The Second Disc

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Back Tracks: The Cars

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The above picture is a bit of a shock, if you haven’t seen it yet: all four of the surviving members of The Cars – Ric Ocasek, Elliott Easton, Greg Hawkes and David Robinson – in a recording studio. It was posted to the official Facebook page for the Boston-based rockers on Thursday. No caption, no explanation. Just the members of The Cars, possibly gearing up for some new music.

And who’d have thought? Since the band broke up in 1988, chances seemed slim where a reunion was concerned. The death of bassist Benjamin Orr in 2000 seemed to make a reunion impossible – who would sing “Drive,” “Let’s Go” or “Just What I Needed”? – although Hawkes and Easton partook in the ridiculous New Cars project with Todd Rundgren on lead vocals. (Ocasek, for whatever reason, gave his blessing.) It’s a shame, though – there were few bands that could fuse synths and guitars like The Cars, and their perfectly crafted power pop/rock singles are the stuff of rock radio perfection to this day.

While The Cars’ future might not be so touch-and-go, we at least have a bit of catalogue titles here and there to fall in love with. Let’s go after the jump to look back at them, shall we?

The Cars (Elektra, 1978 – reissued Rhino, 1999)

There was a joke among the band that the first record should be titled The Cars’ Greatest Hits. With a debut that sold more than 6 million copies, they’re not too far off the mark. Three charting singles – “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll” – were peppy rock tunes that will be amping up weekends for years to come. And those album cuts are hardly filler. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” and the one-two punch closer “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up” were hits in their own way too. (“Stereo,” with Phoebe Cates’ help, helped us ask the big questions in life, like whether or not anybody f—ing knocked anymore.) Bolstered by Roy Thomas Baker’s production sensibilities and Ric Ocasek’s brilliant songwriting talent, The Cars is easily one of the best debut LPs of the rock era. More than 20 years later, a deluxe edition (the only such expansion of a Cars LP) added one live track and a host of demos – several of which were songs that had never been released before.

Candy-O (Elektra, 1979)

The formula repeats on Candy-O, with Ocasek writing every track, Baker at the helm once more and a killer single to get people talking (“Let’s Go”). Although the material doesn’t gel quite as effortlessly as the album before, it’s still a great party-starter – and that Alberto Vargas cover isn’t too bad to look at either. Like all of The Cars’ discography from this point on, there are no reissues of any sort. Any non-LP B-side would be taken care of in the 1990s (more on that in a bit), so demos, outtakes or live material would likely be the way to go.

Panorama (Elektra, 1980)

Oddly, The Cars and Roy Thomas Baker used the same formula for every one of their records up to this point. Yet outside of another, not-quite-big hit single (“Touch and Go”), the whole formula seems to be running a little thin. Maybe its the notable deviation in tone (it’s a bit darker than the last two candy-coated records), but there was something in the air even then; the album only went platinum once.

Shake It Up (Elektra, 1981)

Indeed they did. A more upbeat record bolstered by five charting songs (most on the Mainstream Rock chart), The Cars also had their biggest hit to date, with the bouncy title track. The next record was at once a bit of a surprise and a logical next step.

Heartbeat City (Elektra, 1984)

After a three-year break that saw Ocasek record his first solo LP, Beatitude (1982), the band enlisted another rock-to-pop producer (Robert John “Mutt” Lange). As a result, Heartbeat City was as slick and commercial as The Cars could get. Some of the faithful were quick to cry “sellout,” but there are some enduring tracks here. “You Might Think” could have been a more straightforward rock tune without the synths. “Magic” is another killer single from Ocasek’s seemingly bottomless pit of hooks. And then there’s “Drive,” one of the best songs any ’80s kid could hope to slow-dance to, and the most succinct display of Orr’s talents as a vocalist. A reissue would benefit from adding some of those single-only remixes (as was the prerequisite at the time) as bonus tracks.

Greatest Hits (Elektra, 1985)

Armed with a new track (the hit “Tonight She Comes”) and a remix of an old one (“I’m Not the One” from Shake It Up), this compilation was just what many fans needed at the time, and ended up selling another 6 million copies. Too bad it turned out to be one of their last great efforts.

Door to Door (Elektra, 1987)

Another clutch of solo albums (Elliott Easton’s Change No Change (1985) and Orr’s The Lace (1986) – both of which got reissued by Wounded Bird a few years back – and Ocasek’s star-studded This Side of Paradise (1986)) preceded The Cars’ last and worst album. Only one Top 20 single could be mustered (the admittedly boring “You Are the Girl”), and the group disbanded months later.

Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology (Rhino, 1995)

The best overview of The Cars to date, this double-disc set combines all the hits and key album tracks with all of the few non-LP tracks the band put out in their career, as well as seven unreleased demos and outtakes.

Complete Greatest Hits (Rhino, 2001)

Covers more or less the same ground as Greatest Hits with a little more added (though nothing unreleased). For whatever reason, this author has never seen a particularly cheap copy of this set.

The Cars Live (Rhino, 2000)/The Cars Unlocked (New Video Group, 2006)

Though there’s never been a compilation of the great videos The Cars did during MTV’s heyday, there are two in-print video offerings from the band (there’s some other live offerings from 1984 and 1985 that could use a proper DVD release someday). The Cars Live pairs an early, rough-quality live performance from the German show Musikladen in 1979 with a then-new interview between all the members of the group – the last time they’d all be together in public (Orr would succumb to cancer a year later). Unlocked is less strong, taking a lot of quickly-compiled, not-always-complete live and backstage footage to create a kind of scrapbook (it was apparently compiled by Eron Ocasek, Ric’s son, which is kind of cool if nothing else). There’s a live CD that accompanies the set, and it’s not half bad. The Cars were never a phenomenon live, what with their studio sheen, but it’s a nice document.

Written by Mike Duquette

July 27, 2010 at 14:51

7 Responses

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  1. Candy O was recorded at Cherokee Studios – and when they went out of business, I guess their tapes scattered to the four winds. I got a copy of an early master of Candy 0 with a couple of different songs, different mixes, etc – there’s your “bonus disc!”


    July 27, 2010 at 15:04

  2. Great overview! I would love to see what you guys thought of their solo output. Some of Ric’s stuff is pretty good and I like the Orr album quite a bit. Elliot’s is not bad but it seems to suffer from poor songwriting. I had Hawke’s album but lost it years ago…. Is it any good?

    Ray Judson

    July 27, 2010 at 21:51

    • I’ve never heard more than a few bits of Ocasek’s solo stuff here and there. In particular, his last big solo single, “Emotion in Motion,” was much more straightforward pop/rock than The Cars ever did. I believe that was the track Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears played guitar on. (He was on that record somewhere.)

      Mike Duquette

      July 28, 2010 at 14:35

  3. agree, great overview. a couple of thoughts:

    a video complation is a definitive need.

    not enough credit is given to easton’s playing. each guitar part has worth in both structure & sound. his solos always fit the songs perfectly. the “tonight she comes” solo is probably my favorite.

    the only thing that kills me about “heartbeat city” is the use of the fairlight drum machine. i know that robinson was a decent sport about it, but it loses some organic life that was part of the cars’ balance of new & old. and it dates the music, which is usually not a good factor.

    david robinson was a big influence on my playing. i’ve loved the cars ever since i heard “just what i needed” in 1978 & asking my dad who it was on the radio. he thought it was elvis costello. i ended up discovering 2 new artists for my b-day that year. the cars were also my first big concert in 1979 at 13. i hope the possible new stuff is worthy. can’t wait!


    July 28, 2010 at 12:21

  4. No Orr, no real Cars reunion, IMO.

    BUT…it’ll still be a better idea than “The New Cars”.


    July 28, 2010 at 15:36

  5. After Rhino gave their first album the deluxe reissue that all of The Cars’ albums would be getting the same treatment. It’s alwasys been disappointing to me that this was not the case.


    July 30, 2010 at 11:30

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