Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Cars - Cruising In The Fast Lane

The Cars spent the latter part of 1983 in the shop/studio, and by early ‘84 had emerged with a brand new sheen and a brand new album, their fifth to date.

‘Heartbeat City’ hit stores in March of ‘84 and immediately found a pulse on record charts across the world.  Chief composer Ric Ocasek had struck a rich vein of composing form, evidenced straight up with the lead out single ‘You Might Think’.  By 1984, MTV had become the promotional tool of choice for any artist wanting to grab worldwide attention, and the Cars were well positioned to unleash another dimension of creative muscle in their promotional videos for the ‘Heartbeat City’ album.  ‘You Might Think’ (US#7/OZ#24) was the epitome of an 80s pop-rocker, rich and lush yet deceptively simple in delivery.  The music video showcased the band’s humorous, even mildly eccentric nature, and employed cutting edge green screen effects for its time.

The follow up single was the dreamy summer anthem ‘Magic’ (US#12/OZ#96).  As if any excuse for a pool party is needed, the Cars enjoyed an afternoon with friends around the pool - to me there’s something ‘mad hatters’ about the whole affair, and who knew Ric Ocasek could walk on water - very engaging stuff.

To illustrate the length and breadth of the Cars stylistic and thematic spectrum, the album’s third single was the very antithesis of ‘Magic’.  Sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, ‘Drive’ was released in mid ‘84 and was the archetypal brooding ballad, lyrically very sombre, yet stylistically absorbing.  Exquisitely crafted in every facet, ‘Drive’ cruised up the charts to park itself at #3 during August of ‘84 (#1 adult contemporary hit for 3 weeks - OZ#10/UK#5), and the soft focus, black and white promo video proved the perfect artistic companion.  ‘Drive’ became the biggest selling single of the Cars career, and following an airing at Live Aid sped back into the UK top 5 for a second time (#4).

From the sublime to the ridiculous (possibly even ludicrous) would best describe the contradiction in styles between ‘Drive’ and the album’s fourth single (and opening track), ‘Hello Again’ (US#20/OZ#52).  The band took the concept of the promotional video to its threshold, and look to have had a ball in doing so.  The song’s quirky, even eccentric, flavour matched perfectly with the tongue in cheek, self effacing style of the video (which featured a cameo from Andy Warhol - serving drinks to Ric and the band - along with a cavalcade of weird and wonderful characters).  By this stage the Cars had become the darlings of the MTV generation.

From an album of just ten tracks it seems unlikely to find five or more candidates for top 40 singles, but find them the Cars did, with the futuristic pop of ‘Why Can’t I Have You’ finding a parking space at US#33 in early ‘85.  With five top forty hits on board, it seemed reasonable to think the source album, ‘Heartbeat City’, would sell by the truck load - and it did.  Produced by Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange’ (he of Bryan Adams, Def Leppard et al production fame), the album went triple platinum by the summer of ‘85.  But it served as more than a receptacle for hit singles, such was the eclectic mix of songs penned by Ocasek.  ‘Looking For Love’ proved a brooding pop paradox, set against the pared back rock kick of ‘It’s Not The Night’.  For mine the beautifully crafted and atmospheric title track stands out as one of the album’s highlights.

With such an avalanche of momentum established by ‘Heartbeat City’, it seemed odd that the Cars would choose the option of winding back band activity over the ensuing two years.  It may have been a case of burn out following the hectic promotional and touring activity associated with one of the biggest hit albums of the year.  The only new material to surface from the Cars during the subsequent two years took the form of one new song, and a remix of an old one, included in the well due ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation (US#12/ OZ#3/UK#27).  Most of the usual suspects were present on the track listing, and the new track ‘Tonight She Comes’ (US#7/OZ#16) lived up to all expectations.  The lads were also in fine form (and so was Ric’s hair) for the playful promo video.  The remixed ‘I’m Not The One’ (originally included on ‘Shake It Up’ - US#32/OZ#75) rounded out the Cars activity by March of ‘86.

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