Wednesday, 18 September 2019

RIP to Ric Ocasek and The Cars


I grew up in the late 70's & early 80's during the Punk & New Wave era. When I was a kid I wasn't really into music. The only records I had were some of my dad's old Jazz records (Slim Gaillard, Fats Waller, Woody Herman, Glen Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tod Rhodes, Jellyroll Morton, Teddy Wilson, the Ink Spots and Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert) and some K-Tell albums. You know; those compilations where they would take a gaggle of songs that had been on the top forty and tossed them together regardless of whether they had anything in common with each other so you could find acceptable hard rock like Rush, Kiss and Nazareth alongside drippy pop singers Dan Hill, Burton Cummings, Tony Orlando and disco, country and novelty songs. All slightly edited and crammed together so tightly that each album would average twenty songs with crappy sound, garishly ugly covers and titles like "20 AMAZING DYNAMITE ROCK HITS!". You know; Classy. I didn't listen to them much. If you had asked me who my favorite bands were I would have said the Monkees because they had a cool TV show that was on after school, Suzi Quatro who was Leather Tuscadero on "Happy Days" and maybe Alice Cooper and that's about it.

However we also used to also have a cottage in Parry Sound where we would go practically every weekend and longer during the summer. It was pretty rustic, no running water, no phone, no TV. But we did have electricity and thus a radio. I never really listened to much radio at home in Toronto, after all there was the TV. But up north there was nothing to at night, or during the day if it rained, except read books and listen to the radio. Late at night I would hear crackling over the airwaves CBC shows like "Quirks & Quarks", old radio shows like "The Inner Sanctum" and "Quiet Please", top forty chart shows like Kasey Kasem's "America's Top 40" and "90 Minutes With A Bullet". This was happening just as New Wave (if not actual Punk Rock) was becoming a chart presence so I started to hear some news sounds among the usual dreary Kansas, Boston and Chicago.


The first band I remember falling in love with was the Cars with their cool linear sound and spacey keyboards fairly leaping out of the speakers next to the stodgy likes of the Eagles and Stampeders. Songs like "Just What I Needed", "Lets Go", "My Best Friends Girl" and "Shake It Up" made the likes of Supertramp and Elton John seem as old as ragtime. Soon there would be more; the Pretenders, B52's, Motels, Police, Diodes, Vapors, Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, Teenage Head, OMD, Rough Trade, Martha & the Muffins. Along with a few not exactly New Wave but still somehow related types like Tom Petty, Nick Lowe, Cheap Trick, Max Webster, Dire Straits. It wasn't just big city radio either. I can still recall as if it was yesterday the time the local small town DJ came in and announced he had been in Toronto record buying and had the latest hit to unveil. Before doing so he warned the parents they might want to leave the room before playing...the B52's "Rock Lobster". Then laughing nervously. Thereafter there would be more; Devo's "Whip It", Teenage Head's "Disgusteen", Max Webster's "Check", the Vapors "Turning Japanese", M's "Pop Musik", the Knack's "My Sharona". Every time after playing one of these the befuddled local small town DJ would come on an say something like; "Well I'm not quite sure what that was but lets play some Fleetwood Mac", to which I would say; "NOOOO!".

The Cars first album was actually one of the first proper albums I got, although I didn't actually buy it. Mostly because I never had any money and what little I did have went to books, comics and model soldiers, not music. One day in 1980 or 81 I found a cache of albums somebody was tossing out (I think they were moving) which along side some old dinosaurs like Steppenwolf, Grand Funk, the Faces, Queen, Firefall, Nazareth and Uriah Heep (A double live album yet! This is why punk happened) there were a dozen New Wave and New Wave adjacent albums; the Cars, B52's, Romantics, Pretenders & Knack's first albums, the Police, Rockpile, Motels, Blondie, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Max Webster, Suzi Quatro. After that I was hooked although I didn't get around to actually buying anything myself til 1982 and Joan Jett's "I Love Rock & Roll".


There was, and is still, a tendency to dismiss these New Wave bands as being pale shadows of real Punk Rock, corporate record company attempts to cash in on a genuine underground movement. And it's true you would never hear any real Punk Rock on the radio (aside from occasionally the Clash, Teenage Head or once in a blue moon maybe the Ramones) let alone Hardcore or Industrial music. But there is no doubt New Wave was a gateway drug for those too young to find their way to an underground club or those living too far away from a big city scene. The campus radio scene was in it's infancy at the time, Much Music and MTV were several years away and the internet a generation off. At any rate the best of the New Wave songs easily stand out even today.

At any rate back to the Cars. Ohio based Ric Ocasek (singer/guitarist & main songwriter) and Benjamin Orr (bassist/singer) had been working together for a while as folk-rockers since 1970 under various names and lineups with notable lack of success before moving to Boston. One of those abortive lineups included sax and keyboard player Greg Hawkes who had also played in comedian Martin Mull's band. By 1976 jazz influenced guitarist Elliot Easton and drummer David Robinson were added, Robinson was something of a veteran of the band new Boston Punk scene thanks to being in Johnathan Richman's band The Modern Lovers and DMZ and The Pop. As the band moved from artsy Folk Rock to a Roxy Music influenced New Wave it was Robinson's idea to change the name of the band from Milkwood (a Dylan Thomas reference) to the more modern sounding The Cars. They would get signed in 1977 and record the first album which quickly became the first American New Wave hit record that didn't come out of New York.


They were, along with Blondie, the first American New Wave band to have hits, and they were easily the most successful with a string of top 40 hits; "Just What I Needed", "Lets Go", "My Best Friends Girl" and "Shake It Up", in fact the entire first album (1978) sounds like a greatest hits album. Their mix of state of the art keyboards with just enough guitar to rock out, slightly nasal voices and short, snappy songs helped define the early eighties. One of the odd notes about them was the fact that Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr shared vocal duties even though they essentially sounded the same. They would continue to have hits for most of the rest of the decade even as a new generation of more underground American bands would make the Cars seem already old hat. They tried to dress the part with skinny ties and tight pants but their long hair was a little off-brand. 1984's "Heartbeat City" was their last big splash as they made the most of the new MTV, teaming up with Andy Warhol to make a series of splashy videos for "You Might Think", "Magic", "Hello Again" and the ballad "Drive" scoring several hits. These videos showed Ocasek's girlfriend, supermodel Pauliana Porikova to good effect as well as Warhol in his last major work and in which he showed he was easily the worst lipsyncher ever. The Cars, like most American bands and unlike the UK New Wavers, had never shown much interest in videos previously. The famously gawky Ocasek would get to live out the rock star dream by marrying supermodel Paulina. This was essentially their last hurrah however, 1987's "Door To Door" stiffed and they broke up rather acrimoniously. Ocasek would have a few minor solo records (as would Ben Orr) but he would become better known as a producer for the likes of Suicide, Bad Brains, Romeo Void, Hole, Nada Surf, Bad Religion, Black 47, Guided by Voices, Weezer, Bebe Buell, No Doubt, Johnny Bravo, D Generation, Possum Dixon, Martin Rev and going full circle, Jonathan Richman. He also produced books of poetry and photographs.


Ben Orr died in 2000 and Ocasek shunned any band reunions saying he had no desire to perform live and was especially not interested in touring. The Cars did do a reunion tour without him in 2005-06 with Todd Rundgren on vocals which Ocasek at first gave legal permission for but then mocked, as did most fans. There would finally be a proper reunion (without Orr of course) in 2016 with a new album and tour. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2018 which would be their last gig. Ric Ocasek was found dead of heart disease in his New York townhouse this September 15 aged 74.


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