I got behind on my obituaries last week. I wanted to remember lo-fi legend Daniel Johnston, but my degree of unfamiliarity with his work meant I was not prepared to do it justice. I was more familiar with one Eddie Mahoney, or as you know him, Eddie Money. I had an affinity for Money’s big hits, “Shakin’,” “Two Tickets To Paradise,” the omnipresent “Baby Hold On,” and his massive collaboration with Ronnie Spector, “Take Me Home Tonight.” I don’t own a single Eddie Money album, but I’ve always enjoyed his singles. He was kind of a genius with those AOR/power pop kinds of tunes that made you bop your head wherever you heard them. Much like Johnston, Money’s life and excesses led to a feeling of tragic certainty.
Ric Ocasek was different. Nervy, sometimes cool and detached, he employed a beat-poet’s technique to his lyrics that pulled arcane words from the air, making them infinitely more interesting than the horny dude laments they might have been otherwise. He also was deeply romantic, but again, he wasn’t prone to letting the honey drip.
He found his perfect foil early, working with Benjamin Orr in the 1960s, then adding Eliot Easton and later Greg Hawkes as time went on. Finally, David Robinson left The Modern Lovers and joined up with this bunch of ambitious misfits to make edgy but friendly new wave. They called themselves The Cars. They released a debut album that stands even now as a template for how good a first effort could be. Three more albums would follow, and while there was minimal Top 100 heat, every one of these albums – Candy-O, Panorama, and Shake It Up, along with the debut – gave rock radio plenty to work with. It is a testament to their efforts that you THINK these were all chart toppers.
The record exuded “cool.” The vocals (both Ric and Ben Orr) had a detachment and magnetism to them. Eliot Easton’s guitar is one of the most criminally neglected in recognition. David Robinson’s drums probably aren’t as well remembered as his role in being the band’s stylist, also a huge contribution. Greg Hawkes’ futuristic keyboards (well, a future by way of ’50s sci-fi) cemented the whole thing.
If that was it, it would have been enough, but from here right through to Heartbeat City it is just classic after classic. I have fond but disconnected memories of Door To Door and Move Like This, and even there, you got iron-clad tunes.
Released in 1984, Heartbeat City set the table for the fifth time and brought with it two major hits and one enduring classic: “You Might Think,” “Magic,” and “Drive.” Ocasek had some success as a solo artist, as did Ben Orr, and that created friction in the band. Orr wanted more songwriting opportunities and Ocasek, long the main writer excepting occasional co-writes with Hawkes, stipulated the band was his voice. 1987’s Door To Door would be the last album with the complete original band.
Ocasek continued to put out solo work but found a second career as a top-tier producer. Keeping with his outsider ethos, his work tended to be on the esoteric side with groups like Bad Brains, Guided By Voices, and another power pop band that liked to tweak the formula. Ocasek produced the first (blue) and third (green) albums by the juggernaut that is Weezer, and arguably helped make them ready for prime time.
In 2011, the surviving bandmembers backed the release of Move Like This. It’s an album that I have a strange relationship with. I think it is very good, and not much had changed from years past. Ocasek was still the songwriter with Hawkes’ occasional assist. I go back to the record frequently, but Orr’s absence cannot be easily overlooked.
In 2018, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (finally) did the right thing, thank God, and inducted The Cars. How fortunate that they did so. While the band was never the most dynamic on stage, their performance at the big show was, dare I say it, heartwarming. The band had been, throughout the course of its existence, on the sidelines: highly influential, highly respected in circles, but not held in the same regard as Led Zeppelin, or Eric Clapton, or The Beatles and The Stones. Were The Cars rock? Were they pop? Were they power pop? New wave? Of course, they were all these.
My sister bought me the debut album for the Christmas of 1978. I would subsequently own every album of theirs. So obsessed was I about the band that a few years later, I asked my mother to get me Shake It Up (again) for Christmas. She picked it up in October, because Mom planned ahead like that, but did not plan on how I would nag her every damned day until Christmas came because I was so impatient. (She’d buy me their Greatest Hits LP a few holiday seasons later, as this became a tradition for us.)
In the past few years, my friend John Hughes at Rhino Records worked hand-in-hand with Ocasek on reissues of those essential first five albums. I know this news has hit him hard, much harder than it would me, a fan from the sidelines. However, we both recognize one thing, and I’m grateful he had the ability to do something about it. The music of The Cars was a revolution. It didn’t protest, it didn’t thunder and bring terror to parents of impressionable teens. The revolution was in how pure pop and rock songcraft could be twisted and turned to also reflect genuine artistic sensibilities, and in this, the music should be made as accessible as possible to people both now and in the future. The revolution was about taking a purportedly disposable art form and making “You Wear Those Eyes,” “Dangerous Type,” “All Mixed Up,” “Maybe Baby” and all the others that inspired so many acolytes.
Ric Ocasek mattered and will continue to.