The Cars

Last Year's Model: Classic or Rustbucket?

Strongest album: The Cars
Must to avoid: Door to Door

In 1978 a band from Boston released their debut album and changed the sound of radio. Essentially, the Cars initiated what history recalls as the New Wave Era; more than Devo or even Blondie, the Cars triggered a deluge of skinny-tie imitators (and occasional innovators) armed with shiny synthesizers and n-n-n-nervous tick-tock rythms. The Cars had a unique, highly influential sound, but they weren't really groundbreaking innovators. What the Cars did was take elements from Kraftwerk, Iggy Pop (Bowie-era), David Bowie, Lou Reed, and especially Roxy Music, and make those non-commercial sounds more radio-friendly and accessible to the general public. The Cars defined and shaped their era - 1978-1984 - so much that their music definitely sounds dated at this juncture; but that happens to a lot of bands and the Cars get by because they weren't jumping on a bandwagon, they were the bandwagon. The main downside to the Cars' formula is that it's, well, formula. Ric Ocasek and his cohorts never strayed from the pattern they laid out on the debut; basically, they kept making the same record over and over, with increasingly diminishing dividends. On the plus side, that consistency makes nearly all the Cars' records enjoyable (except for the last one). And they really spruced up radio: as every child knows, good '70s pop is an oxymoron (unless you're talking Fleetwood Mac, of course) - "Show Me The Way"?-yeah, to the toilet, Pete! - , and by ushering in the sound of the '80s the Cars helped make that decade a great one for Top 40. New Wave one-hit wonders vs. Motown/Stax-Volt one-hit wonders? Now that's a tough one! Supremes vs. Cars? "Tears Of A Clown" vs. "The Safety Dance"? Oooo, a very tough call. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you decide. Votes will be tabulated and results posted soon!

Cruise on in on to Heartbeat City for a good deal on Cars info. Would I lie to you? Hey, what do I look like, a used car salesman? Ouch. I better stop now...

The Cars (1978) ****

The Led Zeppelin IV of New Wave, nearly every song on this debut gets played on classic rock radio every six minutes. However, unlike those '70s dinosaurs, I've yet to grow sick of it. Having spent several years paying their dues in Boston bars, Ric and the boys had the time to come up with truckload of good, catchy tunes, and out of these 9 only two - "I'm In Touch With Your World" and the closer, "All Mixed Up" - are duds. The rest are all cool (in both senses of the term). Guitars are more prominent than they'd ever be again, and likewise the band sounds slightly more traditional and less overtly New Wave than they would in a short while - but the emphasis is on slightly. All the elements of the classic Cars sound are here; the Cars would keep on reworking their formula for another five albums, but as in many such cases their first shot was their best because it sounds the freshest and the least like formula. Though Ric is the leader and writes all the songs, all of the members are integral. Bassist Ben Orr shares half the vocals and is impossible to tell apart from Ric except that he's slightly warmer and more radio-friendly. Drummer David Robinson provides that arena-ready booming drum sound and keeps the heartbeat steady at the same time. Elliot Easton tastefully inserts slick but slightly avante-garde guitar solos influenced primarily by Tom Verlaine and Robert Fripp (I'm not a guitar freak, but that's at least what my ears tell me). Greg Hawkes is responsible for the Cars' most famous sonic feature, those ever-present robotic-but-melodic keyboard textures. As for Ric himself, I can't tell whether he's trying to imitate Iggy or Lou or Bryan Ferry, but it comes out all Ric - his voice is as weird and obvious a mile away as his emaciated cheekbones. The Cars' greatest hits: "Just What I Needed", "Let The Good Times Roll", "My Best Friend's Girl", "Moving In Stereo", "You're All I've Got Tonight", and "Bye Bye Love". There's no need to describe any of them since you probably already know them very well from constant exposure. The good one they don't play on the radio is "Don't Cha Stop", which is a really fast one about making out. I guess there's six-song limit to songs played off a single album on classic rock radio or else this one would be there also. Ric sings about girls and gets paranoid about them, as usual. Which is kind of funny since he married a real cutie.

Candy-O (1979) ****

Not as many hits, but just as catchy as the debut. There's only one difference: now the Cars are totally new wave, and Hawkes' synthesizer becomes ever so slightly more prominent. As if to underscore the New Waveness, compare the band pictures on the back cover to the pictures on the debut. On Candy-O, they're all color-coded and wearing skinny ties. On The Cars, these guys looked like a normal bar band - one of'em even sported a mustache and long hair! Other than that, a carbon copy of the first. Leads off with "Let's Go", an incredible lust ode to a fetish for bare feet, and amazingly the only Top 40 hit off here. Okay, you hear the title track chomping its moody driving way down AOR every now and then, but what about "Since I Held You"? That's easily as good as anything else they've done, and my favorite song on the album - a slick guitar hook to die for! "It's All I Can Do" is a tender, conflicted ballad that possesses the great ambivalent line, "When I was crazy/I thought you were great". Dig that trashy Farfisa on the garagey, fast-fast-fast! "Got A Lot On My Head" ("and most of it's you"). I like the rest, too - not really a bum track in the bunch. It's only slightly inferior to the debut because the good songs are infinitesimally less catchy and the Cars are already repeating themselves.

Panorama (1980) ***

By now the Cars have grown impatient with the limits of their formula and are trying to experiment with it. This is the Cars' art record, and as you might have guessed the songs aren't as catchy or danceable as before. Even the Top 40 single, "Touch And Go", sounds uncommercial, with that spooky echoing, repeating synth line - positively ghostly. However, it's not really that much of a break with the Cars sound. The main difference is that a)the songs are longer and more plodding, and b)the band pays more attention to texture than hooks. In short, the one step forward the Cars make in sophistication is offset by the three or four steps they take back in song quality. While I can enjoy most of these songs when I'm in the right mood, none of them really grab me and when I want to hear the Cars I'll rarely play this. Highlights for me include Robinson's rythm on the title track, and the way Ric sneakily recontextualizes Lesley Gore's "It's My Party", and a few others I'm not in the mood to look up right now. That last bit gets this record right: it's a reference album, one that you respect more than actually listen to. And you can tell these guys were trying to be serious because it's a Cars album that does not have a girl and car on the cover! And they even do an homage to the gatefold of Roxy Music's second album on their gatefold. I wonder who got to be Eno?

Shake It Up (1981) ***

They got art out their system on the last album, so now they're going for the pop jugular. The problem is it's too light. Not only lighthearted in that Ric sounds in spots unnaturally upbeat, especially the title track, but light in that the band isn't dense. And I for one miss that density - the Cars sound too loose. I mean, they're tight for any other band, but I like the Cars tight. Take away the darkness and quirky experimentation, and the Cars are suddenly pretty insubstantial. In the record's defense (which it has some good points, or else I wouldn't have given it three whole stars), the languid ballads, "I'm Not The One", and "Since You're Gone", are affecting, and I like the "you're so treach-er-ous!" Dylan parody on the latter. I also think the title track's snazzy and "Cruiser" has a hard-hitting little riff, even if it goes on a little too long. It's no coincidence, though, that the best song's the darkest: "Could This Be Love?", an obsessive, slow-burning number that is the Cars' most blatantly Roxiest lift. Not many people I say this about, but you know Ric, I like you better when you're depressed.

Heartbeat City (1984) ***1/2

The Cars' biggest seller, it was one of the many icings on the cake of one of the best years for pure pop for now people in memory, and the grand old men of the type of pop blissfully ruling the airwaves came back and conquered. Of course, to do that the Cars hired the same guy who did Def Leppard, and boy is this sucker overproduced and airbrushed to complete blandness. Where is the classic Cars tension, the weird electronic blipping and bleeping, the nervous rythms, Ric's paranoid girl-trouble angst? Saving grace, as you might have guessed from my high rating, is that the hooks are back, and they're in nearly every song. In fact most of these songs contain multiple hooks, which can get to overload in "Hello Again". The best song is the best Cars ballad, the Ben Orr spotlight, "Drive". Personal anecdote: when I was a kid, I heard that song and thought very literally and logically, "She can always call a taxi". Kids say the darnedest things, huh? "You Might Think" had a great video and "Magic" was the other big smash, but after overexposure I'm actually kind of tired of them. "It's Not The Night" is the best song that wasn't a hit. Most of the rest is good, too, except for the title track, a ballad that is torturous and slow instead of hypnotic and slow like a good Cars ballad is supposed to be. Question: is that Paulina Porzikova on the cover?

Reader Comments


Just thought I'd answer the question about Paulina whatshername, I highly doubt that that's her skateboarding on the cover of the "Heartbeat City" album, since according to Pop Up Video's (VH1's only good show) version of their "You Might Think" video (which features the aforementioned model), Ric Ocasek met her during the filming of the video. I'm pretty sure that the album's cover was all made and ready to ship at the time that they "filmed" the You Might Think video, so I'm pretty sure that's not her on the cover, as Ric Ocasek didn't know her yet.

Micheal Worrell,

I know it's really nerdy to comment twice in one evening, but I just wanted to say that, no, that's not Paulina on the cover of "Heartbeat City". That's an actual fine art piece by a pop artist whose name eludes me right now. I can't think of the title, either. Anyway, it was a pre-existing piece of art created long before the album appeared, as opposed to Varga's painting for "Candy-O" which was commissioned by the band (or in particular David Robinson, who was responsible for much of the band's tasteful design sense).

Door To Door (1987) **1/2

Every dog has his day, and sometimes, boys and girls, old dogs can't hack it anymore and have to be put to sleep 'cause every day is another day of prolonged agony that don't do nobody any good and it's the humane thing to do. Rule #36: Every band has to release a sucky album as their last album, so that fans won't ever get the feeling of missed opportunities. No, they'll realize that the band had run out of gas and needed to break up before making more sucky albums. "You Are The Girl" is Cars-hit-by-numbers. "Strap Me In" is the best song, and it's not really that good. "Leave Or Stay" and "Ta Ta Wayo" are leftovers dating from 1977, not a good sign for the band's creativity. The title track flat-out sucks. "Everything You Say" is jangly, of all things; the Cars try to stretch out a little from their self-imposed formula, but they don't do it very well. For such a bad album, I gave it a pretty high rating because it's pleasantly listenable - but not an iota more than 'pleasant' and 'listenable', and if those two adjectives aren't the definition of damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. As you might have figured, the Cars didn't have any really big hits off here and broke up in 1988.

Greatest Hits (1986) ***1/2
Just What I Needed (1995) ****1/2

For greatest hits packages, you basically have two choices. The one-disc 1986 comp is good all the way through, but doesn't do the band justice; it misses too much of the good stuff off the first two albums - only one selection from Candy-O?! It contains the Cars' last inspired song, the single "Tonight She Comes", which was expressly written for this greatest hits package. The 1995 two-disc compilation is much better. It crams 40 songs onto two discs, and includes enough rarities, demoes, and B-sides to be essential for fans who already own the original albums. It's also the ideal album for beginners, also - it's comprehensive enough to contain the majority of songs from all the albums. The only caveat is that precisely one good song per album is left off of this comp: no "Could This Be Love?" is criminal. But since this contains all but 3 or 4 of the Cars' good songs, anyone interested in the Cars should not only begin but also stop here - it's all the Cars anyone needs and more.


Ric Ocasek

Beautitude (1982) ***

A not bad reworking of the standard Cars formula. Ric keeps things different by placing the guitars in the background and emphasizing the synthesizer textures, and avoids the Cars' bubblegum pop for a more thoughtful, languid excursion. The songs are fairly uncommercial, but accessible, and most are fairly good. It's not as good as prime Cars, but Ric's songwriting is strong throughout, especially on the pained teen psychodrama "Jimmy Jimmy". It may seem hookless on first listen, but after a few hears it proves itself worthwhile - an album that definitely grows on you, in other words. I sure wish it would make me get up and dance like the Cars, though.

This Side Of Paradise (1986) *1/2

Yech. I can't believe I had the poor taste to like the MTV hit "Emotion In Motion" when I was 12, but hey, I was 12, so forgive me. Unless you're a diehard fan of everything Ric spews out, then you can skip this. Basically, it sounds like the blander aspects of the Cars sans reedeeming hooks. For some reason Ric seems intent on racking up vapid, meaningless hits, which seems odd since the Cars just finished their biggest selling album - shouldn't he have gotten weird and experimental instead? Songs like "True To You" are as bland, predictable, and forgettable as their titles. Sometimes I really hate the '80s. The ode to Wire, "Pink Flag Joe", is a nice touch, though.

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