The Cars Shift Into Overdrive

Originally printed in Sweet Potato, vol. 1, issue 1, August 1979

Dorothy Parker once complained that although she always got the perfect rose, she was never sent the perfect car. Those kinds of observations became invalid in the pop music field during the spring and summer of 1978 when critics, record buyers, and media people discovered not one, but five near perfect Cars. They hailed from exotic Boston, Mass., and even better, they made records.

The record they made was crammed, absolutely chock full, with hooks, hit singles, and fiendishly clever songs. The rest of the story is well known and a minor variation of the "overnight sensa­tion" theme. The Cars' first album sold well into the millions and was the smash debut record of 1978. The band was nominated for a Grammy, played in monstrous arenas across the country, and drew heaps of praise from the papers, peers, and the public.

In one short year, Ric Ocasek (vocal, rhythm guitar), Elliot Easton (lead guitar), Ben Orr (lead singer, bass), Greg Hawkes (keyboards, sax, guitar, backup vocals), and David Robinson (percussion), had established themselves as members of one of America's brightest new bands.

Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, David Robinson, Benjamin Orr
Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, David Robinson, Benjamin Orr

What did the Cars possess that separated them from the hundreds of other bands that released a first album last year? Why was the record coveted almost as much as a gallon of gas? One of the prime factors behind the band's ascent is the songwriting abilities of Ric Ocasek. Ocasek has a knack for penning infectious tunes that con­tain catchy choruses and dozens (it seems) of prime pop influences that can range from the Who and Roxy Music to the Talking Heads and Steely Dan, and back again.

He is a precise songwriter who likes to keep his tunes tight and disdains anything in the way of excess. His lyrics frequently revolve around personal relationships that are both intriguing and literate. Almost every song Ocasek has written contains a chorus that can't be beaten out of your head with a softball bat. The other members of the band are astute musicians who bend their talents to the song rather than use the song as a vehicle to stress their own instrumental might. So, the results, more often than not, are songs that sound uncomplicated but are rarely simple, that highlight taut ensemble sound and not individual prowess.

The band's original material is more than just a pastiche of the best sixties and early seventies riffs. That is obviously true, otherwise blatant lick-mongers like Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the new Stevie "Guitar" Miller would have stolen all the Cars' thunder many months ago. No, the band's influences are usually suggested and not openly stated. Their songs strike a familiar chord but aren't immediately recognizable.

Part of the reason behind that is the fact the Cars' music is uncluttered yet busy. Although the arrangements may sound sparse, there is always something going on back there: a decep­tive backbeat by Robinson, a contaminating obbligato by Elliot, or a simple three note fill by Greg. Nothing flashy, mind you, but fleshy.

"Musically, I think it's kind of fresh sounding," is the way keyboard whiz Greg Hawkes began to describe the band's distinctive sound. "Interesting little musical things keep popping in... The songs seem to wear well. You can find a lot of new things on repeated listenings. Sometimes the thirtieth time, you may find a new little part of something."

The bespectacled Hawkes has an engaging way about him. But one gets the impression when talking to him that he would fit very nicely into the role of an absent-minded professor. The fact that he wore two different colored socks during the interview did nothing to hurt that image, neither does knowing that as the band's keyboard­ist, he must be the electronics and technical expert.

When given the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, "das tunesmithen" Ric Ocasek (as Elliot referred to him on stage at a recent Boston show) still wasn't able to single out the reasons for the phenomenal success of the first album. "I don't really know ... It was just a new band with a new sound. I still, myself, don't really know why."

Ric is the most visually striking member of the band. Tall and thin, he was dressed in black and silver during a special "guests only" preview concert in Boston that was taped for future television programs. He cast a spidery image attired in cold colors and the now familiar thick shades.

The Cars had really been unprepared for the furor caused by their first album. Last fall, drummer David Robinson told Sweet Potato that they were "flabbergasted"—and that was really before things got rolling. "The most we really expected, Greg went on, "was that we were pretty sure it would get some FM airplay at least in the Northeast. That was the only thing we were definite of."

The middle of June marked the release of the Cars' eagerly anticipated second release Candy-O replete with cover art by noted Esquire and Playboy artist Vargas. The boys should be "definite of" a great many more things about the new release—for instance, that it should sell particularly well and come under a great deal of close scrutiny. Ric, Greg, and bass player/vocalist Ben Orr were all pleased with their new labor of love. "It's much different than the first album," Ben said, "but it still sounds like the Cars. It sounds more like the Cars because there's more definition there. When you hear a song, you'll be able to tell immediately who it is." Ric's initial thoughts about the new album were in a similar vein: "All I can say is that it's not a clone of the first, that's for sure. It's more songs ... I think better executed ... lt's the same guys and the same songs ... the same kind of songs to an extent. I think it's totally the Cars. I like it better than the first one, myself, but I had better. There are more songs on it (eleven), and there's more experimental things on it, too."

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