I was barely out of toddler range when The Cars released The Cars in 1978, but, c’mon, a band called The Cars? What five-year old boy wouldn’t become a fan a band with such a cool name?!? That The Cars was one of my mom’s favourites helped of course. She knew all the words when ‘Good Times Roll,’ ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ or ‘Just What I Needed’ came on the radio in our blue Pinto death trap (we didn’t know about such things in the 70s, safety/schmafety). That the car had a radio was an improvement. My parents’ first car, a green Mazda of some sort had a broken one. This was a point I made sure the salesman who was attempting to sell the Pinto to my parents knew when we discussed the trade in. That was 40-something years ago, and my mother still recalls it fondly.
The first three tracks off The Cars were top 10 hits. They were ubiquitous in the late 70s, and by the early 80s, they had been fast-tracked classic rock stations across the world. So even though these songs were only 5 or 6 years old (the same age as my sister, incidentally), didn’t really matter. They were stone cold classics.
And how could they not be? ‘Good Times Roll’ was all coolness and verve. Starting off with a basic guitar riff over a synth, Ric Ocasek saunters in, declaring ‘Let the good times roll/Let them knock you around/Let the good times roll/Let them make you a clown.’ And then the drums and bass come in, and Ric casually tells us to ‘Let them leave you up in the air/Let them brush your rock’n’roll hair.’ I mean, fuck to the hell yeah! This was a declaration, a call to arms. I can still smell my dad’s cologne when he and my mom managed to go out on a date with two young kids at home (and a dissolving marriage). And my dad singing along to Ocasek. To my five-year-old eyes, when I saw The Cars on TV (I don’t remember how, what programme, what time of day), I quickly got over my fascination with KISS and their childish makeup. I saw coolness personified in Ocasek. Tall. Lanky, languid, sunglasses, he never seemed fussed.
And then we get ‘My Best Friend’s Girl Friend.’ This is a classic rock’n’roll song: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy’s best friend meets girl, boy gets depressed. Oddly enough, during my second period of infatuation with this album, in 1993-4, I did this to my best friend. Mike dated Christine. They broke up. Christine and I hooked up and spent six years together, so it’s not like it was a callous thing. Mike took it all in stride. He had a new girl now, anyway. Anouk.
Each of this trilogy of killer tracks starts off similarly, with guitar or bass riffs before the rest of the track kicks in. ‘Just What I Needed,’ well here Orr takes over lead vocals, as he wrote the song. His voice differs some from Ocasek’s, deeper, stronger. And he affects Ocasek’s cool, laconically relating the tale of a girl who hangs around at his place, wasting all his time, talking in her sleep and so on. But, it’s all good. Turns out this is just what Orr needed anyway.
So, really, there is nothing ground breaking in this holy trinity, but in reality, everything is ground-breaking. I read some critic in Rolling Stone in their Top 100 albums of the 80s issue say about one of The Cars’ albums from that decade that what they did was take a whole whack of disparate parts of contemporary music from classic rock to punk to new wave and 50s rockabilly to create something new. Nothing sounded like The Cars in 1978, though they sounded like a lot of other artists. Elvis Costello, in particular, comes to mind. So does Joe Jackson. But they didn’t do it like The Cars.
The Cars has been one of my favourite albums for my entire life. As I got older, I realized there was more to the album than just that Holy Trinity. And one of the ways you could tell is if you kept listening after ‘Just What I Needed,’ something I didn’t do until I was 12 or 13. The other way to tell is that ‘I’m in Touch With Your World’ starts off without a simple riff, the song just starts, centred around bass and drums as Ocasek breaks out of his monotone to an eery, higher pitch. The song jerks and starts around the bass and drums, occasionally breaking out into a straight-ahead 4/4 rock song.
Throughout the album, Ocasek employs irony and sarcasm across his lyrics, which was rare in a mainstream band in the day. These were not the earnest crooners of old. Indeed, in explaining the band’s decision to sign with Elektra Records over the rival, Arista, drummer David Robinson recalled it was because Elektra didn’t do new wave, meaning The Cars would stand out more on that label, which was banking on Jackson Browne and The Eagles (man, I cannot fucking stand The Eagles).
‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ is one of the standouts of the deeper cuts of the album, the lyrics are obvious, but the music is a wonderful new wave workout, Ocasek’s rhythm guitar sounds processed, while Elliot Easton’s lead guitar occasionally breaks away from the music to go for a stroll over the track. But it’s Greg Hawkes’ keyboards that drive this song, turning it into something other than a basic rock’n’roll track. And Robinson’s drums roll, crash, and thump more than anything else. The following track, ‘Bye Bye Love’ also sees Easton make use of the flanger pedal, as Ocasek’s guitar and Benjamin Orr’s bass drive the song forward over Robinson’s drums. The song makes use of several tempo changes, but Ocasek’s vocals tie it all together. The chorus is epic, and I mean that in all seriousness, as Hawkes drops a simple piano riff in.
But it’s ‘Moving in Stereo’ that is the gem of this album. Starting off with a keyboard flourish, or the effects of that flanger if the volume is high enough, low to high, low to high, low to high, as Ocasek’s rhythm guitar kicks in with Orr’s bass and Robinson’s drums. And then Hawkes drops this wicked pop pop pop keyboard over top. Orr drops his voice an octave, sounding more like Peter Murphy of Bauhaus than himself, as he bemoans modern life. This could never have been a hit song, it sounds too much like a b-side, but it is also brilliant. The crispness of Robinson’s snare is classic new wave, and Hawkes’ keyboards are a further mark. For the last verse, Orr’s voice is filtered, so he sounds like he’s on the phone long distance.
‘Moving in Stereo’ fades into album closer ‘All Mixed Up,’ another classic love song, of sorts. Over a muted guitar, cymbals, and light bassline from Orr, Ocasek declares that ‘it’s all mixed up’ and then Easton drops in with his lead riff, and Hawkes turns up his volume as Ocasek notes why it’s all mixed up before concluding once again that it is, indeed ‘all mixed up.’ The song continues on, with Ocasek’s woman telling him ‘to leave it to me, it’ll be alright’ before this saxophone appears out of nowhere and takes the album into fade and then dark. It’s over.
One of the things that makes the deep cuts from The Cars so note-worthy and never worthy of being an A-side is that the tempos change so much, and some of them are jerky in nature, centred around Robinson’s drums. This makes for some excellent songs, most definitely, but not hit singles. All the better for anyone who gets past the Holy Trinity that kicks off this album.
It was also rare for an album in 1978 in that The Cars openly embraced new technology, both in terms of instrumentation and in the studio. Robinson recalls he and his bandmates buying all kinds of crazy new hear, only for it to be obsolete in a week. But it was this experimentation that added this thing that made The Cars so different than anything else when this album came out. It wasn’t bloated prog rock. And it wasn’t tired up, worn out British Invasion bands like the Stones and the Who. There were other new wavers in the Top 40, of course, like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, but The Cars outshone them all.
All told, The Cars spent 139 weeks on the charts, that Holy Trinity were all Top 40 tracks, and even some of the deep cuts got steady radio play, despite not being really all that radio friendly. The album sold over 6 million copies. And, of course, it has bene a staple of classic rock radio since the early 80s.
The Cars experienced declining returns from their following albums, though perhaps that is not surprising given the big bang of The Cars. The next album, 1979’s Candy-O sold 4 million copies, 1980’s Panorama only one million, and so on until their big come back with 1984’s Heartbreak City, which begat the mega hits ‘You Might Think,’ ‘Magic,’ and ‘Drive.’ It was also on the shoot for the video for ‘Drive’ where Ocasek met his future wife, the supermodel Paulina Porizkova. They broke up in the late 80s, Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. The remaining Cars reformed for a surprisingly good late career album, Move Like This in 2011.
Ocasek became a prolific producer, even dating back to The Cars heyday, his first production credit came on Suicide’s Alan Vega and Martin Rev in 1980. His production credits vary wildly, from Suicide to Bad Religion, The Cars, Lloyd Cole, Weezer, Jonathan Richman, Guided By Voices, Le Tigre and, um, Bad Brains, for whom he produced 1983’s Rock for Light and 1995’s God of Light.
Ocasek died last weekend at home in NYC of pulmonary issues. He was 75. He and Porizkova had separated last year after 28 years of marriage, though they were clearly still in touch, as it was she who found his body. I was shocked how old he was, he seemed to be a decade too old to have been that cool dude in The Cars in the late 70s. But, Ocasek and Orr had been making music together since the 1960s in Cleveland. In other words, they were a decade older than their bandmates, and a decade older than most of their new wave contemporaries. May he (and Orr) rest in peace.