Thursday, 4 April 2013

Article for Dupe magazine: "The Pop Physics of The Road"

My friends, there is driving; and there is The Road. Any fool can drive a few miles, or tool their honey wagon around the block on a summer’s afternoon; but only a beatnik fuckstar from the edge of cool takes to The Road. They walk the walk of the troubadours, then sing the song of what happened so we might wring wisdom from the tale.

Driving represents sex, freedom or both. The Beatles “Drive My Car” doesn’t leave much doubt about what stick they are looking to get shifted. Rihanna wants her fella to “Shut Up And Drive”  - all those raunchy revving noises! R Kelly’s “Ignition” illustrates where he wants the key inserted. Grace Jones suggest we pull up to her bumper and slide it in between! Prince sings about a “Little Red Corvette”, but Squarepusher makes things a bit more explicit – “I want to fuck you with my red hot car”.  And of course there’s the slasher semiotics of the Dead Man’s Curve songs’ mixture of teen sex and death.

If you want to feel the freedom in your hair, just crank your shaft along to Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” and gun your hog down the freeway, “looking for adventure/And whatever comes your way”.  “Route 66”  plots economic migration westward and leaving old prejudices back East, even while it talks about “kicks”. Tracy Chapman wants to escape her life altogether in a “Fast Car”, also reflecting a musical tendency for women (and Iggy Pop) to sit in the passenger seat. Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” brings the freedom of the freeway and the lure of the booty call into one joyful splash of hi-hats and brass.

But which musical genre best describes the getting from A to Z?

Pop isn’t well equipped to deal with travel. Gruff Rhys started driving late, so tingles with the simple joy of “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru (Driving Driving Driving)” – but this is not The Road. Madness were the same, just enjoying driving about in a car bought in Muswell Hill.  New England punk-ish popster Jonathan Richman feels “in love with the radio on” driving around Massachusetts at night on “Roadrunner”. This is not the physics of distance and destination; pop cannot defer that gratification. It needs to burst; it goes in circles.

Old school hip hop was most bothered with the parish boundaries. Even the most escapist journey (Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” or Jazzy Jeff’s “Summertime”) only aspires to circle the neighbourhood at a slow pootle.  The new boys jet from ritzy location to cocaine-streaked fortress (“N***as in Paris”) and even uber-conscious  Public Enemy  only set out to Arizona to right political wrongs, not for fun. Only A Tribe Called Quest really got the idea of the exploratory road trip on “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” – forgetting stuff, bad food and the zen of long distance travel. But then they were pretty beatnik types, eh? “Peoples, Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm”, you say?

You can’t think about musical journeys without tipping the brim of your dusty pith helmet to Kraftwerk. They have most means of transport covered: bike (“Tour de France”), train (“Trans Europe Express”), even submarine (“Das Boot”). “Autobahn” though, a mumbling Teutonic resurfacing of the Beach Boys’ surf pop, is a byword for highways.  (Or a highword for byways.) But all Florian and the boys want is the metronomic thrill of movement: there’s no drama. The Road is too flat.

Blues waits by the road for the Devil to pass through and meet up at the crossroads. The wanderers in Blues stride out of folk tales like  “Stagger Lee” or Biblical passages like rolling stones gathering no moss. It’s too ancient; just fighting and fucking – no poetry.

Speaking of poets, Jack Kerouac casts a long shadow over a certain kind of thoughtful rock and roll. Many have had a punt, but Bruce Springsteen is the bard of the highway, mainlining the romance of the road on “Born To Run” (“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”) and also the less-documented desperation of the dead Tom Joad or “State Trooper” from his famously introspective meditation on the empty road and big skies, “Nebraska”. Begging “Mr State Trooper/Please don’t stop me” over and again is not Steppenwolf.

Rock is about the dynamics of tension and release and freedom is a lyrical obsession; but things break down and subvert expectations at times. Tom Petty’s “Night Driver” sounds dangerously sleepy, “drifting home again”. Bob Dylan’s “On The Road Again” seems more about pacing the floor in rooms and being bored than travelling itself, “till everything becomes the same”; perhaps his motorcycle accident curtailed any boyish enthusiasm for tarmacadam.  Buzzcocks’ “Fast Cars” has the adrenal rush of driving, but the chorus is “I hate fast cars”. The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” draws out the Ballardian scene after a car crash with “broken glass/In the underpass”.

The UK has its motorway mythology too. Chris Rea is very much the Springsteen of the service station. Not only has he captured the weary excitement of “Driving Home for Christmas”, but he has also given us a “Road to Hell” – transposing the bluesy meeting with the Devil from dusty Mississippi into a traffic jam hallucination. And there’s The Proclaimers who send “Letters From America”, walk “500 Miles” and even cover Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”. Which brings us to Country & Western.

Truckers and country: no faster bond exists between a genre and its audience. While rock bands tour and express their freedom, truckers and country musicians feel the pain of separation and distance. It’s hard-wired into the genes, imagery and traditions of country, inherited from homesick Celts plucking banjos in the Appalachians. Aside from cheating men and women, reflecting on the home left far behind is a country staple.

Hank Williams set the template in the Forties with “Lost Highway” – loneliness, sin and bad choices. The lyrical themes are still close to the Blues, but the distances are already greater. By the time the Seventies had come along, country was burning  ascendant and sweating self-confidence. Box Car Willie’s “Convoy” is so pumped with self-belief that the police and the National Guard are nothing – “Ain’t nothing going to get in our way/We gonna roll this convoy across the USA”. By the power of Burt Reynolds’ luxuriant moustache, it has the whiff of reactionary politics! Jeremy Clarkson must roar it out on long journeys.

The Road is a defining part of many musicians’ daily lives. Willy Nelson can’t wait to get back out “On The Road Again” and “make music with my friends.. seeing things I may never see again”. Canned Heat sing the same title in a brittle falsetto voice underpinned by a bluesy raga-like drone that supports the idea this “lonesome road” is the path of life. Motorhead’s “(We Are) The Road Crew” pays tribute to the repetitive life of the roadie – another this, another that; bad food and bleeding ears. Typically earthy and literal. The Stone Roses’ “Driving South” is another update of the Devil at the Crossroads, this time hinting of dealings with the London-based music business types. The drudge of doing what you love for a living, eh?

Back in the days before our experiences were compartmentalised into boxes of scientific this and human experience that, the ancients took Natural Philsophy as one cosmological whole – the stars, medicine, personality disorders, politics, navigation. Music was the expression of the movement of those spheres; art and science meshed together in pursuit of the same explanations.

Each experience finds its expression in a different genre of pop, a circulatory system mapping out the different fault lines and pressure points of human emotion. Each genre sees The Road differently. For pop, there is the simple joy of being on the move. Techno is similarly mindless – but with a mechanical fetish (understandably). Rock senses freedom – and the exhilarations and fears that freedom brings. But perhaps Country is the perfect genre for illustrating our feelings about being on The Road, far from home and reliant on our own instincts and character.

And who says travelling has to be by motor? Lee Marvin sums up the itinerant itch of The Road on “Wandrin’ Star”: “Home is made for coming from/For dreams of coming to/Which with any luck will never come true.”

Steppenwolf, “Born to be Wild”
Kraftwerk, “Autobahn”
The Normal, “Warm Leatherette"
Gruff Rhys, “Gyrru, Gyrru, Gyrru”
Canned Heat, “On the Road Again”
Box Car Willie, “Convoy”
A Tribe Called Quest, “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”
Hank Williams, “Lost Highway”
Motorhead, “(We Are) The Road Crew"
Lee Marvin, “Wandrin’ Star”

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