There were probably only two true titans to come out of the New Wave scene that started in the late 70s and flourished well into the 80s. The first was NYC’s Blondie. The second was the Boston band, The Cars. While Blondie often brought a punky energy that came straight from their CBGB’s gigs to the format, the Cars created something else:
It’s hard to imagine bands like Weezer, FUN, or Jimmy Eat World without The Cars. And while your mileage may vary on those three bands, there should be no confusion about the value and influence of The Cars. During the New Wave era, many bands scored a few hits. The Cars however, were a hit machine.
Over a relatively brief stretch of time they wrote a series of remarkably catchy tunes that seemed to come out of them like water from a firehose. The true heyday of The Cars only lasted from 1978 to 1984 (1987’s Door to Door was the sound of a once great band repeating themselves and 2011’s Move Like This was a solid cash-in on nostalgia), but in those seven years the band released five albums with a relentless number of radio hits.
Their classic self-titled first album had six deathless cuts on it alone (Good Times Roll, My Best Friend’s Girl, Just What I Needed, You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, Bye Bye Love, and Moving in Stereo). 1979’s Candy-O landed three more (Let’s Go, It’s All I Can Do, and Dangerous Type). 1980’s Panorama scored two hits with Touch and Go and Don’t Tell Me No. 1981’s Shake It Up delivered the massive title track along with the infectious Since You’re Gone. But it was Heartbeat City three years later that consecrated the dominance of The Cars over top 40 radio. Previous Cars albums went deep with songs on both top 40 and Album Oriented Rock radio, but the five hit singles from Heartbeat City seemed to be on your dial every time you turned over your car engine in 1984.
The ecstatic You Might Think came first. Magic (sounding like The Beach Boys born from a New Wave womb) came next. Their only power ballad “Drive” followed and became their biggest hit (peaking at #3). Hello Again cracked the top 20, and Why Can’t I Have You snuck into the top 40 as well.
It’s not easy to put out eighteen timeless radio tracks over five albums in seven years, but The Cars did it. In that way, I think of The Cars as being kind of like Tom Petty: sure, you know a lot of his songs, and you like a lot of his songs, but it’s not until you sit down and think of just how many Tom Petty songs you know and like that you come to realize his greatness. That was The Cars too. During their peak they were just unstoppable.
If there was a more unmissable band than The Cars from ‘78-‘84, I can’t imagine who they were. The Cars were prolific, addictive, and most importantly they were different.
It’s not always a compliment to say that a band sounds like no one else (see Styx), but it was true of The Cars. Their songs had massive hooks, were well-played, slyly written, and extremely well-produced (the first four albums were manned by Queen’s producer Roy Thomas Baker and Heartbeat City by hitmaker du jour and future Shania-Twain-Husband “Mutt” Lange). They had unusual synth touches that held them in the New Wave world, but their rock guitar chops allowed them to appeal to guys who liked AC/DC and Cheap Trick, too.
There was one more ingredient to The Cars though; one thing that you could not reproduce in a million years, and that was Ric Ocasek’s voice. Surely one of the oddest-looking guys to ever become a rock star or marry a supermodel (Paulina Porizkova come on down!), Ocasek looked like someone you’d have found hanging out in the New Wave version of the diner “Jack Rabbit Slim’s” in Pulp Fiction. He was 6 foot 4 and so thin that you could slide him under a door if it weren’t for his Adam’s Apple, which was so big that you wonder if anyone ever called Guinness to come out and measure it. His eyes were almost permanently hidden behind a pair of dark shades. Ocasek looked every bit the part of… well, Ric Ocasek.
But as strange as his appearance might have been, his voice was the real doozy. One may think of most of the hits by The Cars as effervescent and fun — and they were — but there was something about Ocasek’s voice with a darkness in it. That deep, somewhat detached timbre that rang out from that reedy neck of his was an instrument all of itself. And when the right track called for it, there was something close to sinister that spilled out of him. Take the song Dangerous Type from Candy-O. It’s eminently hummable with its ripped from T-Rex’s Bang-a-Gong swagger.
But listen to the way Ocasek sings the words:
Museum directors with high shaking heads
They kick white shadows until they play dead
They want to crack your crossword smile
Oh can I take you out for awhile, yeah
She’s a lot like you
The dangerous type
She’s a lot like you
Come on and hold me tight
It might be easy to dismiss the undercurrent of danger and desire while you mouth the words and let your head sway to the rhythm. But if you lean in closer and listen, you will discover a haunting anxiety, even dread, in both the lyrics and their delivery. It’s hypnotic. Even a little frightening.
Ocasek often sang like he were just outside his own body, as if the scrawny creature emanating that sound were channeling another life form. Maybe that’s why rock and roll is called “the devil’s music.” Because Satan never performed a song you wouldn’t want to sing along with.
Neither did Ric Ocasek.
Ric Ocasek died yesterday. He was 75 years old.