The Cars are another band that I took an immediate dislike to when they first came along, but grew to really like as time wore on. When their first album started getting mass radio airplay in ’78, I was heavily into Kiss and Ted Nugent and other testosterony Rock ‘N’ Roll at the time, so I was highly resistant to the whole New Wave scene, especially these nerdy-looking guys wearing skinny neckties. I was also largely unimpressed with The Cars when they played Summer Jam ’79 at Arrowhead Stadium (on the same bill with Heart and Nugent), but to be fair, they weren’t a stadium band, and came off much better live in smaller venues, as their various concert video clips attest. Their second album, Candy-O, came out about that same time, and that’s when The Cars started to grow on me, and once I got past the un-photogenic Ric Ocasek’s often obtuse lyrics, they eventually wound up being one of my favorite bands from the ‘80s.
As with Cheap Trick and Journey, I find The Cars’ “B-stuff” to be far superior to their big radio hits. “Good Times Roll”, “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” are okay songs, but with me they pale in comparison underrated gems like “Don’t Cha Stop”, “Got A Lot On My Head” and “Think It Over”. Their high-water mark for me was 1981’s Shake It Up, which is one of my favorite albums from the techno-pop era. Keyboardist Greg Hawkes was all over that record with his synthesizers, but not to the point of overkill as with many other ‘80s contemporaries. Bassist Benjamin Orr was the other unsung hero of The Cars, as he was the far superior vocalist to Ocasek, and I tend to gravitate more toward his songs than Ric’s.
Their 1984 release, Heartbeat City, was a major commercial success, but that album left me really flat. I thought stuff like “Magic”, “Hello Again” and the insipid “You Might Think” were a bit too cutesy and wimpy, with the only true highlight being “Drive” (the band's biggest hit ever), which showcased Ben Orr’s outstanding vocals. Conversely, their final album, 1987’s Door To Door was a major flop, but a much better record in my opinion, with standout songs like “Strap Me In”, “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo”, the title track and “You Are The Girl”. The video for the latter song was a total hoot, featuring all matter of alien “girls” reminiscent of Star Wars cantina bar patrons.
By the mid-'80s, the lure of solo careers for Ocasek, Orr and guitarist Elliot Easton beckoned and the band broke up in 1988 after six albums—still a fairly prolific output for an ‘80s band. Orr’s solo career got off to a great start in ’86 with the adult contemporary hit “Stay The Night”—great make-out song, by the way—but never really advanced after that. Ocasek’s solo stuff was rather hit-and-miss, and Easton’s went largely unnoticed. I always held out hope for a Cars reunion someday, but that was quashed with Orr’s untimely death in October, 2000 from pancreatic cancer. At the time of his passing, Orr was playing in a band called Big People, which also included .38 Special guitarist Jeff Carlisi and erstwhile Nugent sidekick Derek St. Holmes—not a bad lineup. Hawkes and Easton—apparently with the full blessing of Ocasek and retired original drummer David Robinson—did put together "The New Cars" and toured a couple years back with ‘70s legend Todd Rundgren replacing Ocasek, Utopia bassist Kasim Sultan taking Orr’s spot and former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, but it was hardly the same, and reeked of tribute-band syndrome—that "New Car" smell, you might say. "Used Cars" would've been a more appropriate name. [Sorry, couldn't resist...]
My All-Time Cars Top 20:
20) “Panorama” (1980) Title track off The Cars’ third album, which wasn’t quite as good as their first two. This song’s really quirky, but I still like it anyway.
19) “Let’s Go” (1979) Opening track and biggest hit from Candy-O, and a song all about some chick who doesn’t wear shoes, but really likes the nightlife, baby.
18) “Door To Door” (1987) One of the faster Cars songs ever, complete with driving beat. Get it? Cars/driving! Har-de-har-har...
17) “Dangerous Type” (1979) Closing track on Candy-O, the lyrics of which I used to alter when singing, "She's a NUT like you—the dangerous type..."
16) "Moving In Stereo" (1978) Song forever associated with the masturbation scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Not unlike Journey’s “City Of The Angels”, this was one of the most accidentally-played songs on the radio because the intro overlaps the previous album track, “Bye Bye Love”.
15) “Touch And Go” (1980) The biggest hit off the somewhat disappointing Panorama album, the guitar on this song has an almost 1950’s tone to it.
14) “Strap Me In” (1987) Opening track from the ill-fated Door To Door album. Not sure why this one tanked—it’s not a bad song.
13) “Just What I Needed” (1978) Very sad to hear this one being used on TV commercials now.
12) “Cruiser” (1981) A favorite off Shake It Up featuring Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes trading riffs with their respective instruments.
11) “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (1978) I remember this being the lone song that really came off well at that Arrowhead gig, as Greg Hawkes’ synthesizer sound seemed to swirl all around the stadium during the choruses.
10) “Shake It Up” (1981) Great hit single. I always loved the Bernadette Peters clone in the video for this one too.
9) “Night Spots” (1979) Hawkes shows off some more here, and the Close Encounters riff was a brilliant added touch.
8) “Gimme Some Slack” (1980) I have no earthly idea what Ocasek means by lines like “I wanna shake like LaGuardia...”, but I’ve always loved this song anyway. Ever notice how eerily similar the drum intro bit is to that of Devo’s “Whip It”? They’re practically identical.
7) “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo” (1987) More Ocasek goofiness in the lyrics, but this one was quite catchy.
6) “It’s All I Can Do” (1979) One of Ben Orr’s finest vocal outings, and a great song about pining for someone you can’t have—been there, done that. It was a perfect fit for the soundtrack of Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer.
5) “Candy-O” (1979) Another fine Ben Orr vocal outing.
4) “A Dream Away” (1981) This song from Shake It Up has a very hypnotic quality about it that makes you just want to lay back and go on a little head trip, and you don’t even need any drugs...
3) “Got A Lot On My Head” (1979) One of Ocasek’s better vocal performances and some nifty guitar work from Easton.
2) “Think It Over” (1981) My favorite track among many faves from Shake It Up. This one had “hit single” written all over it, and I never understood why they didn’t release it as such.
1) “Don’t Cha Stop” (1978) Easily my favorite song off the first Cars album—this song is quintessential techno-pop at its finest. Singer Albert Hammond, Jr. does a nice cover version of it too.