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”We’re gonna ride it ’til we just can’t ride it no more”
By Roy Nakano
Conspiracy theorists say it was all due to the car and tire companies—i.e., when “they” bought up all the Red Cars, thereby delaying the advent of light rails in Los Angeles for decades to come. The confirmed fact: The overwhelming number of people in Los Angeles commute by way of car. Los Angelinos love their cars. And while there are endless songs about driving, the number of songs about driving in Los Angeles factor in prominently. Whether it’s cruising in a low rider or street racing on Dead Man’s Curve, there’s a song for every occasion. We’ve assembled our favorites here, in alphabetical order.
CALIFORNIA by Phantom Planet
This is the catchy theme song to the television show “The OC” by the American alternative rock band, Phantom Planet. Says LA Car Managing Editor Bill Wright, “I’ve always thought that it was amusing that the theme song for The OC would talk so much about Highway 101, which doesn’t even go through Orange County.” 101 does go through Hollywood, California, however, and the car in the song is certainly heading in the right direction. Phantom Planet co-credit Al Jolson for the tune, as it has the familiar “California, here I come” from Jolson’s classic. Some say it bears a resemblance to another great song, “California” by Joni Mitchell.
DEAD MAN’S CURVE by Jan & Dean
This art-imitating-life song by Jan and Dean is best known for the near-fatal accident that one of the duo’s suffered in the location described in the song. “Dead Man’s Curve,” written by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Artie Kornfeld of Woodstock fame, with help from Jan Berry of Jan and Dean, describes a race that starts at Hollywood’s Sunset and Vine, goes through West Sunset Boulevard, passing North La Brea Avenue, North Crecent Heights Boulevard, and onto North Doheny Drive. Dead Man’s Curve is located on Sunset near North Doheny Drive. Two years later, Jan Berry crashed his Corvette Sting Ray right next to the infamous curve.
FREE FALLIN’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty knows the San Fernando Valley well—and it’s vividly evident in one of his best songs, Free Fallin’. 12-string guitars start the song off. Words follow, with plenty of image of Los Angeles in general and The Valley in particular, including references to Ventura Boulevard, living in Reseda, a freeway running through the yard, and Mulholland Drive—one of the Southland’s greatest drives.
Richard Cummins/Corbis (Smithsonian)
“Would you get hip to this kindly tip, and go take that California trip. Get your kicks on Route 66.”
– Bobby Troup
(GET YOUR KICKS ON) ROUTE 66 by Nat King Cole, Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, et al.
The song was composed in 1946 by American songwriter Bobby Troup, but there have been numerous versions of it, starting with Nat King Cole during the same year, Chuck Berry in 1961, The Rolling Stones in 1964, and Depeche Mode in 1987—each version a classic. It’s all about traveling down U.S. Route 66, which goes through Chicago, Illinois, and ends up in Santa Monica, California. And as the song says, along the way you’ll be going from St. Louie down to Missouri, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino, and of course, LA Car’s headquarters in Monrovia.
I LOVE LA by Randy Newman
“I really do love L.A.,” confessed Randy Newman after his song went viral on the charts. “I Love LA” is full of humor, and it’s easy to conclude that Newman wanted to poke some fun on the city’s behalf. But that didn’t stop some city officials who wanted it proclaimed as the official song of Los Angeles. Angelinos love the song, and they mind that some of humor comes at their expense. “Hate New York City. It’s cold and it’s damp,” the song starts off. “And all the people dressed like monkeys. Let’s leave Chicago to the Eskimos. That town’s a little bit too rugged for you and me, babe.” The song then proceeds to romp through all parts of Los Angeles, “from the South Bay to the Valley, from the West Side to the East Side.” It’s just another perfect day. We love it.
Courtesy Midnight Los Angeles
“Drivin’ down your freeways. Midnight alleys roam. Cops in cars, the topless bars, never saw a woman so alone.” – Jim Morrison
LA WOMAN by the Doors
And then there’s the dark side of the city, as personified by title song of the Doors’ last album before the death of front man Jim Morrison. “L.A. Woman” was recorded in the Doors Workshop in West Hollywood, California. The song is filled with metaphors about living and driving in Los Angeles: “Drivin’ down your freeways. Midnight alleys roam. Cops in cars, the topless bars, never saw a woman so alone.” It’s not the sunny surf community that the Beach Boys sing about. On the contrary, the Doors zero in the seedier side of life in So Cal: “Motel, money, murder, madness. Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness… Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light? Or just another lost angel?
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE by the Eagles
“Life in the Fast Lane” was the third single released by the Eagles’ blockbuster album, Hotel California. It was the first album featuring their newest guitarist, Joe Walsh of James Gang fame—and Walsh’s guitar pyrotechnics are well-featured in the song. The song notes credit Walsh and fellow members Grenn Frey and Don Henley as the authors. In an interview with In the Studio, Glenn Frey told Redbeard that the title came to him when he was riding on one of the freeway in California with a drug dealer known as “The Count”. As the story goes, Frey asked The Count to slow down, wherein The Count responded, “What do you mean? It’s life in the fast lane!” In that same interview, Frey told Redbeard that the song’s central riff was born when Walsh was playing around during rehearsals. Walsh was told, “keep that, it’s a song!” It eventually grew to become the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.”
LITTLE OLD LADY FROM PASADENA by Jan & Dean
This is a case where a song sprung from a car commercial, which itself sprung from a catch phrase used by Johnny Carson, which was steeped in a stereotypic image of Pasadena, California. Pasadena had (and still has) an image as a community with a high concentration of affluent, elderly widows. Comedian and late night talk show host Johnny Carson made frequent note of it in his sketches referencing a “little old lady from Pasadena.” Carmaker Dodge picked up on it, and featured a commercial with an elderly woman driving a hot rodded Dodge through the streets of Pasadena, and proclaiming, “Put a Dodge in your garage, honey!” From there, Don Altfeld, Jan Berry and Roger Christian penned the song, which was performed by the pop singing duo Jan and Dean. The tune reached number three on the Billboard Hit Parade.
“How I love the highway. Picks me up and takes me whereever I please. I race through the trees bring space to her knees. I am master of all that’s flying past me.” – Phil Ochs
MY KINGDOM FOR A CAR by Phil Ochs
This recommendation comes courtesy of LA Car’s resident member of the Beat generation, Doug Stokes. Whether this song from folk icon Phil Ochs is about driving in Los Angeles comes under some debate. However, Doug makes the case that Ochs moved to California in 1967, right about the time he left Electra for A&M Records. “My Kingdom for a Car” was written during the songwriters’ Los Angeles years. And when Ochs sings “her and I been flying down that highway of gold,” there’s a case to be made that he’s referring to the drive down Highway 1 along the coast of The Golden State. And when he sings, “there’s smoke in the air but I do not care,” where else could it be but L.A. during a smog alert?
PICO AND SEPULVEDA by Felix Figueroa (Freddy Martin) and his Orchestra
This 1947 song about driving the streets of Los Angeles went viral when rock radio station KMET’s Dr. Dimento used it as his show’s theme song back in the 1970s. Doheny, Cahuenga, La Brea, La Jolla…the song covers a broad patch of Southern California, but ultimately focuses on the corner of Pico and Sepulveda. There’s not much to see on that corner today, but Felix (Freddy Martin) Figueroa forever memorialized it in his song. “You can keep Alvarado, Santa Monica, even Beverly Drive, proclaims the song. “Vine may be fine, but for mine I want to feel alive and settle down in my La Brea Tar Pits, where nobody’s dreams come true.”
“Running on Empty” album cover (Elektra)
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels. Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields. In ’65 I was seventeen and running up 101 I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on.” – Jackson Browne
RUNNING ON EMPTY by Jackson Browne
Germany-born Clyde Jackson Browne moved to the Highland Park district of Los Angeles at the age of three. As a teen, he sang folks songs at local clubs like the Ash Grove and ultimately graduated from Sunny Hills High School in The OC. “Running on Empty” relies heavily on automotive driving metaphors. In reality, it’s probably more about life on the road and less about actually driving, but the imagery is hard to escape. “In ’69 I was twenty-one (Editor’s note: Jackson Browne really was 21 in 1969) and I called the road my own”.
VENTURA HIGHWAY by America
Some of the songs sung by the rock group America seem to make no sense at all (e.g., “I’ve been to the desert on a horse with no name…”). And it’s easy to conclude the same with one of their biggest hits, “Ventura Highway”, which happens to be the name of one of the more well-known highways in the San Fernando Valley (the same “valley” as in Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girls”). The band’s vocalist Dewey Bunnel says “Ventura Highway” is all about his family’s trek from Omaha to California. Evidently, the words “Ventura Highway” stuck in his mind after the family had a flat tire while driving down the highway from Vandenberg Air Force Base. As the story goes, Bunnell and his brother stood by a Ventura road sign, watching clouds that looked like “alligator lizards in the air” (another odd but well-known phrase from the song).
WHITTIER BOULEVARD by Thee Midnighters
“Whittier Boulevard” was the ultimate cruising song of the mid-1960s. Today, people still cruise the street in their lowriders. Thee Midnighters, a group out of East Los Angeles, was one of the first Chicano rock bands to have a major hit on the national charts. “Whittier Boulevard” was the hit, and many a garage band out of East L.A. included the song among its repertoire. The influence that the song had is undeniable. Listen to Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”, and you can hear traces of Thee Midnighters familiar romp.
Since we’ve already exceeded the usual ceiling of 10 by a margin of three, we’ll stop here. We do, however, have to give honorable mention to Mark Guerrero’s “On the Boulevard” (“but if you party hard, you’d better stay on guard on the boulevard”), Markus Kienzl’s “Dundy Lion” (the Midnight Club Los Angeles theme song), R.E.M.’s “Electrolite” (“if I ever want to fly Mulholland Drive”), Tupac Shakur’s “California Love” (“dressed in locs and khaki suits and ride is what we do…bumpin’ and grindin’ like a slow jam, it’s west side”), William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” (“Diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”).
“Pico and Sepulveda” by Felix Figueroa and his Orchestra