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Great Summer Driving Music

What makes a great driving song? Given how many great ones there are, when you put them all together, it's surprisingly hard to find a common thread. Often, but not always, the songs celebrate the freedom of the open road, continually tempting you that no matter how fast you're driving, it's not quite fast enough.

While it certainly helps, driving songs don't have to be about cars themselves. I'd pop the Allman's "Rambling Man," Del Shannon's "Runaway" or The Blasters' "Marie, Marie" in the 8-track any day. Wayne Campbell to the contrary, I won't be nodding my head to "Bohemian Rhapsody", but it may be bopping along to Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." Just try driving slow to Blondie's "One Way or Another."

There's another great group of driving tunes that celebrate the world of car radio. There was a time when the classic lo-fi AM car radio defined a whole genre, and pop songs were mixed for its acoustic peculiarities. Sometimes it's a whole song, like the tinny Beach Boys' classic "Fun, Fun, Fun," and other times it's just a snippet, like Jagger's voice bleating "When I'm drivin' in my car, and the man come on the radio." When Top 40 proves too bland, there's always the exotic allure of pirate radio stations broadcasting from Mexico, inspiring such classics as ZZ Top's "Heard it on the X," Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio," and The Blasters' "Border Radio".

Some songs that celebrate Car Culture don't actually have that freeway feel - Springsteen's "Racing in the Street" for one. For a man with gasoline running through his veins, Bruce scores surprisingly few real driving songs. Often, they're the goofier numbers like "Cadillac Ranch", "Sherry Darling" and "Darlington County." In my mind though, his overall champion is Nebraska's pumping "Open All Night," the perfect invocation of late night desperation driving.

While driving songs usually signify daytime fun, there's a special collection just for when the sun goes down. Of course, the best car music at night doesn't involve driving at all. "In the Still of the Night" sounds pretty good when the car's sitting still (well, maybe rocking a bit). But if you do need to get somewhere, turn to the haunting sounds of the Stones' "Moonlight Mile," Ricki Lee Jones' "Last Chance Texaco," or Chris Issak's "Heart Shaped World."

I've also got a soft spot for the road song that signifies a special piece of that cross country drive. I remember in the early '80s leaving New York City and shaking off a chill despite the humid heat as I hit the Garden State Parkway on ramp and the "Born to Run" opening drum roll fired off. There's the giddy bliss of driving through northern California singing along to Working Man's Dead or American Beauty. Countless drivers have recited the "Route 66" inventory as an overheated Chevy lugged through Flagstaff (Arizona), Kingman and Barstow (oops-almost forgot Winona).

When you think about the unique web of highways that cover this country, it's probably not surprising that most great driving songs are also great American music. The Europeans seem to focus more on the grimmer aspects of the road. Witness Bowie's "Always Crashing in the Same Car," the numbing drone of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" or the synth-gloom of Depeche Mode's "Fly on the Windscreen." Of course, there are a few exceptions. The Clash's "Brand New Cadillac" has the proper lead-foot feel. And Americans are to blame for such wrecks as Nervous Norvus' novelty "Transfusion" or James Taylor's "Traffic Jam."

So check the oil, grab a dollar's gas, and have a great summer! "Beep, beep. Beep, beep-yeah!" -  Bill Kuhn


What to put in the 8-track

  •  Bill Kuhn says...

  • Chuck Berry, "No Particular Place to Go"
    George Thorogood, "You Can't Catch Me"
    J. Geils Band, "Hard Drivin Man"
    Little Feat, "Willin'"
    Creedence Clearwater Revival , "Travelin' Band"
    Steppenwolf , "Born to Be Wild"
    David Lindley, "Mercury Blues"
    Eagles, "Take It Easy"
    Dave Dudley, "6 Days on the Road"

  •  Jason Staczek says...

  • Edgar Winter's White Trash,  Roadwork
       That's right, the entire double-live set. The 22 1/2 minute version of "Tobacco Road" will get you through the graveyard shift every time.       
    Lowell George, "Two Trains Running"
    The Band, "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down"
    The Meters, "Ride Your Pony"
    Wilson Pickett, "99 1/2"
    REM, "Driver 8"
    Royal Crescent Mob, "Walking Down the Street"
    Was (not Was), "Elvis' Rolls Royce"
    WAR, "Low Rider"

  •  Mark Oppfelt says...

  • These are all albums. With tapes of them all, you could drive from Salt Lake City to San Diego. Which is not a bad idea....
    James Brown,  20 All Time Hits
    Ry Cooder & Ali Farka Toure,  Talking Timbuktu
    Charlie Parker,  The Savoy Sessions
    Charles Mingus,  Blues & Roots
    Pat Metheny,  Still Life (Talking)
    Neil Young,  Rust Never Sleeps
    Steely Dan,  Aja
    U2,  War
    The Police,  Synchronicity
    Anything by The Grateful Dead

  •  Scott Boggan says...

  • Sonny Boy Williamson, "Bring It on Home"
    Robert Johnson, "Terraplane Blues"
    The Sonics, "Boss Hoss"
    Eddie Cochran, "Summertime Blues" and "Somethin' Else"
    Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
    Golden Earring, "Radar Love"
    Canned Heat, "On the Road Again"
    Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"
    Bobby Sykes, "Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves"
    Big Star, "Big Black Car"

    I'm afraid Bill is right: look for a common thread in road tunes and you'll be disappointed. Depending on the circumstances, virtually any song can make good driving music, but here are some of my favorites. I've also expanded the category a little to include songs about cars.

    Road songs didn't begin with cars, but rather, railroads. Without exception, songs about trains make great driving songs, especially if they have that shufflin' railroad beat. Some of the best road tunes capture the anticipation of coming home to meet a loved one, such as Sonny Boy Williamson's version of "Bring It on Home" (shame on Led Zeppelin for trying to cop Willie Dixon's copyright on this one!). As usual, Sonny charges this number with a libidinous energy.

    Speaking of sex, cars and driving provide a sexual metaphor that has long been a musical staple. One of the best is Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues", ostensibly about a sedan called the Terraplane from the Hudson Motor Company. Lines like "I'm gonna get deep down in this connection/Keep on tanglin' with your wires/And when I mash down on your little starter/Then your spark plug will give me fire" prove that although Robert may have made a deal at the crossroads, he didn't sell his devilish sense of humor.

    Of course, most people don't have sex with their cars, but many fall in love with them. Love paeans to inanimate hunks of metal are common, and it is no coincidence that the real classics in this category are exceedingly stupid. Deep Purple's "Highway Star" is notably mindless (and the extended live version from Live In Japan will get you down the road apiece), but for sheer adolescent exuberance I give the nod to Seattle's proto-punk combo The Sonics and their raging "Boss Hoss." Featured on their classic Here Are The Sonics LP, its manic energy and meatheaded lyrics won't disappoint ("I get all the honeys and I'm never lost cuz'/It's a real boss hoss/real boss hoss").

    Car songs were a quintessential part of 50's teenage rock. Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins score big in this category, but for my money Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and "Somethin' Else" tie for the checkered flag. Cochran embodies the innocent youth of yesteryear, pleading with his folks to borrow the car, hoping to find a little late night action, and praying summer will never end.

    For the under-16 set, long drives are synonymous with summer vacation, and what song better signals the beginning of summer than Alice Cooper's "School's Out"? Its schlocky opening riff and pubescent lyrics touch off a Pavlovian reflex in me, conjuring up endless summer afternoons and long trips in the back of the family sedan with a carsick brother and a sweltering hound.

    Once you're on the road traversing the lines of longitude and latitude, a good hypnotic groove is in order. Perhaps the best of all time is Golden Earring's "Radar Love," hitching pithy observation (a sweaty hand on the steering wheel, Brenda Lee drifting in and out of the car radio at night) to a driving bassline. Not bad for some daffy Dutchmen. And speaking of hypnosis, the bluesy raga of Canned Heat's "On the Road Again" is guaranteed to put you in a trance and add a little lead to your foot. (The Doors' "LA Woman" is a strong runner-up here.)

    Songs such as Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" give the itch to travel a particular road or part of the country. This apocalyptic little blues shuffle seems utterly nonsensical until you consider that Highway 61 links Dylan's native Hibbard, Minnesota with the Mississippi Delta. It reminds me that no road trip is complete without meeting at least a few characters along the way (like Dylan's Mack the Finger and Louie the King), and the police-car whistle in this song will have you checking your mirrors every so often.

    What set of road tunes would be complete without some trucker music? No one spends more long and lonely hours on the road than the folks that handle the big rigs. Tunes like CW McCall's 1976 hit "Convoy" are road-tested, but I like jammin' my gears to Bobby Sykes' "Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves" (from a compilation LP of the same name). I don't know a thing about Bobby, but it doesn't matter: this one's a real clutchbuster.

    While the beginning of a road trip is an energetic affair, the end of the road usually brings exhaustion, perfectly captured on "Big Black Car" from Big Star's bleak Sister Lovers LP. Hearing a weary Alex Chilton intone that "nothing can hurt me" in his big black car magically evokes that wasted and disembodied feeling that comes after chasing white lines for hour after hour (never mind that Chilton was most likely chasing a different kind of white line during these sessions). Even a rundown motel feels good at the end of a long day on the road, doesn't it?

  •  Glenn Brooks says...
  • First, a couple of classics that the others missed, and then a story of an unlikely driving song. I haven't heard the David Lindley's "Mercury Blues" recommended by Bill, but Steve Miller's version is a fine piece of work. For good driving music, though, I'd have to give the nod to Miller's "Living in the U.S.A" - somebody get me a cheeseburger! Now, a little free association: U.S.A.? Chuck Berry! I nominate his impeccable rendition of "Route 66," the only version I know that's a good driving, as opposed to arriving, tune. And since good driving means summertime, how about "Summer in the City" by the Loving Spoonful? For years, I thought the first line, "Hot town! Summer in the city..." started "Hot damn!" I still prefer my version. Finally, how could everyone have missed "Roadrunner" by the Modern Lovers? Radio on!

    Now the story. Good driving music depends so much on context. (Who'd want to listen to "Born to Be Wild" trapped in a downtown traffic jam?) Several years ago, I drove down the Oregon coast into northern California and then, for the first time in my life, drove into the Redwoods. As I left the mist of the bay at Crescent City early one morning and turned the car uphill into the shadow of the towering trees, I popped in a tape of "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" by William Russo, performed by the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sejii Ozawa. This piece of semi-classical hokum starts with a ominous dark chord from the orchestra, over which Corky Siegel's harmonica slithers and slides through a slow out-of-tempo melody fragment which matched perfectly the shadows and mist of the early morning. Then, a brief pause, and just as the sun slammed through the clouds to illuminate the Redwoods, the blues band jumped onto a fast four-four shuffle beat, the orchestra chasing behind with thunderous chords, sliding strings and shimmering percussion, and we were off. I don't think I felt the road for the next fifteen minutes.


    of related interest

    Lucinda Lewis

    If the road and its magic are part of your blood, you should know about photographer Lucinda Lewis and her company, Machine Age. Lewis documents the fast fading American roadside of diners, drive-ins and two-lane highways. Machine Age puts out a beautiful wall calendar each year, featuring her terrific photos. Highly recommended.

    Machine Age
    14431 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 411
    Sherman Oaks CA 91423
    (818) 788-1873
    Machine Age web site

    Route 66

    Lewis' car photos are also featured in the "Drivin' Route 66" CD-ROM (PC/Mac) from Creative Multimedia., along with a twenty-minute multimedia tour of the Mother Road, a trip planner, stories about the people and places along the road and much more - such as a 1956 Bing Crosby commerical for the T-bird.

    Creative Multimedia
    225 SW Broadway, Suite 600
    Portland OR 97205
    (800) 262-7668, extension 511, or (503) 241-4351

    Route 66, the Mother Road, is also the subject of an extensive web site originating from Belgium, of all places.

    Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.