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Monday, August 8, 2011

Hot Rod Music and American Dreams



What happened to the car songs? You know, the hot rod songs, our constant companions for cruising the roads and streets of America? Everybody in the '60s had 8-tracks featuring these songs, the simple odes to roaring engines and muscle cars.

Back in those days, many cars had hot, exotic names like Mustang, Corvette, Cobra, Thunderbird, and Road Runner. The name helped create the charisma associated with each beautiful machine. They prowled the imaginations of youth, especially the thoughts of young men. Then, originality and style meant so much to both the manufacturers and to the consumers. With cheap gas, muscle was in, way in.

Good times, cars, summer, and pretty girls -- hot rod songs evoke crystal images of all of these things. I love to let this music pull me back into my teen years, times of little worry and an uncluttered life. It's funny how these elementary tunes can rekindle scenes close to my heart. Maybe the fact that the songs glorify the car culture contributes to their strong pull. After all, what is more important to an American teen than driving an automobile? The car is the key to mobility and the means of pursuing adventure.    

Hot rod songs, like surf music, largely originated in Southern California, where an active hot rod scene had evolved from the illegal street races of the 1940s to the Bonneville Salt Flats speed weeks and drag strips of the 1960s.

Cult heroes like auto customizer George Barris and driver "Big Daddy" Garlits  helped fuel passion for the music. And, the hot rod scene was lionized by Hollywood films, plastic car models available in hobby shops, and Bob Peterson's mass circulation periodical, Hot Rod. (Frank Hoffman, "Survey of American Popular Music, www.shsu.edu)

Talented Los Angeles-based songwriters and arrangers/producers began fueling the craze in the early 1960s, most notably Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Jan Berry of Jan and Dean, Roger Christian (a deejay at KFWB), Gary Usher, Terry Melcher, and Bruce Johnston.

Many critics view hot rod rock as a form of surf music that incorporates instrumental surf rock with car noises (revving engines and screeching tires). Like surf music, most hot rod songs are dominated by electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. Hot rod songs tend to be a little manic, and - surprise - their subject matter is often about tearing up the pavement (although "wreck" songs are also popular).

This blog entry includes my list of favorite hot rod songs. I am not including great car songs like "Maybelline" by Chuck Berry, "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston, or "Thunder Road" by Robert Mitchum. And, I didn't put "Mustang Sally" here because it has R&B roots. This list attempts to remain pretty true to the '60s California tradition. It does include one motorcycle song. Here are the oldies in no particular order. Rev 'em up!

"Little GTO" Ronnie and the Daytonas



"Hey Little Cobra" Rip Chords



"Dead Man's Curve" Jan & Dean



"Road Runner" Gants



"Shut Down" Beach Boys



"Mr. Eliminator" Dick Dale



"Stick Shift" Duals



"SS 396" Paul Revere and the Raiders



"409" Beach Boys



"Little Honda" Hondells


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