Is "The Cars" a classic rock and roll record? Yes, indeed. Is "The Cars" a genuine work of art as well as a dynamite piece of entertainment? You bet! Is "The Cars" a profound commentary on the difficulty of maintaining one's integrity in a world in which one's identity is determined entirely by one's social status? Uh, yeah - But only because I'm the one who asked that and I don't want to embarrass myself.
all, here is the Line Up -
I was seventeen years old when "The Cars" came out in 1978 and nobody knows more about rock and roll than a seventeen year old kid. What year was Lester Bangs seventeen? I wrote for The National Lampoon when I was seventeen, who was Lester Bangs writing for at that age? Did Lester Bangs live to be as old as I am right now? Sounds like I've kicked at least one American Icon's ass pretty good! Anyway, in '78 the best bands were Cheap Trick and The Clash. In retrospect The Cars were as good as both of those bands and, if it took me an entire quarter century to catch on to that, hey, cut me some slack, at least I'm one of the first guys to realize that the selection of Keith Richards as "The Number One Masculine Role Model For An Entire Generation" was the worst act of genocide since Lewis and Clark introduced the Indians to Backyard Wrestling.
Ric Ocasek is viewed as the "Leader" of The Cars just because he wrote the lyrics. People always think that the guy who writes the words to the songs is the leader of the band. This is because of Robbie Robertson's pushy Canadian ass back when he was in The Band. "I write the lyrics so I'm the leader, not Levon Helm!" So then everybody thought the same thing about every other band that came along. Probably because that rat bastard Robbie Robertson was on the phone to everybody in the middle of the night - "Bob Stinson isn't the leader of The Replacements! Paul Westerberg is the leader of The Replacements! He wrote 'Here Comes A Regular'!" Or maybe Ric Ocasek really was the leader of The Cars. What the hell do I know?
Ric was born in Baltimore but when he grew up he decided to become a rock musician and moved to Ohio. That sounds like a joke (Which puts it a hundred miles ahead of all the other nominees around here), but Ohio is quite a rock and roll kinda place. Devo, Chrissie Hynde, The Dead Boys and Guided By Voices are all from Ohio - Sounds one hell of a lot cooler than Haight Ashbury, man. One night in Ohio, Ric went to a party and met Ben Orr. Which wasn't hard because Ben was the Official Partymeister Of The State Of Ohio and everybody's buddy. A lifelong Elvis Presley fan, Ben Orr (Originally Ben Orrinchowski) was the lead singer of the Ohio rock sensations The Grasshoppers (Originally The Grassinchowskihoppers). Orr met Ocasek and it was like when Lennon met McCartney, when Strummer met Jones, when Ramone met Ramone met Ramone met Ramone and then another Ramone when one of the other Ramones quit. Around this time Chrissie Hynde left Ohio for London and, with the coolest girl in the place gone, Ric and Ben decided to go to Boston. Ric was too tall to fit into his Devo suit anyway. Boston is also a very rock and roll place. Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band, Boston, and The Dead Kennedys are from Boston - Sounds one hell of a lot cooler than Ohio, man. Wait, I just remembered the Ohio National Guard at Kent State - Hey Ho, Way To Go, Ohio!
Once in Boston our boys put together a folk-shit . . . I mean, a folk-rock band called Milkwood which released an album called "How's The Weather?" in 1973. Ric and Ben reportedly sported a smelly hippy look with really long hair and big droopy mustaches at this point. Unable to imagine such a thing, I stuck a black Magic Marker in my pocket and marched on down to the Public Library where I found a picture of Ric andBen from The Cars in an old issue of Rolling Stone which then I covered with really long hair, Zapata mustaches, and Davey Crockett coonskin caps. Then I drew moose antlers onto a picture of all the guys in Nazareth with huge, obscene cocks spurting jizm all over a picture of Carly Simon on the other page with World War Two Nazi Stuka dive bombers coming out of the sky to blow the shit out of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Who needs TV?
When the folk movement died Ric and Ben finally came to their senses and formed a pop rock combo called Cap N' Swing which never really got anywhere because it was called "Cap N' Swing". What, were they all dressed up like sailors with a stage set that looked like the deck of a ship? Don't laugh - It was the seventies, a time when any idea was a good idea unless you were Jerry Ford.
So after Cap N' Swing sank they formed The Cars in 1976, got a contract with Elektra Records in '78, and went to London to make a record with Roy Thomas Baker, the producer for QUEEN!!! Man, that is so big time they had Warren Beatty mopping up the studio every night and the reanimated corpse of James Dean running out for coffee and donuts. Compared to the epic extraganvanzas Baker produced for Queen "The Cars" was a refreshingly rockin' production (The closest thing to "a little sillohetto of a man" on the whole record is Greg Hawkes) and Baker got the whole thing done in one month! It took one month just to get Queen to . . . Uh oh, that guy died of AIDS, we can't make Queen jokes anymore.
Now, twenty five years ago "The Cars" was considered "Futuristic" but now that the future is here it's just an old rock and roll thing and if you've heard Limp Bizkit you know there's nothing wrong with that. But at the time this record was pretty freaky shit. You have to understand, in the late seventies we were all so miserable and sick of everything that we'd been through - You know, Ietnamvay and Atergateway - that we looked forward to the eighties with all the eagerness and optimism of a Mongoloid virgin waiting in line to see a new Star Wars movie. We couldn't wait for that decade - Videos, computers, synthesizers, Canadian comedians, bands with short hair and skinny ties - Everything was gonna be great! So a lot of things from the late seventies-early eighties look pretty goofy - Like The Cars. Boy, did they look silly. But they sounded great and only queers make jokes about other guy's hair, shoes, and rim job technique so let's move on. But first, a little Listerine. The Cars' Hot Happening New Wave look was meticulously designed by their drummer David Robinson who was fortunately much better at hitting things with sticks than telling guys what kind of haircut to get, what kind of shoes to wear, and . . . Hey, was that some cheap generic brand of mouthwash? Before Robinson was in The Cars he played drums in Jonathon Richman's Modern Lovers. Jonathon Richman? I've been meaning to pick up one of his records for years. Maybe I'll . . . Nah, I gotta pick up a case of mouthwash. David was forced out of the Modern Lovers when Richman decided to take the band in a more "acoustic" direction. (Actually, Richman was determined to get rid of David and all his weird ideas about leopard skin pants. But I kid David Robinson because I envy him. He's the kind of guy I picture right now relaxing on his private yacht in the Bahamas, surrounded by beautiful young women in bikinis, sipping a nice cool drink with a little paper umbrella, giving a friendly wave to John Taylor from Duran Duran as he sails past in his private yacht, yelling "Hard, aport!!" to avoid crashing into The Psychedelic Furs on their private yacht, and rolling his eyes in disgust as David Lee Roth comes up in his private yacht hollering "Hey, Dude! Got any cocoanut? I'm on a real Pina Colada kick lately.")
But The Cars' sound was as suspicious in '78 as their look - They had SYNTHESIZERS!!! Very controversial. As innocuous as "Let The Good Times Roll" sounds today, when rock and roll fans heard it for the first time in 1978 we were like "JANE!!! STOP THIS CRAZY THING!!!! JANE!!! HELLLLLP!!!!". "My Best Friend's Girlfriend" starts off like something that could have been recorded back in the fifties with a simple guitar part, some fruity hand claps, a nice white boy vocal opening verse, then Professor Hawkes flicks a switch and - "My God, we've been sucked into an alternate universe!!! Scottie, Warp Three!! Oh, is that one of them newfangled symph-mo-lizers we've been hearing about? Hearing about em is easier than listening to em!! Haw haw haw!!!"
Bear in mind that Greg Hawkes was an avid devotee of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Ordinarily when I hear that kind of thing I jump up on a chair and declare "Everybody get outta here, there's a lobster loose!!!" but in the twenty first century we don't have any more to fear from the Southern California Psychedelic Experimentalists Of The Late Sixties than we do from Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union, so it's cool.
Speaking of Cool, Elliot Easton was the lead guitarist in The Cars and if his first record hadn't come out at the same time Eddie Van Halen's did we would have made a million silly jokes about Ric Ocasek instead of David Lee Roth (Number Two for this article so far!). Easton's guitar playing on this album is Absolutely Tops, but in 1978 all the synthesizers on the record freaked everybody out so much that nobody appreciated it. Nowadays - From TV commercials to your grandmother's answering machine - you hear electronic music all day long, so when you hear "The Cars" you go "Whew!!! Awright!!! Yeah!!!" and move your hands around as if playing an invisible guitar instead of looking out the window to make sure a space ship isn't landing on the front yard.
But what about the poetry? Listening to "The Cars" today at age forty two I find the one thing that I really like is something I really disliked when I first heard it - Ric Ocasek's lyrics. After all these years, to hear "Life's the same, I'm moving in stereo. Life's the same, except for my shoes." and understand exactly what it means! You can keep your Elvis Costello your Randy Newman - I'm going with Ric Ocasek. And when it comes to songwriting I'm so cool I was listening to Warren Zevon twenty five years before he got sick. Of course, I got sick of him twenty four years and eleven months before he did, but that's what you get for recording with the same assholes who played on all those Jackson Browne records.
But the real star of this show is Ben Orr. We've had dozens of "Rock Singers" over the past fifty years, but if more of them had sung as well as Ben Orr maybe rock music would have made it into the twenty first century as genuine popular entertainment rather than some sorry ass nostalgia trip. Everybody in The Cars was splendid at what they did, but without Ben Orr's voice they probably would have been one of those fruity New Wave outfits that only British newspaper critics cared about like Echo And The Bunnymen or . . . uh . . . I'm trying to remember the name of another one of those stupid bands . . . Shit, who cares? The Cars were one of the biggest, most influential* bands ever because they had everything - Great playing, writing, image, production - but singers as good as Ben Orr are harder to find than something good to read on a WalMart magazine rack. Listen to the singing on "The Cars" and if you aren't thinking "God damn, that is some good rock and roll singing!" you are listening to one of Ric Ocasek's bits. Quit following the lyrics and dig the background vocals for a second, huh? Huh? Is that some neato stuff or what? These guys are operating on a Beach Boys-Beatles-Styx level here (Hey, I got a "Grand Illusion" eight track for sale on E Bay and I gotta advertise one way or another)! Ben Orr was something. I'd make a few mean "Dead Rock star" jokes about him, but I'll pass. Maybe it's funny to make jokes like that about pigs like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, but Ben Orr? Oh, Mel Brooks and "Springtime For Hitler" - Ha ha ha! If he's so funny, let's see him come up with something funny about Ben Orr. "Hey, Mel Brooks! Let's see you write a Broadway musical about Ben Orr!" "Ben who?" HA! That's how funny that douchebag is! Is Greg Hawkes still alive? Who gives a shit? Why, I remember when I was a kid . . .
"Hey, John - Your medal's here!"
MUSIC - The Acid Logic Band playing The Motherfucking Masterpiece Theme
And Remember, Folks, If You Do Not Enjoy Listening To "The Cars" You Had Better Be Black. Or Old. Preferably Black And Old. Black, Old, And A Big Fan Of Cheap Trick And The Clash. Everbody Else - Shut Up.
* The biggest compliment any band can ever receive is that they were "influential." I'm supposed to sit around listening to The Velvet Underground because they "influenced" a bunch of guys to start a bunch of bands? They don't influence me to do anything but go outside and take a walk. Gripe gripe bitch bitch.
John Saleeby wrote for The National Lampoon while he was in high school, was a stand up comic in New York, and has contributed to the net humor zines Schmuck.com, Campaign Central, and the legendary American Jerk. He's on medication now so he's probably a little nicer now than he was when you met him earlier. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org