Streamlining punk rock into irresistible pop melo dies, the Cars hit upon a golden formula for success in the late 1970s that they kept alive for nearly a decade. As was acknowledged in The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, “The Cars have never deviated from writing catchy well-crafted songs, each containing at least one memorable and instantly hummable riff.” The band’s first album remained on the charts an astonishing 139 weeks, and subsequent albums brought a steady march of best-selling singles into the hit parade. The group’s success also ushered in a host of other “tamed” new-wave bands as record companies sought to cash in a sound that had struck a chord with record-buying listeners. As Irwin Stambler noted in The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock&Soul, “Blending no-nonsense Midwestern rock with elements of the punk/new wave rhythms beginning to come to the fore in the eastern U.S. in the mid-1970s, the Cars became a major influence on pop music from then into the 1980s.”
Much of the band’s inspiration and style were drawn from the type of bands that were popular in England at the time. As the disco era was fading, the timing was perfect for their pop sensibility that merged both the melodic pleasures of the past with the urgency of British punk bands. “While they were more commercially-oriented than their New York peers, the Cars were nevertheless inspired by proto-punk, garage rock and bubble gum pop,” wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine on the All-Music Guide website. Also aiding the Cars were their striking videos on the then-new MTV that increased their popularity and record sales.
The most important creative force for the Cars was guitarist/vocalist Ric Ocasek, who first began playing guitar and writing songs at the age of ten. After studying at Antioch College and then Bowling Green State University, he dropped out and moved to Cleveland. There he met singer and bass guitarist Benjamin Orr at a party. Orr had been the leader of a house band on the television show Upbeat while just a teenager. According to Stambler, “He came to a rehearsal of a band I had at the time,” said Ocasek about Orr. “I went over to his place and we sang songs together. I thought he had such an amazing voice and I said: ‘Why don’t you join us?’” Before long the twosome was writing songs together and began performing around the country, their base of operation shifting between Cleveland; New York City; Woodstock, New York; and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Eventually they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they found a core of loyal fans in the Boston area.
During the early 1970s Orr and Ocasek performed in a folk trio called Milkwood, which produced a self-titled album on Paramount Records in 1972. One of their session musicians was Greg Hawkes, a multitalented musician who played keyboards, saxophone, and guitar, and had dabbled in singing and arranging. Hawkes moved on to play with Martin Mull’s Fabulous Furniture and then a country-rock group called Orphan, but still occasionally contributed to demo tapes for Orr and Ocasek.
After Orr and Ocasek formed a band called Cap’n Swing in 1976, guitarist Elliot Easton came on board. Cap ‘n Swing made a big splash in Boston and attempted to sign with a New York record company, but the mission was a failure. Ocasek decided that the band needed a change, and a new band was formed with him, Orr, Easton, and the returning Hawkes. They also picked up percussionist David Robinson, who had previously played with the Modern Lovers and DMZ. Robinson proved to be crucial to the group’s evolution and, according to The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, he changed their name to the Cars and spurred them on to make new demo tapes in 1976.
The Cars made their debut live performance on New Year’s Eve of 1976 at the Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Since the group was represented by the same talent agency that handled the Stooges and MC5, they often toured with those bands during their early years. Before they became popular they still refused to perform any songs other than their
Original members included Elliot Easton (born Elliot Shapiro, December 18, 1953, in Brooklyn, NY), guitar; Greg Hawkes, keyboards; Ric Ocasek (born Richard Otcasek, March 23, 1949, in Baltimore, MD), vocals, guitar; Benjamin Orr (born Benjamin Orzechowski, in Cleveland, OH), vocals, bass guitar; David Robinson, drums.
Group formed, 1976; developed a following at the Rathskellar, Boston, MA, 1977; signed contract with Elektra/Asylum label, 1977; released debut album, The Cars, 1978; had first charting single, “Just What I Needed,” 1978; bought a recording studio, 1981; performed at US Festival, San Bernardino, CA, 1982; had a number of popular song videos on MTV, 1980s; released most successful album, Heartbeat City, 1984; group disbanded, 1988.
Awards: Best New Band of the Year, Rolling Stone magazine, 1979.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019; 212-275-4000.
own, a practice that dissatisfied some clubs. They began to develop a following in 1977 at a popular Boston club called the Rathskellar, more commonly known as the Rat. Early that year they sent a demo of “Just What I Needed” to WBCN, a popular rock radio station in Boston. Before long this tune became the most requested song on the station and the Cars were being approached by major record companies. Arranged by their new manager, Fred Lewis, they opened for a Bob Seger concert at Boston’s Music Hall that year, which also helped to boost the group’s reputation. In addition, the Cars opened for the J. Geils Band, Foreigner, and Nils Lofgren in 1977.
In the fall of 1977, the Cars signed a recording contract with Elektra/Asylum after representatives from the company saw them perform at Holy Cross College in Boston. They began work on their first album in 1978 in England with the hot producer Roy Thomas Baker, who had also produced Queen and other groups. While abroad the group toured the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and Germany. It took the Cars a mere two weeks to record songs for their self-titled album, which proved a smash with listeners. Among the songs on this recording are “Just What I Needed,” their debut single that made it to 27 on the U.S. charts, and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” which hit 35 in the U.S. and three in England. “My Best Friend’s Girl” was also the first picture disk available at the commercial level. “On the heels of new wave, this debut album for the Cars was a mechanized rock delight—its music spare and precise yet undeniably catchy, with sly references to the Beatles and Tommy James & the Shondells,” wrote William Ruhl-mann in his review of the album in The All-Music Guide.
The Cars eventually generated sales of over six million, and resulted in the group being voted Best New Band of the Year in Rolling Stone magazine. The group was also nominated for a Grammy Award as Best New Artist, but lost out to A Taste of Honey. At this time Orr was lead singer, singing in a deadpan style reminiscent of Lou Reed, with Ocasek on rhythm guitar and singing lead on some songs. Ocasek was the chief songwriter, and the group’s follow-up album included only his songs. “I write lyrics pretty fast,” Ocasek remarked, according to Stambler. “I usually write five songs at a sitting in a three-day period.” Critics made note of the band‘s tight sound that softened the rough edges of New Wave and made it especially palatable for mass consumption. “If the thick, stoned-mechanic vocals of Benjamin Orr drew the band into the middle of the hard-rock road, it was Robinson’s cold, crisp percussion and leader Ric Ocasek’s disaffected lyrics that kept them swerving on the shoulder of rock modernism,” noted The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.
Candy-O, released in 1979, proved the Cars were no fluke. It too became a certified platinum album, and rose to number three on the U.S. charts. “Let’s Go” from the album became their biggest hit to date, breaking the Top 20 and making the group a big enough draw for major arenas. Their next album, 1980’s Panorama, also went platinum after rising to number five in the charts.
In 1981, the Cars bought their own studio in Boston called Intermedia, then renamed it Synchro Sound and began recording songs there. By then members of the group were getting involved in other projects, mostly as producers. Ocasek produced songs for the groups Suicide, New Models, the Peter Dayton Band, Bebe Buell, Romeo Void, and other bands. Robinson took control in the studio for the Vinny Band and Boys Life, while Easton put on a producer’s hat for The Dawgs. Despite their magic touch, the Cars were not especially prolific at recording. After Panorama in 1980, the group released only three original albums until their breakup in 1988. But they still managed to turn out big hits such as “Shake It Up,” which it made it to number ten in 1982. That year the group performed before 400,000 fans at the US Festival in San Bernardino, California, along with top names such as Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Police, Talking heads, and many others. The following year Ocasek ventured off on his own with a solo album called Beatitude on the Geffen label, proving he could do it alone by securing a top position of 28 on the album charts.
The group’s biggest success came in 1984 with their Heartbeat City album. It topped out at number three and offered five hit singles to listeners, among them the Top 10 placers “You Might Think” and “Drive.” This album was the first Cars’ release not produced by Baker, with Robert John “Mutt” Lange taking over this time. Lange had also produced AC/DC and Def Lep-pard, among other groups. “Drive” was the band’s most successful single of their career, and was later used as a theme for the Live Aid famine film footage.
As the group took an extended sabbatical after Heartbeat City, guitarist Easton released his first solo album, Change No Change in 1985 and Ocasek released his second, This Side of Paradise in 1986. Orr released his solo album The Lace in 1987 and, after three years without a new album, the Cars released Door to Door that year as well. Although it sold fairly well, Door to Door was clearly not in the league of past albums. Their swan song in the Top 40 was “You Are the Girl,” which peaked at number 17 in 1987. The next year the group officially announced their demise. Since the breakup only Ocasek has maintained a solid presence on the pop scene.
The Cars, Elektra, 1978.
Candy-O, Elektra, 1979.
Panorama, Elektra, 1980.
Shake It Up, Elektra, 1981.
Heartbeat City, Elektra, 1984.
Door to Door, Elektra, 1987.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Clifford, Mike, consultant, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Sixth Edition, Harmony Books, 1988.
DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke, editors, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, 1992.
Erlewine, Michael, editor, The All Music Guide, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Kamin, Philip, The Cars, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 1, Guinness Publishing, 1995.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, editors, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, Revised Edition, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the All-Music Guide website on the Internet.
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