Sunday, 21 April 2013

My Top Six Car Songs

6. Grey Cortina by Tom Robinson


A Cortina?

Well, of course. Tom Robinson here shows that, like charity, lust begins at home. I didn't grow up leering at Ferraris and Porsches in glossy magazines, but at the grubby Ford Capri's and Escort GTs up our street.

Not many Cortinas were actually grey, they were more a sort of one-shade-off-primer type of cream, and even fewer had twin exhausts. But whiplash aerials were essential, as otherwise they tended not to last too long as jealous little boys would bend them for you.

Jealous adults tended to do rather more than that. As Ford only ever had about three keys cut for their whole range stealing one was easy. In one year almost half the Cortinas in Belfast were stolen, which Ford claimed was because the thieves appreciated the performance and comfort.

Apparently Tom Robinson did eventually achieve his childhood dream and own a grey Cortina, only to have it written off after one day before he even got to a "2 4 6 8" Motorway.

5. MGB GT by Richard Thompson

It's hard to pick any particular theme from the songs of a writer and performer with a career as long and eclectic as Richard Thompson, but generally speaking whilst people are often suspect, machines are usually okay. He eulogised the Vincent Black Lightning motorbike in a song which, if this was a list about two wheeled machines, would be up there with Steppenwolf's Born To be Wild, Brigette Bardot's Harley Davidson, Arlo Guthrie's I Just Want To Ride My Motorcycle and Jasper Carrot's Funky Moped.

No, not really. The Bardot song is rubbish.

However we are staying on four wheels here, so instead of the 140mph Vincent, we have a song about a car that struggles to put a ton on the clock, but is slightly more practical.

The main interest here is Thompson's guitar playing, but with passing references to the Sunbeam Alpine, Triumph TR4 and an Austin Healey it's clear Thompson still longs for the classic British rag-tops of his youth. As a rally fan I'd have preferred a song about the Mini Cooper S, Lotus Cortina or Ford Escort Twin Cam, but I don't really mind MGBs, as long as they haven't got those hideous 1970s bumpers.

4. Red Barchetta by Rush

It's 1980 and the world in recovering from the second big oil shock. Meanwhile Canadian rockers Rush record this song.

Here we have their trade mark Ayr Rand inspired Libertarianism (although unlike Rand, Rush kept their drug consumption under control and never had to survive on Medicare) and sci-fi inspired lyrics, in this case the short story A Nice Morning Drive by Richard S. Foster.

In that the outlawed vehicle the hero uses to frustrate the officious and anti-car authorities is another MGB, but Rush decided instead to change to what many regard as the most beautiful Ferrari ever. A looker, sure, but it's hard to imagine a Barchetta starting up first time after a decade or more in a garage in real life.

The idea of a car as a symbol of individual liberty is all very well too, but if you want to write a song about the egalitarian nature of a car owning society, a Ferrari isn't really the best metaphor is it? Let Them Drive Barchettas - as Ayr Rand might have said.

3. Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys

Car songs by The Beach Boys are always good for a laugh.

Not only can they not pronounce 'coupe' correctly, but amongst the virtues of their Hot Rod is something called a 'four on the floor'. This sounds pretty cool, but it actually translates as a four speed manual gearbox. Even my dad's old Lada had one of them.

They also go on to say that when they accelerate 'it's hard to steer', which does suggest something fundamentally wrong with the car. It's not something you usually read in a sales brochure, anyway.

Still, you don't drive a car like that for the handling, and you don't listen to the Beach Boys for meaningful lyrics. Maybe they were just a Barber's Shop Quartet with guitars, but these songs from before Brian Wilson blew his mind on LSD have a certain naive charm.

After that I guess he didn't drive so much.

2. Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin

They say irony died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it was well and truly cremated when this song was used to advertise Mercedes Benz.

I'd always listened to it as a pastiche of consumer society; someone asking God for a car, a TV and a round of drinks, so either I missed something or people really don't listen to lyrics any more.

Joplin didn't even own a Mercedes, she had a  Porsche 356, like the one James Dean drove, only psychedelic. Mercedes in the sixties were cars for people who found Volvos too exciting.

Not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with them. They did do stylish and sporting as well as solid and dependable, like the "Pagoda" model pictured. But speed was always hand in hand with safety and sound engineering, so if there's a car that is at ninety degrees to the live-fast-and-die young ethic of rock, it's a Mercedes.

Also, if you wanted to find a performer whose style reflected the precision engineering of the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft you wouldn't really pick the gravel voiced Janice Joplin, who sounds more like an old Trabant running without any oil.

1.Dead Man's Curve by Jan and Dean

It wasn't just the Beach Boys who had trouble with corners. Judging by the profusion of roads in America featuring a bend called Dead Man's Curve, the entire country seems to have a problem with anything curvier than Kate Moss.

(I should hastily add here before I am flamed from across the pond that one American at least has figured out how to make his car go round corners)

They even made a TV movie in the seventies called The California Kid, in which an evil Sheriff bumps off reckless drivers by making them take a corner too fast. The bend in question was a gentle right hander a Morris Marina could have taken flat, so I thought frankly they all deserved what they got - which sort of spoilt the film a bit for me.

(Note to my American friends - this, guys, is a tight corner.)

Jan and Dean may look squeaky clean to us today, but in their day they were pretty far out and according to rock critic Dave Marsh they should be regarded as proto-punks.

This song is generally considered to be about the one on Sunset Boulevard. It was written for the boys by Brian Wilson and is about a Corvette Stingray driver who has a race with Jaguar E Type which ends in them both failing to negotiate the titular corner. I can only assume the Jag had bald tires or was going twice as fast, as it had far better handling than the 'vette.

You'd have thought Jan and Dean would have learnt the lesson of the song and driven something with decent roadholding, but no, just two years later Jan Berry was trundling around Beverley Hills in his own Corvette, not far from Deadman's Curve, when he lost control and totalled the car.

Miraculously he survived, although it took him a year to recover, and he lived to the ripe old (by rock star standards) age of 62.

The crash may have wrecked his car, but it did the duos career no harm at all and they were still performing into the new millennium.

The accident certainly made the duo infamous, but hopefully rock stars acting out their own songs won't become a habit. I wouldn't be too bothered if Morrisey really was miserable now or James parked their behinds for a moment, but not only would be it be rather gross if Dexy's Midnight Runners did that to Eileen, but do we really want Liam Gallagher to live forever?