The beat goes on, even when we can’t

Musician Tom Cochrane reveals why classic road trip songs rock more than others

By Alan Cross Wheels.ca

Mar 14, 2021 5 min. read

Article was updated 2 years ago

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It may seem like a distant memory, but there is no better feeling than hitting the pavement and setting off on a road trip – whether aimlessly wandering through the province’s backroads or an epic cross-country drive.

As you wait to be able to travel again, you can still capture that feeling of being on the road by listening to your favourite driving songs. If road trip songs are defined as anything that sounds good with the volume turned up and the windows rolled down, then your playlist can be filled with anything you like listening to.

To be considered a classic, however, there are some key parameters a song needs to meet. Research by London Metropolitan University in England encourages drivers to stick with songs within the range of the human heartbeat, which is 60 to 80 beats per minute (BPM). Its research would have us believe the perfect road song is Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” at 72 BPM, and that “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is too, well, peppy, at 84 BPM.

Most people prefer something less attuned to keeping you calm and relaxed, and more, you know, driving. A song that enhances the feeling of speed and forward movement, and ensures you get chills when the first few notes play. When it comes to Canadian classics worthy of epic status, nothing beats Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” (at a spirited 103 BPM).

road trip songs

“I wrote it as a metaphor after a trip through six war-torn countries in Africa,” Cochrane said. “I wrote it as therapy, a way to stay positive. It’s about the journey of life and how you have to keep moving forward.”

Canada, he added, also figured into his thinking. “There’s the vastness of Canada. We’ve always been moving from east to west, on foot, on horseback, by boat, then train, and now by car and plane. Hitting the road is part of our DNA.”

While optimism and positivity are a big part of any driving song, “It helps if it rocks,” Cochrane said.

Like many artists, Cochrane listens to music demos while he drives. Hearing a song they are working on in a car helps singers, musicians and producers experience how fans will eventually consume their music. “Back when ‘Highway’ was being shaped, I’d listen to it while I drove around to get new perspectives on it,” Cochrane said.

Songwriter and musician Jack Antonoff, who has collaborated with Taylor Swift, Lorde and others, never leaves the house without the music he’s working on. “Songs sound different depending on the environment,” he said in a recent interview. “What might sound good with earbuds may sound terrible inside a car.”

This philosophy goes back decades. Recording studios use giant monitors to record a song, but producers will always test the final mix on small speakers. This was especially important in the era of AM radio. A full-frequency recording needed to sound decent on the same kind of speakers used in vehicles. Even today, many studios still have a pair of itty-bitty Auratone speakers for this very purpose.

Like many Canadians, Cochrane – his current ride is a Cadillac Escalade – is waiting for the day he can blast those tunes on a road trip or just to get him pumped while driving to his beer league hockey games.

“It’s got to be positive and hopeful,” Cochrane said of his preferred listening material. “Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ is great. ‘Thunder Road’ from [Bruce] Springsteen is culturally important. ‘Carefree Highway’ from [Gordon] Lightfoot works. And I know it’s a cliche, but you can’t beat Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild.’

“Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to get out on the road,” Cochrane added. “We’ll get back on the highway.”

 Did you know…

A 322-kilometre section of roadway near Tom Cochrane’s hometown of Lynn Lake, Man., was named after “Life Is A Highway” in 2016.

A musical playlist all about driving

road trip songs

Alan Cross, author of this story, is a well-known music writer and host of the syndicated radio series “The Ongoing History of New Music.” He also has an extensive music collection. Here are his picks for a playlist featuring songs all about hitting the open road and the reason why he included it.

“Born to Run,” by Bruce Springsteen: Cliched, yes, but if you’re looking for a song that summarizes what it feels like to break away from the mundane by hitting the road, you can’t get much better than this.

“Brand New Cadillac,” by The Clash: Note how the tempo of this song speeds up as it goes along. Drive with caution while listening.

“Everyday is a Winding Road,” by Sheryl Crow: This song was used as the soundtrack to several Subaru commercials. Listen and you will understand why.

“Roadhouse Blues,” by The Doors: Although originally released as a B-side, it became one of the band’s most enduring songs. Remember the lyrics: “Keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel.”

“Rocket 88,” by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats: This 1951 tune was one of the first true rock ’n’ roll songs and is an homage to Oldsmobile’s revolutionary V8 engine introduced in 1949. The guitar’s fuzzy sound on the recording was caused because the amp they used fell off the roof of the band’s car while driving to the studio.

“Roadrunner,” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers: A 1972 song about roaring on the highways of Massachusetts with the AM radio blaring rock ’n’ roll.

“Radar Love,” by Golden Earring: If you’ve ever made a desperate all-night drive to see someone, the first lines of this 1973 song sums up everything: “I’ve been driving’ all night, my hands wet on the wheel/And there’s a voice inside my head that drives my heel.”

“She Sells Sanctuary,” by The Cult: Once those drums hit at the song’s 17-second mark, you’re off.

“Running Down a Dream,” by Tom Petty: “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down/I had the radio on, I was drivin’.” Combine those lyrics with the beat and the riff and you have something close to perfect for a summer’s drive.

“Camaro,” by Kings of Leon: Yes, I could have included songs about Mustangs, Corvettes or Maybachs (a hip-hop favourite), but let’s end this list with an ode to a mysterious girl in a Chevy muscle car.


Alan Cross / Special to Wheels




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