The Cars - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
This isn’t very cool to say, and really never has been, but The Cars are a pure joy. Their first two records were just thoroughly vivid and unique; the third one is great, too, and the fourth one, even though the band had become so ubiquitous by that point that some of the novelty had started to wear off. They really did invent synth pop, yet they managed to not wuss out – they always remained a rock band. The studio production tottered dangerously close to genius; Ric Ocasek had a fine knack for arrangements; the harmonies were splendid; and it was all projected widescreen, in Technicolor and Cinemascope. It wasn’t cool to like them, but you wouldn’t have much of the music of the 80s without what The Cars accomplished in the 70s.
The line up:
Ric Ocasek - rhythm guitar, lead and backing vocals
Benjamin Orr - bass, lead and backing vocals
Elliot Easton - lead & rhythm guitars, backing vocals
Greg Hawkes - keyboards, synthesizer, percussion, saxophone, tenor saxophone, backing vocals
David Robinson - drums, percussion, backing vocals
Ocasek and Orr met at a party in Columbus, Ohio, and soon started a cover band, albeit an odd cover band; Ocasek’s tastes were catholic and trended towards the likes of Captain Beefheart and Iggy Pop. After relocating to Boston, they met Greg Hawkes. The three of them started a folk group (!) called Milkwood. They actually have one release, How’s the Weather (1973 Paramount). It went nowhere.
After Milkwood it was Richard and the Rabbits (Jonathan Richman came up with that dreadful moniker); then they parted ways for a while, and Ocasek backed the comedian Martin Mull in his musical act (the things you learn researching these entries); then it was the folk duo of Ocasek and Orr. That’s what they called the act. It doesn’t sound very promising, but a bunch of the songs on The Cars’ first LP came from Ocasek and Orr. Then they brought in Elliot Easton, who had gone to Berklee School of Music, and performed as Cap’n Swing (these names). A guy named Keith Robichaud was the drummer.
Cap’n Swing tried to get some major label attention, but couldn’t, these were some strange looking dudes, especially Ocasek. He has a praying mantis thing going on. Orr was lead singer. The labels griped that he just stood there, so he became the bass player. David Robinson became the new drummer, and (finally) gave the band a decent name. Says Ocasek, “It's so easy to spell; it doesn't have a 'z' on the end; it's real authentic. It's pop art, in a sense." The Cars.
So many of these stories about the road to rock ‘n’ roll fame and fortune are full of struggle and whatnot. Not for The Cars. Once they got the lineup fixed and a decent name, it all happened pretty fast for The Cars. They played all over New England in the beginning of 1977; Ocasek took over the majority of lead vocals; they recorded a demo of “Just What I Needed”; it got local airplay; they got signed to Elektra; Elektra put them in the studio with Roy Thomas Baker, the Englishman who produced Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody; and in June of 2008 they had an LP out and it heading up the charts. Simple as that.
The Cars (1978 Elektra) is such an obvious hit. Or, rather, it is so obviously full of hits. The LP peaked at #18, but this was the era of AOR radio; look at this list of songs: “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “Moving in Stereo.” Most bands would give anything to have that many FM classics spread over an entire career. They’re spread over The Cars’ debut LP. Thanks to that string of catchy, propulsive, unique New Wave gems, The Cars stayed on the charts for 139 weeks. If you owned a radio back then, you knew those songs by heart.
“Just What I Needed” is a total foot tapper, with its aggro rhythm guitar line, and in-your-face synth solo; “Best Friend’s Girl” is irresistibly catchy with its yeah-yeah-yeah vocals and handclaps; “Moving in Stereo” is a slinky bit of menace, made forever slinkier by the sight of Phoebe Cates in her bikini in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Credit Baker with much of the gloss and sheen. He’s not the most subtle producer in the world, but his bombast suited The Cars well.
The Cars is a rock classic, and such things can be hard to top, but the follow-up LP, Candy O (1979 Elektra), is still great. It rocks a tad harder than the debut. “Let’s Go” was the single; “Shoo Be Doo” is Ocasek’s very literal homage to New York synth punks, Suicide; the title track is self-confident and full of swagger. For the cover, David Robinson (he handled all of the band’s art direction) commissioned art by famed 40s pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. Hubba hubba. Candy O went to #3 on the charts.
Third album blues. Panorama (1980 Elektra) is a darker, slightly more experimental effort. It garnered The Cars their first mediocre reviews, but it’s got plenty of great stuff: the electronic, krautrock-inspired drone of the title track; “Up and Down” is a fine, frenetic rocker. “Touch and Go” was a Top 40 hit; the LP went to #5. After Panorama, The Cars would buy a studio of their own in Boston, Synchro Sound. Alternately, Shake It Up (1981 Elektra) was very well received. It’s a glossier affair, full of lush power ballads. “Since You’re Gone” is quite lovely, actually, while poppy title track jumped up to #4. It’s the only record they recorded in their own studio, but Baker still helmed. Why mess with success?
Then something peculiar happened. The Cars took a break, caught a second wind and got even more popular. They were perfectly suited for the MTV era – they were smart, witty, high-tech savvy, irresistibly poppy and glossy. Heartbeat City (1984 Elektra) was a big hit. “You Might Think” went to #7. “Magic” went to #12. “Drive” went to #3. “Hello Again” went to #20. “Why Can’t I Have You” went to #33. There were rock videos day and night on MTV. Ric Ocasek bagged a supermodel wife out of the deal. (The wife he already had probably wasn’t too stoked about it, but these things happen.) And they did mess with success: “Mutt” Lange produced. It all worked out. Andy Warhol directed the video for “Hello Again” – and he appeared in it. The band performed at Live Aid in front of 100,000 people. The Cars won Video of the Year at the first MTV Video Music Awards. “Drive" was used in a video of the Ethiopian famine made by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and shown at Live Aid. David Bowie introduced it.
And that was pretty much it. The single from Greatest Hits (1985 Elektra), “Tonight She Comes,” went to #7. The last record, Door to Door (1987 Elektra) was a modest success. The singles: “Strap Me In” (#85); “You Are the Girl” (#17); “Coming Up You” (#74). It was critically panned. They called it quits. Not a bad run. Ben Orr passed in 2000. He died of pancreatic cancer, but he died with his boots on, on the road, touring clubs until the end with his band du jour. Easton and Hawkes make the rounds on the RV and boat show circuit, as The New Cars. Robinson owns a restaurant. Ocasek runs the studio and is still with the (now ex-) supermodel. That’s it. Go buy those first two LPs. They still hold up.
And I just cannot help myself. I have been ordered to stop writing in the first person. As in, “Stop,” or you don’t get paid. But I absolutely adored The Cars when I was in middle school, and in my freshman year of high school, they were a huge bonding agent with a gaggle of friends, and I’m still tight with some of them, and we sort of tittered when I got the assignment to write about them. I was going to write this entry and discuss that – what it’s like to go through life for 25 or 30 years with music as your social glue. Personally, I like that angle. It has soul, but whatever. My editor can always strip out this last paragraph.