Driving Away From Home

The romance of air travel implicit in The Airport Song – the planes taking off into the blue, the departure boards - is perhaps matched by the romance of the open road: the allure of open spaces, distant horizons, freedom, rebellion. In songs, it used to be the train that provided the muse, hearing the lonesome whistle blow. Later the car took over, with rock and roll and growth in car ownership coinciding in time and songs celebrating driving for the sheer fun of it, with No Particular Place To Go.

As mentioned in the column on Watford Gap, songs about the road are largely an American genre from Route 66 onwards. It is, of course, largely a matter of space and distance and the whole mythology of heading west to conquer untamed lands. Whereas it is 3000 miles or so across the USA, coast to coast in England is about 190 miles. It is also, perhaps, a matter of place names, with the roll call of towns with Spanish, Native American, French, or Dutch origins sounding more romantic than the largely Anglo-Saxon names of England. Take By The Time I Get to Phoenix, with its names of Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma and a journey of 1000 miles or so and try moving it to an English context.

Yet the lure of the open road has always existed in England,. First it was by foot. Novels like The Broad Highway or Brother Dusty-Feet and a score of folk songs conjured up the traveller on the lonely road – ‘The winding road does call’,( as in Fairport Convention’s Farewell, Farewell.), bringing folk memories of the tinkers, peddlers and sheep droves of earlier centuries. With the invention of the bicycle, exploring the English countryside became more accessible and Edwardian-set novels like History of Mr Polly showed suburban clerks and shop assistants exploring the world and finding adventure by bike. There are even a few songs celebrating that freedom, as in John Shuttleworth’s Dandelion and Burdock; ‘Riding with my peers, the wind whistling past my ears. As we reached Mam Tor I was grateful for my Sturmey-Archer gears”

Unlike the USA, however, the advent of popular car travel did not lead to a rash of road songs, Watford Gap et al notwithstanding. One of the few is the one here, the 1986 Driving Away from Home (Jim’s Tune) by It’s Immaterial . It is a rare British example of this genre that works on two levels. At one level it is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the American ‘head on down the highway’ song moved to English dimensions. ‘Driving away from home 30 miles or more’. 39 miles and 45 minutes gets you from Liverpool to Manchester but probably wouldn’t get you out of Los Angeles. The lyrics sneak in little references back to American songs: King of the Road and the ‘move em on, move em out’ line from Rawhide, recalling the vast plains of the Western. This imagery is the more incongruous against the geographical landscape here-the M62 motorway stretching from Liverpool past Manchester and Leeds to Hull and notorious in places for thick fog. On a section there once, I had to get someone in the car to jump out when an exit sign suddenly loomed up to go and peer if it was the right one to come off at.

However, it also works as a road song. The song itself, particularly on the longer 12” version, is a perfect accompaniment to driving, with the syncopated rhythm moving the listener forwards against the relaxation of the gentle background harmonies and minor key. Then there is the evocative sound of the harmonica throughout, redolent of the lonesome prairie and the travelling man. (The place of the harmonica in pop songs is an interesting one. Though it was commonly part of folk and blues, the harmonica was once seen as a bit of a novelty instrument in pop music and rarely heard. I think the turning point was Bruce Channel’s big 1962 hit, Hey Baby, with a prominent harmonica part by Delbert McClinton. This influenced John Lennon enough to replicate the sound on Love Me do, Please, Please Me and From Me to You and, in turn, motivated Brian Jones to incorporate the now cool ‘harp’ into early Stones’ records.)

Yet it also works as a genuine celebration of driving in the landscapes of northern England. To an outside observer, the ambition of maybe making it to Newcastle or even Glasgow might seem limited. However, it is also a rather wistful, heartfelt sense of place, as is the lyric “When I was young we were gonna move out this way for the clean air, healthy you know”. To the industrial city dweller, the countryside , or even the suburbs, have always seemed a healthy escape.

Miranda Sawyer has described in her book about the suburbs of the North West, Park and Ride, the love of families there of just driving- “in the suburbs a car isn’t only a necessity, it’s the ticket to all your dreams”. And driving over the Pennines on the M62, 1200 ‘ above sea level, can be an exhilarating experience. There are a lot of nice places to see out there.

Link to song


  1. Great column, Geoff! In case anyone wants them, here are the best lyrics I was able to track down online:

    now just get in
    And close the door
    And put your foot down

    You know, I like this suburb we're going through
    And I've been around here many times before
    When I was young we were gonna move out this way
    For the clean air, healthy, you know
    Away from the factories and the smoke
    I like that shop, too
    You can get anything there

    So just get in
    And we'll go for a ride

    'Cos we'll go driving away from home
    Thirty miles or more
    And we'll go moving away from home
    Without a care

    I'll tell you what
    Why don't we cross the city limit
    And head on down the M62
    It's only thirty nine miles
    And forty five minutes to Manchester
    And that's my birth-place, you know


    Some of my friends live up North, too
    If you like a longer trip
    All you've got to do is put your foot hard down to the floor
    And we can call on people I know in Newcastle
    Or maybe even Glasgow

    There's a lot of nice places to see out there
    So just don't worry

    Moving away from home
    Without a care in the world


    Move-em on, move-em out, move-em up
    King of the road, knight of the road
    It's all the same to me
    I mean, after all
    It's just a road

    Driving away from home
    Driving away from home.

  2. I was at Art School in Liverpool in the late 70's/early 80's.....I think these guys were in the year above me....the red haired fellow was in The Yachts I think.

  3. Best song to come out of the '80's.

  4. One of my all time fave tracks. I loved them at the time but didnt know of anyone else that had even heard of them. Great single from a great album.

  5. This has an interesting haunting sort of echo in the vocals which is very appealing - and very road-trippy!

  6. I've never met anyone who has heard of it, but I love their second album "Song". It's ambient pop, some half-spoken/half-sung tracks, a flamenco-style song, lots of subtle melancholia, very rambling but understated and perfect for car or train journeys too!

  7. The album cover is pretty spooky and brilliant: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_4kbBtb1KHKQ/S04GF0XRjEI/AAAAAAAAAsU/hyJYzBSaiww/s320/it%27s+immaterial+driving+away+from+home.jpg

  8. This song is so subtle and understated it's hard to believe it was a Top 20 hit, pretty impressive!

  9. No exaggeration but i've always maintained to anyone who will listen that the It's Immaterial album ' Life's Hard...' is one of the greatest records ever made.

  10. This is one of the songs I actually own that you've written about, Geoff! I have it on the B side of "Ed's Funky Diner"!

  11. Oh good - I have been waiting for the 'road trip' week for a while now!:) And especially challenging to talk about British roadtrips/motorways, too! Hmmmm, maybe does 'The Long and Winding Road' count as a motorway themed song??:)

  12. It's a damn shame they've only released two albums!

  13. There's also the Beatles' Drive My Car.

  14. The 12" version has an additional set of lyrics

    The Long and Winding Road has always reminded me of the poem, 'Does the road wind uphill all the way, yes to the very end'. I think its more about an unknown journey than driving

  15. I sort of agree with you Geoff about The Long and Winding Road, but I also think it's about the flip side of travel—not the being gone, but the coming home. Because very time I hear it, I’m stabbed with nostalgia. It gives me the same sense of bittersweet relief that I feel when my flight back to London comes in at night and I can see the first lights of home sparkling beneath the wings. But it makes me picture a home I never had—a white cottage in a green pasture somewhere, an image as sweet as a Mother’s Day card. I always imagined it in Ireland, somehow. Turns out, McCartney had Scotland in mind.

  16. Yay! I've been waiting for the roadtrip week too and keeping a little list! Here are the ones I thought of!

    "Every Day is a Winding Road" - Sheryl Crow
    "Ramble On" - Led Zeppelin
    "On the Road Again" - Willie Nelson
    "Ventura Highway" - America
    "Holiday Road" - Lindsey Buckingham

  17. And there is The Modern Lovers, Roadrunner from 1972, which pays homage to driving Route 128, just outside Boston.

  18. These are three songs that I always take on roadtrips!:

    Roadhouse Blues-Doors
    Going Mobile-The Who
    Truckin-Grateful Dead

  19. Geoff, I love that you followed the column about air travel with one about road travel. It made me wonder if a train travel one might be next! I hope so, and here is a list for you, in case there is anything on there that inspires!

    Freedom Train, by James Carr

    Fast Train, by Solomon Burke

    Train Leaves Here this Morning, by the Eagles

    City of New Orleans, by Arlo Guthrie

    Midnight Train to Georgia , by Gladys Knight & the Pips

    Blue Train, by John Coltrane

    Mystery Train, by Elvis Presley

    Marrakesh Express , by Crosby, Stills & Nash

    It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, by Bob Dylan

    I Often Dream of Trains, by Robyn Hitchcock

    Dixie Flyer (& Mark Knopfler) , by Randy Newman

    Stop That Train, by Bob Marley

    Downbound Train, by Bruce Springsteen

    New Delhi Freight Train, by Little Feat

    Nighttime in the Switching Yard, by Warren Zevon

    Southern Pacific, by Neil Young

    5 15, by Chris Isaak

    Steel Rails, by Alison Krauss

    Back Up Train , by Al Green

    Silver Train, by The Rolling Stones

    Night Train, by James Brown

    Destination Anywhere, by the Commitments

    Long Train Running, by the Doobie Brothers

    Going Underground, by The Jam

    Tuesday’s Gone, by Lynyrd Skynyrd

    Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking, by Rickie Lee Jones

    Ridin’ on the L & N, by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers

    The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, by Johnny Cash

    Train Round the Bend, by the Velvet Underground

    Train to Nowhere, by Charlie Musselwhite

    Texas Eagle, by Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band

    Ghost Train, by Gorillaz

    Train Robbery , by Levon Helm w Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Charlie Daniels

    Train in the Distance, by Paul Simon

  20. Oooh, I love this column, and also the idea of a list of train journey songs! Here's my contribution!

    *Steel Rail Blues (Gordon Lightfoot)

    *Canadian Railroad Trilogy (Gordon Lightfoot)

    *Ballad of John Henry (Jimmy Dean)

    *Wreck of Number Nine (Hank Snow)

    *Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees)

  21. Poor Geoff! Just as you finish one column, people start on about the next one! Oh well, here you go - some more train ones!

    Gladys Knight & The Pips "Friendship Train"

    Laura Nyro "Poverty Train"

    "The Train & The River," a jazz classic by Jimmy Guiffre.

  22. And there's "Railroading On The Great Divide" by Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen, from the album Never Grow Old.

  23. Back to the roadtrip list, there is The AllMan Brothers, Ramblin’ Man (1973), which is brilliant and is about driving into and out of New Orleans.

  24. What a fantastic collection of road and train songs-I'll have to think if I've been on any of them!
    Thats a very evocative image of Long and Winding Road-I suppose Scotland (Mull of Kintyre?) makes sense

  25. There's also Bread, "Been Too Long on the Road".

  26. And Canned Heat - on the road again
    Also Allman Brothers - Midnight Rider

    Great column Geoff!!

  27. I do think the idea of "driving for the sheer fun of it" is a VERY American thing. The obsession with automobiles, California highways, the road, the Beachboys, Rambling Man, On the Road Again, it seeps out of American mythology. It's not even about the destination, it's just about going somewhere, anywhere, nowhere. I think it dates back to Manifest Destiny, the idea that a whole national identity depends on open space and conquering it. The railroad is the 19th century, the car is the 20th century - but either way it's the drive to expand and head West, the ever-expanding frontier, ever the new, ever the next, ever moving onward - there's something in there about the self-made man in the ever-expanding frontier idea too.

    Fascinating to read about an English version of this too, though, I had absolutely NO idea that the foot travel narrative existed (the Fairport Convention’s Farewell, Farewell that you mention) or the bicycle one. Or the road song even (although it's fascinating that it's s bit tongue-in-cheek and highly self-conscious about the American version of the roadtrip song). Fascinating!

  28. Geoff, I love the image of you having to get your passenger to climb out of the car and peer at the exit sign. I loved it so much that I went in search of a visual illustration. Here it is! - http://www.thelancasterandmorecambecitizen.co.uk/resources/images/744678/?type=display

    Grim, grim, grim!!

  29. You're very right Geoff about the "wistful, heartfelt sense of place" in the song - I personally find it a very tragic song in that sense (the part you mention about “When I was young we were gonna move out this way for the clean air, healthy you know”). I ended up in Birmingham for work, right after university, but always wanted to live in the countryside, somewhere further North, the Lake District, rural Lancashire. I hate the skyscrapers and blocks of flats especially. But living in a two-bedroom flat in the suburbs was the cheapest option – and the only thing we could afford. Every time when I was stuck in a traffic jam, or sitting in my office trying to decide what was worse, the noise of busy streets or the stuffy air in my office when the windows were closed, I dreamt about a cottage in the middle of nowhere, on a river; about lying on the lawn and looking at my vegetable garden or roses, with birds singing in the clean air and little butterflies joyfully dancing… When the children moved out, I decided to speak to my husband, but he still didn’t want to change anything in his life. Life in the country? Boring, he used to say. When he died, I finally decided to fulfil my dream. I sold the flat and am now looking for a small house in the country. And the day I'm finally heading there, some time soon I hope, I will play this song - Driving Away from Home - as I reach the city's outskirts and start driving North. Thank you for giving me such an appropriate anthem for the journey, Geoff.

  30. Thank you for the bonus history of the Harmonica! I've always wondered about this - I remember when Little Walter & His Jukes jumped on the R&B hit list with “Juke,” reaching #1 for a solid eight weeks in 1952 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiGpv-UeiDI&), with a lot of harmonica. But I was never sure when it entered pop music.

  31. Hey,thats a poignant story, Tiffanye. I hope you find somewhere in rural Lancashire-like the Bowland Forest area-or Cumbria, like the Eden Valley.

    Thanks for the grim photo from the Lancaster and Morecambe Citizen- very evocative!

  32. Yo, I'm Bad News Brown from Montreal, the very first hip-hop harmonica player. Just as it was a novelty instrument in pop music, as you say, it's a novelty now in hip hop. Check out my song Reign:


    I’m known as the Hip-Hop guy who’ll take the harmonica and rip that show to shreds. Now I’m the first Hip-Hop artist to release a predominantly harmonica-driven album. Music is so fun right now... Hip hop is alive.

    Cool column, man!

  33. Hey Geoff, just found your column, which is great!

    I recently stumbled across a lost lp track by It's Immaterial, which was to be called "House for Sale" and this is the track I stumbled across below. It continues the Blue Nile like low key style of the 2nd lp "Song."

    Apparently the 3rd lp was rejected for being too dark, which makes me want to hear it even more, especially if this track is any indication of what else was recorded!

    Anyway, thought you'd enjoy it.


  34. I wonder if anyone on here has heard their song 'Just drive'? A lovely acoustic number available via emusic or Viper Records. It's on a compilation called 'The Liverpool Acoustic Experiment' and is quite possibly their finest moment. For me, anyway.

  35. It's great to see some fellow aficionados of the criminally neglected It's Immaterial!

    So I thought I would pass on this gem which has surfaced on youtube. 'Just North of Here' is from their shelved 'House for Sale' album. There's more where this came from, apparently:-)


  36. Wow, thanks Rachel! I read online that the group recorded a third full album with the working title of “House for Sale.” According to John Campbell it is finished and still in the vault. They shopped it around but could not find a label to release it. Like you said, they were told it was too “dark.” So it's great to have a snippet!

  37. Also, don't forget that in 1981, they recorded four sessions for legendary John Peel. One of the songs, “A Gigantic Raft,” was featured on the soundtrack of the 2004 remake of the movie “Manchurian Candidate.”

  38. Fellow Itsies, all the early singles can be located via this link.


    I'd never even heard of the first one!

  39. Thanks for all the links to the other It's Immaterial works

  40. I think I'm joining in a bit late, but here are some songs about driving that I think should be on Geoff's list:

    Janis' Joplin: Me and Bobby McGee
    Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys: Heavy Traffic Ahead
    Bachman Turner Overdrive: Life in the Fast Lane
    Doobie Brothers: Rockin' Down the Highway
    Jimi Hendrix: Cross Town Traffic
    Grace Jones: Pull Up to the Bumper
    Iggy Pop: The Passenger
    Dan Seals: Big Wheels in the Moonlight
    Melissa Etheridge: You Can Sleep While I Drive

    And let's not forget the only bus song I could think of (unlike planes, trains and automobiles), Greyhound Going Somewhere: Bobby Gentry

  41. Geoff, remembering that your first column was about the Kinks, I figured you'd enjoy the fact that they seem to be one of most prolific 'road song' bands! Here are some examples:

    The Kinks: "Aggravation"
    Bumper to bumper in the traffic jam.
    Clench your jaw, getting all up tight
    Breathing fumes, stuck in a tin can,
    Trapped, trapped.
    Hate, frustration, no escape.

    The Kinks: "Drivin'"
    Drop all your work
    Leave it behind
    Forget all your problems
    And get in my car
    And take a drive with me.

    The Kinks: "Motorway"
    Oh, that motorway livin',
    Ain't it a thrill to be so free, yeh.
    Riding down the motorway,
    Got to charge up my batteries,
    Rest my seat, rest my eyes,
    So tired, tired of livin',
    Tired of livin' this motorway livin'.

    The Kinks: "One of the Survivors"
    See johnny thunder sitting on his motorbike
    Riding along the highway,
    Rock and roll songs from the nineteen-fifties
    Buzzing around in his brain.

    The Kinks: "The Road"
    Well, the road's been rocky along the way
    It's been a long, hard haul on the motorway
    But if it gets too smooth it's time to call it a day.

    The Kinks: "Rush Hour Blues"
    A quick cup of coffee and a slice of
    Toast and the star (or should we say,
    Norman?) is off to do battle with the
    Rush hour queues and traffic jams.

  42. Thank you for the fascinating column, Geoff. I think there is probably a dual meaning in all the song lyrics about cars and roads. Our mental stream is our life and we use cars to search for relief from mental streams that are disturbing. We use cars to escape feeling imprisoned. The prison is not physical; it is our own mental prison. Thoughts and passions drive our mental life, in correspondence to cars and roads that we drive to satisfy our mental condition. I think in music, a car represents our knowledge and beliefs by which we can reason and have common sense in daily life. And then the networks of roads and highways represent the mental semantic networks of concepts and ideas that make up our knowledge and beliefs. So many of the songs about roads seem to be about searching for some kind of truth. Often, songs about driving at night, in the winter, in a storm, seem to be really about being unable to figure out whether something is true or not. Here are some of the clearer examples of this metaphor:

    Doobie Brothers
    "Divided Highway"
    Why must we always ride a divided highway
    Torn in two directions; speedin' outa sight
    Divided highway stranded at the crossroads
    Of what's wrong and who's right
    Divided highway cuttin' through the darkness.

    Deep Purple
    Drivin' on a highway going nowhere
    Desolation destination
    Guess I'll find it somewhere.
    I know if there's trouble,
    I ain't takin' the blame.
    That's why I keep movin'
    So nobody knows my name.

    Steve Earle
    "Nowhere Road"
    I been down this road just searchin' for the end
    It don't go nowhere, it just brings you back again.

  43. As well as the Kinks, I'd argue that Bob Dylan is one of the most proficient 'road song' artists. Here's the list I came up with over the past couple of days:

    Bob Dylan

    "Black Crow Blues"
    "Dirt Road Blues"
    "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"
    "Down the Highway"
    "Endless Highway"
    "Guess I'm Doin' Fine"
    "Gypsy Lou"
    "Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall"
    "He Was a Friend of Mine"
    "High Water (For Charley Patton)"
    "Highway 51"
    "Highway 61 Revisited"
    "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance"
    "Motorpsycho Nightmare"
    "Playboys and Playgirls"
    "Rocks and Gravel"
    "Standing on the Highway"
    "Sugar Baby"
    "Tangled Up in Blue"
    "Tomorrow is a Long Time"
    "Tough Mama"
    "Where Are You Tonight?"

  44. I think the Roger Waters 1984 album "The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking" deserves a mention here. The hitchhiking metaphor is about struggling with marriage, fidelity, aging at the height of a midlife crisis.

  45. Oooh, I'm glad people are still actively posting today - it took me a few days to put my list together! I had to ask around, and this is the list my friends and family came up with over email!!:)

    Mick Abrahams: "Greyhound Bus"
    Accept: "Midnight Highway"
    Rory Block: "Gone Again"
    Julie Lee: "Stillhouse Road"
    The LeRoi Brothers: "Route 88"
    Bloodwyn Pig: "Drive Me"
    Roy Acuff "Wreck on the Highway"
    Jay Ferguson: "Love at the Red Light"
    The Fiery Furnaces: "Drive to Dallas"
    Tina Adair "How Many Roads"
    Peter Gabriel: "Mercy Street"
    John Lennon: "Old Dirt Road"
    ZZ Top: "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide", "Master of Sparks" and "Pan Am Highway Blues"
    Annie Lennox: "Pavement Cracks"
    Rory Gallagher: "Ride On Red, Ride On"
    Bryan Adams "Open Road"
    The Who: "Goin Mobile", "Magic Bus" and "Relay"

  46. I'd argue that Springsteen beats both Bob Dylan and the Kinks for sheer output of road/driving songs:

    "Born to Run"
    "Cadillac Ranch"
    "Darlington County"
    "Further on up the Road"
    "Highway 29"
    "Highway Patrolman"
    "New Jersey is My Home"
    "Open All Night"
    "Pink Cadillac"
    "Racing in the Street"
    "Spirit in the Sky"
    "State Trooper"
    "Streets of Philadelphia"
    "Thunder Road"
    "Workin' on the Highway"
    "Wreck on the Highway"
    "Two For The Road"
    "Valentine's Day"

  47. I loved this band when they were around - still have the record - somewhere - called "Space", which was quite big on late night T.V. here in Australia. Cheers Geoff!

  48. I'm still struggling to really understand what kind of music this is - or maybe I'll just have to conclude that it's a musical hybrid. First I thought it was synth-pop, then a kind of atmospheric art-rock, then maybe some kind of brand of English country music. It reminds me a little of Pete Townshend and Talking Heads. Anyway, thanks for all the fascinating choices you make Geoff - never a dull one!!!

  49. They weren't easy to classify -probably Talking Heads is a good comparison. They never really had their potential recognised.
    What a great array of driving songs-thanks!

  50. http://baiaboyisback.blogspot.fr/2014/10/its-immaterial-driving-away-from-home.html

  51. Hi -- Are you aware that It's Immaterial are trying to crowdfund the release of their lost third album, House For Sale? I've pledged, but am not confident that they're going to make their goal, so I'm trying to get the word out...