Out of gas on the side of the road.
The original Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll claimed that Texas legend T-Bone Walker was the real father of that music genre, and it was born while he was playing the juke joints out on the Jacksboro Highway. Over the past few decades that factoid shifted to 1951’s “Rocket 88,” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, as the first true rock song; the band was actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, and Brenston played sax for him. What is known is that the song was produced by Sam Phillips, who is best known for discovering all of rock’s early American players.
Still, the fact that the first “rock” song to reach the top of the R&B charts and then cross over to a white audience was about an engine that powered middle-class family sedans is somewhat telling. Because a decade later the car song craze was in full blast, and it’s no wonder rock almost died in the early Sixties. In fact, so many songs were written about a man’s love for his automobile in that period that new car dealers didn’t really need to buy advertising.
True, the Beach Boys burst onto the music scene as the musical promoters of the Southern California lifestyle, most notably surf music. But at the same time they were also well known for hit records about motorized transportation, from 1962’s “409”, or “Little Deuce Coupe” to “Fun, Fun, Fun” two years later.” Moreover, Brian Wilson’s co-writer on “409,” Gary Usher, later formed the studio group the Hondells and scored a Top Ten hit with “Little Honda.” Technically that was also a Beach Boys’ song: Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote it, and the musicians were LA’s The Wrecking Crew; on most songs, they performed the studio work that the Beach Boys merely sang to.
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And at the peak of the car song mania craze of the early Sixties came The Rip Chords’ “Hey, Little Cobra” in early 1964. The song you hope dementia will one day eradicate. The Armed Forces radio station on Clark A.F.B. played that song ad nauseam when it came out, likely because in the Philippines we actually had live cobras. And they really could “shut you down” — and not with mere horsepower and torque.
If you Google “car songs” you’ll come up with pages of the greatest car song titles ever written and recorded, many from the rock era. That’s fair enough, since the rock era also marked the change in wealth demographics during the Baby Boomers’ early and teen years. And that was a period when any new car purchased brought every family member in the neighborhood out to admire it. Many young boys could actually identify any vehicle just by the sounds its engine and exhaust made. One survey taken back in the Nineties found that almost as many people remember exactly where they were when they saw their first Corvette as remember the same circumstances when man first walked on the moon. It’s no wonder that from the Sixties through the Nineties, people under 30 formed such a disproportionate percentage of new car buyers.
Those early Sixties car songs seem incredibly dated today, but they offered full studio educations for some musicians. Singing that 1964 Rip Chords hit were Terry Melcher, who in 1965 became the producer for the Byrds, and Bruce Johnston, who later joined the Beach Boys and wrote Barry Manilow’s hit, “I Write the Songs.” Carol Conner, who co-wrote that number, also co-wrote “Gonna Fly Now,” the movie Rocky’s famous theme song.
Car songs still crop up from time to time. Gary Numan’s New Wave classic, “Cars,” comes to mind, as does Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” or Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” But for the most part these days, automotive hymns are few and far between — the product of an era when young boys dreamed of cars they couldn’t afford until they were old and retired.
Then again, that three-year period of non-stop car songs explains the Beatles’s extreme popularity in early 1964. As they sang about the women they were in love with, not the stylized metal with a motor sitting in the driveway. No wonder girls preferred their albums.
© Ed Wallace 2016
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.