Our songs for the road

Posted on March 4th, 2015 by GEM Motoring Assist

If you’re unsure about what music to choose on car journeys, then David Williams may be able to help with his exploration of driving-themed chart hits to suit all moods

WE ALL LOVE making playlists for the car, or better still having them made for us; every service station has a rack of overpriced ‘Drivetime’ CDs. When you consider that the average Briton now spends three whole years of their life behind the wheel, you can appreciate why we might crave a little musical diversion. But have you ever tried to find a song that celebrates, without irony, the experience of driving on the UK’s roads? It seems we don’t get our kicks on the A66… It’s different in the USA.

I would argue that America’s two greatest contributions to human progress in the twentieth century were mass-produced automobiles and mass-produced popular music. The birth of rock and roll in the States coincided with the heyday of automobile design, and in the early days the average American songwriter was just as infatuated with his car as with the girl in the passenger seat.

Mustang Sally, Little Deuce Coupé, Pink Cadillac and Riding Along in my Automobile all fed into the American dream – young, affluent men with big cars, burning cheap gas by the gallon. Even the many casualties were immortalised in songs such as The Leader of the Pack and Tell Laura I Love Her, forming a morbidly melodramatic genre that became known as the Teenage Tragedy Song. We were making some lovely cars in Britain at the time, but where are the hymns of praise to the Aston Martin, the Mini, or the Hillman Imp?

When, years later, Madness sang about Driving in My Car (a 1959 Morris Minor as it happens) they chose to mock its parochial ordinariness (‘It’s not quite a Jaguar’).

Automobiles tend to be used more metaphorically in British songs. You can bet that if the Beach Boys had written Drive My Car, they would have specified make and model – but for The Beatles it’s all about the subordinate relationship between chauffeur and aspiring actress. Gary Numan’s pulsating masterpiece, Cars, has a chilling lack of sentimentality. For Gary, driving is very much a solitary activity – you can’t imagine a man who sings ‘Here in my car/I feel safest of all/ I can lock all my doors’, casually picking up a girl and driving her home.

As with cars, so with the roads we drive on. America is unfathomably vast, and yet the distances travelled are easily shrugged off. Gene Pitney sang about being ‘only 24 hours from Tulsa’ – can you imagine a British singer being so blasé about a whole day’s drive? The Proclaimers might blithely set out to walk 500 miles and 500 more, but they would surely baulk at going by car.

When British bands try to emulate the great American road songs of escape and freedom, the results are often deliberately comical. The fact remains that you can’t actually go all that far on a UK highway (you can certainly spend a long time in traffic, but that’s not quite the same). So when 1980s one-hit-wonders It’s Immaterial sing about Driving Away From Home, the journey down the M62 is a paltry 39 miles, or 45 minutes (you’ve got to admire the pre-satnav precision).

Even when you’re going nowhere in an American car on an American road, the journey is thrilling. Bruce Springsteen is the master of bittersweet anthems of not-quite-escaping. In Thunder Road, these two lanes will take us anywhere – you somehow know the young lovers will never reach the promised land, but the excitement of that windswept journey is palpable. Racing in the Street has one of the most thrilling opening lines for any petrolhead: ‘I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396’ (in layman’s terms, a great big engine). No matter that the singer seems to have wasted his life; he still loves his car.

For the British songwriter, a traffic jam is an existential nightmare. Chris Rea’s Road to Hell, penned in 1989, after enduring three years of apocalyptic snarl-ups on the M25, is terrifying if you listen closely enough to the words: ‘the perverted fear of violence chokes the smile on every face’. (This, of course, was the beginning of the 1990s phenomenon of ‘road rage’, which provided the title for a lovely indie anthem by Catatonia.)  Even in his wistful festive ditty, Driving Home for Christmas, Rea is stymied by the traffic: ‘top to toe in tail lights, I’ve got red lights on the run’.

Paul McCartney’s beautifully plaintive The Long and Winding Road, about a journey he made frequently along the remote B842 on the Kintyre peninsula, is about as close as you’ll get to affection for a British road in song. But it’s too melancholy and fragile to make it onto your drivetime playlist – it’s likely to leave you ‘full of tears’ in a layby. If you disregard 2-4-6-8 Motorway (which I do – it’s a shouty counting song), just about the only irony-free paean to the UK motoring experience I can find is The Divine Comedy’s glorious National Express. It has the bouncy rhythm of a charabanc, mordantly witty lyrics, and, fittingly, its tempo is perfect for gently cruising past coaches on the M6 motorway.