Rock Hall of Fame, save a parking spot for The Cars

The albums

In the 1980s, The magnificent Cars were just what we needed

(No. 22 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)

By Phill Marder

One decade constantly maligned as far as Rock & Roll is concerned has been the 80s.

Critics, usually sneering, often refer to it as “the age of synthesizers.”

But the 80s really were no different than any other decade. There was some schlock, but there also was a lot of great music.

The Cars, for instance.

They belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

From 1978 until their crash in 1988, The Cars were a fixture on the charts and one of the most creative forces on MTV with their steady stream of unique videos, “Hello Again” being directed by none other than Andy Warhol. Though the Boston group never had a No. 1 record, they did place four singles and four albums in the U.S. top 10. They also were a steady fixture on the charts in the United Kingdom, where they recorded their first album and sold out various smaller venues as they got off the starting line, Canada and the Pan Pacific, the “Heartbeat City” album reaching No. 1 in New Zealand.

After their debut album, “The Cars,” peaked at a more-than-respectable 18 in their home country, the band proceeded to place four straight offerings – “Candy-O,” “Panorama,” “Shake It Up” and “Heartbeat City” – in the top 10. “Heartbeat City,” their greatest success, spawned a series of hit singles and memorable videos, including the video for “You Might Think.” That single’s video won first place in the initial “International Music Video Festival” in St. Tropez, France, and also was named “Video Of The Year” at MTV’s inaugural video music awards ceremony.

The “Drive” single reached the U.K. top 10 on two separate occasions, returning to the charts after being used during the showing of Ethiopian famine film footage during Live Aid, where the Cars made a memorable appearance in Philadelphia, proving they were just as good live as on disc. Ocasek donated subsequent “Drive” royalties to the Band Aid Trust.

But then the group hit a red light, a 3 1/2-year hiatus following.

When “Door To Door” finally emerged in August, 1987, the Cars had just about idled themselves out of gas. It was unfortunate as that final album, generally panned by critics, reached a respectable No. 26 in the U.S. and the top 10 as far away as New Zealand and Norway. And it holds up well over years of listening. In fact, “Strap Me In,” with its solid leadoff guitar riff, may be one of the group’s strongest efforts. Though it bombed as a single, it did reach No. 4 on the U.S. Rock singles chart.

What made the Cars special was their instantly recognizable sound, which developed from its sparse New Wave beginnings into the lush productions of the “Heartbeat City” LP, which took eight months to record. And they had the most important factor for greatness, terrific, memorable, original material.

“We managed to span those two audiences (punk and mainstream),” lead guitarist Elliot Easton said in the liner notes to “The Cars Anthology – Just What I Needed.” “It’s not something you can calculate, just that we had the songs. And we really had great songs.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing in allmusicguide.com, said, “Blondie may have had a string of number one hits and Talking Heads may have won the hearts of the critics, but the Cars were the most successful American new wave band to emerge in the late ’70s.”

Both Blondie and the Talking Heads are in the Rock Hall of Fame, by the way.

Erlewine added, “Where their peers were as equally inspired by art as music, the Cars were strictly a rock & roll band, and while their music occasionally sounded clipped and distant, they had enough attitude to cross over to album rock radio, which is where they made their name.”

Even “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” agreed, Rob Sheffield writing, “…everybody always liked them, and their cold, shiny guitar hooks are still in rock-radio rotation years after their 1987 breakup.”

Recently, Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes and Todd Rundgren, appeared as the new Cars. Bassist Benjamin Orr, who sang lead on “Just What I Needed,’ “Let’s Go” and “Drive,” unfortunately passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000 at the age of 53 and drummer David Robinson apparently did not participate. Group leader Ric Ocasek, who was the group’s primary lead singer and composer, was not involved in the reincarnation, concentrating on solo recordings and work as a producer.

But rumors began surfacing at the close of last year that the four remaining original band members were reforming to record a new album, “Move Like This,” which is tentatively scheduled for a May release.

Strap me in and Let’s Go. That news is Just What I Needed.

20 thoughts on “Rock Hall of Fame, save a parking spot for The Cars

  1. Yo John, C’mon. Go back & read the story again. There’s an entire paragraph abou “Door To Door.”

  2. The Cars in the Rock Hall? Well, since so many undeserving bands are already there, why not? Personally, I think the Rock Hall needs to start over: 1. There are too many inductees, greatly minimizing the “honor” induction should be; 2. There are too many non-Rock acts in the Hall – Madonna, Abba, Grandmaster Flash – oh, come on, it’s just plain silly! 3. There are too many one-hit wonders in the Rock Hall – Del Shannon? The Shirelles? The Rock Hall should be so much more exlusive. Anyway, getting back to The Cars, let me first say that I LIKE The Cars, and particularly Elliot Easton, who I feel (alone, as far as I know) is one of the greatest guitarists of our time. But for the Rock Hall – No way, Jose! Not in my Rock Hall, at least. After starting off strong – their first album is an absolute classic – they really sank into an electro-pop mess. To me, based on the totality of their output, The Cars are simply the greatest Bubblegum band ever – better than The Monkees, better than The Archies – nothing more, nothing less.

  3. Dear Michael…

    While I agree there are many one-hit wonders already inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I don’t think your two examples…Del Shannon & the Shirelles…fit the category.
    Del Shannon had the misfortune of having his first hit – “Runaway” – become one of those impossible-to-follow classics that lives on and on. Consequently, when people think of Del Shannon, automatically they think of “Runaway.” But I think Del Shannon had several other offerings that would qualify under any reasonable definition of a hit. The follow-up to “Runaway,” another classic – “Hats Off To Larry” – reached No. 5. “Little Town Flirt” climbed to No. 12 and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow The Sun)” got to No. 9. “So Long Baby,” “Hey Little Girl,” “Handy Man,” “Stranger In Town,” and “Sea Of Love” all cracked the top 40 as well.

    As for the Shirelles, which one hit were you referring to?…”Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (No. 1)… “Soldier Boy,” (No. 1)…”Dedicated To The One I Love” (No. 3)…”Mama Said” and “Foolish Little Girl” (both No. 4)…or “Baby It’s You” (No. 8)…or was it one of their other six entries to the top 40?

    The Shirelles rank just behind the Supremes as the most important female vocal group in Rock history.

    And I also agree with you that some already inducted bands don’t belong in the Hall of Fame, though, thankfully, you didn’t mention The Beatles and The Beachboys as two (just kidding!). As for the Cars being the greatest Bubblegum band ever. If so, they definitely deserve induction into the Hall of Fame. After all, there were some really, really great Bubblegum bands.

  4. Phil,
    Part if the criteria of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is “influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” That being said, Del Shannon can’t be considered more influential than say Paul Anka who not only had several of his own hits but wrote “My Way” for Frank Sinatra, “She’s A Lady” for Tom Jones and the theme to the Tonight Show. For that matter, Del Shannon is no more significant to rock than other teen idols of the day such as Bobby Rydell or Neil Sedaka.

  5. If we’re basing eligibility on hit records, then Pat Boone would have to be considered. He was the 2nd top selling artist of the ’50’s behind Elvis with 38 top 40 hits and 6 number 1 hits. He is the 9th biggest selling singles artist of the rock era. The knock against him is that he covered black artists’ records but in doing so actually introduced these artists to white teenagers. Little Richard and Fats Domino acknowledge that their careers were helped by Pat Boone in this respect.
    Speaking of females in rock and roll, Connie Francis has to be as deserving for the Hall as anyone. She is the top charting female vocalist of the 1950’s and 1960’s, considered by many as the “first lady of rock and roll”. She should be recognized with the Shirelles and Supremes.

  6. John –

    I didn’t say Del Shannon was more influential or significant than anyone. I just noted he was not a “one-hit wonder.” As far as Neil Sedaka is concerned, he was featured earlier in this series. So as I replied before, keep reading…forward & backward!!

  7. Phil-
    I understand your point on Del Shannon and I hate to pick on him, especially when there are so many others in the Hall whose credibility is questionable. I’m looking forward to your opinion on Pat Boone, Paul Anka and Connie Francis in the coming weeks.

  8. Every single one of their albums except Door to Door went platinum. Panorama went to No. 5 without a hit single. Besides suck a lot more than The Cars, what exactly did Blondie and Talking Heads do different to get in the HOF? Talking Heads had 3 top forty singles, none of their albums ever reached the top ten, why is this band heralded as much as they are? Turn on the radio to the “modern” bands of today. The Cars are far more of an influence than given credit for, let alone more so than Talking Heads and Blondie.

  9. I don’t have a strong opinion about The Cars. I think you make a good case for their inclusion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I do however question your quoting Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the sloppy self-involved music critic. The man is an aberration, a menace, and needs to be stopped.

    Also, the fact that the Talking Heads sold fewer records that The Cars is incidental. The Talking Heads pushed the envelope, whereas The Cars successfully folded themselves into the envelope.

  10. With the nonsense the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has been inducting lately, perhaps it’s better if The Cars were not inducted. The Cars deserve better then this. Grandmaster Flash… yeah, ok.

  11. the only reason I can think of why The Cars might keep getting passed over is because their last 2 albums Heartbeat City and Door To Door were a little more pop-oriented than rock, at least the singles released from those albums were… “You Might Think”, “Drive”, “Magic”, “You Are The Girl”.. but when you think about it, one of Blondie’s biggest hits was a frickin’ disco song (“Heart Of Glass”), so that shouldn’t be it.

  12. The Cars started off as very diverse, fun, Hard rocking and experimental, Rock band in the seventies, then became a New Wave band in the early 80’s, which was when the AC/DC and Queen fans stopped listening to them, then in the mid 80’s they became a quirky and serious Poprock band which brought there Rock fans back into Easton’s arena rock guitar playing. Then in the late 80’s they became a again, diverse, serious and experimental Punk rock/poprock band, with the hard rock of Double Trouble and Strap Me In. Then Tonight She Comes “comes” and reminds them of their pop/poprock direction in the 80’s. Now in 2011 their a alternative rock/Punk rock band. So, there a very diverse rock band!! If Blondie and for god sakes Madonna goes in (and shes not even rock), then so do The Cars because they were a rock and roll band from the roots, but the layers of them were all kinds of genres, rock, pop, new wave, hard rock, power pop, bubblegum rock/pop, art rock, synthpop, it goes on and on

  13. Great debut album- brings me back to High School days. The fact that Madonna…MADONNA!?! is in the R&R Hall of Fame and The Cars are not is ridiculus.

    The Cars were a huge reason for the success of the New Wave movement, as well as MTV.

    I am still scratching my head and trying to figure out what Madonna has to do with Rock & Roll…Cheesey Pop, yes. Mindless Dance Club sclock? Yes. Rock and Roll? No.

    She should cede her spot to The Cars.

  14. One of the problems for the Cars supporters is that they constantly have the wrong frame of reference. Compare them to first wave “punk/new wave” acts like the Talking Heads or Blondie and the Cars simply do not compare favorably. Those bands did the leg work to break the new wave in the US in 76/77 before the Cars first release in June, 1978. Historically those bands along with Elvis Costello helped set the template for that style of music. And it was Blondie that truly broke the new wave in the US with Heart of Glass, a new wave/dance/electronic hybrid. (Anyone who doubts this can look up the 20/20 report on new wave in 1979). In comparison to those earlier acts that struggled to break the new wave in the US and which were perceived as too arty or downtown, bands like the Cars and the Knack were perceived as corporately safe alternatives to the first wave bands. That said, the Cars did not have a top ten hit in the US until 1981. (Btw, never rely on Allmusic).
    I tend to see the Cars as much more traditional. It was essentially traditional rock that borrowed new wave elements. For this reason it was seem as FM rock radio friendly. (Nothing was ever more conservative than FM rock radio in the US in the late 70s). In that sense, the better comparison is not the first wave new wave acts that the Cars do not compare well with, but with similarly situated acts from that era like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In that context I definitely see the Cars as a worthy candidate.
    Also, there has been a shift in how the early 80s are perceived. As rock has faded in influence, a lot of the Rockist assumptions crumble with it. Why was Tom Petty was “authentic” and the Cars “artifice”? I think the diversity of music in the early 80s has been the subject the reevaluation and the assumptions that characterized its dismissal (Rockism) have been discredited. Of course traditional rock fans are always the last to know, but that is an increasingly smaller segment of the music fan population. Coincidence?

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