Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Now for the music industry bail-out?

For decades now Detroit and Nashville have been symbiotic. Each excess of the former has been lauded by the latter.

Now the US car industry is under notice to change its ways, to go -- well, not quite green, more of a dirty yellow colour (© the Goon Show, 1959).

Which raises a problem: how to celebrate the new age of US motoring?

There is a distinct dearth of paeons to Camrys or Civics (though those are the US best-selling cars in recent years). Nobody is hymning Altimas or Infinitis (which UK types would recognise as Nissans).


Well, consider this slogan for a clue:
Altima drivers reject conformity, but fasten their seat-belts.
That's a long way distant from:
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected
and steppin' out over the line.
Baby this town rips the bones from your back:
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap --
We gotta get out while we're young...
Malcolm reckons we can take it as read that Mr Springsteen will not be spear-heading the new, smaller, more economical US car culture.

For decades the onward-and-upward theme has emphasised power, speed and sex. Or, as an alternative, gross displays of bling (as represented by the whole toke of Cadillac songs).

Some (including Sam Phillips, who produced the original) claimed the first rock'n'roll record was Rocket 88, attributed to Jackie Brenston, but written and sung by Ike Turner. Ike was celebrating the first "muscle car", achieved by dropping a 5-litre, 135hp V8 engine into a comparatively-light chassis. The name was so potent it persisted in the Oldsmobile range down to 1999.

By the end of the Eisenhower era, prosperity was reaching the young, who celebrated it with jeans, cars and jollifications. The auto-music this spawned went in different directions.

First off the starting line were the Rockabillies, carrying on from where Ike Turner and Billy Haley had started. They became fossilised in an adoration of muscle cars and trucks. The icon was the mid-50s Cadillac, the likes of which Johnny Cash's One Piece at a Time celebrated:

On the West Coast, boiling up from Orange County, things had to be somewhat more complicated. On one hand , the car craze had to have a frisson of danger. Jimmy Dean underwrote that when he wrote off himself (and his Porsche 550 Spyder) at the junction of Highways 41 and 46. Since Malcolm passed that way, some years ago, this has been designated the "James Dean Memorial Junction", complete with road sign.

This had to be incorporated into teenage angst, and therefore Jan & Dean designated a stretch of Sunset Boulevard as Dead Man's Curve (where Jan Berry subsequently piled himself up).

However, to be commercial, the sub-genre also had to be parent-friendly. Hence the ambiguities of Little Old Lady from Pasadena and the like: these kids, after all, were getting their wheels on the back of Daddy's bonuses:
Well, she got her daddy's car
And she cruised through the hamburger stand now:
Seems she forgot all about the library
Like she told her old man now;
And with the radio blasting,
Goes cruising just as fast as she can now
And she'll have fun, fun, fun,
'Til her daddy takes the T-bird away.
The Thunderbird was Ford's answer to the Chevy Corvette, but was sold as a "personal luxury car", not as a sports car: in other words, it would definitely be Daddy's car. Its status as a lust-object is established by the "Blonde in the T-bird" (right) who gives Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) the come-on in American Graffiti.

For the jeunesse dorée of mid-60s SoCal, the vehicles of choice (and therefore repeatedly in the lyrics) were Harvey Earl's Corvette and the Pontiac GTO.

So, where now?

It is unlikely that the love of the SUV will quickly dissipate (though they are a drug on the market). The ideal for many is still the truck. As long as there's plenty of metal out there, and a grease-monkey like Danny Zako to cherish it, the Great American love affair will continue.

Now, how to make sexy and so sell those "compacts"?

Detroit and the US car industry desperately need someone and something, other than a girl, my Lord!, in a flat-bed Ford, to go past a corner in Wilmslow, Arizona.

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