Ever since the days when rock ‘n roll pioneer Chuck Berry wrote and sang about how “Maybellene” rode off in her Cadillac Coupe De Ville and he chased her in his V8 Ford, cars and driving have been fertile topics for rock music lyrics.
In the Sixties, we listened on tinny AM radios, as many of The Beach Boys’ biggest hits involved cars — “Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “and she’ll have fun, fun, fun ’til her Daddy takes the T-Bird away…” “I’m gettin’ bored drivin’ up and down the same old strip…”
In the Seventies and Eighties, we had more choice with FM radio, and then 8-tracks and cassettes, and it seemed like every other song Bruce Springsteen released was about hitting the highway in search of new adventures — “Born to Run,” “Drive All Night,” “Pink Cadillac,” “Thunder Road,” “Racing in the Street“…
There are anthems for just about every mood that strikes when you’re behind the wheel, whether it’s a restless need to break away (Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild“), an urgent desire for lustful romance (Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light“) or a strong compulsion to chase your dreams (Cat Steven’s “On the Road to Find Out“).
Certainly, there are plenty of songs from 1990 to present that focus on being behind the wheel — Marc Cohn’s “Silver Thunderbird,” Wilco’s “Passenger Side,” Tom Cochrane’s and Rascal Flatts’ “Life is a Highway,” even The Offspring’s road-rage anthem, “Bad Habit” — but my blog has always focused on music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, so my search focuses on those years.
With Spring Break approaching, I thought the time seemed right for me to compile a setlist of great songs about cars and driving for your road trip. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, to choose from, but I’ve whittled the list down to two dozen of my favorites, trying to strike a balance among the artists, genres and periods. No doubt I missed a few, but I hope you enjoy these tracks that, um, drive me wild.
“G.T.O.,” Ronny and the Daytonas, 1964
“Listen to her tachin’ up now, listen to her whine, come on and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out…”
This song could’ve been a commercial for the high-powered “muscle car” introduced by Pontiac in 1964. The group, originally from Nashville, had relocated to California and introduced country elements into the surf music scene. The song peaked at #4 nationally.
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” Billy Ocean, 1988
“Lady driver, let me take your wheel, smooth operator, touch my bumper, hey let’s make a deal…”
Ocean had multiple Top Five hits between 1983 and 1990, none bigger than this #1 smash in 1988, inspired by a line from Ringo’s 1974 hit, “You’re Sixteen” (“You walked out of my dreams and into my car, now you’re my angel divine…”)
“Cruisin’,” Jefferson Starship, 1976
“Hey, pretty baby, let’s go for a ride, cruisin’ the freeway sittin’ side by side…”
Jefferson Airplane leader Marty Balin left the band in 1970 but ultimately rejoined once they became the more pop-sounding Jefferson Starship, and came up with several hits (“Miracles,” “With Your Love”), and this ode to hitting the road with the love of your life.
“Drive My Car,” The Beatles, 1965
“I got no car and it’s breaking my heart, but I found a driver and that’s a start…”
McCartney’s original lyric for this leadoff track from their 1965 LP “Rubber Soul” was “Baby you can wear my ring,” but Lennon nixed that, changing it to bring more sexual innuendo into the words.
“I’m in Love With My Car,” Queen, 1975
“When I’m holding your wheel, all I hear is your gear, when I’m cruisin’ in overdrive…”
It wasn’t Freddie Mercury but drummer Roger Taylor who wrote and sang this rocker from Queen’s 1975 LP “A Night at the Opera,” which is another great example of equating a passion for cars with a desire for sex.
“Dead Man’s Curve,” Jan & Dean, 1964
“We both popped the clutch when the light turned green, you shoulda heard the whine from my screamin’ machine…”
Sunset Boulevard, Vine Street, Crescent Heights and Doheny Drive are all real streets in West Hollywood mentioned in this tragic soap opera, which was a big #8 hit for this duo in 1964. Ironically, Jan Berry had a near-fatal car crash in that vicinity two years later.
“Low Rider,” War, 1975
“Low rider don’t use no gas now, low rider don’t drive too fast, take a little trip and see…”
All of War’s members got co-writing credit on this popular track about the Chicano culture practice of hydraulically hot-rodding classic cars. The #1 hit has appeared in 18 movies, including “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke,” “21 Grams” and “Dazed and Confused.”
“Moonlight Drive,” The Doors, 1967
“Come on baby, gonna take a little ride, down, down by the ocean side…”
When keyboardist Ray Manzarek read Jim Morrison’s poetry about moonlight drives and swimming to the moon, he readily agreed to form The Doors, who earned legendary status as one of LA’s finest groups. The song appeared on their second LP, “Strange Days.”
“Drivin’,” Pearl Harbour & the Explosions, 1979
“I’m drivin’, I’m only drivin’, I know I got no place to go…”
This San Francisco-based punk/New Wave band had a loyal following in the Bay Area and flirted with national stardom in 1979 with this great single that barely climbed into the Top 40, with its perky beat and strong vocals by Pearl E. Gates.
“Fire,” Bruce Springsteen, 1978
“I’m drivin’ in my car, I turn on the radio, I’m pulling you close, you just say no…”
The Boss felt this smoldering classic just didn’t fit with the rest of the songs on his “Darkness on the Edge of Town” LP that year, so he left it off, but often played it in concert. The Pointer Sisters took their version to #2 in early 1979.
“Freeway of Love,” Aretha Franklin, 1984
“We got some places to see, I brought all the maps with me, so jump in, it ain’t no sin, take a ride in my machine…”
One of 1985’s biggest songs was this #3 hit from Aretha’s comeback LP,”Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” It won a Grammy and featured a Clarence Clemons sax solo, and its popular music video showed cars being manufactured and driven all over The Motor City.
“Radar Love,” Golden Earring, 1974
“I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hand’s wet on the wheel…and it’s half past four and I’m shiftin’ gear…”
The Dutch band Golden Earring had a lengthy career in Holland and elsewhere in Europe, but their US success was limited to a couple hits, most notably the classic rock staple “Radar Love,” which focused on the driver’s need to drive fast to reach his girl.
“Roll On Down the Highway,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive, 1975
“Cop’s on the corner, look, he’s starting to write, well, I don’t need no ticket so I screamed out of sight…”
Fred Turner had been commissioned to write music for Ford Motor commercials, but they never used any of it. Robbie (not Randy) Bachman took one piece, made a few tweaks and added lyrics, and BTO had their fourth Top 20 single in 1975.
“No Particular Place to Go,” Chuck Berry, 1964
“Ridin’ along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel, I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile…”
Berry had the cojones to steal his own song when he lifted the music from his 1957 hit “School Days,” wrote new lyrics about driving with his lady, and enjoyed a #10 hit in 1964 in the midst of the Beatles’ British Invasion. Seat belts were never so prominently mentioned as in this tune.
“Highway Star,” Deep Purple, 1972
“Nobody gonna beat my car, it’s gonna break the speed of sound…”
This rock warhorse was written on a tour bus in 1971 when guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and vocalist Ian Gillan were asked by a reporter how their songwriting process worked. They eventually turned it into a highlight of their live shows.
“Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne, 1977
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels, I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels…”
For his fifth album, Browne decided to record his new songs live on stage, in hotel rooms, even on a tour bus, describing what life is like for a touring musician in the 1970s. This title track was one of his biggest hits, peaking at #11.
“Baby Driver,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1969
“Once upon a pair of wheels, hit the road and I’m gone, what’s my number, I wonder how your engine feels…”
This slyly hilarious tune, first released as the B-side to “The Boxer,” was a real departure for this usually reserved duo. The sound of revving motors and a race track announcer punctuate this whimsical song, which is really about teen sex when the parents are away.
“Brand New Cadillac,” The Clash, 1979
“My baby drove up in a brand new Cadillac, she said, ‘Hey come here, Daddy, I ain’t never comin’ back’…”
Written in 1959 by British rock and roller Vince Taylor, it was covered by several other European groups in subsequent years, culminating in its most well-known version, a terse, frenetic track on The Clash’s classic “London Calling” double LP.
“Let It Roll,” Little Feat, 1989
“Move on over, stand astride, my cruise control’s in overdrive, need to take my baby for a ride…”
Easily one of the most underrated bands of the 1970s, Little Feat regrouped in 1988 and came up with the delightful “Let It Roll” LP, featuring Paul Barrere’s and Bill Payne’s fantastic title track, which is pretty much the perfect road song.
“Take It Easy, The Eagles, 1972
“Well, I’m runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load, got a world of trouble on my mind…”
Jackson Browne had written 90 percent of this song before Glenn Frey added the line about the girl in the flatbed Ford slowing down to have a look. Browne recorded it on his “For Everyman” LP, but The Eagles made it their successful debut single.
“Chevy Van,” Sammy Johns, 1975
“Better keep your eyes on the road, son, better slow this vehicle down…”
Country singer-songwriter Johns wrote this sex-in-the-car classic in 1973 and recorded it in LA with members of The Wrecking Crew, and the result was a #5 charting and a million records sold. Many other country artists have covered the song in the years since.
“Vehicle,” The Ides of March, 1970
“Hey, well, I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, won’t you hop inside my car…”
In high school, Ron Peterik of Chicago-based Ides of March had a crush on a girl he often gave rides to, and he was frustrated when nothing ever came of it. “All I am is her vehicle,” he sighed, then realized it was great inspiration for a song, which hit #2 in 1970.
“Ragtop Day,” Jimmy Buffett, 1984
“I put on my weekend clothes, turn on the rock and roll, throw all our cares away, it’s a ragtop day…”
Ragtops are, of course, convertibles, which are crucial components of the automobile culture in Florida, Southern California and other warm-weather locales. Buffett knows all about that, and wrote this catchy tune for his “Riddles in the Sand” LP in 1984.
“Rockin’ Down the Highway, The Doobie Brothers, 1972
“Got those highway blues, can’t you hear my motor runnin’, flying down the road with my foot on the floor…”
Doobies chief songwriter Tom Johnston lived in San Jose and spent a lot of time driving back and forth through the mountains to Santa Cruz, and he came up with this carefree song about that experience. One of the band’s most popular in-concert tunes.
“Cars,” Gary Numan, 1980; “Drive,” The Cars, 1984; “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Commander Cody, 1972; “Life in the Fast Lane,” The Eagles, 1977; “Black Limousine,” The Rolling Stones, 1981; “Mercedes Benz,” Janis Joplin; “Drag City,” Jan and Dean, 1963; “I Can’t Drive 55,” Sammy Hagar, 1984; “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman 1988; “A Gallon of Gas,” The Kinks, 1979; “Little Red Corvette,” Prince, 1983; “Truckin’,” The Grateful Dead, 1970; “On the Road Again,” Canned Heat, 1969; “Ramblin’ Man,” The Allman Brothers Band.