The Cars made a lot of great music in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but arguably the best they ever made is that on their eponymous debut. Released in 1978, The Cars marked a turning point in popular music: for the first time, New Wave proved to be commercially viable. The Cars’ debut was a record hipsters, pop fans, and rockers alike could, and did, enjoy. In fact, Richard Lloyd of Television recalled in the punk document Please Kill Me, “When we heard the first Cars records we said, ‘Uh oh. This is like our music only right down the commercial alley. This is gonna take our place.’”
The Cars had a connection to the new sound’s early roots in drummer David Robinson, who was a member of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers and played on their seminal early recordings. However, it was singer/guitarist Ric Ocasek who was The Cars’ musical mastermind. He composed all but one of the songs on their debut (“Moving in Stereo”, featured in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, was co-written by Ocasek and Greg Hawkes), and his quivering, oddball voice dominates most of the tracks.
It is probably a good thing, then, that Ocasek’s lyrics were nearly as weird as his voice. Even a simple pop song about a girl could become an exercise in surrealist poetry and wordplay in Ocasek’s hands. Take the hit “My Best Friend’s Girl”, which surely contains some of the strangest lyrics of any Top 40 entry: “You’ve got your nuclear boots / And your drip dry glove / And when you bite your lip / It’s some reaction to love”.
While Ocasek took a bemused and ironic stance toward pop music, he was certainly well-versed in it, and showed a strong affection for the genre in his intricately crafted songs. He was also unafraid to toss seemingly disparate ingredients into the musical pot. A lyric could be as oblique as “You get the Wisenheimer brainstorm” or as blunt as “Right here I’d like to melt inside of you”. The keyboard lines were pure art rock, while the guitar was straight out of hard rock. Some songs were blatantly creepy, while the darkness of others was masked by sing-along choruses and handclaps.
Somehow, it not only struck a chord with the general public, but it endured. Even today, songs from The Cars can be heard on classic rock, AOR, and even alternative radio stations. It’s no wonder contemporary groups like Weezer and Hole have tapped Ocasek to produce them. It’s obvious, just from The Cars alone, that he is a master.
// Notes from the Road
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