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The Cars

+ {The New Cars}

Taking 70s Anglo art-rock as base material, The CARS combined cock-sure cool with a racy new wave sensibility. This rock’n’roll recipe was realised in irresistibly infectious style on several LPs, although none came close to their self-titled debut in 1978, which switched on the post-CBGB’s punk kids on to a couple of genuine classics, `Just What I Needed’ and `My Best Friend’s Girl’. It’d take six years and an MTV-endorsed fifth album, `Heartbeat City’, to get that “Drive” again.
Before The CARS got on the road in 1976, the pairing of Richard Otcasek (acoustic guitar) and Benjamin Orzechowski (bass/keyboards) – who’d met as teenagers in Cleveland – had led out the folk-y, CSN-like Milkwood, alongside acoustic/electric guitarist Jason Goodkind. Sadly, their solitary LP, `How’s The Weather?’, sheltered from a storm of unfair ambiguity and apathy when released by Paramount Records, in 1972; among the session auxiliaries was then-saxophonist Greg Hawks.
En route to their starting grid as The CARS, was the newly-tagged Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr’s pit-stop at Cap’n Swing, whom, with Elliot Easton on lead guitar, performed a raft of gigs in the mid-70s. A favoured haunt of the touring outfit was Boston, Massachusetts, and from this tasty triumvirate, drummer Dave Robinson (a free transfer from new wave pioneers The MODERN LOVERS) and the aforesaid keyboardist Greg (now assuming his birth-name Hawkes), The CARS were now going forward.
Manager Fred Davis was successful in garnering interest on the strength of demo, `Just What I Needed’, a song so promising it was play-listed on Boston’s WBCN radio station in 1977. Inevitably, The CARS duly inked a deal at Elektra Records, where time was spent nurturing their hard-driving, quirky new wave sound alongside QUEEN producer Roy Thomas Baker. Released to accompany their stylistic debut album, THE CARS {*9}, `Just What I Needed’ gate-crashed the Top 40, while Ocasek’s other polished gemstone, `My Best Friend’s Girl’, followed in its slipstream; and both careered even higher in Britain. The album itself, hit the business-end of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic; and for many pundits the record – featuring B-side worthies `I’m In Touch With Your World’ and `Moving In Stereo’ – was an American rock milestone that deservedly caught the attention of hipsters eager for something a bit easier on the ear than British punk. Opening gambit, `Good Times Roll’, almost made it a home-soil hat-trick of hits, although it stalled at No.41.
That thorny sophomore-set-syndrome didn’t affect initial sales of the Top 3, CANDY-O (1979) {*7}, but in essence it lacked the surprise punch that packed its punk-y predecessor. In Britain it only scraped into the Top 30, suffering fanbase fatigue when US Top 20 smash, `Let’s Go’, ran out of gas before it could it park a place in the week’s 50. Memorable at least for its salacious semi-naked cover-shot of a distressed female, illustrated on a near-invisible automobile, the pop-fuelled `It’s All I Can Do’ (a modest #41 hit), was exposed as a sell-out next to back-seat-drivers `Shoo Be Doo’ and the experimental title track, while the loaded back-end three, `Lust For Kicks’, `Got A Lot On My Head’ and `Dangerous Type’, fired on all cylinders.
1980’s PANORAMA {*5} and the following year’s much-improved SHAKE IT UP {*6}, continued the band’s predilection for moody, TALKING HEADS-meets-DEVO-ish familiarity. As singles `Don’t Tell Me No’ and `Gimme Some Slack’ dropped off the musical road-map to success, after minor (#37) hit `Touch And Go’ booked a spot within the charts, the second of these Top 10 LPs was at least bolstered by their biggest (#4) single so far by way of the quirky title track; `Since You’re Gone’ clocked up yet another No.41 peak position.
After a near-three year hiatus (during which time producer to punk stars, SUICIDE, IGGY POP, and BAD BRAINS, RIC OCASEK released a solo set, `Beatitude’, in 1982), The CARS reconvened with the commercially revved-up, Mutt Lange-produced HEARTBEAT CITY (1984) {*8}; incidentally, HAWKES delivered his solo LP, `Niagara Falls’ (1983).
The advent of MTV had transported mainstream rock-pop to a younger, video-inspired generation, so moving squarely to attract the post-new wave AOR market, The CARS chalked up sizeable hits with `You Might Think’ and `Magic’. And with the polished atmospherics of transatlantic smash, `Drive’, Ocasek and Co had a song that would later become forever linked with images of famine-plagued Ethiopia after it was used as part of a Live Aid campaign documentary. The album itself also bumped into the Top 5, and provided a further two major Stateside hits in the quirky `Hello Again’ (#20) and the lovelorn `Why Can’t I Have You’ (#33).
In order to project sales of their GREATEST HITS (1985) {*9}, The CARS drew in further recognition for the exclusive `Tonight She Comes’ (#7) and a song that nearly got away, `I’m Not The One’ (the latter from their 1981 set). Another subsequent sabbatical left fans comparing notes in to whose solo album had the best tracks: was it EASTON’s `Change No Change’ (#99)? OCASEK’s `This Side Of Paradise’ (#52)? or ORR’s `The Lace’ (#86)?
Back on track with the Top 20 `You Are The Girl’, spawned from 1987’s much-maligned DOOR TO DOOR {*3}, The CARS spluttered to a grinding halt when singles `Strap Me In’ (#85) and `Coming Up You’ (#74) petered out unconvincingly.
RIK OCASEK reappeared from time to time in the ensuing years, mainly in connection with solo sets (from 1990’s `Fireball Zone’ to 2005’s `Nexterday’), and his plethora of production work which involved WEEZER, BAD RELIGION, NO DOUBT and JONATHAN RICHMAN, among others; he’d also married Paulina Porizkova (August 23, 1989). Sadly, on October 3, 2000, founder member BENJAMIN ORR died of pancreatic cancer, leaving OCASEK and the remaining CARS to ponder if a proper reunion was in order.
Whilst both Ocasek and Robinson kow-towed from an official get together, Easton and Hawkes had different ideas. Together with old muckers TODD RUNDGREN (on vocals, rhythm guitar), UTOPIA’s Kasim Sultan (bass) and The TUBES’ Prairie Prince (drums), they broke every rock’n’roll rule in the book by becoming The NEW CARS. Not since the super-dupe amalgamation of QUEEN and PAUL RODGERS had rock fans witnessed such arena-rock criminality. However, with major labels veering off-road to avoid a legal collision, the 5-piece self-endorsed their own IT’S ALIVE! {*5} set in 2006. Featuring thirteen, unlucky-for-some CARS classics and a couple of RUNDGREN rock ballads (`I Saw The Light’ and `Open My Eyes’), the magpie manifestation also bookended a few studio tracks tagged on as closing pieces.
Thankfully, all was in order when The CARS original quartet stood up to be counted on 2011’s comeback-of-all-comeback sets, MOVE LIKE THIS {*7}. Ready to step back into the Delorean limelight to recreate the new wave beats they’d sported a third/quarter century ago, the Top 10 album – produced by JACKNIFE LEE – was a mixed bag of goodies. Okay, there was no immediate songs to mirror anything from their unforgettable debut, but in `Blue Tip’, `Too Late’ and `Keep On Knocking’ (among others), they’d reversed back in time to reach the speeds necessary to avoid colliding with any oncoming media traffic.
Sadly, after the previous year’s induction appearance for The CARS into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ric Ocasek was found dead at his New York abode on September 15, 2019.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016-Sep2019

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