The Cars made six albums for Elektra in just under a decade. Five of those are far above average. Another shows why the group stopped at exactly the right time.
There have been a number of descriptors used in the same breath as the Cars when trying to describe the Boston outfit’s music. Power pop, New Wave, pop, punk, bubblegum and a handful of others. Of course none of them would ever be suitable enough mostly because The Cars arrived at a time when it was OK for bands to sound different from each other and distinguish themselves from the herd. Oddly enough, that determination launched a succession of imitators but none that were ever as smart or as good as the real thing. Rhino has just issued a box featuring the group’s six original albums for the Elektra label between 1978 and 1987.
The story these records tell is one of a band that had pop sensibilities and smarts but had some underlying ambitions as well. There are touches of the avant-garde here and there and more than a few nods to progressive rock buried within the hook-laden choruses and dance-inspiring pop beats. The records are stripped of extras, offered in a no-frills fashion that allows the original story to unfold before our ears once more.
First up is the group’s 1978 self-titled debut, cut after a few years of playing clubs in New England. These were guys who’d lived through the British Invasion and so knew the value of some sonic smash and grab; but they’d also lived through the dawn and passing of psychedelia and so knew the power of ear candy; they’d also emerged from various projects in the years following glam and so understood the connection between visual and aural presentation. Sure, it’s not possible to hear a leather jacket or high dollar sweater but you can sure hear the attitudes of guys who were into wearing them.
Those elements coalesced on that first Elektra album, a record that sold the listener on a package from the sleeve down to each note that passed between their ears. There was sex there and in the songs themselves. Devo may have tried to do away with human emotion and Kraftwerk may have tried to convince us that human beings were above all that but the Cars knew that guys with synthesizers still wanted to get laid. And sometimes even did.
There were three successful radio singles culled from the record and three more tunes that became FM radio staples among the nine that appeared on the record but anyone who’s listened to the album from end to end before knows all of those songs. Opening with “Let the Good Times Roll”, the record takes the listener on a journey of infectious song after infectious song. Ric Ocasek wasn’t just singing in a voice that sounded like a postmodern Elvis Presley he was also sing about suburban isolation (“I’m in Touch With Your World”) and sex and the single man (“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, “My Best Friend’s Girl”).
But he wasn’t the only one doing the singing: Benjamin Orr also gave voice to some of Ocasek’s best lyrics (“Just What I Needed”, “Bye Bye Love”) and helped create the image of a band cut from the same mold as some of the greats -- where two voices were better than one and revisiting tried and true topics couldn’t possibly hurt.
There’s a temptation to see the debut as the band’s greatest album and everything between that and 1984’s Heartbeat City as being less great. That’s not entirely fair. 1979 brought Candy-O, a record that had two hits (“Let’s Go” and “It’s All I Can Do”). If those were a little stranger than the singles from the first record, they only hinted at the depths the rest of the record reached too. It’s tempting to see sophomore records as a group’s b-roll, filled with tunes that were less popular during a group’s club days. Whether that’s true or not here, the truth is that many of these songs are as good as anything on the debut and often times a lot more interesting in terms of musical and lyrical fodder. “Double Life” and “Night Spots” are rich and smart and indicative of a writer (Ocasek) who wanted to do more than put the boogie in the oogie oogie.
The following year brought something of an experimental turn with Panorama. Like its predecessors this release was produced by Roy Thomas Baker. Unlike its predecessors the record lacked hits. It even lacked anything that gave a faint waft of a hit. The music wasn’t exactly postpunk and it wasn’t exactly cut from the same electronic cloth as Devo. But it was close and it was a darker record.
There are moments where the lyrical themes match those on previous outings (including the less than smash single “Touch and Go”) but the record lacks that same ebullience. It lacks the same carefree nature and instead sounds like something that might have been equally influenced by bands such as The Police and maybe substances that were, er, enhancing the band’s sense of reality.
Despite what some have traditionally seen as failings the record still has a number of deeply cool tracks: “Misfit Kid”, which comes replete with all the Cold War chill of the era, and the experimental (and eerie) “You Wear Those Eyes”.
The Cars as fans had come to know the band would return (to a degree at least) on Shake It Up. The title track and “Since You’re Gone” have become radio staples in the decades since the record appeared and not only did the record come to reaffirm the band’s commercial appeal it also gave fans a glimpse of where the group was going. The sound was more streamlined and the songs more fully realized than they’d been since the debut.
It would be the last time the group worked with Baker and whether that came down to schedules or growing pains doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the biggest moment for the Cars would come in 1984 with the Mutt Lange-produced Heartbeat City. It featured the band’s biggest hits, including the Benjamin Orr-sung smash “Drive” (which is still chill-worthy all these years later), the humor-laden “You Might Think” and the carefree “Magic”. It was the old band back in a new setting with more confidence, better material and a determination that we wouldn’t soon forget the Cars.
As so often happens with records of that magnitude Heartbeat City effectively spelled the end of the band. There was one more album, Door to Door which came out long after many of the group’s contemporaries had perished. There were a few good tunes but the spark that carried the Cars through its first five albums was gone.
To everyone’s credit, that was the end of the band. Although there’d be a new model of the band with Todd Rundgren (the record and tour did not do well) and although Ocasek would come back to the fold for a better-than-you-could-imagine record called Move Like This, the band really came to an end in 1985 with the single “Tonight She Comes”. There’s no shame in that, as we’re reminded across this set.
Without liner notes or bonus material (and with some ridiculously cost conscious graphics on the discs) this is a collection for latecomers who want to get it all in one place. Others are advised to seek out earlier editions of the albums and a handful of compilations and the like the provide listeners with deeper cuts.