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‘Panama’: The Story Behind Van Halen’s Classic Car Song
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Panama’: The Story Behind Van Halen’s Classic Car Song

Always popular, if sometimes lyrically misunderstood, Panama is a rip-roaring rocker that remains one Van Halen’s greatest songs.

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One of the key tracks from Van Halen’s landmark, multi-platinum-selling album 1984, Panama remains one of the group’s most high-octane rock anthems. However, while it was instantly accepted as a classic rock song, its subject matter has often been misconstrued – both then and now.

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Why is the song called Panama?

It’s a question many fans have asked: Why did Van Halen name the song Panama in the first place? Taken literally, the title could be a reference to the Central American country of the same name. Or maybe it’s about a Panama hat? Frontman David Lee Roth does, after all, briefly sport such headgear in the song’s promo video.

However, while both these assumptions are entirely reasonable, they’re erroneous, for the rip-roaring Panama is actually a classic car song inspired by a motor race Roth attended before Van Halen began recording 1984. In an interview with radio DJ Howard Stern, Roth explained that he’d seen a car called Panama Express burning rubber in Las Vegas, and it had given him the name for the song.

What kind of car is Panama?

David Lee Roth has been clear that the Panama is a car he saw racing in Sin City, but the car heard revving its engine in the song is actually guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s 1972 Lamborghini Miura S. Attaching microphones to the vehicle’s exhaust pipe, producer Ted Templeton recorded the sound of the car as Eddie backed it up towards 5150 Studios, the guitarist’s own recording facility, in Los Angeles, where the group laid down 1984.

It’s also possible that Roth found some lyrical inspiration slightly closer to home, for his 1969 Opel Kadett Caravan wagon was also nicknamed Panama. While that latter suggestion is purely speculative, Panama is definitely a song about a fast car which Roth decided to write after one music critic accused him of “singing about only women, partying and fast cars”.

That appraisal may have been intended as a jibe, yet Roth was quite happy to accept it at face value – even though, at that point, he’d yet to write a song about any type of car. The lyrics he penned for Panama, however, could just as easily be heard as automotive-related double entendres (“Ain’t nothin’ like it, her shiny machine”).

What key is Panama in?

Regardless of the minutiae, Roth’s bandmates like their frontman’s words, and the group tasked Eddie Van Halen with writing a suitable riff to hang the song on.

“The guys asked me to write something with an AC/DC beat,” Van Halen revealed in Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill’s book, Eruptions: Conversations With Eddie Van Halen. “That ended up being Panama. It really doesn’t sound that much like AC/DC, but that was my interpretation of it.”

Nonetheless, Eddie’s no-nonsense, Malcolm Young-esque riff fitted the song like a glove, and with rhythm section Michael Anthony (bass) and Alex Van Halen (drums) working up a steadfast, four-to-the-floor groove, the group had the basis of yet another classic track, all topped off with the sound of Eddie’s 1972 Lamborghini Miura S rolling up to the studio doors.

“They thought we were nuts to pull up my Lamborghini to the studio and mic it,” the guitarist told Guitar World magazine. “We drove it around the city, and I revved the engine up to 80,000rpm just to get the right sound.”

In the end, the group got exactly the right sound on Panama, though, to confuse the issue, official documents differ from what can be heard on record. Despite the published score claiming that Panama is in the key of E major, the song is actually in the key of E flat major, and it has a tempo of approximately 144 beats per minute.

The release and legacy: “Van Halen has changed the face of pop music as we know it”

However fans heard it, Panama sounded just right. Released as a single on 18 June 1984, the song became the third of 1984’s three sizeable US hits, racing up to No.13 on the Billboard Hot 100, following on from the chart-topping Jump and the Top 20 hit I’ll Wait.

As with those other cuts, Panama’s commercial success was aided by a striking promo video, directed by Pete Angelus. In keeping with the Jump video, much of the footage was performance-based, captured during Van Halen’s two recent shows at Philadelphia’s Spectrum Arena, though the clip also depicted the band cruising in a classic car – not the Panama Express, but a cool 1951 Mercury Eight convertible. It made for a striking video which, as had become standard for the group, enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV and showed that Van Halen were at the very top of their game.

“Van Halen has absolutely changed the face of pop music as we know it, permanently and forever,” Roth told Rock Video magazine shortly after Panama’s release. “In 1984, you can’t avoid us. You can talk whatever you want about clothing and haircuts, but it’s all in the grooves. If the music moves, then you’ve got it.”

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