Unlike some entries likely to be penned in this series, the inclusion of “Panama” as one of the best songs to play in a convertible is a bit of no-brainer. The song’s big airy sound and chugging percussion make it all but built for cruising with the top down (and having one or more passengers hanging out of the vehicle).
But, the song’s history reveals that this is exactly what the band intended. Despite the song’s later use in video game promotions and even military offensives aimed at toppling dictators, the famous tune has nothing to do with the Central American country, and like most of Van Halen’s work, doesn’t touch on any political issues. Rather, “Panama” is about singer David Lee Roth’s love of a certain vehicle.
According to Van Halen lore, Panama was the name of one of Roth’s beloved cars. However, it was guitarist Eddie Van Halen who helped give the song a more highway-ready feel. For the recording, Van Halen allegedly drove his Lamborghini into the studio and hooked microphones to the exhaust pipe, providing an added background detail that can be heard during the breakdown of the song.
If those car-inspired moments weren’t enough, the band can be seen cruising in a classic red sports car in the song’s official music video while Roth lets his long hair whip in the wind on a motorcycle. These images likely inspired countless drivers to first let loose in their automobiles while enjoying the classic tune.
And while the song has been a point of contention in Roth and his relationships with past and present band members – Roth once reportedly quipped after seeing his replacement Sammy Hagar sing the song that he “always thought that song should be sung by a girl” – it remains a definitive classic for both Van Halen and car enthusiasts the world over.
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