Thursday, 9 August 2012
AAA Top 10: The Motor Car (News, Views and Music 156)
This week’s top ten honours the humble motor car. The death trap on wheels, the metaphor for freedom, the put-down of capitalism, a source of pleasure or, erm, a simile for the human body, AAA bands have done everything possible when writing about cars in song. Personally I find cars smelly dangerous things that cost too many lives and I really did think in my childhood that by the time I reached this age public transport systems were going to replace them as the most sensible and cheapest way of getting around, Instead train tickets are jacked up every year seemingly on numbers pulled out of a hat and the bus prices round my way seem to have gone up 10p every month. That said, now my spiel for the environment and road safety is over, the right car in the right hands can be a thing of beauty (hence the This week’s top ten honours the humble motor car. The death trap on wheels, the metaphor for freedom, the put-down of capitalism, a source of pleasure or, erm, a simile for the human body, AAA bands have done everything possible when writing about cars in song. Personally I find cars smelly dangerous things that cost too many lives and I really did think in my childhood that by the time I reached this age public transport systems were going to replace them as the most sensible and cheapest way of getting around, Instead train tickets are jacked up every year seemingly on numbers pulled out of a hat and the bus prices round my way seem to have gone up 10p every month. That said, now my spiel for the environment and road safety is over, the right car in the right hands can be a thing of beauty (hence the amount of f1 tweets my twitter followers keep getting). Anyway, here’s our latest top 10, listed chronologically, with one entry per band (The Beach Boys alone would make this a top 30!):
The Beach Boys “Little Deuce Coupe” (Little Deuce Coupe, 1964)
The undisputed king of the ‘road’ song, The Beach Boys adapted to writing about cars in the mid 60s because they noticed how many landlocked states loved their songs about surfin’ and wanted to give the fans who didn’t live near the coast something to cheer about. The plan worked too – several car based singles became hits and the world’s first ever concept album in the sense that it covers the same theme on every track (rather than telling a ‘story’) is all about cars (‘Little Deuce Coupe’). The band were still writing about cars as late as 1986 (for the motor-titled ‘Still Cruisin’) and yet despite the 24 year gap and change in sound all their car songs have more or less the same idea. The car is a status symbol for a teenager and their ticket to freedom, opening up horizons and offering new experiences that used to be closed off. ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ in particular is a tribute to how well Brian Wilson got under the ‘hood’ of what his audience felt and feared, full of the proud vernacular of the teenager owning his first car (the ‘pink slip, daddy’ is the colour of vehicle documents in California at the time, a fact that’s caused a few headaches for non-American fans in the years since). She’s my little deuce coupe – and you don’t know what I got.
The Beatles “Drive My Car” (Rubber Soul, 1965)
Beep beep yeah! An unusual feminist statement from 1965, this is a Hollywood wannabe using her promises of fame and fortune to pick up the guy she fancies and turn him into her chauffeur. The car here is just a stepping stone to what the girl really wants but doesn’t want to come out and say outright: the narrator (not that she seems at all backwards about anything else in the song!) The title, repeated every chorus, may well be as risqué a sexual metaphor as the band could get away with in 1965 too... The story behind this unique song is interesting – Lennon and McCartney had been struggling with the opening verse for hours, unable to decide what to do and figuring that for the first time ever they’d have to end a songwriting session without a song. After John threw out Paul’s verses about buying diamond rings for the girl and Paul substituted the cheeky chorus the song took shape in a matter of minutes. The Kinks cheekily nick the chorus for their 1993 song ‘Somebody Stole My Car’.
The Kinks “Drivin’” (Arthur, 1969)
An unexpected peaceful interlude in the middle of the Kinks’ masterpiece about the decline and fall of the British Empire, this is a jolly song about Ray Davies’ memories of the times he and his dad got away from the mad scrabble of the Davies household (where Ray had six elder sisters as well as younger brother Dave) to some peace and quiet in the country. Figuring that people must have been doing the same since the invention of the motor car, this is Ray’s take on what the car symbolised in the pre-war 1930s, back when most people still didn’t have one and a motor was treated like one of the family. The rent collectors, debt collectors, all will be behind us – and they’ll never find us! (See review no 30 for our take on the full album).
Jefferson Starship “Cruisin’” (Spitfire, 1976)
I’m still torn as to whether this song is meant as a genuine song of devotion to the art of driving or whether its a spoof of the sort of songs The Beach Boys were devoting to cars. The opening track of the Starship’s third LP, it features Marty Balin in preening teenager mode again using the brilliance of his car as a stepping stone to what he really wants (a night of passion on the back seat). Before things get too sexist Grace Slick joins in on the extended fade in her most manly gruff voice, mimicking everything Marty says back at him. It’s a whole lot of fun, this song, which is a deeply unusual and humorous one for the usually serious Starship, with a daft ‘we-ap we-ap we-yoooo’ chorus that’s not a million miles away from ‘Drive My Car’. The harmonies heading out of the last chorus are impressive too, among the finest the band ever recorded.
George Harrison “Faster” (George Harrison, 1979)
With his second appearance on this list, f1 fanatic George Harrison wasa clearly the ‘master’ or writing about ‘going faster’. That memorable chorus was actually written with Jackie Stewart in mind, however, the pioneer of safety in a very dangerous sport that must surely have saved dozens of live over the years. It’s that bravery of speaking up on something you feel strongly about, even when your peers tell you you’re wrong, that’s the source of George’s admiration in this song, although naturally many fans assume the ‘bravery’ comes from racing at such high speeds. Many fans are confused why the peaceful gardener George should love such a noisy and dangerous sport, but it’s the natural courage, talent and community spirit that appealed to George – and to me, too, as one of the sport’s unlikeliest but one of its most passionate fans (who can’t even drive). George’s links to F1 racing runs deep and it was in fact George who paid for British Champion 1996 Damon Hill to get his first big break at a time when father Graham’s death meant the family had no money (a fact only revealed once George had died, in accordance with his wishes). Incidentally the noise you hear at the beginning of the song is genuine f1 sound effects, taped by George and a mobile tape recorder at the 1978 British GP at Brands Hatch, won by Niki Lauda. Fittingly, despite his close ties with Stewart, George dedicates his song to Lauda in the album sleevenotes as a mark of respect for his courage in going back to racing after nearly dying on track when his car caught alive and he suffered first degree burns.(See review no 74 for our take on the full album).
Art Garfunkel “In Cars” (Scissors Cut, 1980)
The last of several Simon and Garfunkel reunions littered throughout the latter’s solo back catalogue, this sweet little song uses the cars owned by the narrator as a trigger for the memories of the girls he was with at the time. Like many of Art’s songs of the time, it’s actually by composer Jimmy Webb and plays heavily on nostalgia, remembering the details of speaking in the dark driving home one night with an early love and the way it was easier to talk staring at the road ahead rather than into her eyes. Paul’s occasional interruptions send the song onto a different path, turning the song into more of a conversation than a memory and invoking the sound of a whole generation all feeling the same. There’s even a couple of lines taken wholesale from traditional songs ‘Girl From The North County’ and, for Simon and Garfunkel fans, ‘Scarborough Fair’, suggesting a timeless occupation that probably began with carts and horses. Like much of ‘Scissors Cut’, the album has an eerie quality to it which may well com e from the fact that his girlfriend Laurie Bird committed suicide shortly before work started on the LP – devastated, Art may well have chosen this song in memory of times they spent together ‘in cars’.
Godley and Creme “My Body The Car” (Bird Of Paradise, 1983)
The funniest song on the list, the ex-10cc duo keep up the metaphor of being at the doctors for a check-up with a car undergoing an MOT for the full song. Driven for 36 years, grinding the occasional gear and burning up the rubber, the narrator’s seen better days (the song ends with a sudden crash out of nowhere) but still convinces himself he’s ‘looking good’ after all that time spent ‘polishing’. The song is in a capella throughout, with Godley and Creme doing their best to sound robotic and machine-like and it makes for a suitably disconcerting track, one that uses the car as a metaphor for roads travelled, highways traversed and accidents experienced along the way.
David Crosby “Too Young To Die” (A Thousand Roads, 1993)
Another Jimmy Webb song about cars, this was for me the highlight of Croz’ covers album with the aging narrator of the title recalling his ‘mis-spent youth’ and how it ‘seems more worthwhile every single day’. Crosby was as famous in the 80s for his motorbike crashes as his prison sentences and clearly identifies with the youthful arrogance of the narrator in his past and his wish in his old age that he could reclaim some of that invincibility he felt in days gone by. A love song to a car, this is the use of the motor vehicle to invoke memories from long ago. It’s interesting to note how this song contrasts with the same author’s ‘In Cars’, with no mention of a love-life this time around: the love story is between the narrator and the car and no one else. Graham Nash pops up on harmonies for the most memorable song on the album.
Belle and Sebastian “I Love My Car” (Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, 2006)
A sweet little eccentric song from Belle and Sebastian, this was originally the b-side of ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ but whilst the A-side tries too hard this thrownaway flip is a whole lot of fun. Stuart Murdoch tells us that he may have gone a little too far in his love for his motor car before telling us about his other obsessions in order (including a great verse dissecting the members of the Beach Boys, ending with the line ‘I can even find it in my heart to love Mike Love’). Unfortunately the narrator’s girlfriend doesn’t share any of the same obsessions and thinks he’s a little odd – cue long-term disaster there, even though the couple never have any difficulties during the course of the song. A song that uses the car as a metaphor for obsession, then, with Murdoch possessing a head ‘like a soaking sponge’.
Mark Knopfler “The Car Was The One” (Get Lucky, 2010)
A late entry to this list, this is one of the highlights of the best album Mark’s recorded in years, maybe decades. This song tells the story of Mark the youngster in 1963, jealously looking out for the local lynchpin hanging round motor circuits and driving cars. Back then Mark wanted to be famous, just like him, looked up to by everyone around – but by the time he found fame himself he realised that it wasn’t the success he wanted, it was the car. A slow, stately, beautiful song, this is the car as an object of jealousy. And that’s all for now, we’re taking our bow, come and join us next week for more music (and how!)