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Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
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Various Artists
Hot Rods & Custom Classics: Cruisin' Songs & Highway Hits
(Rhino)

In 1984, Rhino Records put out a disc called Teenage Tragedies. Smart move: Sex and death are guaranteed sellers in music as much as anywhere else, so a collection of tunes merging both raging hormones and bloodshed is, as they say, a market winner.

Two tracks on the record were car songs. One was Jimmy Cross' "I Want My Baby Back," a go-nowhere 1964 novelty single about a guy and his girlfriend happily coming home from a Beatles concert, only to hit a motorcycle on a rainy highway. With a lyrical sensibility pulled out of an EC comic, Cross describes the carnage in details at once gruesome and hilarious: "There was my baby ... and there was my baby ... and way over there was my baby." The end of the song finds him at a graveyard looking to, well, get his baby back. "Oh, baby, I dig you so much," Cross says, and cackles.

The other song was even worse: Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve," though not the 1964 version everybody knows, which also shows up on Hot Rods & Custom Classics. The Teenage Tragedies version was a later live recording, after Jan Berry had a car accident on that selfsame curve; his voice wrecked, the track shows him struggling, painfully and off-key, just to get through the song. The Rhino programmer who inserted the track either deserves an award for archival research, or a smack upside the head for lack of taste. (Probably both.)

But one wishes that Hot Rods carried more of the same irreverence across its four discs and 88 tracks. The packaging does have great fun with its modeling-kit design, but for a collection focusing on the richest thematic gold mine of great pop we know -- the Car Song -- it's surprisingly conservative. Leaning hard on early rock, rockabilly, and surf music, the meat of Hot Rods are evergreens and no-brainers: "Action Packed," "Rocket '88,' " "Maybellene," "Little Deuce Couple."

All great songs, no doubt. But from Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" to Nat King Cole's "Route 66" to Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" (the last an underrated gem, even in the midst of '80s nostalgia), there's a whole world of automotive tunes gridlocking musical history that Hot Rods fails to consider. Part of the reason is the box's explicit goal: to recall the nostalgia of pink slips, drag racing, and bouffant hairdos, none of which Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hot Rod" or the Modern Lovers' "Road Runner" (not included) can speak to. But neither can the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Wheels" or Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" (included), so what's the point?

Fun, fun, fun, mainly, if not breadth, width, or depth. There's some humor to the Bettman Archives-level materials included, from Dinah Shore singing "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet," to gas station jingles, to James Dean preaching the dangers of speeding on the highway, ha ha ha. It's an interesting pocket history of late-'50s and early '60s rock, that conflicted musical moment between Elvis' Army stint and the British Invasion, if nothing else. For a while there, rampant oil consumption and the Eisenhower highway system were what made this country great, at least musically. Ever hear a good song about gasohol and smog emissions testing?

-- Mark Athitakis

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Mark Athitakis

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