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