We’ve all been there. Cruising down a long stretch of highway on a beautiful sunny day. The windows are open, wind blows through our hair. The scenery rolls past in a peaceful still-life of American culture. What’s missing? Music.
Music and driving are inseparable. We listen to our favorite songs, playlists, and radio stations on long drives or short trips to the store, road and business trips alike. The car is our own private world where we can envelop ourselves in the music we love, watching the landscape unfurl.
This relationship is a two-way street. Just as we are inspired by music while driving, so too have driving and cars inspired countless songs. And no music genre is more connected to the road than Rock & Roll.
“409” – The Beach Boys
Coming to prominence in the hot rod and muscle car culture of California in the early 1960s, it’s no wonder Beach Boys gave us so many great car songs. Their hits about automobiles include Little Deuce Coupe, I Get Around, Shut Down, Still Cruisin’, Fun Fun Fun and Little Honda, to name a few.
Perhaps the most iconic of their car songs, 409, was inspired by songwriter Gary Usher’s obsession with hot rods. Here, 409 refers to a huge Chevrolet V8, displacing 409 cubic inches. Hot Rodders often referred to their cars using these displacement numbers, hence the lyrics:
Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, 409.
The Beach Boys even used engine revving noises they recorded themselves on the record.
“Mercedes Benz” – Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin’s phenomenal talent made her a music icon of the hippie generation. Her song Mercedez Benz was a commentary of the consumer culture and it became so popular that Mercedes eventually decided to use the song in their commercials.
It’s a little known fact that Janis Joplin was a fan of fast cars herself. She owned a 1965 Porsche Cabriolet, painted in wild neon colors that perfectly embodied the flower children generation. The car eventually made its way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and is featured there to this day.
“Little Red Corvette” – Prince
Prince wrote his first big hit about one of the most iconic American cars of them all – the Chevrolet Corvette. Interestingly enough, Prince got the idea for the song while napping in the back of a pink Edsel.
For Prince, Chevrolet’s sports car served as a perfect vehicle for the energy that infused his music. Chevrolet clearly didn’t mind the extra exposure, and even used the song in a commercial that aired during the Grammys.
“One Piece at a Time” – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash was an icon in country music and a fantastic storyteller. In this song he tells the story of a Cadillac assembly line worker who thought he had figured out a clever way to get a Caddy of his own. He smuggled parts out of the factory in dribs and drabs over the decades. When it finally came time to put the thing together, it had an engine from a ‘73, a transmission from a ’53, one taillight and three headlights. Rather than becoming the envy around town for his “free” Cadillac, our narrator instead ended up with an odd looking assembly of mismatched parts.
Amazingly, a mechanic named Bruce Fitzpatrick was commissioned to build a car out of parts from all the correct years, and it was parked outside the House of Cash museum until its closing.
“American Pie” – Don McLean
Possibly the most iconic line mentioning a car in all of Rock & Roll history comes out of this song: “drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry”. American Pie covers a wide variety of American themes, from ‘50s Chevys to “good old boys”.
McLean was originally inspired to write the song by the death of Rock & Roll icon Buddy Holly. The song was a number one hit in the US for four straight weeks in 1972. The song had a resurgence of popularity in the early 2000s, after a very successful cover version by Madonna.
“On the Road Again” – Willie Nelson
The song that won Nelson a Grammy for best Country song, On the Road Again is a tribute to the traveling lifestyle of the professional musician. He wrote it for the movie Honeysuckle Rose, a story about an aging musician who travels with his band across America.
On the Road Again is a classic road-trip song, capturing the wandering and friendships that come from a rambling life. Willie glorified and perfectly captured the essence of the life on road:
Goin’ places that I’ve never been, seein’ things that I may never see again, and I can’t wait to get on the road again.
The song made it into the Rolling Stones magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and its live version is even featured in the Guitar Hero video game.
“Ol’ 55” – Tom Waits
Any car enthusiast can relate to the subject of Ol’ 55; a man’s first car. For Tom Waits, that was a 1955 Buick Roadmaster, from which the song gets its name. The song was released in 1973 as the lead single on his debut studio album, Closing Time. Even though the song was a minor hit, it was covered by a variety of artists that made it popular. The most notable cover was made by the Eagles and featured on their On the Border album.
As I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy, God knows, I was feeling alive.
Ol’ 55 expresses that certain special feeling of inner peace and happiness we’ve all experienced at some point while driving.
“Born to be Wild” – Steppenwolf
Start singing the chorus of Born to Be Wild, and a scene from the movie Easy Rider immediately comes to mind: Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, cruising down the open road on their Harleys, on the search for spiritual truth.
Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway! Lookin’ for adventure, and whatever comes our way.
Easy Rider was a tribute to the open road and the freedom it provides and no song is so characteristic of this feeling as Born to Be Wild.
“Racing in the Street” – Bruce Springsteen
With the sheer number of Bruce Springsteen songs about engines, driving, and cars, it was hard to pick just one for this countdown. Some of his classics include Cadillac Ranch, Something in the Night, Wreck on the Highway, Valentine’s Day, State Trooper, Thunder Road, Born to Run and Pink Cadillac, among others.
Racing in the Street tells the tale of a man proud of his ’69 Chevy, taking it drag racing all across the Northeast. It is from his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and goes into more technical detail than most car songs, mentioning even “fuelie” heads and a Hurst shifter.
“Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman
Fast Car is Tracy Chapman’s best-known song. It won her a Grammy and came to be known as her signature song. The fast car from which the song takes its name provides a feeling of freedom when nothing else can, inspiring Chapman’s dream of escaping the life of poverty. The chorus is both emotional and catchy, with lines that make you want to turn up the volume instantly when you hear it while driving:
I remember we were driving in your car, the speed so fast I felt like I was drunk. City lights lay out before us, and your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder, and I had a feeling that I belonged.
Cars and the freedom we feel while driving have inspired a great number of artists, and made a huge impact on Rock & Roll. The exploration of country roads, the excitement of the highway or a simple ride to work wouldn’t be so enjoyable without these great songs.