Cars n' Girls n' Rock n' Roll

I have a confession to make: while I've been driving since the age of 16, I have never owned a car. In fact, I have never even wanted to own a car -- rentals do me just fine in this city. Before you start squawking that I have no right to be pontificating about automobiles, let me tell you that I'm not just some Sunday driver -- I know how to use the self-serve pumps at gas stations. In fact, given enough time and space I can even parallel park. However, lest you still think that I'm not qualified to write this article, you should know that I'm a fan of both drag and stock car racing and have been to the Sears Point International Raceway to see both the NHRA and NASCAR races. In other words, while you're busy gloating over your no go showboat, I know who both Ed Force and Dick Trickle are. Can you say the same?But I have further, more particular qualifications for waxing poetic about femmes and flivvers. You see, not only am I a girl -- I mean, woman -- I have a big record collection. I also have a husband with a big record collection, who just happens to have penned a couple of compositions on boys and cars in the distaff side of this publication. As his diligent research has proven, there are no end of songs about cars, motorcycles, hot rods, drag boats and other forms of motorized glory. What most of these songs have in common is that they're sung by men. Don't get me wrong -- a lot of these guys are singing about strong, cool, independent females. Whether it's Bobby Verne challenged by the "chick" who pulls up next to his Red Hot Car ("I didn't know what she had/under the hood/but the way she was grinning/it was something good") or the In Crowd's 'Speed Queen' "revving up to shut you down," or even Charlie Ryan singing about the Side Car Cycle gal "hitting on 90 and really raking," references to hopped up horsepower hussies abound. But when it comes to girls singing about similar subjects, you'll look long and hard through the record racks.It's not like women didn't sing at all about motorized vehicles and/or modes of transportation -- they did. There's even a whole compilation of Women's Railroad Blues on Rosetta Records to prove it. In fact, the dearth of women's automobile songs is a rather interesting omission. It's not like women didn't drive cars, and it sure isn't like the auto industry didn't tailor advertising towards female buyers. In fact, Oldsmobile's 1957 show car -- a Starfire 98 Holiday Coupe finished in pearlescent tangerine with a cream accent stripe and an interior done in tangerine leather and fabric -- was designed by a woman, Peggy Sauer. Ms. Sauer clearly had other women in mind, as her car included a vanity case finished in cream leather to match the interior of the glove box. And Carol Lewis' customized '56 Chevy was the only car rescued from the fire that devastated George Barris' shop in 1957. Then again, let us pause here for a moment to consider the greatness of Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney. While I'd really like to say that maybe women were too busy driving, buying, designing and customizing their cars to sing about them, I just don't think that's it, especially given the ways in which women did sing about automobiles.When gals did sing about cars, it was very often about the one that belonged to The Boy. Take a listen to 'In His Car,' sung by Robin Ward and the Rainbows in 1964. It seems that Robin's beau's car is "the only place that we can call our own." However, rather than sharing bodily fluids in the back seat, in this hymn to teen drippiness Robin and her honey are "sharing dreams forever" -- you guessed it, "in his car." Robin is the kind of girl who took her home economics class seriously, and who had the mysteriously romantic legend "Third Finger Left Hand" printed under her senior picture in the yearbook. Yes, the sort of girl who didn't worry her silly little head about too much because she knew "there'll always be someone there to guide me, sitting there beside me, in his car." And you wondered why a lot of girl groups' lyrics give me a royal pain in the you know where. Another version of 'In His Car' was also released in 1964 by someone named Susan Lynne. Unless she rewrote the lyrics, I can only assume that Susan's take on this number was no great improvement.Evidently, a lot of women felt threatened by their guy's devotion to his car. For example, The Darby Sisters drew an ultimatum when they told their boyfriend[s] to 'Go Back to Your Pontiac.' It seems that the old Poncho, a '33, is "trying to take you away from me," so the sisters dump the guy[s] until he [they] decides that they [the sisters] are better than the car. What I like about this song is the underlying erotic tension as we are left uncertain as to configuration of this relationship. Are there two girls and one guy? Two girls and two guys? One girl with a split personality and an imaginary boyfriend? The possibilities are endless and, oh, so tantalizing. We never do find out if the car or the girls win this tug of war.A more Freudian drama is enacted in 'I Wish A Was A Car' by Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy. Mary believes that if she were a car, Peter would give her all his attention. Disturbingly, however, Peter also wishes Mary were a car. Of course, for the successful heterosexual union that Mary desires to take place, Peter should wish that Mary were a garage. Sadly for her, he ungrammatically croons, "I wish you was a car, then you know I'd love you very much." Soon Peter and Mary are engaged in a dialogue direct from the deepest inner recesses of their psyches:M: Now how about some kisses . . .P: This engine never misses. . .M: When you're near me it's like heaven . . .P: Yes, that tach is really revvin'M: Don't you think that I'm attractive?P: Shock absorbers double active!Mary answers him with a groan that can only be described as orgasmic. This leads me to think that we've just been party to a kinky little S&M game on Peter and Mary's part. "I Wish I Was A Car," indeed!Edd "Kookie" Byrnes and Joanne Summer also struggle with the car versus girlfriend dilemma in 'Hot Rod Rock,' a song which is otherwise an exercise in hot rod lingo of the "overhead floorboards with a 445 Johnson ratchet" variety. The producers of the 77 Sunset Strip TV show tailor-made Edd Byrnes' hot-rod loving character for mass teen merchandising, and knew that an album full of catchy Kookie tunes couldn't miss. In this one, Kookie's gal is bummed because Comb Boy is so obsessed with his car ("That's quicksville!") that she doesn't even get a good night kiss. However, she solves the problem in the classic Dear Abby "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" fashion. "I bought him," she sings, as he chimes in, "she bought me. . ." Then both together, ". . . a supercharger!" This is the same faulty logic Mrs. Martin probably employed when she bought Buzz that 'Used Log Truck.' -- "Hmm, he'll pay more attention to me if I just buy the damn thing for him." For those of you unacquainted with Buzz Martin, he was "the part-time logger with gutsy gusto" who put out a couple LPs on Ripcord Records all about his timbering trials and tribulations. Anyway, Buzz sang mournfully about his repossessed log truck, and how his wife "called the junk man the other day, she's gonna have him haul my pile of truck parts away." After listening to Hot Rod Rock, something tells me that a certain "relationship-saving" supercharger will soon be sitting on top of a similar heap.Motorcycles, too, could play the greasy third in a lover's triangle. While The Darby Sisters never specified just what they were offering their errant boyfriend[s] in exchange for his/their return, feisty Jo Anne Campbell didn't mince words. Her ultimatum to Motorcycle Michael is spelled out in no uncertain terms: "Oh, come on Michael, trade your motorcycle and get us some wheels with a top. You can't make love on a cycle, Michael, and I want you so much I could drop." Obviously Michael's a little slow on the uptake -- I mean, have you ever seen a picture of a petite blonde Ms. Campbell? -- and I'm afraid that trading in his bike for a hardtop won't make a difference to Jo Anne's love life. On the other hand, maybe Michael needs to meet Donna Loren, who sang all about her desire to become a member of Cycle Set on the Beach Blanket Bingo soundtrack LP. That's pronounced "sickle" by the way. Of course, Ms. Loren's voice is mixed down so low it's hard to tell what she really wants, but I'd bet she'd be willing to try just about any sort of two-wheeled balancing act Michael could come up with.Of course, cars and motorcycles were often more than mere rivals for The Boy's affections. Sometimes they were factors in, shall we say, his unanticipated and premature departure from the teen scene -- and I don't mean he was caught with a fake ID. Think about what happened to the Leader of the Pack. While the Shangri-las' hit is an excellent example of the classic teen death song, the Mad Twists Rock and Roll LP offered a parody called 'My Johnny's Hub Cap.' "Please, Johnny, please," sang Jeanne Hayes in an appropriately wistful style, "I don't want you to drag race." But, as they say (probably because there is no other reasonable explanation for some things) a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Of course, he doesn't have to wave while he's doing it, but her Johnny does and ends up all over the pavement. Now all that's left of him is his hubcap, and Jeanne is wearing it, albatross-style, round her neck.A few women even sang car songs that give listeners the impression that they actually enjoyed the fun and freedom of driving. Number one in this category has to be Carol Cummings' 'Burning Rubber.' Carol's on her way to meet up with her boyfriend, but this song is easily as much about the sheer joy of being out on the road as it is about being reunited with The Boy. In fact she's having so much fun, she's doing 94 mph in a zone posted at 65! Carol gets pulled over by the cops ("and that made me a little sore"), but she's soon on her way again, driving and singing happily into the sunset. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this were the beginning of a whole new type of boy-girl-car triangle -- one where it's The Boy who's feeling a little bit jealous.Annette, of all people, sang three songs on the Muscle Beach Party LP that shared some of Carol's joie d'auto. 'Custom City' is a sideways rewrite of 'Surf City,' except this time the ratio is in the girls' favor -- it's the boys who are "two to one." Annette, of course, knows that she's "gonna get the eye" down at 'Custom City,' and that's quite OK with her, thank you very much. 'Draggin' USA' is a bit of a throwback, as Annette merely sits on the sidelines watching her boyfriend (named Johnny, of course) while he races. But it's the song 'Shut Down Again' where Annette herself shows a little muscle. The former Mouseketeer hangs up her rodent ears and gets tough, letting some joker know that she's "going to have to shut you down again," and she's not fooling. When he tries to back out, Annette sees through his lame excuses, telling him "your car's OK, it's just your drivin'." Hoo, boy. As if this wasn't humiliating enough, Annette informs him he's "got more ponies" than he can use. Way to go, grrrl.Then again, Annette didn't write these songs -- Gary Usher did. But Usher wasn't the only songwriter taking advantage of the mid-60s hot rod craze. Carol Connors (that's right, brainiac, a woman) wrote or co-wrote such car-themed classics as "Hey Little Cobra," "My XKE," "Bite Bite Barracuda" and "Go Go GTO." She performed this last one as a duet with her sister, Cheryl, under the clever moniker "Carol and Cheryl." Connors also wrote 'Gonna Fly Now' (Theme from "Rocky") but that's a different story. Another alliterative anthem from Ms. Connors' pen was a one-sided promotional single issued by Yamaha to dealers and DJs to promote their motorcycles. 'Yum Yum Yamaha' features Carol and her sister singing inane lyrics like "a Cobra is fast, a skateboard is slow, on a Yamaha you go, go, go" or "your hair is in a flip, sometimes a ponytail, for picking up the paper, taking home the mail," until the listener begins to wonder just how much the big boys in the boardroom paid for this nonsense. Only later do you realize that the song has been burned deeply into your cerebellum most effectively and you'll be humming "you're going fun, fun, fun riding yum, yum, yum on your Yamaha" for days, maybe weeks, to come.Finally, not all women own cars or even have boyfriends with cars. Ella Mae Morse's 1952 rendition of 'Greyhound' is the perfect anthem for these vixens without vehicles. Ella Mae travels all over the U.S.A. "looking for [her] baby" -- on public transportation! She takes "a trip to Florida on a fast choo choo," and "moves to Kansas City on a long car freight." Then, no doubt exhausted by all that travel, she returns to New York and consults a fortune teller who informs her that her baby's coming back home -- on the bus! "Roll on, Greyhound, roll on," moans the love starved Miss Morse, thankful that her sweetie's not using the San Francisco Muni system, or god only knows when she'd see him.Other women sang other songs about cars, it's true. Lola Dee, for example, sang about 'Hot Rod Henry' in 1956. But even though it's sung by a woman it doesn't really express a female point of view. This might have something to do with Lola's delivery, which is full of forced excitement about "dressed up chicks and stripped down cars." Or it might have something to do with the lyrics, which without so much as a changed word could just as easily be sung by a man. And then there's Tennessee Ernie Ford and Molly Bee singing 'Don't Start Courtin' In a Hot Rod.' Intergenerational strife set to the strains of a steel guitar is the gist of this one as T. Ernie plays surrogate father to teenage Molly. Ernie loves "to hear the clip clop of old Dobbin's feet," while Molly, natch, loves "the sound of twin pipes roaring down the street." Unfortunately this song only has about three other words, so Ernie and Molly repeat this couplet again and again as the listener settles in for a nice little nap.But then again, maybe we shouldn't be surprised at the lack of women's car songs or the wimpiness displayed by many of those that do exist. Consider, instead, how tenaciously and how long that old devil "sex role stereotyping" has had its teeth at our respective throats. Esquire's What Every Young Man Should Know (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1962) reminded its readers that "all men everywhere share a lifelong interest in cars" before delving into a chapter on "How to Drive a Sportscar" ("handle your gearbox and clutch smoothly"). Women, meanwhile, have been barraged with anti-automotive propaganda practically since the first horseless carriage rolled out of the primordial ooze. Girls and young women were constantly warned about the erotic dangers of cars, especially when parked. A 1922 pamphlet entitled Sex Facts for the Adolescent and Matured Woman, warned of "Automobile 'He-Vamps' and Taxi Driver White Slavers," while the author of Clean Love in Courtship implored his readers, "If you are a decent girl, do not drag down a young man into the mire of impurity by consenting to have him park his car, thus giving him a favorable occasion for sin." OK, so it's no big surprise that Clean Love was written by a Catholic priest, but would you have guessed that the booklet was published in 1974? Even after dangerous sexuality was safely contained within the bonds of matrimony, women could expect "some day" to come along "when you back the car out of the driveway and do not roll it along exactly in the tracks intended for it, [and] your husband is going to speak sharply to you." And you, I would suggest, are going to speak sharply to him in return. At any rate, none of these cultural influences were of the sort to inspire little Betty Ann to grab a pen and write about how much she loved her pink '66 Barracuda. Which, of course, makes these songs all the more special.Finally, the numbers I've written about here are just the ones that I have access to, whether in their original format or reissued on compilations. There may be, for all I know, a whole treasure trove of women's songs about cars floating around out there. And, oh, yeah, happy motoring.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.