One of my everyday reads is the Hemmings Daily, the online blog put out by the collector car magazine folks. A lot of the vehicles pictured and featured therein are from the 1960s; looking at them, I often find myself thinking about the music inspired by America’s love affair with the automobile.
Those “love songs” constituted a sub-genre of The Music, at least in its earlier years. For those of us coming of (teen)age in the’60s, the AM airwaves offered lots of affirmation of our lust after things wheeled, fast and cool.
The heyday of Gearhead Rock was the mid-60s, but car-themed songs seemed destined to be part of The Music before its beginning. What is considered to be the first rock and roll song was “Rocket 88,” a 1951 recording credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats that hit No. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart.
The song, most likely written by future soul/R&B/rock bandleader Ike Turner — (the Delta Cats were actually the Kings of Rhythm, his band at the time — was an ode to an eight-cylinder Oldsmobile convertible and its effects on the fairer sex. “V-8 motor and this modern design/My convertible top and the gals don’t mind/Sportin’ with me, ridin’ all around town for joy.”
(“Rocket 88” was soon covered by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, the country and western group Haley had before he went rock with His Comets. Nor was it the last reference to the Olds V-8 in popular music; “455 Rocket” was a No. 21 country hit for Kathy Mattea. [I think Little Feat were referring to something other than V-8s when they did “Rocket in My Pocket,” though.])
K.C. Douglas had actually beaten Brenston and Turner to the girls-love-cars theme three years earlier, recording “Mercury Blues”: “Well the girl I love/I stole her from a friend/He got lucky, stole her back again/She heard he had a Mercury/Lord she’s crazy ’bout a Mercury.” But that song didn’t show up in rock until almost two decades later, when the Steve Miller Band recorded it.
Sixties car songs were more about the cars themselves, and racing them, and less about their effects on the ladies. They first showed up in the Billboard Hot 100 when the Beach Boys’ “409,” a tribute to Chevrolet’s hottest car (other than the Corvette) at the time, peaked at No. 76 in 1962.
The Boys — who had already had a couple hits by helping create another sub-genre, surf music — must have figured they were onto something. They came back the following year with “Shut Down,” which peaked at No. 23 and clocked in at No. 99 on the 1963 Hot 100 year-end chart.
This was red meat for those of us who grew up around Chevy Town, Wis. (Janesville) and other Bowtie fans: the fuel-injected Vette shuts down the 413 Dodge. (It presaged a bumper sticker that was semi-popular a few years later, and referenced a Chrysler ad campaign: “Happiness Is Hearing General Motors Has Sent Troops to Crush the Dodge Rebellion,” or something like that.)
The Boys followed that with “Little Deuce Coupe,” an ode to the highly-modified 30s street rod that got as far as No. 15 but didn’t make the year-end top 100. That single was on an eponymous 1963 album that also included “409,” “Shut Down” and several other car-themed tunes.
The group followed that album with “Shut Down Volume 2,” which included one strictly-Gearhead song, but also a couple others that were car-related. There were more of the latter on their next album, “All Summer Long,” but the only tribute to a machine was to a two-wheeled one, “Little Honda.”
By then, the acetylene torch had been passed to other groups, like Jan and Dean, Ronnie and the Daytonas and the Rip Chords. J&D were Beach Boys contemporaries and acquaintances who had actually beaten them to the punch in the surf music genre — at least in terms of chart success — with 1962’s “Surf City,” a No. 1 written in part by BB creative genius Brian Wilson.
Jan and Dean got to No. 10 with “Drag City,” released in late 1963. Ronnie and the Daytonas the following year came out with “G.T.O.,” which peaked at No. 4 and was part of a Gearhead-intensive, eponymous album; the group, though, only released a couple such singles after that, and one of them, 1966’s “Antique '32 Studebaker Dictator Coupe” — certainly one of the least poetic song titles of all time — came off the “G.T.O.” LP.
The Rip Chords matched Ronnie and crew in terms of the best-charting Gearhead song, their “Hey Little Cobra” making it to No. 4 in 1964. That single appears to be in the minority, in that it is the rare hit in the genre where the “hero” of the song is not a General Motors model.
(That vocal group is interesting in another aspect. Producing the Rip Chords’ records, and singing on them were Terry Melcher, actress Doris Day’s son, and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston.)
The Rip Chords followed that with “Three Window Coupe,” which peaked at No. 29 and was also part of an eponymous album dominated by car-themed songs. But that 1964 release was the group’s last LP.
By then, the genre’s time had passed — or had been passed. The Beach Boys had some car-related hits, like “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Ditto for Jan and Dean, whose 1963 No. 8 “Deadman’s Curve” falls more into the Death Rock genre; their “Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” which peaked at No. 3 that year, was less about that “brand new shiny red super-stock Dodge,” and more (like “Fun, Fun, Fun”) about the driver.
What killed off the Gearhead genre? Rock was getting more sociopolitical at that time, and the songs and albums were getting more complex. The Beach Boys released “Pet Sounds,” considered a benchmark in the evolution of The Music, only two years after “All Summer Long.”
Then we had Earth Day and energy crises, and fast cars with big engines became less politically correct. There were still songs with car names in their titles, but they were more like Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac”: “ … some folks say, it's too big, it uses too much gas/Some folks say it's too old, and that it goes too fast.” (Give the Boss credit, though — he does add “But my love is bigger than a Honda, it is bigger than a Subaru.”)
Also, I guess there’s only so much you can say, at least musically, about cars, But there was a window — rolled down, summer air streaming in — in time when songs about hot cars were hot. And, if you’ve got a 60s or 70s collector car, you can still dial up that variety of The Music on the stereo and turn it into a four-wheeled time machine.