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It was recently reported that Toyota will pass General Motors this year to become the world’s No. 1 automaker. This has far-reaching ramifications for the business world, of course, but it also may have a profound affect on music.
Over the years, American cars have often been celebrated in song. Certain models have been immortalized by artists in love with machines manufactured in and around Detroit. Now Toyota threatens that relationship.
Music aficionados are familiar with “Mustang Sally,” but would “Celica Sally” produce the same nostalgia someday? Is “Little Deuce Coupe” in danger of being replaced by “Little Green Prius”?
Mindful of America’s long love affair with home-grown automobiles, here is a list of 10 songs that pay homage to a particular type of domestic car. American cars may no longer be No. 1 in their own country, but the songs they inspire can still be No. 1 in our hearts:
‘Mustang Sally’ The Mustang has been a symbol of speed among American motorists for many years, helped along some by Steve McQueen’s car chase through the streets of San Francisco in a GT 390 Fastback in the 1968 film “Bullitt.” But in 1966, Wilson Pickett scored a hit with this R&B rocker about a young lady who would be well-advised to slow down, because she’s moving just a bit too fast. It was written by Bonny Rice, a member of the Falcons of the early ‘60s, a group with whom Pickett spent some time. In fact, Rice recorded it first as Sir Mack Rice, then Pickett covered it about a year later. Rice’s version actually did better on the charts, but it has since become known as a Pickett anthem. “You’ve been riding all over town, ooh, guess you gotta put your flat feet on the ground.” Ride, Sally, ride.
‘Little Deuce Coupe’Drag racing, while illegal in many parts, is nonetheless an American tradition. The Beach Boys paid tribute to it in this buoyant ode to a ’32 Ford with a big V8 that is custom made to blow the doors off gear-headed rivals. Brian Wilson co-wrote this with a disc jockey named Roger Christian, who was heavily into cars. And it shows: There are references to a “flat head mill” and “competition clutch” that only a grease monkey could fully appreciate. Also, there’s the suggestion the little deuce coupe can do 140 mph, the kind of exaggeration that’s only allowed in art, although it may very well be true when it claims, “I got the pink slip, Daddy.” The song reached No. 15 on the U.S. pop charts in 1963 and has outlived most of the ’32 Fords it rhapsodizes about.
‘Little Red Corvette’Prince began his climb to the top of the pop charts in 1983 with this single from the “1999” album, which initially did so-so business until “Little Red Corvette” soared to No. 6. Like most of Prince’s songs, sex is a central theme. In this case, he makes references to “a pocket full of horses, Trojans” and “I felt a little ill when I saw the pictures of all the jockeys that had been there before me.” The exact connection with the Corvette is a little hazy, other than the suggestion that the woman he’s singing about is a little too fast for him. Chevrolet put up a billboard in 2001 with a picture of a red 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and the caption, “They don’t write songs about Volvos.”
Bruce Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the midst of a near-fanatical car culture. References to autos are rampant in his music, like “chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and steppin’ out over the line” from “Born to Run,” for instance. “Pink Cadillac” was released in 1984 as the B-side of “Dancing in the Dark,” but did not appear on an album until 1998’s “Tracks.” Like Prince, Bruce sprinkled in a liberal amount of sexual innuendo, including: “My love is bigger than a Honda, yeah, it’s bigger than a Subaru.” Just imagine the shock and outrage if Bruce’s Pink Cadillac ever crashed head-on into Prince’s Little Red Corvette!
‘Hot Rod Lincoln’
Most people know the version by the country/rockabilly band Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, which was released early in 1972 and rose to No. 9 on the pop charts and No. 51 on the country charts. One of the more famous lines goes like this: “My pappy said, ‘Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’, if you don’t stop driving that Hot Rod Lincoln.” But that was a slight modification of a version that was recorded much earlier, in 1955, by a band called Charlie Ryan & the Timberline Riders. Ryan wrote the song about his own 12-cylinder hot rod Lincoln and a road race he embarked on that began in Lewiston, Idaho. It is unclear whether his exploits behind the wheel actually drove his pappy to drinking.
No, this isn’t a paean to a popular household cleaner but rather to a Chevrolet 409, which contained a 409-cubic-inch engine that could be modified by racers to generate more than 400 horsepower. The Beach Boys recorded “409” in 1962, and it was released as the B-side of “Surfin’ Safari.” Most of the lyrics are fairly simple and repetitive, such as “giddy up 409” and “She’s real fine my 409.” But the Boys did throw in one reference to “my four-speed dual quad posi-traction 409” just in case any actual mechanics were paying attention. As you might have guessed, the Beach Boys were infatuated with girls, cars and the beach, often in the same song.
Ronny and the Daytonas came out of Nashville with dreams of mimicking the Beach Boys’ sound. Alas, they had mixed success. “G.T.O.,” penned by John Wilkin, was released shortly after the car itself and reached No. 4 on the charts in 1964. And while the artists themselves didn’t have staying power, they did hammer at the car theme with other songs like “Antique ’32 Studebaker Dictator Coupe.” Like the Beach Boys, there are a couple of technical mentions, such as, “three deuces and a four-speed and a 389” and “this little modified Pon Pon has got plenty of style.” And the chorus was dutifully memorable, repeating “Wa wa” and “Yeah, yeah, little G.T.O.” While Ronny and the Daytonas, a group of session musicians, didn’t have a long career together, they did sell more than a million singles of this song as well as a half-million albums.
‘Coupe de Ville’
Whereas many other songs about American cars celebrate the raw power and unique stylings, this Neil Young composition uses the Cadillac Coupe De Ville in a more melancholy way. In fact, he only mentions the car once, in the opening line: “I got a Coupe De Ville, I got a bed in the house where you once lived.” The car here is a symbol of what little he has left after a broken relationship. He goes on to say, “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nothing else.” The song was released in 1988, so Young had no idea that the Coupe De Ville, which was introduced in 1949, would be discontinued in 1993. But maybe he chose it because he sensed it was on its way out, just like the character in the song is with his woman.
Because rock ’n’ roll has had lots of influences leading up to the ‘50s, several have laid claim to being the “first rock ’n’ roll song,” and the argument still rages today. Legendary producer Sam Phillips claimed it was “Rocket 88,” which was written by Ike Turner and credited to a group called Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, which wasn’t an actual band. It was Turner in 1951 who created it and performed the Oldsmobile 88 tribute, which was produced by Phillips, although Brenston sang on it. This is yet another song where an American car represents sexual prowess: “Gals will ride in style, movin’ all along.” The Olds 88 had just come out and was considered to be the fastest car on the road.
The song was written by blues great Sonny Boy Williamson. But when the British blues bands emerged in the ‘60s, they covered just about every memorable blues tune by every important blues artist. In this case, an early edition of the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton not only took a crack at “Pontiac Blues,” yet another hymn about romance and autos, but they joined up with Sonny Boy for a live album recorded in 1963 at England’s Crawdaddy Club. “I found out what my baby likes, (she likes a) whole lot of loving, and a straight-eight Pontiac.” Williamson’s earlier version is excellent as well and features an appearance by slide guitarist extraordinaire Elmore James.