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The Cars' 'Panorama': How daring sonic left turn led to avant-pop excellence

Fans were expecting more upbeat new-wave hits on 1980 LP. What they got was something far darker and more exciting.
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By Joe Matera

After achieving commercial success with their first two albums, The Cars (1978) and Candy-O (1979), American new wave-pop combo The Cars, decided to take a left turn when it came time to begin work on their third album, 1980’s Panorama. It had a heavy emphasis on experimentation underscored by an edginess, and while the music still had its inherent pop-iness, it was much darker in sound and lyrical matter — even the starkness of the album cover art with its chequered finishing line flag emphasized this point, which was also a change from the previous two albums cover art which featured images of women.

Fan Poll: The best albums by The Cars

Within the space of three years the band, after having played their debut show on New Year’s Eve, 1976 had won the ears of both fans and critics alike with their first two albums. Both featured a bag of radio friendly songs and displayed the band’s knack for writing songs which were aimed at a mass listening audience, but when it came to Panorama it was a different ball game altogether. Fans and critics were left scratching their heads, particularly with the more avant-garde sounds heard on Panorama that were unlike anything heard on the band’s previous outings.

Yet for the band, this was nothing more than a natural progression both musically and in their songwriting craft. The pop melodies were still there, though they weren’t as obvious upon initial listens as before, and it was only upon repeated listens that each song would slowly peel another layer off its darker exterior, to reveal the true gold hidden within the songs. As Cars guitarist Elliot Easton told me recently, “There was no conscious decision. It was simply the natural progression of the band, along with the type of songs that Ric (Ocasek) was writing at the time.”

Also, around the same time as the band began working on the album, there was a change in the sounds on the musical landscape. Synth pop was in its infancy and would soon come to dominate the early 1980s climate, with bands such as Ultravox, Devo and Gary Numan all leading the charge in experimenting with the new sounds of synthesizers. The Cars were tapping into the zeitgeist, and Panorama would see Easton’s previously upfront guitar, take a back seat to the keyboard and synthesizer sounds of The Cars’ Greg Hawkes.

From the moment the robotic drum beat and swirling futuristic synth sounds kick offs the title track Panorama on side one, it heralds The Cars in previously unexplored sonic territory. The off-kilter rhythmic keyboard stabs and odd time signature changes of "Touch And Go" sees the band going further down this detour before a more Cars of old sounding chorus steers it back to more familiar ground along with a blistering guitar solo by Easton. “That solo on 'Tough And Go,' I worked on in my hotel room while we worked on other parts” recalls Easton today. “So, I came in with it already written and just recorded it”.

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This is followed by the bombastic Stones-que "Gimme Some Slack" before "Don’t Tell Me No," which was issued as the second single from the album, returns again to more familiar Cars territory with its hook-laden melody. "Getting Through" is a driving rocker which is seemingly possessed with a Devo-ish spirit, while the chugging "Misfit Kid" is charged with pop smarts that would have been comfortably at home on Candy-O. Up next is the hard rocking and angsty "Down Boys" before the slow-burning, sparse and out of this world sounding "You Wear Those Eyes" shifts the musical goal posts yet again before "Running To You" with its new wave meets punk riffage, and the straightforward power pop of "Up And Down" brings the album to a close.

Recorded between May to April of 1980, the band again worked with producer Roy Thomas Baker who had produced the band’s previous two outings. Sessions began at The Power Station in New York but initial sessions proved unproductive and problems with synching two 24-tracks, led both band and producer to up and move to Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles where sessions resumed, and in the same studio Candy-O had been recorded at.

Panorama was released August 15, 1980 via Elektra Records and would reach No.5 on the Billboard chart in September of that year. In the wake of the album’s release, it was systematically panned by critics, and surprised many who previously championed the band such as Deborah Frost of The Boston Phoenix, who summed up her review and feelings with one line: “This year’s model is a lemon….” The album would later be reissued on compact disc in 1986. Issued as the first single, "Touch and Go" peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard chart. Two other singles were taken from the album; "Don’t Tell Me No" and "Gimme Some Slack" but both failed to chart.

Though more minimalist in sound and experimental in musicality, Panorama is still rich in melodicism and certainly in hindsight and after more than 40 years, documents a band that were unafraid to take a left turn on their career trajectory. It’s an album worth exploring and rediscovering again. And as Easton affirmed to me, “I look at it as our third album. Honestly, we just made this stuff up as we went along. There was no grand plan beyond making the best music we could.”

  

Original LP Track Listing

Panorama
Touch And Go
Gimme Some Slack
Don’t Tell Me No
Getting Through
Misfit Kid
Down Boys
You Wear Those Eyes
Running To You
Up And Down