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It must be the ultimate stand-in performance: an earnest 24-year-old replacing a giant of pop in front of 74,000 people at London’s Wembley Stadium and a global television audience of hundreds of millions. All at a moment’s notice, and with only her self-worth and an acoustic guitar to steady to her. It was not, as some misremember, Live Aid in 1985 that introduced Cleveland’s Tracy Chapman to the wider world, but the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert three years later. Yet the song that made the greatest impression on June 11 1988 was undoubtedly Chapman’s searing ballad about fleeing a low-income life, “Fast Car”.
Chapman had already played a three-song set that afternoon. When Stevie Wonder mislaid some vital computer programs and couldn’t perform, she stepped up again. The two songs she gave then, “Fast Car” and “Across the Lines”, made her name. Being a young black woman — shy yet resolute, tender yet flinty — at an anti-apartheid event, Chapman briefly became the face of a new kind of protest movement.
She was not a complete unknown. Her eponymous debut album had been released that April. “Fast Car” came out as a single in the UK a week before the Mandela gig. She was on a major label, too, thanks to the industry connections of the college friend who discovered her. But “Fast Car” ferried this very private person to public acclaim. By mid-July, it was No 5 in the UK singles chart. It would reach No 6 in America that August. Her album became a worldwide hit, garlanding her with Grammy and Brit awards.
The success of the song is its stoic simplicity and the build-up of narrative detail, couched in Chapman’s warm but wearied voice. The car is an escape module from work as a checkout girl, a vehicle for an American dream to “buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs”. In the end, though, it’s not poverty that crushes the protagonist’s hopes but the fecklessness of her partner, who sees more of his friends than he does his kids. In the chorus of the studio version, the supportive rhythm section accelerates the drama, boosting the giddy, almost guilty sense of freedom the singer experiences while driving. Soon it is a distant memory.
So distinctive is Chapman’s treatment of the song that covers of “Fast Car” struggle to distinguish themselves. The New York rap duo Nice & Smooth sampled the lilting guitar refrain on “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” in 1991, but wisely avoided quoting the words. Wayne Wonder had no such qualms in taking the song for a jaunty reggae joyride in 1989. A remix of that track by King Tubby was an intriguing diversion into dubbier territory. Both turned out to be fatal to lyrical nuance.
Inevitably, “Fast Car” has been pranged by the reality-show juggernaut, Britain’s Got Talent’s Michael Collings doing his best not to dent it in 2011. The soporific Brit-soul warbler Sam Smith cut a live rendition for BBC Radio 1 in 2014. Yet the oddest resprays occurred late last year, when “Fast Car” was sampled for not one but two tropical-house club bangers: by Jonas Blue featuring Dakota and TobTok featuring River. The former hit No 2 in the UK and No 1 in Australia, but neither gets beyond first gear even as pure pop.
Like its singer, “Fast Car” is nothing if not resilient, and all these bumps in the road have not damaged the integrity of the original. “Me myself I got nothing to prove,” Chapman declares in the song. That’s been true ever since that emotive afternoon in June 1988.
Photograph: Tony Mottram/Retna Pictures