2-4-6-8 Motorway was the first single released by the British punk rock / new wave group, Tom Robinson Band. Released on the 7th October 1977, the single reached number five in the UK singles chart. The band had only formed in January of the same year and was signed to EMI in the August.
Robinson had written 2-4-6-8 Motorway between leaving his previous band, Cafe Society, in 1976 and forming his new band. At the beginning of the Tom Robinson Band, Robinson was playing gigs with whichever friends were available on the night, so the song was written in order that it could be learnt in a matter of minutes.
The music of 2-4-6-8 Motorway was conceived whilst Robinson was attempting to work out the chords for the Climax Blues Band song, Couldn’t Get It Right (Gold Plated, 1976).
He couldn’t remember the tune properly and this led to the song having just three chords repeated throughout the whole song. The song has a suitably driving beat which helps to conjure up visions in the listener’s mind of the “ol’ ten-ton lorry” travelling down the motorway.
Lyrically, the song was inspired by Robinson’s memories of driving back to London through the night after gigs with Cafe Society. He explained this in an interview with M Magazine in 2011: “The verse lyric came from having done cheap gigs around the country with my previous band, Cafe Society, and driving back through the night from places like Scarborough and Rotherham. By the time our van hit the last stretch of the M1 into London, the motorway sun really was coming up to the morning light”.
The song tells of the joys of driving a truck with lines such as “Drive my truck midway to the motorway station” and all the things the narrator encounters on his journey, such as “Fairlane cruiser coming on up on the left side”, “The little young Lady Stardust hitching a ride” and “Whizzkid sitting pretty on your two-wheel stallion”. “The little young Lady Stardust” takes her name from the David Bowie song Lady Stardust, from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Given that Robinson is openly gay, something celebrated in the song Glad to Be Gay and that the Lady Stardust in Bowie’s song is actually male, it could be suggested that 2-4-6-8 Motorway is about a gay truck driver and even that the narrator picks up “Little young Lady Stardust” for a “ride” in the sense of sexual intercourse.
Elsewhere in the song, Robinson sings “Me and my radio truckin’ on thru the night”. In this line, the “radio” could either refer to a radio in the stereo system sense or perhaps the CB radios used as a communication tool between truck drivers. Other lines include “Headlight shining, driving rain on the window pane” and “… on the double white line”, which further evoke thoughts of travelling on the motorway. Additionally, the narrator tells of how he doesn’t need anybody but his beloved truck and the simplicity of only having himself to answer to in lines such as “Ain’t no use setting up with a bad companion, Ain’t nobody get the better of you-know-who” and “Well there ain’t no route you could choose to lose the two of us, Ain’t nobody know when you’re acting right or wrong”.
The chorus of the song was adapted from a Gay Lib chant which went, “2-4-6-8, Gay is twice as good as straight … 3, 5, 7, 9, Lesbians are mighty fine”. Although the origins of the chorus are not apparent to the casual listener, they could be seen as a precursor to later more politically driven songs such as the follow up single, Glad to Be Gay (1978).
On hearing the song, EMI turned it down, but following a period of touring in which the band became tighter and guitarist Danny Kustow expanded his riff repertoire, they relented and released the record. The single was such an instant success that it saw the band performing it on Top of the Pops on the 27th of October and later on the 10th of November.
2-4-6-8 Motorway was not featured on the band’s debut album Power in the Darkness (1978). Robinson had described the decision to not include the song as a “fatal mistake” on many occasions. However, in the US, the song was included on a free 7” EP, together with Gad to Be Gay, which came with the album.