Car Tunes on Car Talk: The Envelope Please for the "Jimmys"

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 23, 2010

Bruce: Cars are cathartic for him. (Flickr/Lord Henry)
Bruce: Cars are cathartic for him. (Flickr/Lord Henry)

We love car songs at Car Talk. As soon as they possibly could, cars had radios, though the pre-transistor versions (with tubes!) were on the problematic side.

There are all kinds of great car songs, and not just the ones that mention cars--some are just great for driving. In fact, savvy music producers used to play their would-be hits through the cheapest of speakers--how else to gauge their impact from behind the wheel? No song is going to be a smash unless it plays well in the car.

If you hear a great car song on Car Talk, you can pin down what it was with this handy search tool. The country's only licensed automusicologist, David "Calves of Belleville" Greene, picks the music, and he has what they used to call catholic tastes: everything from old-timey stuff to punk and reggae, though I haven't heard any avant-garde jazz.

The common denominator for a Car Talk song is at least a little bit of diss. No auto worship here. In fact, there are shamelessly hawked collections of Car Talk's disrespectful car tunes available on the website. If you haven't heard "Push My Car" or "Under the Wrench," they're waiting for a chance to besmirch your CD player.

That theme music? It's "Dawggy Mountain Breakdown" by the great David Grisman, who is probably best known to the general public for his great collaborations with Jerry Garcia. Didn't know Jerry was a closet folkie? Listen to their best effort together, Shady Grove. Listen to them perform the title song:

Here are my nominations for great car songs, the Jimmys, if you will. Do I have any qualifications for this? How about 44,000 songs on my iPod? I can't play music, but I'm totally passionate about it:

All-time favorite driving song.
That would be, hand's down, "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Back in the day, I remember the great intro pounding out from the torn-cone (patched with Crazy Glue!) speaker in my Dodge Dart dash. You can't kill that song, not with road noise, onboard barking dogs or huge semis bearing down on all sides. I've heard "Bad Moon Rising" thousands of times, but do I know what it's all about? No idea. It's pure sound to me. It also gets points for being only two minutes long. Listen here, and get some great space cartoons in the bargain:

Favorite Dodge Dart song.
A '63 Dodge Dart is something the Magliozzi brothers and I have in common, though mine is still on the road. They've played Dodge Dart songs by Neal Gladstone, Greg Shrader, Tabasco Kat and Jim Somers, but apparently never the classic "Dodge Dart" by Patty Larkin from her '84 Step Into the Light album. I like the line about it being sideswiped a time or two.

Favorite truckin' song.
This is one of my favorite categories, and Red Sovine made a whole career with the 18-wheelers. But my all-time favorite is a tear-jerking ballad called "Pinball Machine" by Merle Kilgore, later covered by the ultra-cynical Patrick Sky on his great Postcards album. It tells the story of "an old hog hauler" who loses everything (and I mean everything) because he can't stop playing the pinball machines at the trucks stops he haunts. I defy anyone to listen to it without a trembling lower lip. You have no excuse not to listen to it, because it's a free and legal download here.

Best car pride song.
The Beach Boys "409." Famously, only Dennis Wilson (the drummer!) knew how to surf, but it's unclear how many of them were "car guys." How else did they get the details down in this song? The focus is the 409-cubic-inch, 360 horsepower "Turbo Fire" V-8 Chevy introduced in 1961. If you really tricked it out, a Bel-Air 409 coupe with four-speed, dual quads and positraction (all mentioned in the song) could cover a quarter mile in 12.22 seconds and reach 60 in four seconds. Brian Wilson wrote the song with Gary Usher and Mike Love, and it's the latter I think who actually had the cars. Did Brian Wilson even drive? A clear runner-up is "Little Deuce Coupe," which contains the rhyming couplet, "She's got a competition clutch with the four on the floor/And she purrs like a kitten until the lake pipes roar."

Best car song artist.
No argument here, for his lifetime contribution to the genre, it's Bruce Springsteen without a doubt. No other songwriter ever captured how, for a certain type of guy (and they didn't have to be from New Jersey), the car itself was the primary thing. Oh, the girl in the passenger seat was nice enough, as was the chance to get out of town and away from a life of blue-collar toil. But the car was an end in itself: the all-important crucible and an enduring symbol of personal freedom.

My father, an engineer, used to drive me past a gas station and point out the hot rod-owning mechanic. "That's where you'll end up if you don't go to college," he said. I dunno, it didn't sound so bad to me. Have you noticed how many old photos of Springsteen have him posed with muscle cars?

"Racing in the Street" opens with, "I got a '69 Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor." Notice how he gets straight into the details? But could Springsteen have actually gotten this wrong? According to Paul Clemens, who wrote Made in Detroit, a great book about the Motor City, he did. Here's a section quoting his car-obsessed mechanic father: "[Springsteen] gets that first part wrong," my father said. "'There was no such thing as fuelie heads on a big block, which is what the 396 was--a big block. Now with the small-block Chevy engine, the 327, you could've had fuel-injected cylinder heads. But with the big block, no."

A customized 1950 Olds Rocket 88: This car inspired a song. (Flickr/Jack Snell)
A customized 1950 Olds Rocket 88: This car inspired a song. (Flickr/Jack Snell)

Proof that car songs are eternal.
Jean Goldkette recorded "In My Merry Oldsmobile," with music by Gus Edwards and lyrics by Vincent P. Bryan, in 1905. The legendary Bix Biederbecke was on the session. That was during the brief heyday of the "Curved Dash" Olds, one of the first popular American automobiles. It's kind of an inconsequential tune (what, indeed, is "automobubbling"?) but it was definitely a trendsetter, clearing the way for the best blues song ever about an Oldsmobile, "Rocket 88." The latter, recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1951, might actually be the first rock and roll hit. The song is credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, but it was actually masterminded by Tina's nemesis, Ike Turner (who says he made only $40 from the song).

Even if the Olds Rocket 88 wasn't a great car (and it was), it could definitely have inspired a song anyway, because the name is just so cool. Now that cars mostly have numbers instead of names--remember "Starfire," "Roadmaster," "Turnpike Cruiser" and the like? I was partial to "Swinger," myself, but then that's a Dodge Dart under the skin.

I could go on, and I will. In Part II.

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