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Tone Deaf


I’ve been waiting to be pleasantly surprised by the music emanating from a motorcycle’s stereo. It hasn’t happened. The time to act is upon us


Motorcycling clichés abound. Squids on Gixxers in armoured riding vests with frighteningly bare arms; middle-aged BMW men with beards as meticulous as topiary and as dense as artificial turf; couples on Gold Wings petrified of separation (but wary of intimacy) that communicate via intercom while straddling the same motorcycle. Most of us, at one time, have personified a cliché. There’s no reason to be alarmed. But there’s an exception that’s not benign. It’s the dire case of motorcycles with audio systems and, specifically, of the music motorcyclists play.


When I lived in the city, rush hour traffic backed-up in front of my house. And every afternoon in the riding months, I’d hear it. Tinny, too loud music accompanied (as often as not) by the syncopated fire-and-hiccup of an American V-twin. And the music was always the same. Not every motorcyclist played the same song, of course, but the songs I’d hear were extracted from a dozen bands. But, curiously, not from classic-rock-radio staples like AC/DC or Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith. No, the music came from hair bands; Whitesnake, or Poison, or Cinderella, or Slaughter. Sixteen years living on a congested street was sufficiently long enough to make me a (very, very, reluctant) expert on music and motorcycles.


Two chords and an opening incantation that'll warm the heart of a Ramones fan. Roadrunner is a solid first step along the road to rehabilitation for offending stereo-types.

Music goes with motorcycling. I hum when I ride. The guitar riff from Sweet Jane is a favourite. Or I’ll sing a lyric—Springsteen’s sinister State Trooper works (“New Jersey Turnpike, riding on a wet night, ’neath the refinery’s glow, out where the great black rivers flow…Mister state trooper, please don’t stop me, please don’t stop me”). To qualify as a motorcycle song, motorcycles need not be referenced, but musically the song must be propulsive or the lyrics evocative of landscape unfurling. But there’s a caveat to music and motorcycles—you shouldn’t listen while you ride.   


To ride quickly and safely requires a peculiar and contradictory mindset. Relaxation and alertness in equal measure. Aside from obfuscating environmental sounds, like the whistle from a lonesome freight train or the honk of a Freightliner that’s lost its brakes, music creates the false sense of a protective cocoon. This sensation, of a slight remove from the surroundings, is an attractive state if you’re in bed or the bathtub. But on the road, it can be fatal.


I’m not naïve enough to believe music can be banished from motorcycles. But I’m willing to spearhead a grassroots movement to get Whitesnake off the stereo. First, let’s understand what we’re up against. (Sorry, you’re involved—I can’t do this alone.)


A stereo on a motorcycle is an uncommon fitment. It’s not an option on a Panigale, or an Africa Twin, or a Sportster. Which brings us to the alarming but unavoidable conclusion that motorcyclists who buy machines outfitted with stereo systems are drawn to music while, simultaneously, having the most appalling taste in music of any cohort on earth. (I attempted to write the previous sentence in less inflammatory language, but it’s simply not possible.)

We must, non-combatively, suggest alternatives to our Poison-addicted riding friends. Too-sissy songs will be rejected as will songs too-fancy. A man must be weaned from Slaughter. And I’ve got a song in mind. Roadrunner, by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, is the 274th greatest song of all-time, according to Rolling Stone. With just two chords, it can’t be dismissed as art rock. And it’s from the seventies, a rock-and-roll decade proper. And it has these easy to understand, sing-along lyrics:


Roadrunner roadrunner

Going faster miles an hour

Ya know I walk by the stop-n-shop

And then I drive by the stop-n-shop

And I like that much better than

Walking by the stop-n-shop


(Jonathan Richman, in his later work, became increasing inappropriate for the riders we’re trying to sway. Pablo Picasso (was never called an asshole) is a gem—Bowie covered it—as is I was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar. Check out the videos online, but let’s keep this between us.)


I’ll do my best to spread the word, and please suggest songs we can compile into an alternative playlist. We've got work to do. Let's get to it.

Video for Roadrunner is a hoot. The song, despite its

sub-Goldberg Variations level of profundity, is a boisterously fun romp. Just once in my life I'd like to hear Roadrunner honking from the stereo of a Victory Vision. 

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