The Cars. The Cars.
1978, Elektra Records. Producer: Roy Thomas Baker.
IN A NUTSHELL: The Cars’ debut record has a sound all its own, yet compatible with everything. They’ve got straight-ahead pop, guitar rock and weird/eclectic covered, and it all sounds great. Guitarist Elliot Easton particularly shines with subtle riffs and awesome solos that are never flashy, but are memorable nonetheless. Ben Orr and Ric Ocasek share lead vocal duties, and both use their distinctive voices to great effect.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
“She likes you; but she doesn’t like-you-like-you.”
I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out the first time I heard this response from any friend of any cute girl whose feelings for me I’d inquired about as a youth, but the overwhelming number of times I’ve heard it makes identifying the very first time akin to identifying the very first drop of saltwater in a wave that blindsided me and sent me tumbling through the surf.
When I say “youth,” I’m really talking about the Middle School Years – grades 6 through 8, ages 11 through 13. Before sixth grade, I assumed girls were either a) gross; or b) mightily impressed by me, so trying to find out their feelings about me served no purpose. By ninth grade, I’d gained enough insight into girls, high school social norms, other kids’ perception of me, and the variable nature of teenage feelings that I knew better than to ask the question. But during middle school, the question was always, “Does <girl’s name> like me?”
Middle School is a maelstrom of hormones, cliques, discomfort and vague desire through which only a fool (or a genetic freak with early-onset beauty) would attempt to steer the Good Ship Romance. But despite these circumstances, most of us find ourselves as pre-teens stowing the mizzenmasts and battening down the hatches of our hearts, and setting a course for certain doom anyway.
The best protection against that doom is to do some initial legwork to understand the lay of the land. It seems odd as adults to ask the friend of <girl’s name> to ask <girl’s name> if she likes you, and then to have the friend relay the answer back to you. But in Middle School, where feelings are in constant flux, the tactic serves multiple purposes.
The first, and most obvious, is that it’s protection for the inquirer against being humiliated face-to-face. Secondarily, there’s this: it provides protection for the object of the question, too. Most 12 year olds are uncomfortable offering a “yes!” to such a question asked directly by the inquirer, and so may say “no” just because it’s easier. The friend approach helps prevent false answers.
A final benefit to asking ahead is this: such are the vagaries of the pre-teen heart that simply receiving the second-hand information that <boy’s name> likes you could be enough to spur reciprocal feelings in <girl’s name>. It’s nice to be liked. At the very least, such second-hand questioning will cause <girl’s name> to contemplate the prospect of <boy’s name>, vis-a-vis cafeteria seating, bus-riding, popularity bell curve, cuteness, niceness, grossness, and all other Middle School considerations. So even if your efforts are all for naught, just knowing you’re in the other person’s thoughts for a little while can make the inquirer feel good.
Throughout Middle School, my main <girl’s name> was H. Sure, there were some other <girls’ names> who I inquired about, but most often it was H. I was like Kevin, from the TV show The Wonder Years, in his single-minded pursuit of Winnie Cooper. H. was more popular and more attractive than me, so to improve my chances I did what I could from 6th to 8th grade to try to move along to the leading edge of the Middle School Popularity Bell Curve. Given my financial and physical limitations, this effort mainly involved being extra nice and really funny. And it sort of worked!
By the end of 8th grade I was less likely to be picked on by cooler kids, but I was no closer to winning H.’s heart. The word I began to receive now, and the rep that would follow me for so long that it actually became a positive characteristic in my life, was that I was “really nice.” This meant girls like H. “wanted to be friends.” They liked me, but none of them liked-me-liked-me.
Oh, by the way: eventually, in 10th grade, after 5 long years of effort, H. did show a few weeks of interest in me. It ended suddenly when, at the high school after returning late at night on the buses from an out-of-town marching band event, H. asked me if I wanted to “take a walk around the lockers” with her. It was late at night, we were alone in a dimly-lit, secluded area of the school, and she asked me to “take a walk” with her. So I walked with her. That’s it. I didn’t try to kiss her, I didn’t hold her hand, I didn’t even walk extra-close to her. I just walked next to her and cracked jokes. And that was the last of the interest she showed in me. Clearly, many of my romantic wounds were entirely self-inflicted.
The curse of being “liked” but not “liked-liked” reminds me of the band The Cars because they seem to be a band that everyone thinks is great, but few really love. Of course, there are die-hard fans, but while I know people who are enthusiastic, in-your-face proponents of artists from The Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Sleater-Kinney, I haven’t met many Cars Super Fans1. The Cars tend to be a band that comes up late in a conversation about rock bands, that everyone agrees is terrific, that everyone likes just fine, but that doesn’t spring to the forefront when naming Greatest Rock Artists. In fact, they were just named to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 15 years of eligibility – which is a long time to wait, even if it is a mostly bullshit honor. They’re the pudgy 13 year old of rock bands, the one who’s really nice and makes everyone laugh. They go for walks with pretty girls who ask them to go for walks.
Part of the reason they’re overlooked, I think, is that they have a sound that is contradictory – distinct enough to be readily identifiable, but universal enough to be overlooked. Just like I tried to be nice to everyone in Middle School – from the jocks and cheerleaders to the brains to the weird kids – The Cars sound nice with any number of genres. Could you play The Cars next to The Beatles and The Stones? Sure! That’s Classic Rock! How about The Cars with REO Speedwagon? A.O.R., baby. The Cars right after R.E.M.? Why, that’s 80s College Rock – and you could play Depeche Mode next, as The Cars’ keyboard sounds will link them nicely.
The Cars don’t really sound like Soul or R&B. But you know what? Play them after Donna Summer, and you’ve got a 70s station. Play them after Michael Jackson and you’ve got an 80s station. And they’re just edgy enough that you could play them with early punk, like The Clash, and modern enough that you could play them with ’00 rock acts like The Killers and The Strokes.
The Cars are nice to everyone, and so the pretty Middle School girl of music fandom is always going to like them, but never going to like-them-like-them2. By the end of their career, they started to do different things to be more popular – more computer sounds, fewer guitar solos; the musical equivalent of the high school freshman drinking-and-puking and buying-designer-jeans. And sure, it made them a little more popular, but just like barfing and tight jeans, they might regret those choices now. The early records are when they really shined.
The Cars is one of the rare records that I don’t remember buying. It seems like it’s always been with me. I thought it was part of my sister’s milk-crate-of-70s-rock, but I checked with her and she never owned it. I know I was a fan of some of the non-radio songs in early high school, and I know I owned the cassette, so I’m going to make an educated guess and say I bought it from Columbia House during my 1982 freshman-year initiation into their record club.
Considering the comparison I made to the nice-boy-who-doesn’t-get-the-girl, it’s interesting that one of the album’s biggest songs is “My Best Friend’s Girl.”
True, as sung by the distinct, warbly voice of Ric Ocasek, the lyrics state “she used to be mine,” and lovable losers never even had the girl to begin with. But I know whenever H. had a boyfriend I felt like “she used to be mine,” despite the actual facts. The song demonstrates classic Cars song structure right off the top with a musical introduction. The band likes to start each song with something interesting that ties into the main song, but that’s also distinct on its own. In this case, it’s Elliot Easton’s strumming. Keep listening to Easton, because at 0:35, when “Here she comes again” is sung, he shows off another cool Cars song feature – the guitar line that you don’t notice at first because the song is so catchy, but when you listen again you realize is really pretty awesome. Easton is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, and in addition to his nifty, bluegrass-ish mini-solo around 1:00 (which he also plays under the chorus), he plays a great solo at 2:00.
The song shows off all the best of The Cars, featuring terrific harmony vocals, musical drumming by drummer David Robinson3, restrained keyboards from Greg Hawkes4, and Ben Orr’s subtly rolling bass line. Orr also sang lead on many songs, which answered a question I had about the band for many years: how come sometimes the vocals are oddly robotic and sometimes they aren’t? Ocasek and Orr have very similar voices, but when Orr sings lead – as on “Just What I Needed,” – the singing is a bit better.
It starts with another musical intro, this time pulling a trompe l’ oreille (“Fool the ear.” I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I know there is a common art term called “trompe l’oeil,” or “fool the eye,” so I thought I’d look fancy and use it here.) causing the listener to expect the song to start on a certain beat, but have it start on a different one. Easton’s guitar throughout is once again masterful, and even though Hawkes’s swooping synthesizer (0:47) dominates the song, the guitar is worth listening for throughout. Robinson’s drumming is great, particularly the rolls before the chorus (0:45) and his trick beginning at 2:05, where he begins on a typical rock beat, hitting the snare on the ‘2’ and the ‘4’ for four measures then switching to the Native American-sounding beat of the snare on the ‘1’ and the ‘3’ for the next four. I love little things like that! Easton’s solo, at 1:48, is brilliant and concise. His playing throughout the record is a big reason the album is so high on my list.
Ocasek’s voice does provide a certain intangible quality to some of the songs, for example the driving new wave sound of “Don’t Cha Stop.” Luckily, his style obscures the lyrics some – which are a little too direct for my taste. Anytime the words “wet” and “mouth” are used together in a song, I get a little skeeved out.
But anyway, another cool intro, another cool guitar riff. This time there’s a nice keyboard riff by Hawkes, behind the chorus. But as always, it’s Easton’s guitar, once again, that thrills me. What can I say? The solo at 1:22 is a little song all by itself, and his riff behind the vocals around 1:55 sounds great. Like everything on the record, there’s so much going on in each little 3 minute pop song that repeated listens are gratifying.
And the band plays unusual pop songs, too. For example, the slow and weird “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It’s got all kinds of sounds (which the band recreated pretty well live) and lyrics that rhyme “psilocybin pony” with “flick fandango phony.” Ocasek’s voice is required for lines like that. It also adds something to what is one of the mellowest songs ever about having a good time5, “Good Times Roll.” It has a cool, buzzing guitar sound, and the playing and harmony-singing is great all around. It’s catchy and fun, but by 3 minutes, with the repetitive lyrics and mid-tempo beat, it starts to sound like a sad guy in his lonely apartment talking to himself while drinking NyQuil for kicks.
The second half of the record (what we used to call, back in the olden days, “Side 2“) is when the band really starts to shine. The songs are placed close together, almost like Side 2 of Abbey Road. And it starts with another introductory musical phrase in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.”
Flanging drums and guitars open it up, and then Ocasek whines (in a good way) leading up to another Easton guitar part I love that often goes unnoticed: the subtle riff beginning at 0:28, behind the “You can knock me …” lyrics. The harmony “aaahhhs” (0:38) really help build up the tension for the satisfying release of the “You’re all I’ve got tonight” chorus. Hawkes’ synthesizers dominate, but once again, I find the song to be an Elliot Easton showcase. Throughout the song he fills the background with squiggles and lines that make it sound cool, particularly beginning in the second verse to the end. He’s got a great solo at 1:55 and then, beginning at 2:55, he rips off a minute-long solo that’s spectacular. I love his guitar! Lyrically, the song is sort of a nod to the “Love-the-one-you’re-with” philosophy, I suppose, although here it sounds a bit more selfish than Stephen Stills’ 70s number made it out to be.
It ends abruptly and rolls right into my favorite song on the record, “Bye Bye Love,” which has a great little Ben Orr base line in the intro, at about 0:10.
I like how Orr sings the song, and the “Always with some other guy” line fits in well with the theme of lovable loser. (Although, given Orr’s looks, I get the feeling he didn’t have much difficulty attracting pretty girls.) The drum fills in the chorus are really great, and while the keyboards take a bigger role here than in some songs – for example, answering the vocals during the second verse, and the video-game solo at 2:11 – Easton does get to pull off a terrific solo at 3:24. The song also has one of the coolest endings in rock.
And that ending includes the beginning of the next song, “Moving In Stereo,” a looping, whirring synth sound that drops into a simple guitar pattern. Orr’s voice uses an eerie effect, and swings back and forth from speaker to speaker as he sings about how easy it is to “fool with the sound.”
The bass swoops in repeatedly, making the most of its single note. This is a song that, for heterosexual men of a certain age, regardless of one’s standing on any type of curve, cannot be heard without a flashback to teenage interest in actress Phoebe Cates as seen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s another one of The Cars’ weird-sounding songs, spare in instrumentation, mostly synth and open spaces and Orr’s distorted voice, then a repetitive buildup to about 3:56, when bass and guitar play a cool figure. Orr sings one more verse, getting increasingly spacey, until …
“All Mixed Up” begins. It’s got another tricky introduction, with Robinson’s cymbals appearing on the “wrong” beat. Easton’s guitar enters (about 5:11) and plays a subtly tremendous descending run. It’s a very sad-sounding song to me, and about 5:55 it becomes almost orchestral. Robinson’s girl-group, Phil Spector drums at the end of the chorus add some pageantry to lyrics that resonated with a lonely boy who wanted to believe that everything would be alright. I like the background vocals on chorus, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Hawkes’ saxophone solo to end the song is quite fitting.
Luke Skywalker. Rick, from Casablanca. Ducky, from Pretty In Pink. Why, even Brad Hamilton, from Fast Times. Many guys didn’t get the girl. But it didn’t mean we weren’t awesome in our own right, with facets waiting to be discovered by just the right person. It’s easy to overlook some people, and some bands. Maybe The Cars don’t immediately spring to mind when you’re naming great bands, maybe they’re in that second or third wave. Maybe they seem weird or uncool at first. But there’s no doubt they’re one of the best, and The Cars is an album you’ll like-like, if you just give it a little chance.
“Good Times Roll”
“My Best Friend’s Girl”
“Just What I Needed”
“I’m In Touch With Your World”
“Don’t Cha Stop”
“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”
“Bye Bye Love”
“Moving In Stereo”
“All Mixed Up”