He was writing in 1959 (and he was wrong about the helicopters), but Debord got driving right:
A mistake made by all urban planners is to consider the private car (and its by-products, such as the motorcycle) as essentially a means of transport. In reality, it is the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout society.
Isolated and in charge, every driver is (in fantasy at least) being driven, being transported; every man his own chauffeur! Every driver is a privileged being, someone superior to everything else in sight. Get these dead bodies off my racetrack! I wonder whether cycling incarnates – or, less ambitiously, symbolises – an alternative notion of happiness. I sense that it could: the obdurate materiality of cycling – the unavoidable contact with the road and the weather, not to mention the effort it takes to get anywhere – suggests a much more physically engaged, and much more egalitarian, vision of travel than driving can ever be. (The same goes for walking and for public transport, pretty much.)
But driving isolates. I feel similarly about wearing headphones in public – which these days I almost never do, train journeys excepted. One of the most uncanny musical experiences I’ve had occurred when I was sitting on a bus with the Gang of Four’s third album on my walkman:
Everybody is in too many pieces
No man’s land surrounds our desires
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some lie in the arms of loversThe city is the place to be
With no money you go crazy
I need an occupation
You have to pay for satisfaction
We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers
It was an extraordinary combination: on one hand there was the power of the music – Hugo Burnham’s drumming is mixed really high on that track – and the awful minatory aptness of the lyrics; on the other, there was the awareness that, vast and all-embracing as the sound was for me, nobody else could hear it… We live as we dream, alone – never more so than when listening to music on headphones.
Or listening to music in a car – and when I’m driving, alone, I almost always have music on. (If you’re going to be locked into a dream of mechanical omnipotence, you might as well control the soundtrack.) Some songs work particularly well for me. For short and familiar journeys, a particular kind of lyric can be good. About eighteen years ago I discovered Prefab Sprout’s first album (Swoon) and loved it instantly. What I responded to was the lyrics, and particularly the sense that Paddy McAloon didn’t care whether anyone understood them or not:
Are they happy to see you? No,
You always bring trouble.
Cast a shadow on Mexico -
Denial doesn’t change facts.
Unlike Wire (say) the disjointedness didn’t seem showy or self-indulgent; I felt that he knew perfectly well what he was talking about, and if nobody else got the point, too bad for everybody else. (Prefab Sprout’s subsequent albums have nothing like this wilfully cryptic quality, more’s the pity, although you can hear a bit of it on McAloon’s peculiar solo album I trawl the Megahertz.)
I got something like the same vibe from “To you alone” by the much-lamented Beta Band, which for some time was a fixture for short journeys in town:
She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…
I have no idea what Steve Mason is talking about here, but when you listen to the track he seems to know. And after a few listens they’re great lyrics to sing, talk or mutter along to, half-consciously, while the other half of your consciousness deals with the same old traffic lights and gear-changes.
The other great boon for town driving is the song that makes the experience seem more exciting than it really is (which mostly, after all, it really isn’t). Volume is important here. The Dandy Warhols’ “We used to be friends” works well, particularly if you can time it so that the car is at least in motion when the bass kicks in. Super Furry Animals’ “Ice hockey hair” is also good, particularly for journeys that don’t last much longer than its 6:57 duration.
Motorway driving is another matter – apart from anything else, most of the time there’s no point picking out individual tracks. But I can think of a few recurring situations which have their own ideal soundtrack.
For beautiful but long and unchanging stretches of motorway, particularly where the road curves gently in one direction or the other for miles at a stretch, so that you can watch an evenly-spaced series of vehicles ahead of you passing down the curve like beads on a wire: The Divine Comedy, “Eric the Gardener”. Orchestrated by Joby Talbot, this song is built around a six-note phrase which repeats, unaltered, throughout the song’s 8 minutes and 26 seconds (not counting a patch towards the end where it fades out before coming back in). All this while oceanic strings sweep over you, like nothing so much as that J.G. Ballard short story where somebody has the experience of drowning in the hugely-amplified sound of a kiss. The lyrics are about a metal-detector enthusiast (viz. Eric), and about history, and how history has always got to the world before you:
Dig deep and dig some more
Dig to the planet’s core
Dig till you’ve gone out of your mind
But all you will ever really find
Is Eric the gardener
Chilling and strange, and beautiful – and mesmeric, and very long.
For driving down a stretch of unfamiliar motorway after realising you’ve missed the junction you wanted, not knowing how far it is until the next roundabout but wanting to get there as quickly as possible, in the rain: Ed Kuepper, “Today Wonder”. From the album of the same name – which is a record of some casual and unhurried sessions with guitar and drumkit – “Today Wonder” consists mainly of a medley of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp” and Eric Burdon’s “White Houses”; Burdon has recorded “Hey Gyp”, so I should imagine he came up with the medley first. I don’t know how many chords Ed Kuepper plays in “Today Wonder”, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the answer was ‘two’; he’s the kind of guitarist who doesn’t seem to play a chord the same way twice. The effect here is of a dense, hypnotically repetitive pattern of strumming, overlaid with a shifting range of augmentations and pulls and, er, other things you can do to jazz up a guitar chord. It’s great – all the more so when combined with the yearning, frustrated and frankly rather pissed-off sound of Kuepper’s vocals:
Gonna buy you a Ford Mustang
Gonna buy you a wedding ring
Gonna buy you a mansion on a hill
If you’ll just give me some of your love
Please give me some of your love
For driving down an unfamiliar motorway in the dark, uncomfortably aware that you don’t know where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but stubbornly convinced that the next junction will give you enough information to tell whether you’re going the right way or not, or failing that the one after next: the Doors, “Break on through”. Or just about anything else by the Doors, within reason. It can be an unforgettable experience. I drove about sixty miles listening to the Doors’ Greatest Hits, once. I was only going from Reading to Bracknell.
For the M25, and in particular for sitting stock still in the second of four lanes, in the sun, completely surrounded by equally stationary traffic, but unable to relax for a second in case the queue started to move again as it had done several minutes ago: Soft Machine, “Facelift”. Or, more generally, the wonderful Hux double CD of [the] Soft Machine’s BBC sessions from 1967 to 1971 – but there’s something about the sheer self-confidence and abrasiveness of “Facelift” that makes it particularly relaxing, somehow.
There’s a fugal, “go away, I’m busy” quality to this and to several of the other tracks I’ve listed here; I’m not sure if that’s what makes them particularly well suited to driving, which is fundamentally a rather strange, alienated experience. I’m not sure whether they assuage or exacerbate it, either. As my use of words like ‘hypnotic’ up there suggests, part of what’s going on here is that the music gives part of your mind something to chew on while the rest concentrates on manoeuvring a large and solid lump of metal at high speed. Perhaps this is a dangerous luxury, and driving in near-silence would induce the driver to devote all of his or her attention to the road. Or perhaps, in the world behind the windscreen, silence just creates more scope for free-association and daydreaming – perhaps the driver with music on is actually less distracted, by virtue of having something to concentrate against.
It’s a strange world, the world we drive in, but it’s a world that can change (and may soon have to). Debord:
The breaking up of the dialectic of the human milieu in favor of cars (the projected motorways in Paris will entail the demolition of thousands of houses and flats although the housing crisis is continually worsening) masks its irrationality under pseudopractical justifications. But it is practically necessary only in the context of a specific social set-up. Those who believe that the particulars of the problem are permanent want in fact to believe in the permanence of the present society.