On The Dial: Songs of Automotive Interest

A long time ago, the motorcar was heralded by the sound of music. Words came about to describe the love for the latest extension of the horse-and-buggy – without equine assistance. It had a motor! It went as fast as a galloping mare! They were remarkable, indeed!

And, we sang about those crazy automobiles!

Even today, the automobile is still a subject for musicians to tackle. The genres of music and vehicle are wide enough to capture the culture we live in. The automobile still plays an integral part of our lives – as does music.

This is why I went ahead and compiled this list some of the notable – and, sometimes, my favorite – songs with automotive content. Genre of music or type of vehicle may vary, but it is not about that. It is about how a song captures the culture of the automobile with context of the story the musician is conveying.

I have a feeling this will harbor plenty of debate. From my Apple Music and iTunes Library to yours…and, besides, Boomer approves!

"NIGHT MOVES" – BOB SEGER: "Out in the back seat" of his 1960 Chevrolet was a story we would never forget. It was commonplace for youth to find their first attempt at lovemaking in the backseat of a car. Could it be some romantic flick at the drive-in? Or, some secluded tucked away place where no one except for one of them. It would seem appropriate that the Dearborn native would take his inspiration from the main product of the region's economy. When the song came out in 1976, rock radio was looking for something to engage its listeners. Since then, it became a standard for "classic rock" radio programming. What may have happened to Seger in the early 1960s inspired a timeless story that continues to be spun inside of millions of iPods.

"CARS" – GARY NUMAN: This track debuted in the summer of 1979 as the first “New Wave” track to permeate American airwaves. Some would argue that the Boston-based group The Cars (the one Rick Ocasek was in, remember him?) would predate this British artist’s hit single. It sent shockwaves with the amount of synthesizers that created this wall of sound this side of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and their Moogs. This song represented the decade ahead and Numan was well ahead of the curve. As was this song.

"LITTLE RED CORVETTE" – PRINCE: My musician friends and other lovers of song and chord may want to sit down as I state the following: Mr. Nelson's 1999 album is one of the top albums ever. The son of North Minneapolis, Prince Rogers Nelson came back from a tough tour with The Rolling Stones to focus on a new sound and better production. If there was one track you would remember from 1999, it would this paean to two loves – women and cars. Yes, but who is sexier – the "little red Corvette" or the lady Prince is referring to. Maybe it was Vanity? Who knows…it was 1982/83! It is not easy to find how Prince turned this ditty to double love into a track that car people could call their own.

"100 MPH" – MAZARATI: Speaking of Prince, he had his hands on a lot of the artists who comprised of the "Minneapolis Sound" in the 1980s. As formed by Prince and Brownmark (his bassist), the group became a one-hit wonder with this song about going fast – and loose. Of course, it was written by The Purple One. That tells you everything, right?

"MY HOOPTIE" – SIR MIX-A-LOT: First off, who knew Seattle had a Hip Hop scene to begin with? However, Anthony Ray kicked things off for the Puget Sound area under the guise of Mix with a series of albums that made you laugh through each one of them. In his second album, 1989's Seminar, Mix talked about what was up in the streets. For him, it was about his back-up car – his “Hooptie.” It would not be a rapper's first choice of ride, but if his normal car (a Mercedes-Benz) was in the shop, how will Mix and his crew roll? In the video, Mix showed off a forlorn 1969 Buick Electra. It was a whole story of a day in the life of a baller, his hooptie and the trails and travails of a car that would die on him at a drop of a hat. No mind here, Mix is an enthusiast – a deep one. Still based in his native Seattle, Mix's deep love for the automobile continues today with a single that dropped a year or so ago called "Carsz."

"PULL UP TO THE BUMPER" – GRACE JONES: The craziest Jamaican woman that we all love – model, actress, song stylist. Yet, she delivers on a Post-Disco Dance track with a tinge of New Wave that talks about the nightlife outside of Studio 54 – or any club you can think of. It is classic Miss Jones: dusky voice, runway arrogance, and a bit of champagne and cocaine mixed in for ambiance. This is why some of us love her…and it won’t be the only time she will appear on this list. 

"LOVE SHACK" – THE B-52s: Fred Schneider proclaimed that his Chrysler was "as a big as a whale and it was about to set sail!" His unique vocal stylings, joined by the dual sirens of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson and the guitar of former drummer Keith Strickland, Schneider and the gang invites you to a love shack somewhere deep in the woods. The party continues in the huge Chrysler – the video shows a 1965 convertible, possibly a New Yorker – that "seats about 40" including RuPaul (who makes an appearance in that video before she became "Supermodel of The World" and a television mogul)! The song is about partying – and getting to the party. How else would you get to a place where the tin roof was rusted and the company just as eclectic? Included in said company was RuPaul herself! As campy as it is, this classic 1989 track Don Was produced for the B-52s was the right party song to cap off the 1980s with. It also yielded the Athens, Georgia quartet their first Top 40 pop chart song.

"I CAN’T DRIVE 55" – SAMMY HAGAR: The "Red Rocker" tells the tale of how he can; abide by the (then) national speed limit. One thing about Hagar is that he is an enthusiast, and we would most agree with him on the story of his iconic hit. This song may have been the calling card that brought Hagar and Eddie Van Halen together after the latter and his band got rid of David Lee Roth. Van Halen loves his fast cars, as well.

"SOBB STORY" – THE LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL: Before Busta Rhymes hit the gym and went solo, he was part of a crew with Dinco D, Charlie Brown and Cut Monitor Milo who hit big for a few moments in the early 1990s. One of the tracks that came out of this youthful Long Island-based (Uniondale, to be exact) crew told the story of one of the biggest dreams for a teenager – getting a car. While Busta "got stingy" and got a red Nissan Pathfinder, Brown tried to get a ride with anyone to go anywhere. Then, Dinco went on to bust a guy who was all image, but no cash. He had a Saab – with no money for gas. This tale was part of the "Native Tongues" crew and the conscious rap movement where it's members sported Cross Colours and African iconography – perhaps considered one of the best eras in Hip Hop. The time was ripe for a fun track by LONS – 1991. The rest was history – Busta being an auto enthusiast on his own accord. His car collection was ripe for Dub magazine's content.

"JESUS BUILT MY HOTROD" – MINISTRY: It was part-Speed Metal, part-Industrial – as Al Jourgensen intended. This Wax Trax classic was as fast as a hot rod can go. I mean, really fast! It was the antithesis of Hair Metal with driving guitars going 100 MPH. Jourgensen added manic, fast lyrics to the equally fast guitars. This is the kind of song you’d play if you want to see how fast your car goes. I mean, really fast!

"BACK SEAT (OF MY JEEP)" – LL COOL J: As you can probably tell, there’s a lot of love and sex in these songs. This was released two years before James Todd Smith married his lovely wife Simone, who called him out after he released a similar single, "Doin' It." This song is as blatant as sexual innuendos do – bravura, conquest, and ultra-masculinity. And, it involved a Jeep – most likely a Wrangler. You do the math…

"WARM LEATHERETTE" – THE NORMAL: Yes, I cheated here. The problem is that I did not hear The Normal’s version until 1980 when it aired on KROQ (the seminal New Wave radio station in Los Angeles). Though it may have played on Dr. Demento’s show on KMET (the more popular rock station in Los Angeles, which KLOS would dispute for decades), it was a New Wave/Post-Punk anthem that pushed the synthesizer boundaries before Gary Numan recorded “Cars.” Then came Grace Jones’ cover. She turned that song into a steamy, runway-infused number that opened up her 1981 tour with all the sexuality you expected form her. Which version would you listen to? I’ll take The Normal, please?

“PUMP THE BRAKES” – DOM DOLLA: Now we get to the present. Australian EDM artist Dominic Matheson have been putting out some great tracks in the genre for global audiences. If you have never heard of him, consider yourself introduced. His latest single is accompanied by an irreverent video that almost reminds one of a mashup between the “Trailer Park Boys" and "The Grand Tour." We’re not talking about the video here, but the song which intermixes random radio calls from a dispatcher with a monotone female voice. Just do me a favor and don’t pump the brakes when you hear this on your infotainment system. 

I’m sure I may have missed hundreds of other songs. There are so many one could list on a web page. There are also many playlists out there. Do me a favor and bring some music into your drive. It doesn’t matter the genre, artist, or song…just get your soundtrack going!

All photos by Randy Stern

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