edgy band that helped bring new-wave music to pop radio (formed Boston, Mass., 1975). membership:Rie Ocasek (real name, Richard Otcasek), gtr., voc. (b. Baltimore, Md., March 23, 1949); Benjamin Orr (real name, Orzechowski), bs., voc. (b. Cleveland, Ohio, Aug. 9, 1955; d. Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 10, 2000); Elliot Easton (real name, Shapiro), gtr. (b. Brooklyn, Dec. 18, 1953); Greg Hawkes, kybd. (b. Baltimore, Md.); David Robinson, drm.
Rie Ocasek and session musician Ben Orr started playing together in the early 1970s as Milkwood. They recorded two LPs for Paramount with Greg Hawkes on keyboards. They added guitarist Elliot Easton to the band and changed the group’s name to Cap’n Swing. With the addition of former Modern Lovers’ drummer David Robinson, they changed their name one final time to the Cars, and started playing regularly at Boston clubs like the Rat. They opened a concert for Bob Seger, and got their demo version of “Just What I Needed” added to the playlist at Boston radio station WCOZ. It became the station’s #1 request.
With all this buzz, the Cars were signed to Elektra records who put them in the studio with producer Roy Thomas Baker. Two weeks later, they delivered their eponymous debut album. The sound had the aural austerity of the growing new-wave, with the clean, arch elements of Roxy Music. The album became a staple on Album Rock radio, with such synth-heavy tunes as “Moving in Stereo” and the singles “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” reached #27 and #35, respectively, on the pop charts. The album eventually sold six million copies and hit #18 on the charts.
Capitalizing on this sound and success, the group quickly released their next album, Candy-O. The single “Let’s Go” climbed up to #14, and the album went to #3, ultimately selling over three million copies. The group played for half a million fans in N.Y/s Central Park. They were asked to host the late night weekend TV show The Midnight Special, which they accepted provided they could have control over the selection of the other performers. It was probably the only time the band Suicide ever appeared on commercial TV!
The Cars’s next release, 1980’s Panorama, went to #5 on the strength of the single “Touch and Go” which hit #37. The band had started to sound a little tired and formulaic, so the group took a year off. They bought Intermedia Studio’s in Boston, refitted it to their desires, and opened it as Synchro Sound. Ocasek produced albums by model Bebe Buell and the avant rock duo Suicide there.
The Cars got back together with producer Baker at Synchro and recorded the upbeat Shake It Up in 1981. The album rose to #9, on the strength of the #4 title track and considerable album rock play for “Since You’re Gone” and sold platinum. After spending close to a year on the road, the group took another hiatus. Ocasek recorded his solo debut, Beatitude, which climbed to #28. Hawkes also put out a solo record, Niagra Falls.
The band went to England to record with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. The result, 1984’s Hearbeat City, earned the band as many hits as their previous three records combined. With a video that made use of state-of-the-art special effects, “You Might Think” became a high rotation clip on MTV and went to #7. “Magic” followed at #12. Ben Orr’s vocals took the ballad “Drive” to #3. The album hit #5 and sold five million copies. In 1985, the band cut two additional tracks for a Greatest Hits collection: “Tonight She Comes” went to #7, and “I’m Not the One” topped out at #32.
Another hiatus followed, during which Easton released Change, No Change, which hit a lackluster #99 on the album charts. Orr released The Lace, which got as high as #92, but the single “Stay the Night” rose to #24. Hawkes recorded a couple of film scores. Ocasek released his second solo album, This Side of Paradise, which rose to #32 on the strength of the #15 single “Emotion in Motion.”
After three years away from each other, the Cars made 1987’s Door to Door. A much more live sounding album, it reprised a couple of the songs they used to play as Cap’n Swing. However, the album was not very successful, topping out at #26, while the single “You are the Girl” topped out at #17. By this time life within the band became “redundant, envious and business-oriented” according to Ocasek, and the band broke up.
Ocasek released three more solo albums, but mostly became a successful producer, working with acts ranging from nerd rockers Weezer to pop sensations Hanson. Orr played with a series of bands and continued to try and get a solo deal, performing live throughout New England. Hawkes created several CDs of synth and sound effects for sampling. Easton worked with his own band, the Tiki Love Gods, and became the lead guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revisited. Frequent overtures to reunite the Cars generally fall apart, allegedly owing to bad blood between Orr and Ocasek.
Cars (1978); Candy-O (1979); Panorama (1980); Shake It Up (1981); Heartbeat City (1984); Greatest Hits (1985); Door to Door (1987); Just What I Needed: Cars Anthology (1995). Rie Ocasek: Beatitude (1983); This Side of Paradise (1986); Troublizing (1997). Ben Orr: The Lace (1986). Greg Hawkes: Niagra Falls (1983). Elliot Easton: Change, No Change (1985).