The Cars: The Cars (1978)

The chorus of personal tributes to the Cars in the wake of Ric Ocasek's passing this weekend has been pretty overwhelming, and it didn't seem to make any sense to add one more voice to the din.  But every one of those stories gets me diving further down the rabbit hole, replaying just one more song or video, then just one more, and eventually you just have to cave.

I think all of us of a certain generation had a relationship with the Cars.  When their first album came out in 1978, I was twelve years old, and on the cusp of a musical transition.  I'd been a Top 40 junkie for a few years, glued to my transistor radio, and was starting to tire of the AM dial.  Over the next year I'd branch out in a couple directions -- wading into the FM dial and classic rock history and devoting my time to getting my arms around everything ever recorded by the Who and Pink Floyd and the Kinks and everyone else who had predated my discovery of rock and roll; and opening myself to the slew of New Wave bands that were starting to emerge and break into the staid music scene in my cloistered suburb.

The Cars were one of the first to break through.  They'd be joined soon enough by the likes of the Police and the Go-Go's and the Clash and Elvis Costello; songs like the Knack's "My Sharona" and Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him."  But the Cars were the first to bring something different to the radio.  The album came out at the same time as Foreigner's Double Vision, which seemed to capture everything boring and prepackaged about popular music; I knew there was something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. The Cars' debut could not be more different, fresh sounding and new and unlike anything else you'd hear at the time, pure pop songs but with a style that didn't feel like it had been run into the ground.

Pretty much every song on the album is a potential single.  Perhaps the only song that seemed marginally less radio-friendly was "Moving In Stereo," and I think I liked that one best, because it was weird sounding and less frenetically catchy than everything else, though its later appearance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High assured that even this song would make its way in the pop culture zeitgeist.  (Plus it was one of a few sung by the late Ben Orr, and while Ocasek's lanky stick-figure features were wonderfully distinctive, almost the perfect encapsulation of what we thought a new wave singer was supposed to look like, Orr just looked like the coolest guy on the planet.)

My high school band later played "My Best Friend's Girl" at a high school school battle of the bands.  We were pretty terrible, but the song only had three chords, so we could handle it well enough.  (We also played "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Suffragette City.")  Though we also played it because our other guitarist was dating someone who used to go out with a friend of his, and he wanted to make a little jab.  Tacky, I know.

While later albums hold up nearly as well, I won't claim to be a Cars acolyte; once I moved on to the more esoteric sounds that arose in the wake of punk and new wave, the Cars seemed just too commercial and mass-marketed for my taste.  By the end of high school and on into my freshman year of college, Heartbreak City was unavoidable, a handful of its songs ("Magic," "You Might Think," "Drive") utterly inescapable on the radio and MTV, and I went out of my way to avoid them (though the videos were admittedly great).  As I started to discover the underground college radio bands of the time, the Cars became the enemy.  And when I joined the college radio station, the Cars were one of those untouchable bands, mainstream rock that we deliberately rejected and left for commercial radio stations to deal with.

I do remember one time my sophomore year, when the girl I was dating insisted she would only listen to my radio show if I agreed to play a song by the Cars, her favorite band.  So one afternoon I pulled out "A Dream Away" from Shake It Up, one of my favorite Cars songs, which I figured was enough of a deep track that my fellow DJs wouldn't give me a hard time.  It ended up pleasing nobody; my girlfriend didn't know the song, and to the radio station folks it was still the Cars.  But I thought it sounded great tucked in amongst the R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü and Public Image Ltd. stuff I was spinning.

I still don't listen to the Cars very often.  However, in one of life's little ironies, my wife of nearly 30 years, rather than sharing my obsession with rock music, is pretty limited in her taste to whatever she heard on the radio in junior high.  Which basically comes down to the Cars.  So I end up pulling it out now and then to appease her.  And, yeah, it's all pretty great.

Roll the video:
...and more:
...and even more:
..and, finally, "Moving in Stereo":


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