On September 15, we lost Ric Ocasek, a founding member and leader of The Cars. We look back on many of The Cars’ singles and share memories with Marty Jourard of The Motels and John “Zero” Picard of The Kings.
By Warren Kurtz
Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr had played in a few Ohio bands before ultimately moving to the Boston scene, which led to The Cars’ self-titled polished Elektra debut album in 1978, produced by Roy Thomas Baker, known for his work with the label’s Queen. There was a hint that the group were fans of oldies with borrowed song titles of “Good Times Roll” and “Bye Bye Love.” The album’s first two singles “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” both written by Ric, reached the Top 40 in 1978.
There was an interesting pattern spotted at some record stores that the Cars on eight-track and cassette tapes were outselling the vinyl album format. Perhaps the name of the group, and the cover photo of model Natalya Medvedeva smiling and holding a clear steering wheel, subliminally suggested to buyers that their recordings were best heard when driving around with a good car tape system.
John “Zero” Picard, the guitarist for the Canadian band The Kings told Goldmine, “The Kings were huge fans of The Cars with both bands on the Elektra label. When we were coming up through the bars, they were one of the bands whose songs we covered the most, because they were one of the leading lights in the so-called new wave movement, which put a more sophisticated and musically accomplished twist on the punk scene, and they had hits! We covered 'Just What I Needed,' 'My Best Friend’s Girl,' 'You're All I've Got Tonight' and more songs from their debut album. These tunes killed in the clubs and inspired us to try and write songs that were more commercial, but with an edge. We saw them in concert in L.A. and they played note for note on those great songs, with Ric sharing vocals with Ben and the great Elliot Easton on guitar. They also rocked on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction last year as well.”
Marty Jourard, keyboard and saxophonist for The Motels, shared with Goldmine, “When my brother Jeff pulled me into The Motels’ lineup in late '78, before we were signed to a label, he had discovered The Cars. One day when I had just begun rehearsals, he made me listen to their first album, all the way through twice, as he wanted The Motels to emulate their arranging approach, neatly organized combinations of guitar and synthesizer, each part fitting in with the other instruments. This approach, which I dubbed 'twisted pop music,' was full of excitement and promise. Jeff approached the interplay between guitar and synthesizer the way Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes' parts intertwined. Our first album did have that specific interplay between the two instruments. When The Motels played Boston in 1979 we finally met most of The Cars, who were hanging out at The Paradise, dressed in what looked like full stage outfits although they may have actually walked around Boston like that. Greg was my synthesizer hero at the time. The Motels opened for The Cars during their summer of 1980 tour. Ric was reserved and quiet, but that was just his nature. We found Elliot to be hilarious and Ben to be a mellow guy. The Cars were certainly a large influence on The Motels. Ric wrote edgy and catchy pop songs and his band made great records. His songs and music were vastly influential to a generation of new wave musicians. I eventually became friends with Elliot and Greg and they always had only great things to say about Ric. I believe Ric's most beautiful vocal is 'I'm Not the One,' my favorite song by The Cars. He was an expressive singer in the sardonic style of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, delivering his lyrics perfectly."
Side one of The Cars’ debut ended excitedly with the urgent pop song “Don’t Cha Stop,” which served as the flip side of the steady “My Best Friend’s Girl.”
Flip side: Don’t Cha Stop
A side: My Best Friend’s Girl
Top 100 debut: October 21, 1978
Peak position: No. 35
In 1979, The Cars’ second album Candy-O was released which included “Let’s Go,” carrying on with the song title tribute to the ‘60s, and became their highest charting single of the decade, reaching No. 14.
In 1980, the album Panorama was released, which included the single “Touch and Go,” their first Top 40 hit of the ‘80s. Their next single, the title song from their 1981 album Shake It Up, brought them to the Top 10 for their first time.
“You Might Think,” an MTV video staple, from the group’s fifth album Heartbeat City, also reached the Top 10 in 1984. Their single “Drive,” from that album, became the group’s highest charting single, reaching No. 3 that year, written by Ric and sung by Benjamin.
“Tonight She Comes,” released in 1985, was the lone new song on the group’s Greatest Hits album and became their final Top 10 single.
The following year saw solo success for Ric with the gentle “Emotion in Motion,” which reached No. 15, from his This Side of Paradise album. Benjamin Orr’s “Stay the Night” reached No. 24, from his album The Lace. He died in 2000.
In 2011, the four remaining members of The Cars reunited for their final album, Move Like This, which included “Sad Song,” a Starbucks/iTunes digital pick of the week that year.
Ric Ocasek is survived by his six children and his former wife, Paulina Porizkova, who was with Ric when he passed.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.