Blondie may have had a string of number one hits and Talking Heads may have won the hearts of the critics, but the Cars were the most successful American new wave band to emerge in the late ‘70s. With their sleek, mechanical pop/rock, the band racked up a string of platinum albums and Top 40 singles that made them one of the most popular American rock & roll bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While they were more commercially oriented than their New York peers, the Cars were nevertheless inspired by proto-punk, garage rock, and bubblegum pop. The difference was in packaging. Where their peers were as equally inspired by art as music, the Cars were strictly a rock & roll band, and while their music occasionally sounded clipped and distant, they had enough attitude to cross over to album rock radio, which is where they made their name. Nevertheless, the Cars remained a new wave band, picking up cues from the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and Roxy Music. Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr’s vocals uncannily recalled Lou Reed’s deadpan delivery, while the band’s insistent, rhythmic pulse was reminiscent of Berlin-era Iggy Pop. Furthermore, the group followed Roxy Music’s lead and had artist Alberto Vargas design sexy illustrations of pinups for their record sleeves. These airbrushed drawings were the group’s primary visual attraction until 1984, when the group made a series of striking videos to accompany the singles from Heartbeat City. The videos for “You Might Think,” “Magic,” and “Drive” became MTV staples, sending the Cars to near-superstar status. Instead of following through with their success, the Cars slowly faded away, quietly breaking up after releasing one final album in 1987.
Ric Ocasek (guitar, vocals) and Ben Orr (bass, vocals) had been collaborators for several years before forming the Cars in 1976. Ocasek began playing guitar and writing songs when he was ten. After briefly attending Antioch College and Bowling Green State University, he dropped out of school and moved to Cleveland where he met Orr, who had led the house band on the TV show Upbeat as a teenager. The two began writing songs and led bands in Cleveland, New York City, Woodstock, and Ann Arbor before settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early ‘70s. In 1972, the pair was the core of a folk trio named Milkwood. The band released an album on Paramount Records in late 1972, which was ignored; the record featured keyboards by a session musician named Greg Hawkes. By 1974, Ocasek and Orr had formed Cap’n Swing, which featured Elliot Easton on lead guitar. Cap’n Swing became a popular concert attraction in Boston, but the group broke up in 1975. Ocasek, Orr, and Easton formed a new band called the Cars in 1976 with former Modern Lovers drummer Dave Robinson and keyboardist Hawkes.
Early in 1977, the Cars sent a demo tape of “Just What I Needed” to the influential Boston radio station WBCN and it quickly became the station’s most-requested song. For the remainder of 1977, the group played Boston clubs, and by the end of the year, they signed with Elektra Records. The group’s eponymous debut album appeared in the summer of 1978 and it slowly built a following thanks to the hit singles “Just What I Needed” (number 27), “My Best Friend’s Girl” (number 35), and “Good Times Roll” (number 41). The Cars stayed on the charts for over two and a half years, delaying the release of the group’s second album, Candy-O. It would eventually sell over six million copies.
Recorded early in 1979, Candy-O wasn’t released until later that summer. The album was an instant hit, quickly climbing to number three on the charts and going platinum two months after its release. The record launched the Top Ten hit “Let’s Go” and sent the band to the arena rock circuit. Perhaps as a reaction to their quick success, the group explored more ambitious territory on 1980’s Panorama. Though the album wasn’t as big a hit as its predecessors, it nevertheless peaked at number five and went platinum. Before recording their fourth album, several band members pursued extracurricular interests, with Ocasek earning a reputation as a successful new wave producer for his work with Suicide and Romeo Void (he even produced some demos for Iggy Pop). The Cars released their fourth album, Shake It Up, in the fall of 1981, and it quickly went platinum, with its title track becoming the group’s first Top Ten single.
Following the success of Shake It Up, the Cars recorded the soundtrack to the short film “Chapter-X” and then took an extended leave, with Ocasek, Orr, and Hawkes all recording solo albums in 1982; Ocasek also produced the debut album from the hardcore punk band Bad Brains. The Cars reconvened in 1983 to record their fifth album, Heartbeat City, which was released in early 1984. Supported by a groundbreaking, computer-animated video, the album’s first single, “You Might Think,” became a Top Ten hit, sending Heartbeat City to number three on the album charts. Three other Top 40 singles - “Magic” (number 12), “Drive” (number three), and “Hello Again” (number 20) - followed later that year, and the record went triple platinum in the summer of 1985. At the end of the year, the group released Greatest Hits, which featured two new hit singles, “Tonight She Comes” and “I’m Not the One.”
The Cars were on hiatus for much of 1985 and 1986, during which time Ocasek, Easton, and Orr all recorded solo albums. During 1987, the group completed its seventh album, Door to Door. The album was a moderate hit upon its summer release in 1987, launching the single “You Are the Girl,” which peaked at number 17. Door to Door seemed half-hearted, which sparked speculation that the group was on the verge of splitting up. The Cars announced in February of 1988 that they had indeed broken up. All of the members pursued solo careers, but only Ocasek released albums with regularity, and became a much sought-after alt-rock producer by the ‘90s (having worked with the likes of Weezer, Bad Religion, Black 47, Hole, Guided by Voices, No Doubt, Nada Surf, Johnny Bravo, D Generation, Possum Dixon, Jonathan Richman, the Wannadies, and solo releases by former Suicide members Alan Vega and Martin Rev, among others). Easton later reappeared with Creedence Clearwater Revisited, while sadly, Orr lost a battle with pancreatic cancer on October 3, 2000.
After Orr’s death, a few new Cars releases appeared on the marketplace, including the concert DVD Live (taped originally in Germany during 1979, it included an interview with the group shortly before Orr’s passing), plus a double-disc deluxe edition of their classic self-titled debut album, and a more extensive hits collection, Complete Greatest Hits. By early 2002, Ocasek was at work putting together a Cars’ documentary film, comprised of backstage footage and unreleased promo clips that the band filmed itself.
Move Like This (2011), the first new album by the Cars in 24 years, sounds so much like a record by the Cars that you find yourself laughing out loud. “Sad Song,” on which the opening salvo - a terse guitar strum set against the machinelike thwack of snare drum and hand claps - is such a note-perfect evocation of the band’s vintage attack that it almost plays like winking self-parody.
Ronald Reagan was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal when Ric Ocasek and company released their last studio album; Benjamin Orr, the Cars’ bassist and co-lead singer, died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. But the Cars haven’t moved their music an inch. This is the sound of a band picking up a conversation in mid-sentence. Can you blame them? Their hits are still radio mainstays, and their influence is audible in successive generations of pop-savvy rockers, from Weezer to the Strokes.
Listen back to “Just What I Needed” or “Drive” and you’ll hear where many of today’s young bands learned their tricks: how to mix guitars and synthesizers, how to make rock that’s as tuneful as bubblegum, and pop that’s as stylishly sinister as rock.
Move Like This is a reminder that New Wave can still sound new, especially when the Cars do it. Produced with skillful restraint by Ocasek, his band mates and the dependable Jacknife Lee (the Hives, Snow Patrol), the album calls to mind adjectives long associated with the Cars - taut, sleek, seamless, efficient. It’s a record that whizzes past - ten songs in less than 40 minutes - leaving behind a dark gleam.