The kids were great. They were funny, they threw glass at us, they spit, they puked! I’m glad!
In the same way the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers crossed over from Southern roots rock to garner a new wave audience, the Cars did the same for power pop. In their heyday, the Cars filled arenas and MTV airwaves alike. The Cars Unlocked – The Live Performances covers 1978 through 1987 and is interspersed with backstage footage and sound checks, and it can be viewed in two ways: As a fan, or as an audio-video purist. The former will be pleased, the latter will be disappointed.
For the fans: Unlocked is a window into another time, capturing a band that, despite its rather stoic front, displays a cheeky sense of humor. Keyboardist Greg Hawkes emerges in the footage as the group’s personality. He introduces “new dimensions in filmmaking” as he walks the viewer through the then-high-end technology of a handheld video camera (“Select the color temperature for indoor or outdoor use. Set the white balance selector switch to ‘check.’ Confirm that the horizontal line appears on screen.”). What begins as a benign tour of the craft services table devolves in Hawkes’ hands into food throwing and Italian screaming. It’s near-brilliant in its obtuse humor. Hawkes is again the center of attention when he and lead guitarist Elliot Easton torment a Denver Post interviewer.
For the audio-visual purist: There isn’t much here to recommend the set. The video is a direct port from VHS, retaining all the grain, blur, and grit of the source material. There are soft blacks and light trails throughout. The archived black and white footage (most of the non-performance material) shows its age through the video quality. The performance recordings range from good (“Candy-O”) to nearly unwatchable (“Moving in Stereo”). The other problem with this set is the packaging contents. While it boasts a slick hardcover DVD-sized book in an embossed slipcover, the pages within consist of archived still photos and, in most cases, no more than four lines of lyric snippets, there is little substance to the package. The video itself notes the song title and year of the recording, but there is nothing of that sort in the book. No dates, no venues, nothing. It is very disappointing. You need to sit through the main feature credits to find each performance’s city of origin — and even then, you don’t get a venue.
The songs: “You Might Think” from 1984 shines on this set, mixing an arena concert performance with off-stage video clips. It’s a portrait of where the Cars were musically and in the pantheon pop culture of the time. The version of “Drive” that appears in the main feature is actually a montage of interviews and clips from the era (keep an eye out for original MTV VJ Alan Hunter’s cameo!) that roll over the performance. “Tonight She Comes” is another 1987 performance that is probably the best quality of the compilation. It starts out as a sound check and dissolves perfectly into a full-on arena clip. The picture is as good as it gets here (lead singer Ric Ocasek’s royal blue shirt and red guitar pop against his black leather jacket), and the audio is full and enveloping. The disc-closing “Shake It Up” and “Good Times Roll”, both from the Cars 1982 appearance on the second day of the original US Festival, are rocking, spot-on performances that end the collection strong.
The extras: There are five bonus tracks of mostly excellent quality when compared to the main feature (“Cruiser” from 1982, “Strap Me In” from 1987, “Drive” from 1987, “Touch and Go” from 1982, and “Everything You Say” from 1987), and a trailer for the Unlocked set. The inclusion of “Drive” is fairly remarkable. I don’t know if it’s the live setting or maybe the historical perspective, but for a song I have never liked, Benjamin Orr sells it for me. And, in what is quickly becoming a very welcomed norm with DVD sets, a second CD of audio-only performances is included. Here it consists of 14 tracks that shouldn’t be skipped.
As a historical document, The Cars Unlocked – The Live Performances is fairly remarkable, not unlike Devo – Live 1980, but falls to the same shortcomings. While there is a certain quaint nostalgia to the source material’s limitations, it’s almost to the point of distraction.