By Ken Sharp
Unfairly passed for years over by narrow-minded industry big wigs, The Cars are finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s about time. Coming off like an art rock Beatles fronted by Buddy Holly, during the band’s tenure, they delivered album after album of infectious pop laced with a twisted avant-garde sensibility, marrying mighty hooks, lush vocals, consummate musicality and forward-thinking production.
We caught up with founding member, lead guitarist Elliot Easton for a peek under the hood into the history of The Cars, past, present and future.
GM: What does it means for The Cars to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Elliot Easton: You know, it’s funny with all the criticisms and the put-downs and stuff, when I finally heard we were getting inducted I was quite happy. I’m not judging the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or questioning the validity of it but it’s nice after a lifetime of playing music to be recognized that way. Benjamin (Orr, the late Cars bassist/vocalist) would have really appreciated it, especially being from Cleveland I think he would have been very happy to go back because he’s very loved in Cleveland. He was a teenager and made a record for Warner Brothers; he’s well thought of in Cleveland. I know he would have been very proud.
GM: The Cars reunited a few years back. What was that experience like and are there any possibilities for future shows by The Cars?
EE: I never say never because you just never know what’s gonna be thrown at you in life. But as far as that tour with just the four of us, it was enjoyable but difficult without a bass player, mostly a lot of of the burden fell on poor Greg (Hawkes) because he had to cover keyboards and also the low end on keyboards, too. Some of the fellas in the band felt that Ben was irreplaceable so why even try to replace him? But what that did was leave us without a bass player and a lot of that burden fell on Greg to provide low end and bass parts and occasionally for some songs he strapped on a bass guitar. If he was playing bass guitar he couldn’t play keyboards and if he played keyboards he’d have to have a sequencer bass going. But it just made it harder and more complicated. Of course, it would have been great if Ben was still around. So the prospect of future shows by The Cars is not completely out of the question but it’s nothing that we’ve discussed in any concrete terms. The door is not closed on it but we just haven’t discussed whether there will be any more touring and recording. But if we did shows I’d lobby strongly that we’d have to have a bass player onstage because it allows Greg to really do his thing, which he’s so great at. It was just too much for him to cover background vocals, keyboards and bass guitar. That’s just asking a little too much.
GM: Can you pinpoint The Cars’ big career break?
EE: There’s a couple of highlights that strike me. Before we were signed we were starting to get a name. Maxanne Sartori, a wonderful disc jockey at WBCN in Boston who was such a great champion of The Cars, had our demo tape in heavy rotation on BCN which was just unheard of. We’d get those radio tip sheets like The Gavin Report and Friday Morning Quarterback and they’d list what the major radio stations around the country were playing and then the secondary and tertiary stations would follow their lead. So on a given week for Boston, you’d look at The Gavin Report and it might say Aerosmith “Back In The Saddle” Columbia, then maybe it would say Elton John “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” Rocket/MCA and then it would say The Cars “Just What I Needed” Tape, (laughs), which was awesome. A&R people in New York would see that and go, “Hmm, it looks like there’s something going on up there in Boston” so they used to come check us out at The Rat and The Paradise. We got a little break. The opening act canceled for a Bob Seger show at The Boston Music Hall and we got put in at the last minute to open and we did well and got really good reviews. That was around the time things started getting really exciting like it was really gonna happen. One evening we were courted by both Clive Davis at Arista and Chuck Plotkin at Elektra. We went to Ken’s Pub and had dinner with Clive and his assistant Bob Feiden and they pitched Arista to us and then we went over to the Sonesta in Cambridge and sat with Chuck Plotkin and this A&R guy, George Daly, and they pitched us to Elektra. Now both Elektra and Arista wanted to sign us. David (Robinson) and I shared an apartment and were meeting over there with the whole band and we had both contracts on the coffee table. There were a couple of items that Elektra conceded to that Arista didn’t and we ended up going with Elektra. The big moment was when we were playing in Worcester at Holy Cross College. There was a snowstorm and we were playing in the student union or the student gym and there were like eight people. Our manager brought Roy Thomas Baker and we played and we figured he’s not gonna be impressed because there was nobody there, but he loved it! He came up to us afterwards and with his Monty Pythonesque voice said, “Oh, that was lovely! Would you like to go to England and make a record?” We’d never been anywhere before; we were just suburban kids living in Boston and that sounded amazing. So we went off to London and made our first record. That was a very exciting time for the band. All these things have a curve to them and everything was going up, up, up for us.
GM: The Cars debut album is such a classic, it’s almost akin to a greatest hits album for any other band.
EE: Well, that’s what we’d used to joke, that we should rename it The Cars’ Greatest Hits. (laughs) But that’s not really true as Heartbeat City had four or five hit singles on it and all the records had hits, “Shake It Up,” “Let’s Go.” But certainly almost every song on that first record is still in rotation on the radio today. I’m very proud of the way The Cars music has held up compared to some of the other music of that era.
GM: What’s so interesting about The Cars’ sound is the intersection of commerciality with the avant-garde.
EE: I know what you mean, we walked that line being an arty band and being a commercial one, too. Somehow our music was accessible to a lot of people without us making any real concessions to commerciality or trying to calculate what would sell or compromising in any way. We just kept on being us and people liked it on a large scale.
GM: You’re a master at crafting solos that are creative and expressive and work perfectly in a song — I’m partial to “Just What I Needed,” “Tonight She Comes” and your masterpiece guitar solo on “Touch and Go.” What’s your mindset behind creating memorable solos?
EE: Roy Thomas Baker was known for his lush background vocals having done Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”; he was very famous for massive background vocals. Back in the days of tape you needed a lot of empty tracks to be able to bounce back and forth and stack those vocals. So what we’d usually do was record the basic track first and then start right in on the backing vocals so we had a lot of empty tracks. During that time, I would take a rough mix of the basic track back to my hotel room and work on the solo. I’d first figure out how to enter the solo. I’d look for a key into the solo, how to start and pick up where the vocal leaves off. Quite often it would be related to the melody of the song like “Shake It Up” where you can hear in the guitar solo my making reference to the melody and what’s being sung. So often I would start the solo somehow keying off the melody of the song. Then if you look at a typical rock guitar soloist of the time and even now, and you ask him to take a solo, usually they will take a bluesy rocky solo in the key of the song. If the song is in E, they’ll wail away in the key of E. The thing that I did that was different was I played through the changes much like a jazz player would. I played through the chords and changed with the chords; I didn’t just stay in the root key of the song. The solo on “Touch and Go” is a good example of that and “Tonight She Comes”; well, on all of them really I do that. I think it gave the solos more of a melodic contour and maybe a slight touch of sophistication that wouldn’t be there if I was just playing screaming rock licks in the key of the song. I think that may be what makes them memorable. And for the ending of the solo, there was always an important consideration of how to set the solo down and end it so that the vocal could come back in gracefully. For instance, you wouldn’t want to end a solo with a screaming flurry of notes if it’s a ballad and then have the vocal come in on a lower register. It wouldn’t make any sense. So it all had to be of a piece and I tried very hard to make those solos little compositions within the song, almost a song within the song.
GM: Thankfully, when playing them live you played them like the record.
EE: I always feel like audiences find it more satisfying if you play them like they’re played on the record. I always joke that the odds of me winging a solo that’s gonna be better than one that I sat and worked really hard on, the odds are very slim because those are compositions.
GM: Speaking of “Touch and Go,” what was it like for you to discover an interview where John Lennon made mention of that song?
EE: I was thrilled when he referred The Cars song “Touch and Go” in an interview. He mentioned the “Touch and go, uh uh oh…” part, the Buddy Holly hiccup relating to his love of ‘50s rock‘n’roll and saying The Cars do that. Just the fact that John even knew who we were was a thrill to me. I remember at the time of the Double Fantasy sessions that I really wanted to play on that record badly — I was bleeding to play on that record. (laughs) Then I watched as Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick came in and Earl Slick and Hugh McCracken played on it. I was so tuned into The Beatles and what he was talking about at that time that I felt I would have really done a good job on those sessions, but of course I never got a chance.
GM: Looking back, is there a Cars album that best represents the band artistically?
EE: I’d have to say that the first album best represents the essence of The Cars. The old saying is you have your whole lifetime to write your first album and six months to write your second. That first record was our club set; we played those songs for close to a year testing them in front of audiences and knowing what worked and what didn’t, and working on our parts and everything. We were able to make that first record in 12 days because we knew exactly what we were doing. I literally did all the guitar parts on the first Cars album in a day and a half. I was sick as a dog, I had some kind of intestinal thing, it was something I ate, and I did all of the guitar parts being sort of out of it and sick. But people still play that first album and it’s still on the radio. There’s great stuff on all The Cars records but if you’re gonna ask me what is the quintessential one it’s tough to beat that first one. It’s got so many songs that people love and of course Heartbeat City does with “Drive,” “You Might Think,” “Magic” and “Hello Again.” But in most people’s minds the classic Cars album is probably the first one. It’s one of the great debut albums by an American band where a band comes out pretty fully realized like Big Pink by The Band or the first Moby Grape album or the first Steely Dan album where it’s all there from the first record.