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