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 crossover 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
dead-pan 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.
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 10. 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 were 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.
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" (#27),
"My Best Friend's Girl" (#35), and "Good Times
Roll" (#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.
early in 1979, Candy-O wasn't released until later that summer.
The album was an instant hit, quickly cimbing to number three
on the charts and going platinum two months after its release.
The record launched the Top 10 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. 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 10 single.
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 10 hit, sending Heartbeat
City to number three on the album charts. Three other Top 40 singles
-- "Magic" (#12), "Drive" (#3), and "Hello
Again" (#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 The Cars Greatest Hits, which featured
two new hit singles, "Tonight She Comes" and "I'm
Not the One."
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 their 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 had seemed half-hearted, sparking 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. Sadly, Orr lost a battle with pancreatic cancer
on October 3, 2000.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide