If you were a teenager in 1978 and 1979, you fell in love with a new wave band from Boston called The Cars. Their self-titled debut album from 1978 was so full of that new sound called new wave but still based in the album-oriented rock sound that was popular at the time that the Cars immediately became a huge band with my age group. C’mon! Their first three singles were “Just What I Needed”, “Good Times Roll” and “My Best Friend’s Girl”. What band wouldn’t pray for a beginning like that? But, that album was a slow cooker overall. Although those songs hit the Top 40, The Cars never got close to the Top 10 on the singles chart, and neither did their first album. But, the album was a steady seller.
Then, in 1979, they released their second album, just as their debut was only slightly begin to wane in sales. That second album, Candy-O, did go Top 10. And, even though several of their songs were ubiquitous on the radio, none of the singles went Top 10, though “Let’s Go” was close when it peaked at number 11.
The thing I found so great about The Cars was the AOR sensibilities melded with new wave touches, some artful aloofness in the lyrics, a deadpan singing delivery, straight-up pop sensibilities and an obvious influence from the Velvet Underground. To a kid in the Midwest who was sick of the Foreigner/Bad Company/REO/Skynyrd crap that was being played by all of his friends, The Cars were a breath of fresh air, as well as an entry group into the punk and new wave scene on both coasts and overseas.
As I right this, I am listening to The Cars’ new compilation called Moving in Stereo: The Best of The Cars, and I am being reminded of their greatness. Although it was so cool that they had been nominated for the RRHOF this past year, I was not fully on board. But, now I am! Sure, they tried a reunion back in 2011, when The Cars released their Move Like This album. But after bassist/vocalist Benjamin Orr passed away in the early 2000s, I felt that leader Ric Ocasek could not really carry all of the vocals for a whole album. Even though their voices were similar, Orr’s vocals held a human side whereas Ocasek’s voice was more deadpan. The two singers worked well together when they were able to trade lead vocals on songs on an album. To my ears, that was exactly what their Move Like This album was missing.
Now, after The Cars came out hot on their first two albums, the group lost some ground on their third album, Panorama. Personally, that is one of my personal favorites in their catalog, but I do understand why it lost the group some momentum. The reason is that The Cars were influenced by the new post-punk sounds, but had not discovered a way to incorporate that sound into their radio-friendly sound.
During my freshman year in college, The Cars made a little comeback of sorts as their fourth album, Shake It Up, made some inroads with the experimentation in their sound. The big hit, their first Top 10 song, was the title track. If you listened carefully, you could tell the band was on the verge of something big when they reconvened in the studio in 1983. During 1982, Ric Ocasek, lead guitarist Elliott Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes all recorded solo albums. After that break, The Cars teamed with legendary produced “Mutt” Lange to create 1984’s creative peak Heartbeat City.
When The Cars released their biggest-selling album in 1984, their popularity skyrocketed. The band not only created a record with state-of-the-art sound, but they were creating some of the most creative music videos for their songs, especially the first computer-generated images used in the music video for “You Might Think”. Additionally, their song “Drive” was used in a money-drive video for Africa during Live Aid in 1985.
During August of 1984, my now-wife and I saw The Cars in concert at old Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. I had always heard that the band rarely interacted with the audience, but I was NOT prepared for what happened that night. The only words uttered by the band was by Ric Ocasek, when he said “Hello” to the crowd after the third song in the set. Then, after the last song of the night, he spoke up to say “Goodnight” after the last song of the main set. I could tell the band was squabbling, as they came back for a three-song encore where no one said a thing to the crowd or each other. And when they were done, they all waved goodbye and left. That was it.
The music was fantastic, but the aura the band was giving off that night told me that they were not long for this world as a band. Sure, at the end of 1985, they released their first Greatest Hits compilation and had a Top 10 song with “Tonight She Comes”, but it seemed as though the band was spent. They did come back in 1986 with the lackluster Door to Door. By the time that album had been released the band was done.
Recently, I read a review of a re-release of their classic debut album on Pitchfork, which has many millennials writing for them. The critic was just blasting the album out of the water. Unfortunately, I think many young people have a difficult time putting much of our music into context. I always tell young people who are into music to go back and listen to the radio on a Sunday to an old classic re-run of a Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 show in order to hear all of the middle-of-the-road crap that was being played at the time: Juice Newton, Kenny Rogers, DeBarge, and much more! I love a good slow song like anyone, but when half of the Top 40 was slow, cheesy songs, you knew how important The Cars were to our age group! Sure, they never were Cheap Trick, but who is? The Cars did, however, play a very important role in the lives of music lovers between the years 1978 and 1985.
So, now that Cheap Trick is in the RRHOF, I have decided to put my loud mouth behind two groups: The Cars and The Jam. Those are my main rockers that I feel need to be inducted to represent our age group’s musical tastes. Also, I still maintain that the voters better quit screwing over Chic for induction! But, I save that rant for another day. Let me end this by saying thank goodness the internet is back up here in my area. It was down Friday, Saturday and part of the day on Sunday. That’s why I didn’t write very many entries last week. So, here’s to internet access to all!
5 thoughts on “Never Forget The Cars!”
Amen-the Cars paved the way for bands like the Pixies, who are frequently cited as an influence in their own right and worthy of Hall induction. Hope the nomination will be repeated. (Excellent blog, BTW!)
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Thanks Michelle! And welcome to the blog. I hope to hear more from you.
Back when the RRHOF was announced, I always felt The Cars were a shoo-in. Now, I don’t understand the games that are being played on the Induction Committee.
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You ever think part of The Cars success was their age and experience? If I’m not mistaken, they were all experienced musicians in a variety of musical genres who came together as The Cars in 1976 when they were all in their very late twenties or early thirties. Ocasek and Orr had been playing in various incarnations together since the Sixties!
If they don’t make it into the Hall soon, its gonna be one of those sad posthumous inductions where the widows and children give teary speeches on their behalf. Ric Ocasek is older than everyone from Led Zeppelin for crying out loud.
Love their first five albums but checked out on the last two.
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I like to theorize that after Candy-O the band was at a fork in their creative road. They took the left path and produced Panorama, and when they got blasted by critics they hustled back onto the right road that led to Shake It Up. Kind of a shame. I love the grinding, snarky sound of the entire Panorama album; it’s my favorite. Thanks for the great blog post.
You brought up an excellent point. I too prefer ‘Panorama’ as well. It’s the album/CD that I tend to listen to the most. But, isn’t it that way for many artists. I love Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ more than the rest of their catalog. Same with Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’. I just love artists who challenge themselves.
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