The Cars

The Cars

New Wave was the far more commercial successor to punk rock, with bands like The Cars, Blondie, Devo, and The B-52’s emphasizing big hooks, fast tempos, clever lyrics, and dance-floor rhythms borrowed from disco and krautrock. It was youthful music, but not every New Waver was a newbie: When The Cars released their self-titled debut album in 1978, singer Ric Ocasek was a relatively ancient 34 years old. For context, he was born the same year as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who had passed through stardom and into near retirement by 1978, and Diana Ross, who was already a grande dame of pop. Ocasek and singer and bassist Benjamin Orr were old pals, having been playing together for 10 years. They’d had a shot at the big time when their group Milkwood—an acoustic, Crosby, Stills & Nash-style folk band—released an album in 1972. The band failed to connect, so the two friends soldiered on in different formations and bands—Richard and the Rabbits, the acoustic duo Ocasek and Orr, the band Cap’n Swing—but nothing worked. What Ocasek learned from failure was that he needed to make music that moved fast, with tunes that were so thoroughly honed and plotted out that every element was a hook—an approach that soon became the mission statement for his next group: The Cars. It wasn’t just the band’s name that inspired automobile metaphors from reviewers and headline writers; The Cars’ music is the sonic equivalent of a sleek Pontiac Firebird with a 220 horsepower engine. No wonder the group became the top-selling New Wave act of the late 1970s. The Cars unleashed a trio of tunes—“Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll”—that would become hits on both rock radio and the singles charts, proving not only The Cars’ crossover appeal, but also the viability of New Wave. Ocasek’s lyrics lean toward the cryptic, and are full of a muted emotionality that feels tense and clipped, but also clever (it’s hard to imagine any other singer writing a line like “Let them brush your rock ’n’ roll hair” and making it sound like good advice). His thin, nervous voice can be heard on five tracks here, while Orr handles the rest, including “Just What I Needed,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “Moving in Stereo”—the latter of which was etched into pop culture history a few years later, when it soundtracked an infamous poolside scene in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Good times.

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