whenever you want has a romantic notion to it. Put more accurately; the ability to leave someone, or the desire go home to someone, inspires a lot of songs.
Ships and ocean travel are central to early folk music; train imagery dominates in songs from the first half of the 20th Century. The automobile was around for much of that time, but for many years it was a mechanical curiosity that didn’t inspire a lot of music except for the double entendre baby-let-me-check-under-your-hood type of song.
The mid 1950s saw a dramatic change. The Eames brothers brought bold, modern design concepts into popular culture - including cars, and Elvis Presley popularized rock ‘n’ roll. Now cars were not just about transportation, they were a second skin for the driver; they had fins, lots of chrome and sex appeal. They also acquired a lot more speed, which made them beautiful, sexy and dangerous.
Because they share the same DNA, rock ‘n’ roll and cars go together like bread and butter so it’s only natural we dedicate an entire weekend in the summer to both.
Ironically, there are relatively few rock ‘n’ roll songs that are actually about cars. The link was established in the early days with a few classics, then for a short period in the mid-60s, California groups like The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean gorged on car imagery. Later, when real rock ‘n’ roll had given way to rock, cars were used to evoke nostalgia.
However, in honour of next month’s event I offer my list of the 10 most memorable rock ‘n’ roll car songs.
This list includes songs from all those periods (and more) but it is not intended to be definitive, just one I’ve made up now. If I write this next month, the list might be different. So here goes:
1. Rocket 88 - Jackie Brenston
Recorded in Memphis in 1951 it is often cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. One of the reasons is because it’s about a car, not a train - the Rocket 88 was a model of Oldsmobile. It was a # 1 R&B hit and inspired many copies, like Todd Rhodes’ Rocket 69, which was about - well you can guess what it was about.
2. Hot Rod Lincoln - Charlie Ryan
Recorded in 1955 this is actually an “answer song” to an earlier country record called Hot Rod Race, which describes an impromptu race between a Ford and a Mercury where both are beaten out by a hopped up Model A. There are many versions of this song and most readers will be familiar with the 1972 recording by Commander Cody. It is almost exactly the same as Ryan’s original which is testament to how good it really was.
3. Maybellene - Chuck Berry
Berry was a brilliant songwriter - he made up the word “motorvating” to replace the more mundane “driving”. While typical pop songs mooned about love gained or lost, Berry’s songs told a story and he packed more lyrical punch in one verse than most writers could in a whole song.
4. Fun Fun Fun - The Beach Boys
I have to admit I am not a fan of the cars & surf sound of the Bleach Boys - oops I mean Beach Boys, but if you’re going to make a list of great rock ‘n’ roll car songs, you can’t ignore this one. Guitar riffs stolen from Chuck Berry, harmonies taken from the Hi-Los, you gotta love it.
5. Mercury Blues - David Lindley
David Lindley is a brilliant guitar player whose manic slide guitar solos gave Jackson Brown’s 1970s recording whatever edge they had. This song, recorded in the 1980s, is definitely retro but thoroughly modern at the same time. The original version was by K.C. Douglas, a fine blues singer. Many readers will be familiar with the country version by Allan Jackson but country singers are more comfortable in pick-up trucks - Lindley owns this song.
6. You Can’t Catch Me - Chuck Berry
Yes good ol’ Chuck gets two songs in this list (and inspiration for a third). A line from this song - “Here come old flat-top he come groovin’ up slowly” turns up the Beatles’ song Come Together.
7. Pink Cadillac - Bruce Springsteen
This is a 1983 retro song, made well past the rock ‘n’ roll era but Springsteen is one rock musician who kept the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll alive. He released this only on a 45, the flip side to meg-hit Dancing In The Dark.
8. Speedo - the Cadillacs
Technically this song doesn’t qualify, as there’s no mention of cars in the lyrics. It’s a male rant by “Speedo”, whose real name is Mr. Earl, about how fast he can “take other folkses girls”. But everything about it evokes cars - the title, the group name, the chanting of the back-up singers. It’s a true classic that sounds great blasting out of every convertible ever made.
9. Terraplane Blues - Robert Johnson
This song was recorded in a hotel room the 1930s so you’re not going to hear it at the street dance. It’s more rock ‘n’ roll pre-history and I’m stretching the rules a bit but they’re my rules so it’s OK. Robert Johnson was a country blues singer of mythic proportions - the few songs he recorded in his short career are still being performed today and have influenced countless musicians. This song falls into the double-entendre category, the Terraplane car is a metaphor for sex, but he was so far ahead of his time it’s almost scary
10. I Gotta New Car - Big Boy Groves
This one is rather obscure and few readers will have heard it. Soon-to-be-legendary producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote it in 1955. They went on to write and produce for The Coasters, The Drifters, Elvis Presley and many more. It’s a standard blues riff about the perils of buying a car on time payments but has the great lyrics:
Since I signed on the dotted line, I haven’t been able to sufficiently dine
All the money I comes acrost, goes in my tank and out my exhaust.
Truer words were never spoken about car ownership, especially if you want to restore one of those 1950s beauties. That why the car show is so great, those of us who can’t afford to own one can just gaze at them and dream.