A wise man once said “Everything I know about life, I learned from Rock and Roll” We won’t go that far but we will add “Everything we know about cars we learned from Brian Wilson” !
Cars have been a great “Vehicle” ( forgive us) for the American songwriter for nearly a century. The first publication of a “Car Song” goes back to 1917 with a very popular Tune called “The Automobile song which went on to be performed and recorded by dozens of artists. And indeed, in 1939 Bing Crosby enjoyed a huge world-wide hit with “In My Merry Oldsmobile” But something phenomenal happened in the 60’s. When the 1960’s arrived they brought along an entire generation of “Baby Boomers” who all “came of driving age” during the greatest decade of music! America went from a country of One car families, to a country of two and thee car families. A Car Culture was taking hold. And like any cultural shift, it is reflected in the arts. We have often written about the diversity of musical genres’ that the Sixties ushered in, but arguably “Car Songs” is the most peculiar and most short-lived. What made car songs so unusual is how the songwriters somehow romanticized not just the cars, but the actual parts of the car..Do you recall? “she’s got positive traction, I’m ridin’ the clutch, my pressure plates are burnin’ and she’s too much”..”Shut Down” by The Beach Boys! As a young man growing up in the 60’s, working on your car was a weekend right of passage. And unless your father was a mechanic, or you took “Auto Shop” in high school, there were few places you could turn to for help. “Car Songs” not only” had a good beat”. They were educational.
The Car Song phenomenon began yet again by Brian Wilson, and much like how Brian’s power of observation, rather than participation drove his creative process to write songs about “Surfing”,Brian was inspired to write about Cars from conversations with his friend and collaborator Gary Usher who was a Car/Hot Rod enthusiast. In 1962 Brian and The Beach Boys had just begun to cement their unique Surf sound, but Brian, Gary and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love had come up with a song they intended to only be a “B” side on their second single, “Surfin’ Safari” 409 !….A song about a boy who saves his money to buy his Dream Car, a Chevy 409 Bel Air coupe, however the song also includes something we’d never heard before….AN EQUIPMENT LIST….”My four speed, dual quad, positraction, 409″, The education begins. It’s practically a foreign language, but some curious D.J. Flips Surfin’ Safari over, spins “409” and bam a song about a car hits The Billboard charts, gives The Beach Boys their first double-sided hit and initiates a new genre in music. 409 becomes ground zero for Car Songs.The Boys go on to score more hits with Car songs, including “Shut Down”, “Little deuce Coup and “Fun fun fun” even their plaintiff ballad “Don’t Worry Baby” is about car racing. And of course in Christmas 1963 they released “Little Saint Nick” their tribute to Santa’s sleigh “It’s Candy Apple Red with a ski for a wheel and when Santa hits the gas, you know that he really peels.” A light weight piece of Beach Boy fluff ( which was more than a little reminiscent of “Little deuce Coup”) released on Dec. 9th and it was exactly what America needed as we were still mourning the loss of President Kennedy only a few weeks earlier.
As The Beach Boys led the pack, Pop Music followed. Jan and Dean, who were close friends and frequent collaborators with Brian and the boys had only recently taken us to ” Surf City” where there were “Two Girls for every boy” and introduced us to “Honolulu Lulu” now, they’re off to “Drag City” where you “Burn up that quarter-mile” and Jan waxes romantically about his “Blue Coral Wax ” job” and his “Chrome reversed wheels.”Next, the duo releases what is to become their signature song. “The little old lady from Pasadena”…The title came from a Dodge T.V. Commercial and dealt with An old gal who drove “A shiny red super sport Dodge and loved to race the youngsters up and down Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena California. However, the most profound of Car Songs goes to Jan and Dean for their haunting and prophetic “Dead Mans Curve” Co written with Brian Wilson and released in 1964. The song tells the story of a race between a Stingray and a Jaguar XKE. The race begins in Hollywood at the corner of Sunset and Vine but ends badly when the pair reaches “Dead Mans Curve” in Beverly Hills (The curve actually exists) The song ends with a melodramatic confession from the driver of the Stingray, talking to a doctor…..”The last thing I remember Doc, I started to swerve, and then I saw the Jag slide into the curve”….( complete with gruesome car crash sound effects) The chorus chimes in ( “won’t come back from Dead Mans curve”) and Jan and Dean have another number one with a deadly Car Song. But!..Hold On, here’s the rest of the horrible Ironic story. Two years later 1966 Jan Berry was driving along Sunset Blvd. one evening, he came upon Dead Mans Curve a little too fast, turned off sunset and slammed into a parked truck! Jan survived the near fatal crash, but was rendered permanently paralyzed on his right side until his death from an accident related seizure in 2004. We spent some time with Jan in the early 70’s listening to new songs and demo’s, but his new music had lost the sparkle and innovation he was so good at. However to he and Deans credit the duo continued to appear live together. Jan, a little rusty and mumbled, but proving “You can come back from “Dead Mans Curve”
The Beach Boys with Jan and Dean lead the charge with Car Songs, but pop music’s creators fall in step. Writer/producers Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher go from “Summer means fun” and “Here comes summer” as Bruce and Terry to “Hey little cobra” and “Three window coupe” as The Rip Chords. But, perhaps the oddest of the quick change artist to succeed with a car song was a completely unknown SURF BAND based in Nashville Tennessee….HUNH?… who called themselves “Ronnie and The Daytonas ( FYI, there was no one named Ronnie in the band…HUNH?) they came up with a car song idea that went to number one in 1964 and sold over One Million singles…”Little GTO”….”Three deuces and a four speed and a 389” more of that romantic car song lyric…..
Millions of records sold, billions of dollars generated, yet this unusual genre of pop songs about Clutches, Carburetors and Cubic inches lasted barely two years ’62 – ’64 That is unless you include Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” in 1965, or The Beatles’ “Drive My Car” in 1966 or everyone’s favorite Paul Muriat’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in 1968!
Finally, we all have a favorite car song. In many cases it was playing on the A.M. Radio the first time we got behind the wheel!
What is YOUR CAR SONG,and What was your car? Ours was a seriously used 59 Chevy Biscayne, to the tune of “Good Vibrations.” She was the size of a Riverboat and that’s how she drove up and down Colorado Blvd. But…As Jan and Dean sang “But she still gets me where I wanna go”
……Do you speak the language? Listen to Brian and the boys sing about their car that was “Ported and relieved and stroked and bored”AND, she had a “flat head mill”
We don’t either!…