PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Cars: The Elektra Years 1978-1987

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.

The Cars

The Elektra Years 1978-1987

Label: Elektra
US Release Date: 2016-03-11
UK Release Date: 2016-03-11

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.