The Cars proper formed in Boston during 1976, and comprised a quintet of mechanics…sorry, musicians: Ric Ocasek (vocals, guitar); Benjamin Orr (vocals, bass); Elliot Easton (guitar, vocals); Greg Hawkes (keyboards); David Robinson (drums). It was drummer David Robinson that came up with the moniker of the Cars, but he was the last member on board the musical vehicle that had evolved over the preceding years. Both Ocasek and Orr had been involved in musical endeavours since their high school years. They met one another in Cleveland and struck up a creative partnership, both on a performance and writing level. After a string of short lived vehicles, the pair settled on a more stable arrangement in the form of a trio called Milkwood. Milkwood released a single album in late ‘72, which went largely unnoticed, but the experience had introduced a young keyboardist called Greg Hawkes into the fold. By 1974, Orr and Ocasek had jump started another band called Cap’n Swing, alongside lead guitarist Elliot Easton. The group built up a solid fan base in Boston, but by 1975 had run its course. But there was something in the chemistry that encouraged Ocasek and Orr to relaunch the band under a new name. And so, 1976 saw the unveiling of the all new model Cars, featuring Ocasek, Orr, Easton, Hawkes, and former Modern Lovers’ drummer David Robinson.
The Cars played relentlessly on the Boston live circuit, including regular gigs at the Rat Club. They came under the management of Fred Davis, who began shopping around for interest from a recording label for a demo version of a song called ‘Just What I Needed’. A copy of the demo found its way to popular Boston radio station WKRP in Cincina…no wait wrong station, and city…popular Boston radio station WBCN. ‘Just What I Needed’ was added to the station’s play list and it became the station’s most requested song. A combination of the Cars’ live following, and the high profile of ‘Just What I Needed’ on the airwaves, led to a recording contract with Elektra Records before the end of ‘77.
The Cars spent just a few weeks during the first half of ‘78 labouring away in the workshop, or studio (take your pick), alongside acclaimed Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, before their pristine eponymous debut set hit the showroom floor mid year. ‘Just What I Needed’ was the logical lead out single, and proved a worthy appetiser. Bassist Benjamin Orr handled lead vocals on the track, and the promotional machine went into overdrive, including a stellar live performance on the popular Midnight Special music show (it was a condition of the band’s appearance that they have total creative control for the show - surely the act of jump starts…err.sorry, up starts, but confidence breeds confidence). ‘Just What I Needed’ proved to be just what the Cars needed when it peaked at #27 on the U.S. Hot 100 (UK#17/OZ#96). The album hit stores as ‘Just What I Needed’ hit the charts, and contained nine tracks in all (all but one penned by Ocasek). The Cars’ style and musical direction was evidenced from the get go, with a melding of new wave (synth edged) and pure rock flavours dipped in pop sensibility.
‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ may have been a lyrical lament but it shone bright as a pure pop/rock comet. With the honour of being the first single released on picture disc, ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ showcased Ric Ocasek’s unique vocal style and revved its way to #35 on the U.S. Hot 100 (OZ#67), but proved a huge hit in the burgeoning new wave crazy market of Britain (UK#3). Single #3 was the brilliant ‘Good Times Roll’ (US#41), a personal favourite of this author, stylish in its almost nonchalant vocal delivery, it hooks and hypnotises the listener from the get go. Other highlights from ‘The Cars’ album include the playful and peppy ‘Don’t Cha Stop’, and the guitar rocker ‘Bye Bye Love’.
With a huge live following and steady rotation of all the album’s tracks on rock radio, ‘The Cars’ (US#18 /OZ#35/UK#29) proved to have exceptional longevity (something that many new wave acts couldn’t claim), staying on the U.S. album charts for over two years, and going on to sell 6 million copies.
Such was the sustained popularity of their debut set, the release date for the Cars’ sophomore album was pushed back on the grid. The ‘Candy-O’ album had been recorded in early ‘79, but wasn’t released until mid year. The much anticipated release resulted in a huge demand, subsequently sending ‘Candy-O’ racing to #3 in the U.S. (OZ#7/UK#30). The album featured provocative cover art by artist Albert Vargas, and what lay between the covers was no less enticing. The first single lifted from ‘Candy-O’ was the Benjamin Orr sung ‘Let’s Go’ (US#14 /OZ#6/UK#51), a beguiling little number that can’t help but get stuck on repeat inside the listener’s consciousness. The follow up single, ‘It’s All I Can Do’ (US#41), fell short of the commercial mark, but as a collective pop/rock entity, the ‘Candy-O’ set offered a buffet of sweet sounding morsels, including the surging rock of the title track, and the T-Rex styled ‘Dangerous Type’. The album reached platinum status just two months after release, and with their profile growing exponentially, the Cars went from playing concert halls to the rock arena circuit.
Having established a lucrative niche on the pop/rock spectrum, the Cars made the decision to make a foray into uncharted stylistic waters for their third album, ‘Panorama’ (US#5/OZ#19). On the face of it, ambition wasn’t rewarded with commercial acclaim, but ‘Panorama’ (with all tracks penned by Ocasek) reached the top five and notched yet another platinum hood ornament for the Cars. The lead single, the atmospheric ‘Touch And Go’ (US#37/OZ#62), performed modestly, whilst the follow up ‘Don’t Tell Me No’ (though featuring a killer guitar riff) received a firm ‘no’ from the U.S. Hot 100.
With the mild formula experimentation explored on ‘Panorama’, the Cars returned to form on their fourth album ‘Shake It Up’ (US#9/OZ#20), released late in ‘81. Recorded at the band’s newly decked out studio, Synchro Sound, the album found Ric Ocasek in fine composition form, and the band with a willingness to shift gears from the more rock edged fare of their debut, toward an embracement of futuristic styled (and synth driven) pop-rock, which would fully evolve on their next set.
The title track served as the lead out single, with ‘Shake It Up’ proving to be just as energetic in chart performance as in sound, delivering the Cars their first top ten finish on the U.S. Hot 100 (US#4/OZ#10). The party anthem was accompanied by a promotional video with an aptly automotive theme, which soon earned heavy rotation status on the newly formed MTV network. The follow up single was the melancholic and hypnotic ‘Since You’re Gone’ (US#41/UK#37), with its train track rhythmic beat, accompanied by another fine example of video promotion
As so many bands do, so the Cars took some time out to explore solo projects. Ric Ocasek released his debut solo set ‘Beatitude’ in 1982, and continued his burgeoning career as a record producer for up and coming young bands, whilst keyboardist Greg Hawkes released his ‘Niagara Falls’ album. The other Cars pursued performance and production based projects. The break away from one another must have proved good medicine for the Cars, as during 1983 they reconvened and began production work on their fifth and, what would ultimately prove to be, their biggest selling album.