Car-aoke | #9

“Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin

Few other everyday objects have shaped modern music as much as the car. In this column, our editors write about songs that tell a car-related story. Some of them have even gone down in music history. But by no means all of them ...

God, a Mercedes, and a hippie icon: There is this one song that we cannot miss out in this series dealing with cars and the role they have played in music history – “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of this legendary song. And unfortunately also of Janis Joplin’s death.

On August 8, 1970, she scribbled the legendary plea “Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” on a beer-soaked napkin during a pub crawl with friends in Port Chester, a small town in New York state. On stage later that evening, Joplin surprised her audience and her band with the words “I’d like to play a song that is quite meaningful for me… I wrote it in a bar on the corner, so I still don’t know the lyrics really well.” She recorded the song less than two months later during a break in a recording session for her album “Pearl” — on a whim, a cappella, in just one take. The song, “Mercedes Benz” (without a hyphen), was never meant to go public.

When Janis Joplin sang about Mercedes-Benz 50 years ago, the SL of the 113 Series – nicknamed “Pagoda” – was not yet a vintage car. It was built as 230 SL until 1967, and even until 1971 as 280 SL.
When Janis Joplin sang about Mercedes-Benz 50 years ago, the SL of the 113 Series – nicknamed “Pagoda” – was not yet a vintage car. It was built as 230 SL until 1967, and even until 1971 as 280 SL.

But as we all know, things never turn out the way you'd expect. It’s unlikely that Joplin, the blues rock legend, could ever have dreamed that one day her song would serve as the musical backdrop of diverse commercials — mainly, but not exclusively, for the car with the star. For example, there’s a commercial for our competitor in Munich, in which a driver flings a Janis Joplin cassette out of his convertible in a high arc. One thing is clear: When Joplin wrote the song, her intention was not to boost the sales figures for any brand of luxury sedan. On the contrary. Joplin, the woman with one of the most unusual voices of her generation, was criticizing consumerism through irony.

So her introduction of the song in the recording made on October 1, 1970, should be taken with a grain of salt: “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import.” She was making fun of a society that seeks happiness through the acquisition of possessions and luxury goods. The examples she names besides a Mercedes-Benz include another brand made in Stuttgart — “My friends all drive Porsches” — and a color TV, which was still a status symbol at the start of the 1970s. “Mercedes Benz” was released in 1971 on the album “Pearl,” which “Rolling Stone” has called one of the 500 best albums of all time. The irony of this story is that by writing “Mercedes Benz” Joplin created a musical tribute to the brand that she actually wanted to shake off its pedestal. What’s more, Joplin herself was not a radical denier of consumerism. In 1968 she had invested in a Porsche 356 convertible with a gaudy “flower power” paint job.

The fact that today many people regard “Mercedes Benz” as a hymn rather than a sneer may be due to the dozens of cover versions sung by musicians ranging from the pop legend Elton John to the German singer Klaus Lage. A major reason for the iconic afterlife of “Mercedes Benz” is the fact that it was the last song Janis Joplin created in her all too short life. She died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel room on October 4, 1970.

Cornelia Hentschel

Cornelia Hentschel is the head of the Content & Creations department of Daimler Corporate Communications.

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