5/1/14 – The Cars – 1978

Album Of The Day

The Cars - Album Cover - 1978

One of the mysteries of Pop Music is what is a hit? Another mystery is what’s the difference between a trite, dumb pop record and a special one? Especially if it’s all boy meets girl lyrics and catchy choruses. (The sixties pop songs don’t seem to annoy us despite their simple lyrics). In the New Wave era, catchy singles were everywhere. In 1978 when I was just 20, The Cars released this perfect pop debut. The album was so popular that they had to delay the release of the second album, Candy O because well into 1979 the first album was still selling significantly. Although I never lost the seventies bands that Punk and New Wave wiped out, I got into the New Wave pop with ease. Blondie, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Motors, the Pretenders all released great singles. I do think that I was the only person on the planet that listened to Steve Hillage and The Sex Pistols, Yes and The Ruts.

The album was so well produced and like sixties songs it sounded great on the radio. Also The Cars had a unique guitarist in the left handed Elliot Easton, memorable lead solos, great arpeggios and his own sound. Greg Hawkes in the background with the goofy smile and the gimmicky keyboards in complete contrast to the the weird looking Ric Ocasek, with Halloween hair style, odd shaped head, colourful clothes and weird wobbly voice. The rhythm section were also the complete item – David Robinson on drums who had played with Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers, heard pop music in his own special way and Benjamin Orr was the good looking other lead singer who in reality had the best voice.

From the first bar of this record, it’s a pop throwback but with something new. The cover art seemed almost fifties but with a modern sheen and the Ric Ocasek sung opener, Let The Good Times Roll had that fifties simplicity, even fifties guitar licks. The band were all dressed up like pop stars in what surely had to be an ephemeral glamour – they were fashion victims, they’d be gone in a year. What was the difference between The Cars and The Knack? The answer is in the album, every song was memorable, a potential hit. With its banks of lush Queen like backing vocals, Let The Good Times Roll was the third single and reached Number 41 in the US. Surprisingly, it didn’t chart anywhere else. Surprising because the second track and second single My Best Friend’s Girl was a huge hit in England reaching Number 3 and this was how I was introduced to the band. I can’t for the life of me figure out how Let The Good Times Roll didn’t chart unless the label forgot to release it or get it into the shops. My Best Friend’s Girl reached Number 35 in the States, New Wave hadn’t really hit like it had in England. Blondie was having much more success in the British charts and New Wave Pop was accepted much sooner in Europe. My Best Friend’s Girl was almost a novelty song with those irrisistible handclaps but lyrically it wasn’t as bland as you might have thought.

You’re always dancing down the street
With your suede blue eyes
Every new boy that you meet
He doesn’t know the real surprise

(Here she comes again)
When she’s dancing ‘neath the starry sky
She’ll make you flip
(Here she comes again)
When she’s dancing ‘neath the starry sky
I kinda like the way she dips

And she’s my best friend’s girl
Well, she’s my best friend’s girl
But she used to be mine

You’ve got your nuclear boots
And your drip dry gloves
Oh, when you bite your lip
It’s some reaction to love, a-ove, a-ove

What is this? Does she work in a nuclear plant? Is she actually radioactive? Does she seduce you and poison you with plutonium? Great guitar solo and out of nowhere, Caribbean drum fills – the sound, the syncopation.

Benjamin Orr sang the third song and first single on the album. Simple guitar chugging along, sparse drums building up to a chorus, bass comes in and there’s those Caribbean drums again. It was a hit in the US Number 27 and UK Number 17. It had a really cheesy keyboard sound but Orr ‘s detached delivery got the slightly dark lyrical sentiment across. Another fantastic pop guitar solo and then there’s the magic David Robinson turn around drum beat. A slice of smart pop.

Then it gets weird, I’m in Touch with Your World really does sound like an alien pop band. Ric Ocasek sounds like David Byrne singing a funeral march for a creature from another planet. Like the B52’s, it’s a soundtrack to a cartoon – this weeks episode of Fun in Space.

In complete contrast to the previous track we’re back to accented pop guitar riffs, Don’t Cha Stop is like the seventies Strokes, dancey indie pop for the young.

In a hybrid rock, new wave cross over, flanged drums and fuzzy rock guitar turn into a memorable chorus, a desperate Ric Ocasek sings, You’re All I’ve Got Tonight and it could be Queen again and then you realise who produced the album – Roy Thomas Baker. Go here to see his impressive list of productions.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Thomas_Baker

Back to Benjamin Orr for Bye Bye Love another catchy song to stick in your head, could almost be a Bowie song until the chorus. Using two singers, The Cars cleverly draw attention away from the similar tempo of the songs. Another voice, another mood – more snappy guitar from Elliot Easton on this track.

Moving In Stereo is another space age cartoon sung by Benjamin Orr, robotic drums and the only co-write on the album. All songs by Rick Ocasek except this one written with Greg Hawkes. You can hear other synthesiser bands of the day in Hawkes sound. The song melts into All Mixed Up, and it sounds as much like a single as any of the three that were chosen. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album and concludes a clever record.

So what makes a great pop record great and another one bland and empty? Many factors, and all of them are present here, in the songs, the sounds, the playing, the singing, the production. And also the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be deep to be special.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cars

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cars_(album)

On another note: Most people are unaware of what Richard T. Otcasek and Benjamin Orzechowsk were doing before The Cars? How’s The Weather by Milkwood is an extremely hard to find album that I picked up a few years ago. A different world – you frankly won’t believe it, especially the photo. Enjoy:

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5 Responses to “5/1/14 – The Cars – 1978”

  1. ChipSaam January 5, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

    Couldn’t have said it better Marty. For some reason these guys don’t get near the respect they deserve. It’s almost as if they made it sound too easy. They should be in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of the debut alone but with Candy-O a very strong follow up they should have been in on first eligibility – don’t get it but then again a Hall of Fame for music is quite perplexing in and of itself. Ben Orr is one of the best rock singers ever and Elliot Easton has the perfect chops for these spaceage new wave songs. Ever band member brings it. Wish they could still make ’em like this with Ben singing.

  2. captain mission January 6, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    ha, i listened to steve hillage and the sex pistols and the ruts, you are not alone 🙂

    good music is good music i guess.

  3. delay plus chorus January 6, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    Marty,

    How cool to have you highlight this album! I was just 12 when it came out, but it was an immediate favorite and the soundtrack to many years of adventures. I still think “Just What I Needed” is as good as pop songwriting gets, and Elliot Easton’s solo on that track is the apex of the form. The whole album still holds up splendidly.

    As you observe, this record assumed a HUGE presence in American rock circles right from the outset. Our local rock radio station was fearlessly “album oriented,” so they played tracks from all over the disc all the time. They probably still are!

    I went off to university in autumn 1984, and thanks to the college station there would soon discover a different, darker and more cerebral sort of rock band (including one you may remember) that would make me look at music rather differently to this day. But all of that was yet to come. Those early college months, no matter where we came from, my new friends and I all shared a common touchstone in the first Cars album. We drank a lot of beer listening to side one, and smoked a lot of weed listening to side two.

    So — thanks your write-up, your analysis was spot on and really brought back the memories. It’s cool to know you were digging the Cars at the same time.

    d+c

  4. walnutriver January 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    great review. i listened to this album a lot in its heyday thinking that the effects and band projection was something different. the music was mainstream, yet unique enough to capture some of the fringe market, which is difficult to achieve. i never really caught on to the “new cars”, but i’m a fan of rungren and prairie prince so i suspect their addition made for some great music.

  5. MojoFilters March 22, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    “Richard T. Otcasek and Benjamin Orzechowsk” ~ Wow!! What a service you’ve given here. Well done, Marty! Well done. ~:)

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