We’ve talked about bands with originality. Groups that just seem incredibly unusual as innovators with an untouched sound. When it comes to molding different styles with sleek production and unwavering coolness, no band did it better than The Cars. New wave was their main genre. But they proved to be so much more as critics have labelled them as every variety of music under the sun. They had the progressive sound of 80s punk mixed with the mainstream beats of pop to create a chain of platinum hits. Along with their adaptive sounds came their chameleon-like change of looks and style. What followed through was a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. For a band that released a bubblegum pop classic, they were more rock ‘n’ roll than you might believe. An attitude that, ultimately, led to their own undoing. But before all that, it’s best to start at the beginning of The Cars’ musical evolution and how they became a bridge of genres.
Each band member had performed in various groups over the years. Ohio natives Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr were known for partnering together on several occasions. The idea of starting a band together officially surfaced after busking around the northeast regions. The duo paired with noted sessions musician Greg Hawkes who helped in the making of their first album. While they were satisfied with the record, it ultimately went nowhere and fizzled the duo’s initial group. But Ocasek and Orr kept trying to make it work with the addition of Elliot Easton on lead guitar with the group now settling in Boston. After becoming a popular attraction in the city area, the group went on to add one of Massachusetts’ most popular drummers, David Robinson. As a former member of 70s rock band, The Modern Lovers, Robinson was all about style. His influence penned the official naming of the band, The Cars, inspired by their different looks. Their name would start the basis of what the band was all about. After all, each member had different looks and tastes in fashion. Ocasek himself looked like he was not of this world. Turns out, this was an ingenious way to stand out on stage and experiment with their music. The band prepared a demo tape titled “Just What I Needed” and shopped it around the Boston area. The response that came later would be just what the band needed.
Boston radio circulated the demo track across the city and soon fan interest grew enough to gain the attention of Elektra Records. The summer of 1978 saw the release of the band’s self-titled debut album which started a two-and-a-half-year streak of staying on the charts. Thanks to an official recording of “Just What I Needed” and chart topper “My Best Friend’s Girl”, The Cars enjoyed a period of success that peaked with six million copies sold worldwide. Not bad for a debut. Especially when critics are puzzled with the album’s usage of sarcasm and irony. Hawkes stated, “There was definitely a little self-conscious irony in there. We started out wanting to be electric and straight-ahead rock, and it kind of turned into an artier kind of thing.” It’s this dynamic that manifested how the group should approach music. Instead of sticking with traditional rock all the way, they became a crossover giant with power pop waves. By their next album, the group would officially soar to arena rock level.
When you analyze Candy-O, you notice how a band can be so ahead of their time. The band’s sophomore album was an instant hit that bridge pop and rock music together. What made it so unique was how neither genre’s sound was compromised when they were mixed. Reputed critic Robert Christgau reviewed the album as, “Cold and thin, shiny and hypnotic, it’s what they do best—rock and roll that is definitely pop without a hint of cuteness.” Smash hit “Let’s Go” solidified the band’s status as one of the most promising groups of their generation. The Cars would sell-out arenas in the wake of Candy-O reaching platinum status. From there on, fans and critics were anxious for follow-ups. With two stellar projects under there belt, the band decided to pursue something more ambitious. Their new efforts proved to be another chart into success.
1980’s Panorama saw the group going into new territory as they became aggressive with experimental sounds. This trend became reoccurring over the next few years as they grew deeper into art-styled music. Though, they would never reach the same levels of success, their records continually hit platinum status with radio classics spurning onto the rock and pop scene. Shake It Up proved to be one of them as the self-titled track was praised across various outlets. But there was a noticeable change within the group as the paranoia and stress of fame started to tear in.
Following the release of Shake It Up, the band started to distance themselves from one another to focus on other projects. Ocasek branched out into producing music for others and garnered a reputation for being masterful at the craft. Orr and Easton went on to try their hand at solo careers but never found consistency. As the band’s waning albums started to shape with speculation of a break-up happening soon, fans weren’t surprised when the announcement was made in 1988. Ocasek continued a career as a sought-out producer and was a major influence in working with Weezer, No Doubt and Bad Religion. While fans anticipated a revival of their music was in the works, these rumors would end up shattering upon the news of Orr’s passing from cancer.
The Cars completed rereleases of their material upon Orr’s passing and issued never before seen concert videos from previous tours. Hawkes and Easton teamed up on occasion to bring together supergroups of their former band. The newly acquired fanfare escalated to a new album with the original members reuniting to release 2011’s Move Like This. Just as their music was prior to their break-up, The Cars’ sound was unlike anything else out there. The brief stagnant of relived memories induced nostalgia for all listeners. It would be one of the last times the band reunited as the unexpected passing of Ocasek years later had hit too close to home for each member. But their place in history is a necessity as a band that spawned ideals of music crossing over. In his assessment, accomplished reviewer Alfred Soto stated The Cars as, “So influential that they sound as inevitable as Bob Seger or whatever war horse you care to mention, The Cars have a claim to having invented the clever and remunerative moniker ‘New Wave’”. It’s hard to argue against that as their lucrative harnessing of rock and synth-pop was era-defining. But they’ve shown to be more than clever inventors of mind-bending music. They’ve shown artists that there shouldn’t be fear when taking a risk. In their case, risk and ambition paid off forerunners for multiple generations.
Written by Trenton Luber