September marks the start of the new car season. It’s that time when your dreams of a flashy red convertible lie crushed as you drive off in a new (and significantly safer and more practical) minivan.
At least rockers don’t have to worry about fuel efficiency, cargo capacity and child safety seats. They’ve produced our Top 11 Car Songs about the rides we’d really like to drive.
11. Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen‘s Pink Cadillac was recorded for the 1983 Born in the U.S.A. LP but was dropped in favor of I’m Goin’ Down. It popped back up in 1984 as the B-side of Dancing in the Dark. Careful listeners will hear a few rock references. Elvis Presley bought a pink Cadillac Fleetwood for his mother; Presley added the line “You may have a pink Cadillac” to Baby Let’s Play House; and Springsteen sings “My love is bigger than a Honda,” a nod to Buddy Holly‘s “My love is bigger than a Cadillac” in Not Fade Away.
In concert, Springsteen has introduced Pink Cadillac with a long televangelist-style rap. “Now, this is a song about conflict,” the Boss preached, “between worldly things and spiritual health — between desires of the flesh — and I’m talking about sexual desire and spiritual ecstasy. Now, where did it all begin? Well, it all began in the beginning in a place called the Garden of Eden.”
Springsteen’s Garden of Eden, it turns out, is a used car lot where Satan, in the guise of a high-pressure salesman, tempts Adam with the keys to the first pink Cadillac.
Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springsteen
10. Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys
An essential part of the ’60s California Sound was the Beach Boys‘ Fun, Fun, Fun, a Top 5 hit in 1964. The tune about a girl cruising in her dad’s Ford Thunderbird was written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. Originally credited to Wilson, it took until the ’90s for Love to be listed as a co-writer. Love told us how the song came about:
“I was the one who suggested doing a song about a girl who borrows her father’s car and wrote all the words for Fun, Fun, Fun and told Brian it needs to start with a Chuck Berry-style guitar intro. So Carl came up with that, Brian wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics and that was a great collaboration.”
“I think the Beach Boys’ legacy is Fun, Fun, Fun, you know?” Love explained to the Austin Chronicle. “By and large, the Beach Boys’ legacy is about incredibly positivity. We’ve traveled around the world and uplifted the spirits of hundreds of millions of people … To me that’s the real legacy.”
Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys
9. Ol’ 55 by Tom Waits and the Eagles
Ol’ 55 was first released in 1973 by Tom Waits, an ode to his 1955 Cadillac. The Eagles released their version in 1975. Guitarist Glenn Frey explained in the liner notes of The Very Best of the Eagles how record exec David Geffen introduced him to the song.
“David Geffen played me a tape of Tom Waits in his office. Ol’ 55 was the first song on a demo that had maybe three songs on it. I loved the song, got Tom Waits’ version, and took it to the band. I played it for Don [Henley] and said, ‘I think we should do this. We can split the vocals, it could be really cool, and we could do oooohs in this section here.’ I really liked the song. Still do. It’s such a car thing. Your first car is like your first apartment. You had a mobile studio apartment! Ol’ 55 was so Southern California, and yet there was some Detroit in it as well. It was that car thing, and I loved the idea of driving home at sunrise, thinking about what had happened the night before.”
“I frankly was not that particularly crazy about their rendition of it,” Waits told WAMU Radio in 1975. “It’s one of the first songs I wrote so I felt like it was kind of flattering that somebody wanted to do your song but at the same time I thought their version was a little antiseptic.”
Ol’ 55 by Tom Waits
Ol’ 55 by the Eagles
8. Low Rider by War
In case you’ve never seen a Cheech & Chong film, low riders are cars fitted with hydraulic lifts that raise and lower the vehicle and make it bounce. Popular with Latino car clubs in the Southwest since the ’60s, War brought national attention to the trend with its 1975 hit Low Rider.
“What happened on Low Rider was in the studio, we were jamming, and I was supposed to have been on the downbeat,” drummer Harold Brown told Songfacts. “But all of the sudden I was on the upbeat. And I said, ‘Oh, boy. I got the beat turned around.’ I didn’t panic. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Stay there. Don’t change it. Stay.’ Because as long as you keep doing it over and over and over, it won’t be a mistake. We were just messing around, you know. Then the next thing I know, Charles [Miller] started just singing, ‘Low ri-der drives a little slower. The low … ‘ He was just pumping it.
“I don’t care if you’re driving a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce or if you have a hooptie — hearing it thumping, it just works.”
“Before the song was released, we gave the finished product to two rival car clubs — the Dukes and the Imperials,” keyboardist Lonnie Jordan told K-Earth 101. “They had the rides, but they weren’t really communicating with each other, of course we didn’t have the technology then. But there was one technology that brought them together, it was a cassette! We gave them all a cassette and they pumped the song in their cars, and they helped make the song a hit.”
Low Rider by War
7. Hot Rod Lincoln by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
Hot Rod Lincoln‘s history dates back to 1955. Charlie Ryan recorded it as an answer to Arkie Shibley’s Hot Rod Race. Shibley’s original told of a kid whose souped-up Ford Model A blew away the competition in a race. Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln told the story from the young driver’s point of view.
Johnny Bond had a hit with Hot Rod Lincoln in 1960. Guitarist Bill Kirchen of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen learned the tune after he discovered a copy of Bond’s Greatest Hits in the discount bin at Kmart.
“We learned this from a Johnny Bond record and I was pretty new to learning songs off records then,” Kirchen told NPR. “I thought I pretty much nailed it exactly but I go back now and it wasn’t even close. But I like mine better and it was originality born of incompetence.”
Commander Cody, who is really George Frayne, voiced the lead on the track, a Top 10 hit in 1972. Frayne told the Park Record that people liked the song because anyone can perform it. “All you have to do is memorize the words, because it’s just talking fast. That’s one of the reasons why I did it in the first place. I couldn’t sing a note when we started as a band, but I could talk fast.”
Hot Rod Race by Arkie Shibley and His Mountain Dew Boys
Hot Rod Lincoln by Charlie Ryan and the Livingston Bros.
Hot Rod Lincoln by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
6. Drive My Car by the Beatles
Drive My Car first appeared on the British version of the Beatles‘ 1965 LP Rubber Soul. In The Beatles Anthology Paul McCartney described the difficulties he and John Lennon had in writing the tune.
“One of the stickiest was Drive My Car, because we couldn’t get past one phrase that we had: ‘You can buy me golden rings.’ We struggled for hours; I think we struggled too long. Then we had a break and it suddenly came: ‘Wait a minute: “Drive my car!”‘ Then we got into the fun of that scenario: ‘Oh, you can drive my car.’ What is it? What’s he doing? Is he offering a job as a chauffeur, or what? And then it became much more ambiguous, which we liked, instead of golden rings, which was a bit poofy. ‘Golden rings’ became ‘beep, beep, yeah.’ We both came up with that. Suddenly we were in L.A.: cars, chauffeurs, open-top Cadillacs, and it was a whole other thing.”
“To me it was L.A. chicks, ‘You can be my chauffeur,’ and it also meant ‘you can be my lover,'” McCartney added in Many Years From Now. “‘Drive my car’ was an old blues euphemism for sex, so in the end all is revealed. Black humor crept in and saved the day. It wrote itself then. I find that very often, once you get the good idea, things write themselves.”
Drive My Car by the Beatles
5. Long May You Run by the Stills-Young Band
Written by Neil Young, Long May You Run was recorded in 1976 with his longtime collaborator Stephen Stills. The song was inspired by Young’s 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, which he named Mort Hearseburg.
“During the summer of 1963, I found an advertisement in the paper for a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, being sold as excess by a funeral home,” Young wrote in Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars. “After calling the number in the paper, I got the address and made my way to it in the Ensign. When I got there, a man came out and let me through a chain-link gate, and I walked into a lot full of older cars and inspected two 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearses. They were huge, with very large back doors, and rollers for the coffins to roll in and out of the velvet-upholstered back. ‘Perfect for our equipment!’ I exclaimed to myself.
“I named the hearse Mort. I was very happy. I remember going out for a drive through River Heights, feeling the same freedom I felt on my first bike. Now I could go anywhere, and a feeling of independence was upon me like never before.”
Long May You Run by Neil Young on MTV Unplugged
4. Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin
In August 1970, Janis Joplin and a group of friends that included songwriter Bob Neuwirth drank and played pool at Vahsen’s, a Port Chester, N.Y. bar down the street from the Capitol Theater. Killing time before her set, Joplin riffed on the first line of song by poet Michael McClure. Joplin’s take: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”
With a heavy dose of irony, Joplin’s Mercedes Benz equates material goods with happiness. Joplin performed a rough version of Mercedes Benz that night at the Capitol. The lyrics were later expanded by her and Neuwirth, adding a color TV and a night on the town to the things that, if delivered, would finally make her happy.
On October 1, Joplin recorded an a cappella version of Mercedes Benz in one take at a session in Los Angeles. Joplin introduced the song by stating, “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import. It goes like this.” The only other track she recorded that day was a humorous version of Happy Trails, a birthday present for John Lennon’s 30th birthday.
Those would be the last songs she recorded. Three days later on October 4, Joplin, 27, was found dead of a heroin overdose.
Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin
3. Mustang Sally by Sir Mack Rice and Wilson Pickett
Written and first recorded by R&B great Sir Mack Rice, Mustang Sally became one of Wilson Pickett‘s signature songs. Rice, who had sung with Pickett in the Falcons, wrote the song while visiting singer Della Reese and her musical director, Calvin “Eagle Eye” Shields.
“One day we were riding, smokin’ some weed, me and her old man, you know, and he was always talking about the Mustang car,” Rice explained in Rock Cellar Magazine. “‘What is the Mustang?’ I’ve never heard of it, ’cause I was on the road quite a bit at the time. He looked over at a poster, he said, ‘Hey, that’s the Mustang!’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Look up there, man, on that poster there.’ I said, ‘Oh shit, man, that car there? No, no, no, it’s too little for me,’ that’s what I said. ‘Jeez, I love it man.’ He just talked about the Mustang, every time he turned around it was about the Mustang.”
When Rice returned to Detroit, he wrote what he originally titled Mustang Mama. Some of its lyrics were based on the nursery rhyme Little Sally Walker: “Rise Sally rise, Wipe your weepin’ eyes.” After a listen at her home, Rice’s friend Aretha Franklin gave him a few suggestions.
“I went over to Aretha’s and I started singin’. I get to the part that says, ‘Rise Sally rise, Rise Sally rise’ …
“Aretha said, ‘Mack, what were you saying, ‘Rise Sally rise?’ I said, ‘Yeah, “Rise Sally rise, Wipe your weepin’ eyes.”‘ She said, ‘Why don’t you put on the thing “Ride Sally ride, R-I-D-E” I said, ‘Cool.'”
Franklin’s final suggestion: Change the title from Mustang Mama to Mustang Sally. When Pickett heard Rice perform Mustang Sally at New York’s Apollo Theater, he told Rice he would record it himself. Pickett’s spirited version was a hit in 1966.
“Pickett did what I wanted to do but I didn’t have the voice like Pickett to do that,” said Rice. “But that’s what I wanted to do to the song. Pickett’s version, he came in there, got down. I was really proud of that, that’s what made Mustang Sally what it is.”
Mustang Sally by Sir Mack Rice
Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett
2. Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf
Meat Loaf‘s 1977 epic Paradise by the Dashboard Light was written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren. The tale of a teenage boy who hopes to get lucky with his girlfriend while parked in his car was, at 7:55, one of the longest rock singles at the time. Steinman credits Rundgren with much of the song’s success.
“Todd Rundgren is a genius and I don’t use that word a lot,” Steinman told VH1. “His attitude was, ‘It’s a load of inflated junk but at least it’s funny.’ He brought all the pieces together and did all the background vocals. Watching Todd Rundgren create background vocals has got to be one of the most thrilling experiences you can ever have in music. It’s as exciting as if you got to watch Mozart compose. He did complex melodies that intertwined with counterpoints. Everyone was terrified to admit they couldn’t, they didn’t have a clue what to sing. I think he made it that complicated for perverse fun.”
An iconic part is the play-by-play by Phil Rizzuto, the voice of the New York Yankees. Rizzuto’s call mirrors the teen’s progress in the back seat of his car. “Phil was one of the greatest storytellers baseball has ever seen,” Meat Loaf recalled to ESPN after Rizzuto’s death in 2007.
“Phil was an absolutely huge part of that song. Huge. You have a tempo change, then all of sudden there’s this baseball play-by-play, this amazing baseball play-by-play.”
When Meat Loaf performs Paradise live, Rizzuto’s part is always played over the PA system. “I think that’s why I feel so close to him,” said Meat Loaf. “Every night I hear him. Every night I’ll continue to hear him. That is a wonderful thing.”
Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf
1. The Little Old Lady From Pasadena by Jan & Dean
As Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean once said, he and Jan Berry were full-time college students while producing their early hits. In 1964 Berry’s roommate, songwriter Don Altfeld, had a vision of an elderly granny tooling down the boulevard in a 1932 Ford coupe.
In those days, the “little old lady from Pasadena” was a popular comedians’ punch line. Used car dealers, the joke went, promised gullible customers that a car’s previous owner was “a little old lady who only drove the car to church on Sundays.”
On his website, Altfeld recalls that he came up with the song’s title in Bacteriology class and shared the idea with Berry. With the help of Roger Christian, a disc jockey who often co-wrote songs with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, the three wrote The Little Old Lady From Pasadena. Backed by Wrecking Crew members that included drummer Hal Blaine, pianist Leon Russell and guitarist Tommy Tedesco, Jan & Dean recorded the track in two takes during the final minutes of a session. It would be the duo’s final Top 10 hit.
The Little Old Lady From Pasadena by Jan & Dean