Song of songs for the road


Song of songs for the road

Artists have given the world countless tunes to keep us company on the open road, but for FRED DE VRIES there is one that stands out above the rest. You'll know it, but you probably won't know its story.


I READ it many years ago, but the quote has always stuck with me. It was an interview with songwriter John Fogerty. He was the genius behind Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), the California rock band that sounded as if they hailed from somewhere in the swampy Deep South. Many of you will recall some of their fantastic hits: Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising, I Put a Spell on You, Midnight Special … the list goes on. Anyway, according to the story, during the band’s studio sessions, Fogerty also recorded songs on a cassette player. He then took the tape to his car and listened. The secret of a good song, he insisted, was that it should sound great on a car stereo.

He was absolutely right: music that sounds great in your living room can turn into absolute pudding when it comes from the loudspeakers in your car. I guess it has to do with frequencies, space, clarity. Take a band such as The Jesus and Mary Chain. I really like them, but listen in the car and they're a total mess. The distorted guitars and the roar of the engine engage in a kind of perverted sonic lovemaking, which produces an utterly unappealing white noise that swallows every bit of melody.

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It goes without saying that the songs Fogerty wrote for CCR sound fabulous in a car. Just play Midnight Special. You can hear all the individual instruments, two guitars, a bass and drums, loud and clear. The voice sounds as if the singer is sitting right next to you. It has a good, rolling beat. The clarity of sound is superb. The only issue? It’s a bit slow. It’s okay while you’re moving through town, but once you’re on the highway you want something slightly faster, something to help you drive that heel.

So what makes a good road-trip song? There is no magic formula, but it has to have a driving beat, a good melody, lyrics you can sing along to, words that might have something to do with driving or moving. A few songs immediately spring to mind: Autobahn by the German electronic outfit Kraftwerk, who in deadpan style pay tribute to the magnificent German highways — “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn".  Or The Doors and their upbeat boogie of Roadhouse Blues, with Jim Morrison warning us to “Keep your eyes on the road/ Your hand upon the wheel".

They perform that trick again in a much more complex way on L.A. Woman, where the city is a lady: “L.A. woman Sunday afternoon/ Drive through your suburbs/ Into your blues, into your blues, yeah/ Into your blue-blue blues/ Into your blues, oh, yeah". It’s slightly eerie, certainly when Morrison starts singing about hair that is burning. Come to think of it, the Australian band The Triffids had an ominous driving song about getting lost, Lonely Stretch. In a deep, dark voice, Dave McComb sings about a place that could be South Africa: “I took a wrong turn off of an unmarked track/ I did seven miles I couldn't find my way back/ Hit a lonely stretch, must be losing my touch/ I was out of my depth".  Just like L.A. Woman it’s a love song, a lament about longing and losing.

America and Australia are excellent countries for road trips: endless highways, lonely stretches, running on empty, time to contemplate, dreams of escaping. Driving is the ideal metaphor for so many things. Bruce Springsteen wrote numerous songs about driving, and so did Bob Dylan. South African songwriters have also produced some brilliant tunes. The one that immediately springs to mind is Jim Neversink’s Ride, Ride, Ride with memorable lines such as “I’m not in a very sociable mood/ I got to be alone to find my truth".

Andries Bezuidenhout and Toast Coetzer have written detailed songs about travelling and places, but, with the exception of Andries’s Die Ritme Van Chaos, their tunes lack that pulsating beat that turns them into driving songs. For that we have Valiant Swart, our own honorary southern rocker, who wrote a whole string of catchy road songs, such as Langs die Goue Rivier and Ek en Jy en die Highway. My favourite is Deur die Donker Vallei, with its melancholic lyrics: “Jou drome van 'n silwer Desember het gedans oor jou windscreen/ Vryheid in die branders van die Weskus soos 'n drifter in die son/ Maar die lustelose strande van Atlantis/ Is dryfsand vir die siel".

When you start thinking about it, the list is endless. How about Status Quo (Rockin' All Over the World), Neu! (Hallogallo), Rolling Stones (Sweet Virginia), Chuck Berry (Memphis, Tennessee), The Beatles (Get Back, Back In The USSR) or The Band (The Weight)?

Oddly enough, apart from the German masters Kraftwerk and Neu!, Europe doesn’t seem to have much in terms of driving songs. Maybe the roads are too busy, there’s not enough space, there's a lack of endless highways. But there is one exception, a seminal tune from one of the smallest European countries that is arguably the best driving song yet written. And you all know it: Radar Love, which the Golden Earring released 50 years ago.

Golden Earring are from the The Hague. When I grew up in nearby Rotterdam, they were without doubt my favourite band. I first heard them in 1970 when they had a number one hit with Back Home (also a good driving song). They seemed unbelievably cool: long hair and loud guitars, and not as threatening as those wild men of Led Zeppelin or The Who. I religiously bought their 7-inch singles, from Back Home to the 1975 release of Ce Soir. Then I lost interest for a while, because punk came along and seemed more exciting. But later I picked up any single and album I could find. I now own 29 Earring vinyl albums, 26 singles and half a dozen CDs. With the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, these are kept in a special cabinet.

Back to Radar Love. It was the song Steve Jobs mentioned when he presented the iTunes Music Store in 2003: “This is a song we’ve all heard but nobody knows about," he said. Bill Clinton seemed to disagree, because he once said “the best rock band comes from the Netherlands, Golden Earring with their huge hit Radar Love". And in 2001, The Washington Post called it “the best thing to come out of the Netherlands since Rembrandt and the stock market".  


The story of the most famous Dutch rock song is mind-boggling, so I’ll give you a summary. Those who want all the details must read the recently published, lavishly illustrated, comprehensive book Radar Love 50 Jaar (Van Gorcum, 2023).

We go back to 1973. The band had been playing for almost 10 years. They were big in Holland and Germany, but they wanted bigger. In an interview with Dutch magazine Muziekkrant Oor, which came out a month before the release of Radar Love, guitarist and composer George Kooymans said: “We've been working on the same idea for so many years now that I feel there's no point in continuing without a breakthrough in England… I don't see myself playing Germany and Holland night after night. If it doesn't work out, I'll quit." So everything depended on Radar Love and the album on which it appeared, Moontan.

Moontan was the first Earring album with lyrics by vocalist Barry Hay. He had joined the band in 1967 but had been singing words written by Kooymans. Hay, the son of a Dutch mother and a Scottish father, grew up in India and had a good command of English. He had a strong voice, and over the years he had grown into his role as a front man and sex symbol. He had quite a reputation as a party animal, he loved the booze, the drugs and the girls that came with the life of a rock star. It was Hay who thought of the title Moontan, the colour of the night people, the ones who frequented the shady bars and clubs. The combination of “radar" and “love" was also his idea. Radar came to him while leafing through a dictionary. “It was a fairly modern word and it fitted well with the things that interested me. At the time, ESP was often in the news. Extra Sensory Perception, extrasensory perception. A form of telepathy really," he said in the biography HAY (Lebowski, 2016).

The combination with “love" came when he drove into the Dutch town of Hilversum and saw a small, kitschy statue of the Roman god Mercury, which in his mind made a connection with love. It took him months to write the lyrics, dozens of pages ending up in the dustbin. The final version came to him during one of the famous party nights at his house in The Hague. There was pressure to come up with words, because the band would soon go into the studio to record Moontan. “It had to be something very simple that every average person could identify with… Everyone interfered, and when the atmosphere became too chaotic I kicked them out of the house to some all-night bar so I could work quietly," he explained. A bit later he showed the finished product to the band’s American tour manager, Bob Lampaert, who exclaimed: “This is it, brilliant! The ultimate American car song!"

He was right: the lyrics are brilliant. The song is like a short movie about a guy alone in his car, on his way to the one he loves. It’s 4.30am and he’s shifting gear. As Hay said in his biography: “He's driving through a misty night, I imagined. And he’s in a hurry, because he hears her call." It’s the voice in the man’s head that pushes his heel. He listens to the radio, which plays a forgotten 1966 tune by Brenda Lee (Barry’s mother was a big fan), Coming On Strong, a song about love and longing. Barry sings: “The road has got me hypnotised/ And I'm speedin’ into a nude sunrise". He can feel her vibrations in the air. “When she gets lonely and the longing gets too much / She sends a cable coming in from above". But the highway is treacherous: one wrong move and you could be dead. The guy concentrates. “No more speed I'm almost there / Gotta keep cool, gotta take care". As the sun comes up, the exhausted driver makes that fatal mistake. The car crashes, he dies. “The news man sang his same old song / One more radar lover gone". All that remains is “the line in the sky", that thing called “radar love".

The words have a universal appeal. Everybody has known the feeling of carelessly rushing to a great love. Truckers loved it even more because of the ambiguous reference to speed. Was it the drug that kept him going, pressing the accelerator? Boys loved it because it sounded tough, this lonely guy speeding through the night, full of desire. Girls loved it because of the romantic idea of telepathic love. As Kooymans said: “The lyrics have been essential for the success of the song."

Now the words needed music, proper driving music. According to Radar Love 50 Jaar, it started as a country song, with acoustic guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. But it soon developed into an intense rock track, carried by the interlocking bass and drums. The bass part was based on the 1935 blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go, which the Irish band Them had turned into a terse garage rocker. Drummer Cesar Zuiderwijk came up with the idea of adding a shuffle rhythm to it, which gives the song its swing. “Radar Love is essentially a blues song," explained the drummer. The clever interplay between bass guitar and drums was supposed to be the intro. But bassist Rinus Gerritsen insisted on a dramatic opening of six notes of simultaneously played guitar, bass and drum before the shuffle starts doing its work. That certainly did the trick — it created all the necessary tension and made Radar Love instantly recognisable.

When the recording of Moontan was finished, it was time to pick the single that would lead people to buy the album. Surprisingly, Radar Love wasn’t the first choice. But after trying other contenders during live gigs, everyone — band, management, record company — acknowledged the undeniable potential of this 6min 20sec song. A cut in the instrumental middle section brought it back to five minutes, which would allow more radio play.

So that’s what I heard on a small slab of vinyl with a picture sleeve that I bought in August 1973. In September it climbed to number one in the Dutch Top 40. In 1974 it reached number 13 in the American charts. Soon, it was a huge hit all over the world. In February 1974, the leading British music magazine New Musical Express made Radar Love world single of the year and nominated Golden Earring as the world’s most promising new name. According to the authors of Radar Love 50 Jaar, it even reached number one in the Rhodesian charts in 1974. It was released in South Africa in 1983, with a different B-side.  

Radar Love became Golden Earring’s signature song. It also gave the band its much-desired international break. As Barry Hay says in his biography, “Radar Love offered us the chance to compete seriously with the new batch of up-and-coming bands in America. And that was fantastic, of course. But you don't think for a second that a song like that really becomes a life-changer. That to this day it leads a life of its own, which I am constantly reminded of."

Golden Earring continued with the same four core members for another 48 years, invariably playing their greatest song at every gig. The band finally called it a day in 2021 when Kooymans, 72, was diagnosed with the nervous system disease ALS and could no longer perform. Radar Love will of course live forever, up there with Bohemian Rhapsody and Stairway to Heaven

Anyway, give us your favourite road song, and we’ll add it to the playlist.

Spotify: Road songs

♦ VWB ♦

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