The Cars’ music has been described as both new wave and power pop and influenced by proto-punk, garage rock and bubblegum pop. Proto-punk is rock music played by garage bands in the ’70’s that presaged the punk rock movement that came later. And check out the rockabilly feel in lead guitarist Elliot Easton’s chicken-picking lead in “My Best Friend’s Girl.” Robert Palmer, music critic for The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, described their style by writing, “They have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends — punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the ’50’s rockabilly revival and the melodic terseness of power pop — and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend.”
The Cars were an American rock band that became popular during the new wave scene of the late ’70’s, and were at the forefront in mixing guitar focused rock with synth-oriented pop that was popular into the early ’80’s.The band originated in Boston in 1976 with singer/second guitarist/songwriter Ric Ocasek, singer/songwriter and bassist Ben Orr, lead guitarist/singer Elliot Easton, keyboardist/singer Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson. In April 2018, The Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Before The Cars, members of the band performed together in different groups. Ric and Ben met in Columbus, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Michigan before relocating to Boston in the early ’70’s. In my 1987 interview in The Beat magazine with Ben he remembered: “What attracted us to Boston? It was an entirely different city, and Ric and I, neither one of us had ever been here before. When I showed up I came in at about three in the morning and drove right over a Rt. 2 hill in Cambridge, (laughs) and it just looked so stunning and I said to myself ‘this is the place I have to live.’ But I liked the city so much. And the next night after I got here we played out. So that about clinched it. And the people in town were mostly young people and it was a great place for a musician to be.”
In Boston, Ric and Ben formed a folk rock band with lead guitarist Jas Goodkind called Milkwood and they released one album, How’s The Weather, that didn’t turn many heads. After Milkwood, Ocasek and Orr formed Richard and The Rabbits, whose name was suggested by Modern Lovers front man Jonathan Richman. The band included Greg Hawkes, who had studied at Berklee School of Music and had played sax on Milkwood’s album. Not long after, Hawkes left to tour with Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture, a musical comedy act where Mull played many instruments. During this time Ric and Ben performed as an acoustic duo called Ocasek and Orr at The Idler Coffeehouse in Cambridge. Some of the songs they played there became future early Cars’ tunes.
During this time, they connected with guitarist Elliot Easton, who had also studied at Berklee, and formed the band Cap’n Swing; featuring Glenn Evans then Kevin Robichard behind the kit; and a jazzy bass player whose playing sometimes collided with the band’s more rock and roll focus. In this group, Ben was the lead vocalist and didn’t play an instrument. Cap’n Swing was soon noticed by WBCN — The Rock of Boston — dj Maxanne Sartori who began playing songs from their demo tape on her show.
Soon after being rejected by a few record labels, the bass player and drummer were forced out of the band and Orr took over on bass and Robichard was replaced by David Robinson, best known for his career with The Modern Lovers and DMZ. Hawkes returned to play keyboards and the band became The Cars, a name suggested by Robinson. “I left The Modern Lovers to join DMZ because Jonathan was playing so quietly there was no need for a drummer,” David told me for this bio, “and I came up with The Cars name because it was easy and didn’t mean anything and wasn’t tied to any era.”
The Cars played their first gig at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire on Dec. 31, 1976, and spent the next year playing all over New England including at the legendary punk/new wave/alternative music club The Rat in Kenmore Square; honing the songs that would later become their first album. Elliot remembers these early Rat gigs and the legacy of the club’s visionary owner Jimmy Harold in the November 2017 issue of The Noise: “Jimmy was a great friend to the young musicians of Boston. He gave all the bands the crucial chance to perform in front of an audience, even if it was just a Monday night, such a crucial aspect in developing a band. I can’t think of many other clubs at that time where you could play an entire set of original material without being pressured to play Top 40. Jimmy was always kind and fair to what were basically a bunch of kids with stars in their eyes. I know I can say with confidence that The Rathskeller was a crucial step in the progress of The Cars and we owe Jimmy a great debt of thanks. Those were such great days!”
A nine song demo tape was recorded in early 1977 and soon “Just What I Needed” was getting a lot of airplay on WBCN and WCOZ. Because of that heavy rotation, the band got signed to Elektra Records and their debut album The Cars was released in June 1978, sold six million copies, and reached No. 18 on The Billboard 200 Album chart for one hundred and thirty nine weeks! “Just What I Needed” was released as the first single followed by “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll.” All three charted on The Billboard Hot 100 chart. Other tracks “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “Moving In Stereo” also got huge airplay. The Cars were named Best New Artist in the 1978 Rolling Stone magazine’s Reader’s Poll.
The band’s second album Candy- O was released in June 1979 and featured an album cover drawn by well-known Playboy magazine artist Alberto Vargas. It reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart and featured their first Top 20 single “Let’s Go.” Follow up singles “It’s All I Can Do” and “Double Life” were also released to much fanfare. Their third studio album, Panorama, was released in 1980 and reached No. 5 in the charts and had one Top 40 hit, “Touch and Go.” In 1981, they bought Intermedia Studio on Newbury Street and renamed it Synchro Sound. The only Cars album recorded there was their fourth release, Shake It Up, with the title track becoming a Top Ten single. Fun Fact: Aerosmith recorded “Dream On” at the studio when it was Intermedia Studio and today the building houses an American Apparel store and a Basics Carpet and Furniture shop.
Following their 1982 tour the band took a short break with Ocasek and Hawkes releasing solo albums Beatitude and Niagara Falls; then the band got back together to record and release their most successful album, Heartbeat City, in 1984. The first single “You Might Think” helped them win Video of The Year at the 1st MTV Video Music Awards. From then on, the group became known on the music scene for always having a strong promotional relationship between their songs and their videos, which at that time was a much better way to get your records across to more listeners than just radio alone. Other hit singles from the album were “Magic,” “Hello Again,” and “Why Can’t I Have You.” The video for “Hello Again” was directed by hardcore New York avant artist Andy Warhol. Their most successful single, “Drive,” with Orr on lead vocals, got particularly popular to a global audience when it was used in the 1985 Live Aid video benefit for Ethiopian hunger; and was introduced by David Bowie at Wembley Stadium in London. The Cars themselves performed at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert. Actor/director Timothy Hutton directed the band’s “Drive” music video.
After another hit single, “Tonight She Comes,” reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and their last No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Top Rock Chart, for their Greatest Hits album, The Cars again took time off to pursue solo projects. Easton and Orr released their debut albums, Change No Change and The Lace; and Ocasek put out his second solo project This Side Of Paradise. In 1987, The Cars released a sixth album, Door To Door, which contained their last major international hit “You Are The Girl.” The group announced their breakup in February 1988.
Rhino Records in 1995 released a two CD set Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology containing all the group’s hits with some demos and non-album B sides. This was followed up by The Cars: Deluxe Edition in 1999. This included their debut album in a two CD format and the complete Greatest Hits. In the mid ’90’s Ben Orr recorded tracks with guitarist John Kalishes (producer of Live At The Rat) for a still unreleased follow up to The Lace and performed in three bands: ORR, The Voices of Classic Rock and Big People. His last appearance with The Cars was at an interview for a documentary about the group prior to his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 53, in 2000.
Ocasek continued to perform as a solo artist and released seven studio albums. Robinson retired from music and spent much of his time at his former restaurant. Today, David owns an art gallery and makes his own jewelry that is on sale on site. In 2005, Easton and Hawkes mixed it up with Todd Rundgren, Prairie Prince (The Tubes, Journey), and Kasim Sutton (Utopia, Meat Loaf) in The New Cars and performed classic Cars and Rundgren songs with some new tunes. In 2008, the band’s first album was released for the video game Rock Band.
In 2010, The Cars implied a reunion was in the works when they placed a photo of themselves together at Millbrook Sound Studios in Millbrook, NY on The Cars Facebook page. On October 13th, Ric, Elliot, Greg and David again posted part of a new song, “Blue Tip.” That same month, Billboard reported about their latest album Move Like This and a short supporting tour. More new music, “Sad Song,” was added to the band’s FB page on December 7, 2010. Then a few weeks later, on January 1, 2011, another new song, “Free,” went on line and the video for their song “Blue Tip” came out on February 17th. According to Rolling Stone, the surviving Cars mutually agreed there would be no replacing of the late Ben Orr on bass for the time being the low end was handled by Hawkes on keyboards. Greg told interviewer Mike Ragogna on his blog: “I think we just felt that for this new project, there is a lot of talent in the four guys, so we thought that we could cover it musically. Ben’s presence was certainly missed, but we didn’t really feel the need to get somebody else to replace him.” Their last album, Move Like This, was released on May 10, 2011 and debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s album charts. It featured ten songs done in under forty minutes. The album’s first single, “Sad Song,” was released to radio stations March 1st and in May, The Cars went on a ten city tour of the U.S. and Canada. They also performed at Lollapalooza, in Chicago, in August.
Since 2013, Elliot has been playing in The Empty Hearts with Clem Burke (Blondie), Wally Palmar (The Romantics), and Andy Babiuk (The Chesterfield Kings); their first album, The Empty Hearts, was released in 2014. They are currently recording their second vinyl which will be released in 2018. Hawkes is on the road playing in Todd Rundgren’s current band and occasionally he can be seen onstage locally with his Greg Hawkes’ Ukulele Trio including Tim Mann and Greg Allison, where they include a very different version of The Cars classic “Drive” in their small strings set.
Ric appeared on behalf of The Cars for a Q & A with Sirius XM satellite radio on April 28, 2016 after he supervised the remastering of Cars music on vinyl and CD. Aside from a brief reunion at their Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony on April 14, 2018 the band has been inactive since the last tour’s conclusion in 2011. At the Cleveland HOF show, they played “You Might Think,” “Moving In Stereo,” and “Just What I Needed” and had Weezer’s Scott Shriner sitting in on bass. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers personally inducted the band into the Hall of Fame. “It’s certainly a wonderful feeling to be accepted by peers and when you see the people that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who gets inducted, it’s a positive feeling that you get,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone recently, ” I think it’s kind of a big thing for me and the band. I know Ben would have been flipped out by it. It’s certainly a very positive thing.”
* The Cars (1978)
* Candy- O (1979)
* Panorama (1980)
* Shake It Up (1981)
* Heartbeat City (1984)
* Door To Door (1987)
* Move Like This (2011)
ARTISTS WHO HAVE COVERED SONGS BY THE CARS
Nirvana, Hayseed Dixie– “My Best Friend’s Girl.” Nirvana’s rendition was performed at their last ever live performance on March 1, 1994.
The Smashing Pumpkins– “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”
The Melvins– “Candy-O”
Red House Painters– “All Mixed Up”
The Alkaline Trio– “Bye Bye Love”
Ziggy Marley, The Deftones, The Scorpions, Sixx A.M.– “Drive”
Poison– “Just What I Needed”
In 2011, The Strokes were joined onstage by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker for “Just What I Needed” at The Reading and Leeds Festival in the U.K.
(by A.J. Wachtel)