In most cases, a group has to rule its home turf before it conquers the world. That's exactly what happened with the Cars - Ric Ocasek (vocals/guitar), Benjamin Orr (bass/vocals), Elliot Easton (guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards) and David Robinson (drums). In '77, amid the disco onslaught, a demo version of "Just What I Needed" became the most request song at a local (Boston) Rock radio station. That caught the attention of Elektra Records who signed the group. "The Cars" was recorded in a relatively short time - two weeks. It was a great start since in contained the final version of "Just What I Needed" and the break through song "My Best Friend's Girl."
Though the Cars produced solid albums throughout their career, they were largely a singles band. They had a knack for creating tight, three minute tunes with witty, often intelligent lyrics, and a killer hook.
Visually, the Cars hardly registered. Ocasek, parked behind shades, seemed aloof, even when the lyrics suggested he was deeply involved. On stage, he rarely moved as if he was too smart to make a spectacle of himself. That was contrary to just about every other frontman in Rock. This distance, whether calculated or not, had a certain appeal. The rest of the band followed Ocasek's lead. No matter, for visuals the Cars used other means than themselves.
The second LP "Candy-O" included "Let's Go" and "Double Life" but it was also fondly remembered for the cover work of Playboy artist Alberto Vargas. The drawing showed a knock-out redhead draped across the hood of a car.
The Cars scored again with the creative "You Might Think" video from "Heartbeat City." The clip featured extensive animation, quick cut-aways, closes ups of Ocasek singing and mugging and an out of control actress playing the object of Ric's obsessive affections. Clever, entertaining and nearly out of control. However, the Cars biggest chart success, the ballad "Drive" from the same CD had Orr handling vocals rather than Ocasek.
Like a lot of groups, the Cars ran their course with Ocasek and Orr undertaking solo ventures. Ocasek also tried his hand at producing.
In '00 (on October 5th), Orr succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was 53.
After more than two decades without a release (the New Cars doesn't count) most bands are regarded as history. The Cars escaped that fate when they released '11's "Move Like This," their first set since '87's "Door To Door" (they broke up soon after the album was completed). The LP included the group's surviving original lineup.
'06 Sidebar: The New Cars
OK, enough is enough! Great '80s bands have established a rather consistent, if totally wrong minded, pattern of self-destruction. First, Duran Duran released a covers album. Why? Did Simon La Bon need to get that canary yellow suit out of hock? Duran Duran covering Led Zeppelin ("Thank You" was the song) is laughable. Def Leppard went down the same road with "Yeah!," producing marginally better results, thanks to selecting songs that were nearly within their grasp.
The New Cars were beyond the pale. Here were Easton and Hawkes. These two weren't even the important Cars (that would be Ocasek and Orr, respectively). Thrown into the mix was musician/producer/quasi-has been Todd Rundgren, along with a couple of others who shall mercifully remain nameless. On second thought, Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince (one-time Tubes and Journey drummer who had worked with Rundgren) were as guilty as everybody else.
So did the New Cars play new music? No, they covered the Cars! Oh yeah, there was even a version of Rundgren's "I Saw The Light" (fortunately they passed on "Hello, It's Me"). Who would buy this sludge? Time to re-tool, which was what the original Cars did five years later.
1978 The Cars
1981 Shake It Up
1984 Heartbeat City
1987 Door To Door
2011 Move Like This
The Cars debut album and "Heartbreak City" are their ultimate studio albums. "The Cars" has "Just What I Needed," "Let The Good Times Roll" and the tongue-in-cheek, "My Best Friend's Girl." However, the strongest track is the biting "Bye Bye Love." "Candy O" and "Shake It Up" are good efforts. "Heartbeat City" proves the debut wasn't a fluke with "You Might Think" and "Hello Again." After that, the Cars were done but they pushed out "Door To Door" before packing it in. The "Greatest Hits" is OK but "The Cars Anthology: Just What I Needed" is far superior.
It's always a good sign when a band's album is better than their previous effort. "Move Like This" is a massive improvement over "Door To Door," which sounds like a band running out the clock. After nearly a quarter of a century to rethink things, the Cars return is both welcome and credible. They still got it - maybe not "Heartbreak City" got it - but close.
New Cars: On "It's Alive," the notes are right but little else. The emotion, quirky tension and Ocasek's haughty vocal style are totally absent. If this was recorded by some Bean Town covers band whose sole goal was to be the weekend headliner in the lounge of the downtown Holiday Inn "It's Alive" might be forgivable.