Friday, July 18, 2014


I don’t know if The Cars get their proper due as a great American rock band.

I never hear them come up in discussions when people talk about, oh, the likes of R.E.M. and Credence Clearwater Revival and Pearl Jam and Simon and Garfunkel (if they count as a “band”) or even Van Halen and, for people with a really cute sense of humor, Aerosmith.

Because damn. For those 5-6 years where The Cars were really in their prime, they weren’t just good. They were great. Really great.

They checked every box. They were the hippest new-wave band on the block. They were all over the pop charts. They embraced all the glorious madness of MTV and videos fairly early on and used it to their great benefit. And! And they also could rock as well as anyone—listen to “Just What I Needed” and “Let’s Go.” Those aren’t just synth’d up pop productions; those are rock-n-roll to the core. From the self-titled debut album in 1978, which yeah, seems like a Greatest Hits album now (just look at this track listing!) through 1984’s Heartbeat City, The Cars had it all.

Oh, okay. Not really. They didn’t have it all. They were a great studio band but when it came to playing live…they were a great studio band. 

In the summer of 1984, when The Cars for awhile walked in that same rarified air as Michael Jackson and Prince on the pop charts and sold out arenas across the country to promote Heartbeat City, they came to Hartford. Scott and I were there. And the show didn’t last longer than an episode of Matlock.

They seemed genuinely uncomfortable playing such a large crowd (15,000 plus at the Hartford Civic Center). You could tell; they barely said a word outside of (yes, this is true) “Hartford, you’re just what I needed!” at the very end. Lead singer/leader/friendly alien Ric Ocasek said that. And that was it for the chatter. The music was…good. It was like listening The Cars’ record for 55 minutes. Only, you know, it was a concert. Where strangely enough some fans expect more.

Anyway, I digress. Not a good live band. But an awesome studio band.

Yesterday I dipped back into some of their catalogue and came across a true gem. “Magic.” From Heartbeat City.

It was a decent-sized hit, though “You Might Think” and “Hello Again” and Ben Orr’s lovely Phil Collins’ impersonation “Drive” were bigger hits off of a very big album. But none of them was better than “Magic,” which showcased the band at their truly best for maybe the last time.

“Magic” was the perfect meshing of the band’s rock-n-roll sensibilities and new wave stylings. At its heart it is all about those three thundering power chords that drive it along. Ocasek and keyboardist Greg Hawkes add some nifty and very-80s synths to it, and the glossy production values (“Whoa oh, it’s Magic!”) dominate throughout. But those three power chords, such a very basic tenet of rock-n-roll, run the show. Elliot Easton was a hell of a fun lead guitarist, and his quirky, distinct solos were what made so many of the band’s songs so damn imaginative (he has another one here at the midway point, and if it sounds dated I think it’s only because Elliot had such a unique sound that was so affixed to this era). But those chords of his (and Ocasek, I would guess. And Orr on the bass) are Rock-n-Roll 101 and they give “Magic” an indelible pop hook that is just irresistible. (That chorus, seriously, is just amazing).

And then there’s the video, which I don’t know why, but I just love.

Part vanity piece and oh-so-very of the “Life is the best and we’re never gonna die!” 1980s, it’s still a perfect match for such a sunny, infectious tune. I honestly don’t know what’s going on here—something mayhap about a pool party of beautiful people that partly morphs into a Ric Ocasek Svengali-like water-walking seminar? Is that it? Was Ric Ocasek invited here, or is this just where the spaceship dropped him? And check out the guy in the cowboy hat at the 2:22 mark! ACTING!

I don’t care. I love it. And I love watching Ric Ocasek throughout it. As he genuinely seems to resemble a creature from another galaxy whom just got left here by the mothership and is now trying to understand what is up with all these well-dressed, fawning earthlings. He reminds me of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, in that he looks both so human and so alien at the same time.

I really do love The Cars and their music. So much fun to it, so much going on behind it. If only they had a longer prime. And were better live. Alas, sometimes greatness is fleeting. And not meant to be brought outdoors.

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