The Cars Shift Into Overdrive
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.
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."
Ric was also fully aware of the way so many people had tried to dissect the previous record. "You'll probably be able to do the same thing with this one," he laughed. The band cut 13 songs when they went into the studios to do the album. Eleven showed up on the record, and the other two will become "B" sides of singles from the album. Ric likes the concept of putting a song on the flip side of a single that doesn't appear on any album. "The Beatles did that forever. I think it's nice because you get more songs."
It took the Cars just about the same time to record Candy-O as it did to do the last record. They recorded the album in fifteen days and took almost another two weeks to mix it. After waiting years for bands like Boston and Fleetwood Mac to release anything, it borders on the remarkable a think of the Cars bopping into the studio and churning out a finished, quality album in less than a month.
"I think we're well prepared before we go in," Ric explained, "because we usually go into the studios, before we go in to do the record, and we do the whole album Iive ... We don't throw in a lot of excesses." Ben added, "We just sort of start out with the basics, and then it keeps building. We don't spend a lot of time worrying about the mistakes you're going to make. It just happens."
Another reason the band can work so smoothly together in the studio is because most of the members are multi-instrumentalists. Ben, for example, had played drums, guitar, and piano before he settled on the bass. Elliot can play bass, and Greg is comfortable with the guitar and saxophone as well as his keyboards. "It definitely heIps," Greg said, "because everybody has a good idea of the function of the other instruments. So we don't get in each other's way, and we can offer each other suggestions without infringing on each other's territories. We're all somewhat versatile.
"On the second album, you'll notice that hardly do any solos. My function is sound and textures. It's sort my whole approach to any instrument, really, I'm just veering away from that whole soloing thing. Whatever is needed for the song is what you play. I have been somewhat consciously simplifying my approach in the last three years."
All the songs on the new album were again written by Ric. Ben and Greg cast a little light on how the writing is done: "Ric'lI come in and he usually has the chords and the words...and then everybody rips it apart (laughter) and then puts it back together." Although there is nothing on the new record to rival the immediate impact of "Just What I Needed" or the spell-binding effects of "All Mixed Up," the overall consistency of the album is higher than the first release. In fact (this is difficult to believe, I know), if anything, there are more potential hit singles on the new record than the debut release. "I Got a Lot in My Head" and "Let's Go" have perhaps the greatest commercial potential. Both are up-tempo without being reckless and feature dangerously contagious hooks. But, then, "Since I Held You" and "It's All I Can Do" also hold up very well to repeated plays. The title cut is taken at a clipped, mechanized pace and sounds nearly 21st Century. It includes a nice break by Elliot and austere vocals by Ric. Most of the songs are taken at mid-tempo and feature that "thump-thump" kick to them that propelled most of the Cars' first batch of tunes along so nicely. Then there are the "interesting little musical things," as Greg called them, that permeate the album: Elliot's buzz-saw solo break on "Double Life," The Close Encounters riff that turns up in "Nightspots," or the maddening stop-and-go rhythms of "Got A Lot In My Head" that instantly recalls "Don't Cha Stop." "Shoo Be Doo" is a little experiment in phasing, electronics and some free flowing music and verse that is neatly sandwiched between (and segues into) "Double Life" and "Candy-O." Ric mentioned that he was particularly pleased with the way the three work together (although the DJs will probably have fits trying to cue any of them up).
The new material went over well with the audience during the preview concert to a thousand Boston friends and media people. The band is able to bring their distinctive sound to the stage with little lost in the movement. Visually, the Cars are not a dynamic band, although Elliot tries to add some body English to a good number of his breaks. But, then, that fact ties in well with the band's general approach to their music: Do whatever is necessary to make the songs work. It isn't necessary to jump all over the stage, and musically it won't add anything to the performance. So, it isn't heavily stressed. Ben, Ric, and Greg all made mention of how much they do enjoy playing live, though, and Ben was particularly enthusiastic with his comments. He couldn't wait, in fact, for their national tour to get underway. They will be at Midway Stadium with the Doobie Brothers on Aug. 17.
What has success meant to the Cars? "If nothing else," Greg spoke up, "at least we can continue making records the way we want to make them," All three mentioned they'd like to get into production. Both Ric and Ben did some basic tracks on Ian Lloyd's new album, and Ric contributed the song "Slip Away" to the record. Elliot has done some studio work, and David even did some music for the new Mickey Mouse Club. Ben added he'd also like to try his hand at acting some time, maybe something like "Hang 'Em High." Ric had recently produced a 45 for the group Suicide, and he called it "one of the most fun projects of my life."
When a band like the Cars hits it, the general reaction is to talk about how these fellows just came out of nowhere and crashed into the limelight. No one ever stops to think that the chances are good said band was toiling away in relative obscurity for years creating the same kind of music that suddenly has become oh-so-chic. Comments by Greg and Ric allude to that concept. "When we were first playing around," Greg recalled, "we used to announce one of our own songs as a song by the Doobie Brothers, or Steely Dan, or something, and nobody ever took us up on it." Ric let a touch of bitterness edge into his voice when he ventured, "People listen now. Everybody now has permission to like it ... they get it quicker... I guess that's a good thing, you know?
Candy-O is all one could have hoped for, and possibly even a little bit more. It should keep all of the Cars in auto drive for some time to come.
There's just one question that remains unanswered. It was David Robinson's idea to try and get Vargas to do a custom cover for the band. Vargas finally agreed to come out of semi-retirement and do it after a little coaxing from a young relative. Vargas only works from photographs, so David took the shot Vargas transformed into the painting that is now on the cover of the Candy-O jacket. Gentlemen, please, you owe it to your public. Who is that woman!
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