It was way back in 1929, when scientist Paul Galvin first introduced the car radio to American automobiles; transforming them from dangerous movement boxes to an extension of our homes, and in turn spelling the beginning of "leisure driving" (a sure fire way to suck up any remaining fossil fuels). But it wasn't until the 1960s, when the birth of the cassette deck landed a kiss on the general public, that we were given sole charge of our own audio pleasure. The ability to put whatever song you wanted on in a car mutated the experience of travelling at high speed on four wheels from an A-B formality, into a special place where cast iron memories are crafted.
Car music—the playlists that serve as the soundtrack to so many of our journeys—is a very particular beast. I'm not talking about shitty guitar anthems squashed onto four CD compilations with an "approved by Jeremy Clarkson" sticker on the case. I'm talking about music that has the power to sweep you rudely back to your past, with no prior warning. Because music heard in a car crystallises in your head like almost no other. When so much of your environment is reduced to a three square metre box of nylon upholstered padding and roll-down windows, music seems to flood your synapses in a way it rarely can in the outside world. As your eyes glaze across mile after mile of grey tarmac and flittering cateye lights, your sense of hearing becomes amplified. You become more cognisant of every beat, every lyric, and every emotional key change as if you’re Truman Burbank picking the soundtrack to your own life. Music is, in that four-wheeled box, everything. It doesn’t just accompany the memory—it becomes the memory. Basically, if Kanye wanted everyone to connect emotionally and entirely with The Life of Pablo, he shouldn't have held his listening party at Madison Square Garden; he should have held it in the backseat of a Vauxhall Astra.
Put on “Broken Glass” by Annie Lennox and I will instantly slide back down my spine to our old Honda; a mess of warm ready salted Pringle crumbs decorating my lap, the bib of my dungarees lying across my fleshless tits like a clipboard, woozily staring down at the tiny knotted strands of my latest friendship bracelet.
Play “Boom Shack A Lack” by Apache Indian (and really, why wouldn’t you) and I am transported back to circling a roundabout on the A35 somewhere outside Weymouth in my friend Alice’s tiny white Fiat Panda as we blew the Silk Cut out of our hair and sped towards summer holiday freedom.
Insert any C90 cassette of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Into The Great Wide Open” and there I am, a chubby 8-year-old Meatloaf-haired girl, the backs of my thighs stuck to the front seat of my mum’s Volvo, pounding down the A30 towards Cornwall, wearing a pair of $1.99 Boots sunglasses and feeling pretty pleased with myself as I try, yet again, to reach level three on Super Mario Land.
Ask anyone under the age of 40 what they listened to in the car as a kid (as I did on Twitter) and the answers will be equal parts heartbreaking, awful, and hilarious. A veritable and weirdly specific buffet of parental taste purchased as part of a three for $10 deal from a bucket at a Shell garage.
“A lot of Crash Test Dummies.”
“Coldplay X&Y and Best of the Monkees: when one ended we started the other.”
“My dad loved Robbie Williams so much he’d drive around the block until it finished in the radio.”
“'Crush' by Jennifer Paige—basically Now 41 for a year.”
I should say here and now that I cannot drive. My lessons were cut short after my driving instructor’s father—a walrus in a shiny navy polyester blazer—asked my recently-divorced mother out on a date to a pub on the outskirts of Oxford. Before that, in the sweaty silence of my third lesson, I had calmly but unstoppably ground the side of my instructor’s silver car down the entire length of someone’s front wall as I tried my hand at reverse parallel parking. The one and only time I drove on a dual carriageway, I was so desperate to sneeze (and so terrified of the results) that I panicked, drifted off into a slipway, and nearly burst into tears. So no, not a driver. But an enthusiastic passenger, navigator and, of course, dashboard DJ. I often fantasise about starting a club night called simply, ‘Volvo’, where a DJ stands behind a set of decks embedded into the moulded plastic of an L-reg Volvo, blasting out the family favourites that typify summer holiday drives. Hits smoother than a Ken Doll’s genitals and more evocative than the smell of cut grass.
The epitome of the summer holiday car hit, for me, is “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House. I can be in the biscuit aisle of Budgens or walking through the foyer of my local GUM clinic and, if this Magic FM classic comes on, Neil Finn’s jangly guitar will instantly suck me back to holding my hand out of an open window, zooming across Bodmin Moor, my Adidas cap catching the breeze like a cardboard sail, the tuna baked potato eaten at Exeter services washing around my intestine like marbles.
Another firm long car journey favourite for most millennials is Lighthouse Family’s “Ocean Drive”—probably one of the last albums bought, on cassette, by my mother, after hearing it in the queue of Mark One as she was buying a pack of white t-shirts and a flowery denim jacket for her holiday wardrobe. Of course, most of these songs are awful. Almost ludicrously so. But that doesn’t make a wink of difference to their power to evoke pure nostalgia and perform almost unfathomable time travel. These songs are ground into our DNA whether we like it or not. And a lot of the time, we don’t.
There is a certain beauty to quite awful songs that have attached themselves to your recollections and nested in the depths of your brain. We can’t all just summon a specific memory whenever we want, like plucking a picture from a mantlepiece—that’s not how the neural tapestry of our brains work. But music; hearing a certain song from a certain period of your life, can bring evocative images rushing back so hard, it’s like you’re coming up on some sort of flashback pill.
It wasn’t until I listened to Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” quite recently, that I recalled driving through the glinting darkness of rural Shropshire on a Christmas Eve long ago. When I hear it, it’s not the image of Dylan freewheeling through the streets of New York with Suze Rotolo that I think of, but the endless snowy fields of the Midlands in mid-winter. There were howling winds, sure, but also anaerobic digesters full of silage, muck heaps, the Tern Hill airbase and a massive cattery that looked, and probably smelled, like prison.
Not all the memories are good of course. That first nail-shredding journey to university—my recently-separated parents driving up in convoy to avoid any unnecessary sharing of oxygen let alone a car—is brought back in deafening and comic clarity by Boney M’s “Daddy Cool”. That’ll teach us to listen to Nigella Lawson’s Desert Island Discs while driving towards one of my life’s most pivotal experiences. And hearing “Heroes” by David Bowie, I don’t think of The Thin White Duke stumbling through the smack capital of Europe with Iggy Pop, but of crawling through a snowstorm on the way to Milton Keynes with my ex-boyfriend in his Ford KA, terrified that the gears will fail, the engine will seize, and we’d roll straight through the candlelit graveyard of the very church where his parents got married.
There's a science behind all this. Music, apparently, can retrieve memories from places in our implicit memory—as opposed to our explicit memory—that we can't consciously do so alone. And we usually remember stuff from our teens because of something called the reminiscence bump, whereby we recall more and more from our youth as we get older, until we slowly wither, begin the decline, and forget pretty much everything. The charming curve of life.
I guess the music you hear leaking out of the fart-in-a-bin speakers of a rattling car can stay with you, locked in that moment, forever. Like a tailback on the M5, the memory becomes immovable, intransient, stuck in an ever-present now of seatbelt swaying and window-down choruses that make otherwise uneventful journeys feel more poignant than they probably were. It’s a tarmac-covered singalong that drags you back to the past as squarely as a DeLorean DMC-12 time machine. “Remember when Sam was sick all over the window of the Volkswagen Scirocco?” you write in a text to your dad, after John Hiatt’s “Perfectly Good Guitar” brings memories of a doomed caravan holiday roaring back like a glorious week in the Caribbean. “Good times.”
You can follow Nell on Twitter.