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The Cars Retrospective: A Tribute To Ric Ocasek

The Cars was a band for everyone.

While some initially lumped the band in with the New Wave scene, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that The Cars were a band that straddled many genres so it was difficult to pigeonhole them into any specific one.  Like Cheap Trick, they were loved by the Classic Rock crowd, the Power Pop lovers, New Wave fans and those who followed the Top 40.  The Cars’ unique style mixed a love of Rock ‘n’ Roll (from the ’50s and the ‘60s) with all the modern conveniences of the late ’70s and early ’80s music scene.

The Cars was what a rock band should always be about – learn from the past, create your present, and aim for the future. The Cars achieved that in spades. Their sound was entirely unique yet their records seemed to be influenced by artists such as Buddy Holly, Kraftwerk, Queen, Cheap Trick, The Beatles, Blondie, the two Elvises, etc. The Cars was one of the few bands that crossed over from Post-Punk cool to commercial superstardom without losing any street cred. In a nutshell, The Cars rocked and everyone listened.

While Ric Ocasek (guitar/vocals), Benjamin Orr (bass/vocals), Greg Hawkes (keyboards), David Robinson (drums) and Elliot Easton (guitar) may have seemed like a bunch of ordinary guys: together, they made an extraordinary sound.  There were many ‘quirky New Wave bands’ that followed in their wake, but none of them possessed the magic that helped this Rock quintet become one of the most successful American bands of their era.

And 41 years after their debut album was released, their songs are fondly remembered by music lovers of all ages. The Cars didn’t just speak to my generation – they’ve continued to touch every generation since. Everybody seems to know at least one song by The Cars… and probably more than that.

For the most part, every one of those Cars songs was composed by Ocasek. However, he knew Orr’s vocal strengths and Benjamin would sing a few songs per album including some of their biggest hits over the years (“Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go,” “Drive,” etc.) Ocasek never hid his love of ‘50s and ‘60s Rock ‘n’ Roll yet he never shied away from expressing his passion for Avant-Garde and Experimental music.

Case in point: “Shoo Be Doo” (from CANDY-0) combines Buddy Holly-like hiccupping vocals with Suicide-inspired electronics. It is one of the many Cars songs that showcased their desire to work outside the box, to create something new out of two seemingly disparate styles of music. And it worked. Many times over.

As a tribute to Ric Ocasek, who passed away on September 15, 2019, I thought I’d give an overview of The Cars’ career. This focuses on the band’s catalog and does not feature any solo material by Ocasek, Orr, Hawkes, or Easton.

 

THE CARS (Elektra Records) was their debut album and remains their most popular.

Released in 1978, the album was a blend of straight ahead Rock tastefully flavored with inventive keyboard playing from Hawkes. The two big hit singles from the album were “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” but FM radio picked up on gems like “Moving In Stereo,” “Good Times Roll,” and “All Mixed Up,” making this debut one of the hottest albums released that year. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker, the album was big, bold, and original yet filled to the brim with memorable hooks.

NOTE: There is a Deluxe 2CD Edition that features bonus live and demo recordings.

 

While Roy Thomas Baker was back producing their second album, CANDY-O (Elektra Records), this 1979 release was a different beast, sonically. Whereas their debut was a Rock album with flourishes of New Wave, Post-Punk, and Avant Garde, CANDY-O was a blend of all those genres. It was the album that really defined The Cars’ sound. “Let’s Go” was the album’s first single and lead-off track and has become one of their most recognizable tunes. However, the album is filled with tracks that are just as awe-inspiring including “It’s All I Can Do,” “Got A Lot On My Head,” “Since I Held You,” ‘Double Life,” and the title track, all of which became FM radio staples. Plain and simple, CANDY-O is one of the finest albums of the era.

NOTE: There is a digitally remastered and expanded edition available including bonus tracks.

 

While still sounding like The Cars, the band took a slight detour with their 1980 album PANORAMA (Elektra Records).

A much darker affair than their two previous albums, this third platter was moody, brooding, and quirky. The exuberance of their first two albums may have been toned down but Ocasek’s songs were still top notch. “Touch And Go” was a wonderfully modern nod to the simplicity of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s more innocent days. “Running To You” is an overlooked gem. Tracks like “Gimme Some Slack,” “Misfit Kid,” “Don’t Tell Me No,” and the title track were high on FM radio’s playlists. Sure, it was a moody album but still a full-on Cars classic.

NOTE: There is a digitally remastered and expanded edition available including bonus tracks.

 

With their musical sulking out of the way, The Cars returned to their happier selves with 1981’s SHAKE IT UP (Elektra Records).  With Roy Thomas Baker continuing as the band’s producer, this album was a return to the brighter sounds of CANDY-O but with more sonic – and emotional – depth. It isn’t quite the marvel that their sophomore album was but it certainly possesses the same cheery disposition. Well, for the most part. “Since You’re Gone” and the title track are two of the best-known tracks from the album while “I’m Not The One” has become one of their best-loved ballads…one of their few ballads, come to think of it! “Cruiser,” “Victim Of Love,” and “Think It Over” received loads of airplay on the FM dial.

NOTE: There is a digitally remastered and expanded edition available including bonus tracks.

 

After three long years, the band returned with 1984’s HEARTBEAT CITY (Elektra Records), the most commercially successful album of their career.

It must be said that just because an album is a huge success doesn’t necessarily mean that it is their best… and this album is a testament to that statement. The band spent a long time in the studio with producer Mutt Lange creating an album that would alter and define their new sound.

Problem is, that ‘new sound’ was very 1984 and has not dated very well over the years.  With programmed drums and layers of keyboards, HEARTBEAT CITY was lacking the true ‘feel’ of the band.

It sounded more like a Ric Ocasek and Mutt Lange album featuring members of The Cars in supporting roles.

With that being said, this album features some of the band’s biggest singles: “Drive” (one of Orr’s finest vocals), “You Might Think,” “Magic,” and “Hello Again.” Not a bad album by any means, HEARTBEAT CITY is a hugely successful album without the heart and soul of its predecessors.

NOTE: There is a digitally remastered and expanded edition available including bonus tracks.

 

While the band basked in the success of HEARTBEAT CITY, they didn’t plan to head into the studio anytime soon to record an album so Elektra released the GREATEST HITS album in 1985.

This set featured one ‘new’ track “Tonight She Comes,” which encapsulated everything good about the HEARTBEAT CITY album and injected it with joyful passion.

NOTE: “Tonight She Comes” was added to the expanded edition of HEARTBEAT CITY amongst other tracks.

 

 

 

Just when folks were worried about the future of The Cars, they finally released a new album, DOOR TO DOOR (Elektra Records), in 1987.

This powerhouse of an album was confident, melodic, gut-punching and filled with an energy that hadn’t been heard since CANDY-O. Armed with a cache of great songs – some of which dated back to the band’s earliest demos – this was the album that HEARTBEAT CITY should have been.

Produced by Ocasek and Hawkes, DOOR TO DOOR was a true return to form. Songs like “You Are The Girl,” “Coming Up You,” “Strap Me In,” and “Leave Or Stay” are right up there with the best of the band’s back catalog.

This was the album that returned to the band’s Rock-oriented roots and was certain to be one of their best-loved albums.  Alas, there was one slight problem – nobody else thought that way.

NOTE: There is a digitally remastered and expanded edition available including bonus tracks.

DOOR TO DOOR was a complete bomb critically and commercially and is barely remembered by anyone outside of the band’s fanbase. Such a complete shame since it is one of their best albums. Perhaps it will receive a long overdue reappraisal soon…

And for a while, that was it. The band split up. Ocasek, Orr, and Easton went solo. Hawkes – who would occasionally work with Ocasek – and Robinson became respected studio musicians. Ocasek also became an in-demand producer, twiddling the knobs for bands like Weezer. Over the years, rumors persisted of a Cars reunion but it never happened. Sadly, Orr passed away in 2000 of pancreatic cancer. It seemed as if the reunion was never going to happen…

(I’ve been criticized for not mentioning The New Cars in past reviews/write-ups I’ve done on The Cars. So, there’s your mention, readers.)

In 2011, a little over a decade after the death of Benjamin Orr, the four surviving members of The Cars released MOVE LIKE THIS (Hear Music), an album that embraced the sound of the original band without sounding too nostalgic about the past.

This was a true Cars album that was only lacking the distinct voice of Orr.

Everything else, though, was exactly what fans wanted: great songs and a relaxed energy that only old friends can bring to a recording session. “Sad Song,” “Blue Tip,” “Take Another Look,” and “Too Late” were prime Cars cuts.

The album was a breath of fresh air as well as a complete surprise to fans, old and new.

 

Apart from the above albums, I also recommend:

MOVING IN STEREO: THE BEST OF THE CARS (Rhino Records)

A solid career retrospective that features the hits and even adds material from their final album

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ELEKTRA YEARS 1978-1987 (6CDs) (Elektra Records)

A box set containing digital remasters of their first six albums. These are faithful reproductions of the original albums and do not include bonus tracks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly, Ric Ocasek’s death brings an end to The Cars. He was a true visionary who loved Rock and Pop music and lived by his instincts.  We should all be thankful that he took the chances he did and gifted us with one hell of a back catalog.

Thank you, Ric. And Ben. And special thanks to the three surviving members: Greg, Elliot and David.

Shoo Be Doo,

Stephen SPAZ Schnee

 

 

 

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