The Cars is so much more than The Cars’ greatest hits

Image: The Cars album cover
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Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.  

There are one-hit wonders and one-album wonders. There are musicians who consistently craft top-notch singles, but fall short of stringing them together into consistently compelling LPs; there are records that suddenly come to life when edited down into a 30-minute all killer, no filler playlist.

There are bands like The Breeders, who made one of the best alternative rock albums of the ’90s, only for thousands of copies of Last Splash to wind up in the cut-out bin because they don’t contain 15 different versions of “Cannonball.” There is Tom Petty, who boasts a rich and rewarding discography, and yet none of his studio albums capture the strengths of his songwriting and storytelling as succinctly as that 1993 Greatest Hits compilation that ends with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and The Heartbreakers’ cover of “Something In The Air.”

And then there are The Cars, the type of band that put out a perfect debut record, and then had the audacity to not pack it in after that. They helped smuggle new wave into the mainstream, layering futuristic synths and angular stabs of post-punk guitar over the irresistible melodies of primary songwriter Ric Ocasek on six records released between 1978 and 1987—five of which are good-to-great. But The Cars still would’ve made their mark on rock ’n’ roll if they’d stopped at the first one.

Even if you don’t know The Cars—Ocasek, vocalist-bassist Benjamin Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, and drummer David Robinson—you know The Cars. The cherry-red, devil-may-care smile of model Natalia Medvedeva on the cover. The palm-muted chug of “Just What I Needed.” The massive stack of voices on “Good Times Roll.” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” the first point in the era’s holy trinity of songs about uneven love triangles—less earnest than Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” less huffy than Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” It’s inarguably the best document of The Cars Mark I, a period when the band futzed with rock conventions and Ocasek made like a combination of Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It’s little wonder that the members of The Cars have jokingly referred to it as “The Cars Greatest Hits.”

The band that would win the inaugural MTV Video Music Award for Video Of The Year emerged with a visual aesthetic in place. On the back cover of The Cars, the band members pose in a modernist red, black, and white wardrobe chosen by Robinson, who’s described in profiles from that period in terms that put him somewhere between art director, set decorator, and choreographer. The color palette may have been chosen by default—“everybody had a lot of black and white clothes”—but it was an accurate reflection of the music they made. Clean. Stylish. Cutting edge. Timeless. The iconography surrounding The Cars was as old as rock ’n’ roll itself: hot rods and pinup models. But in Ocasek’s indirect lyrics and the band’s unconventional vocals, there was an artful remove. (Such things went with the color scheme: Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine, with its Soviet propaganda-inspired artwork, was also released in 1978.) The Cars is what happens when someone tries to recreate a Beach Boys record with 1970s technology and virtually no nostalgia for the years 1965 through 1977—when that record isn’t Brian Wilson’s 1977 proto-synthpop swerve, The Beach Boys Love You.

These tensions, this dissonance—the “frozen fire,” to quote a song from Candy-o—is at the heart of The Cars, nine hot-under-the-collar rock songs that treat sex as an academic concern and rock as an organism with several vestigial organs in need of removal. It’s mad science befitting Hawkes’ dweeby look circa 1978; it’s an album with a sci-fi crack-up that became the soundtrack to the most infamous masturbation scene in ’80s cinema. It’s, in the words of an Elektra Records advertisement for The Cars, “Top-down music in a hard-top world.”

It’s too easy to reach for automotive terminology and imagery while discussing The Cars, something the band didn’t shy away from: See the fins, fenders, and hoods on display on The Cars’ inner sleeve. The lede of the band’s first Rolling Stone profile describes a young Ocasek—then Richard Otcasek—tricking out his dad’s Mercury Comet; it was never going to be the fastest set of wheels on the Cleveland drag strip, so he bypassed the muffler and made it the loudest. The anecdote is more than mere journalism cutesiness: It establishes Ocasek as an inveterate tinkerer, the kind who’d spend hours in a basement developing photographs and assembling electronics components. From there, it’s not a big leap to his technician’s attention to songwriting: the elemental catchiness of even the deepest cuts on The Cars, the way they take apart rock’s abiding themes and reassemble them in new forms. Like the claps in “My Best Friend’s Girl” or the syncopated interjections at the beginning of “Just What I Needed” and “Don’t Cha Stop,” The Cars’ treatment of love, celebration, lust, jealousy, and loneliness never goes where you think it will. And the band itself was a machine, sleek and precise and economical in ways that set The Cars apart from punk’s purposeful sloppiness and the studious prog and art rock that inspired that sloppiness. It wasn’t just a product of the studio, either. The Cars live show at the time was ferociously tight; for an alternate vision of the band’s trajectory, listen to it rip through the B-side “Hotel Queenie” on Live At The Agora, 1978.

“I’m In Touch With Your World” is a goofy novelty track slotted between “Just What I Needed” and “Don’t Cha Stop” on side one of The Cars, but its skinny-tie Spike Jones impression is backed by some complex drumming from Robinson. “Bye Bye Love” announces itself with a measure and a half of fanfare, a tornado of guitar, synth, and drums played in unison and reprised—after some call-and-response interplay between Easton and Hawkes, who’d both studied at Berklee College Of Music—at the end of the song. Easton really ought to come up more frequently in the conversation about rock’s greatest guitarists—his playing on The Cars is impressive without being flashy, and anyone who’s tried their hand at the rockabilly slides and hammer-ons of the solo on “My Best Friend’s Girl” knows he’s no slouch.

Then again, The Cars weren’t built to be the type of band where the individual components stood out—that’s kind of the point when you adopt a uniform. You can hear it in all those moments on The Cars when the instruments all pull together as one, or in the nigh-indistinguishable lead vocals of Ocasek and Orr. “I think our voices are similar because we spent so many years together even before The Cars,” Ocasek told Vanity Fair in 2011. “Every band I’ve ever been in had both of us.” As the primary songwriter, Ocasek tended to be the Car that writers, interviewers, and music-video cameras gravitated toward; for Orr’s part, his voice slotted him into the role of the band’s balladeer. The Cars’ two sides are split between them: Ocasek leads side one (with the exception of “Just What I Needed”), Orr takes side two (minus “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”). Their partnership was another example of The Cars making harmony from dissonance: the late Orr, who looked the part of the ’70s rocker, smoldering on “Moving In Stereo” and “All Mixed Up”; Ocasek, the gangly guy with the Buddy Holly hiccup, singing about the ex who’s dating his closest pal (and sounding kind of okay with it). Of the group’s two 21st-century reunions—first Easton and Hawkes teaming with Todd Rundgren as The New Cars, and then the surviving band members re-teaming for 2011’s Move Like This—it’s almost weirder that Ocasek would record new material without Orr. When Rundgren’s up there singing “My Best Friend’s Girl,” there’s no sense that he’s missing his other other half.

The Cars was recorded in London, but it was written in Boston, a city that’s long been a hotbed for arty, brainy noise. It was where The Velvet Underground found refuge—and actual fans!—when it was trying to distance itself from Andy Warhol and Nico. A city with such a significant student population naturally encouraged the rise of college rock, serving as the launchpad for the Pixies, Helium, and Folk Implosion. And in between “Here She Comes Now” and “Here Comes Your Man,” Boston was the home base for The Modern Lovers and their proudly square frontman, Jonathan Richman. Legend has it that Richman provided the name for one of Ocasek, Orr, and Hawkes’ earlier bands, Richard And The Rabbits; more importantly, The Modern Lovers gave The Cars their drummer: Before pounding out the martial beats of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” David Robinson was the steady hand guiding Richman down the highway on his Velvet Underground homage “Roadrunner.”

Ocasek shared Richman’s affinity for The Velvets. Like the band’s leader, Lou Reed, he was a student of the Beats—hence the “flick fandango phony” in “I’m In Touch With Your World”—and a practitioner of detached, sunglasses-wearing cool. Asked if he felt like The Cars were a bridge to more adventurous music, Ocasek told Vanity Fair:

Well I’m always seeking out bands that are pretty different. A lot of bands I produced are in that category—Bad Brains and Suicide. My taste was to always go for that mix, even back in the ’60s. I obviously was a huge fan of [Bob] Dylan, but my other favorite band was the Velvet Underground. I always went for the left side of the music brain, too. I loved the Velvet Underground and the Carpenters.

That’s already apparent in the demos The Cars cut in Ocasek’s basement in 1976. Recorded in a setting that sounds like a 3D rendering of The Cars’ packaging design—“Plastered everywhere are black-and-white photos clipped from fashion magazines—one of Sissy Spacek, a few stark Helmut Newtons—and those of an array of futuristic fantasy cars,” Jon Pareles wrote in Rolling Stone—a slow-burning staccato strut called “Just What I Needed” made its way to Maxanne Sartori, the influential Boston DJ who’d helped break Aerosmith earlier in the decade. Even in its primordial form, “Just What I Needed” strikes a distinctive note, crunching where other radio hits from the era would roar, with Orr giving Ocasek’s smartest-guy-in-the-room come-ons (“It doesn’t matter where you’ve been / As long as it was deep, yeah”) some suave sophistication. The demo that won over Sartori’s listeners and brought the record company suits up from New York has most of the track’s enduring qualities in place: the stop-start intro, Hawkes’ whirring synth lead, the harmonized pas de deux he and Easton do as the song comes to a stop.

What’s not there is the crispness of the studio version, or the sonic plushness of Roy Thomas Baker’s production. Someone with a résumé as long as Baker’s makes sense for a band working on its first album, though maybe not this exact résumé with this exact band. After engineering sessions for the likes of T. Rex, Frank Zappa, and Free, and cobbling together the concert recordings that make up the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Baker became one of the leading names in stadium and prog rock. He’d been in the studio for the first four Queen records; the same year he produced The Cars, Baker reunited with Queen for Jazz and also worked on records by Journey and Starcastle. It’s a curious fact of rock history that something with as little fat on it as “My Best Friend’s Girl” was produced by the guy who did “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

But it’s also a testament to Baker’s versatility. At the time he took the Cars assignment—driving through snowy weather to catch a gig in a high school gymnasium—he was growing weary of the operatic approach. “I thought, ‘Maybe there is a point where I should be a bit more sparse,’” he told the trade publication Mix in 1999. “So when I did the first Cars record, we purposely did it very sparse, but when the harmony vocals come in, there are as many vocals there as there were in a Queen record. The only difference is it was in and then it was gone. ‘Good Times Roll’ is a classic one for that. When they sing those words, it’s huge and then it’s gone, and everything is back to sparse again. I was able to put big vocals on a sparse, punkish background, sort of inventing post-punk pop.”

It was a perfect fit with Ocasek’s meticulous and prudent compositional style. As he did with Queen, Baker wound up producing the first four Cars records, the second and third of which—1979’s Candy-o and 1980’s Panorama—play like experiments in musical atomization. How much can you strip away from a pop song while still maintaining the basic building blocks? On The Cars, the three-word title of an Everly Brothers record can be a chorus, atmospheric Blade Runner oscillations do countermelody, and handclaps can make up an entire rhythm track. It’s pioneering work in minimalism that built off krautrock, echoed the band’s contemporaries in synth pop and no wave, and got carried into the 21st century by Spoon. (A full musical circle: A band named for a Can song builds the space of the entire Cars discography into Kill The Moonlight, a masterful indie rock album made of slap echo, beatbox loops, and the ghost of a piano.)

The quiet-loud-quiet approach of “Just What I Needed” and “Good Times Roll” passed through a succeeding generation of bands, too. It was first adapted by fellow Bostonians—“The muting thing on the verse comes from listening to The Cars,” Joey Santiago said in a Pixies oral history from 2004—before trickling down to Nirvana (who covered “My Best Friend’s Girl,” one of the first songs Kurt Cobain ever learned to play on guitar), Smashing Pumpkins (who did “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” as a “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” B-side), and the Ocasek-produced Weezer. Like comparing the stacks of Queen harmonies on The Cars to the 1976 basement demos, the online proliferation of Weezer’s The Kitchen Tapes has put to bed a chicken-or-egg question: The Blue Album sounds like The Cars because Ric Ocasek produced it, not the other way around. (But if you want to get nitpicky about it, “My Name Is Jonas” still technically sounds like The Cars on The Kitchen Tapes, because the Kitchen Tapes version of “My Name Is Jonas” sounds like the Pixies.)

And that’s all without mentioning the most blatant and loving bit of Cars homage to ever race up the charts: “Stacy’s Mom,” the Fountains Of Wayne single that doesn’t just bite the “Just What I Needed” riff and “My Best Friend’s Girl” claps—its preteen horndog video re-creates the “Moving In Stereo” moment from Fast Times At Ridgemont High, with Rachel Hunter in the Phoebe Cates role. The cheeky clip isn’t always that overt: There’s also the kids at the bus stop styled in Cars red, white, and black, and the convertible with an “I ♥︎ Ric” license plate.

“I read a few things he said about it,” Fountains Of Wayne songwriter Adam Schlesinger told when asked about “Stacy’s Mom” and its debts to Ocasek. “He said in some interview that he thought [we] sampled that little… guitar stab. Which we didn’t. It sounds a lot like it but we didn’t actually sample it.” Will Toledo can fill Schlesinger in on what happens when you actually sample “Just What I Needed”: $50,000 of Matador’s money later, Car Seat Headrest’s “Not What I Needed” still does a pretty mean version of the original song’s shifting dynamics.

To call the album that made all this possible The Cars Greatest Hits is a good joke, but it’s not wholly accurate. It might not even be the greatest Cars record: Candy-o roughs up the smooth edges of the self-titled album, Heartbeat City is a shining paradigm of ’80s pop, and Panorama is an underrated attempt at remaking the band in Devo’s image. The band’s biggest songs were still several albums and years away, and its actual Greatest Hits compilation wound up charting higher than The Cars. By Shake It Up, the band members were MTV stars; that album’s title track, “Drive,” “Tonight She Comes,” and “You Might Think” all took them into the top 10.

But The Cars has staying power. Decades after the album’s two-and-a-half-year stay on the Billboard 200, “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” are two of the only new wave singles you’ll hear on classic rock radio with any regularity. The Cars’ mass appeal is even more impressive considering the album was released just as the pop audience was experiencing its first real fractures, when the giants of the ’60s and ’70s struggled to keep up and compete with fresh sounds materializing from dingy clubs, discotheques, and Bronx apartment complexes. Looking back at the album from 1980, Mikal Gilmore wrote in Rolling Stone: “Conservative radio programmers jumped on it because of Ocasek’s consonant pop symmetry and Roy Thomas Baker’s polished, economical production; New Wave partisans favored it for its terse melodicism and ultramodern stance; and critics applauded it for its synthesis of prepunk art-rock influences, including Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno.”

It’s not the only Cars record worth hearing, but if you seek a distillation of everything The Cars did well, The Cars is just what you need.