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The Cars’ Ric Ocasek: 17 Essential Songs

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The Cars were the New Wave band with the purest Top 40 heart, thanks to Ric Ocasek’s vision of combining moody alienation and glossy hooks with a nervy sense of hunger. The band joked that they should’ve called their astonishingly tight 1978 self-titled debut The Cars’ Greatest Hits for good reason, and they kept rolling out precision-tuned new models throughout the Eighties. Ocasek also had success as a producer and solo artist, and when the Cars returned with their brilliantly titled 2011 comeback LP, More Like This, they proved they could rival the many bands — from Weezer to No Doubt and the Stokes — who made classic music in their long, gawky shadow. Here’s an essential list of Ric’s finest moments. Begin shaking it up … now.

“My Best Friend’s Girl” (1978)

One of Ocasek’s earliest Cars compositions, and one of his greatest, “My Best Friend’s Girl” showed his love for Fifties rock & roll, particularly Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins, with the song’s wiry guitar part and youthful sense of infatuation and angst. “Nothing in that song happened to me personally,” he said later. “I just figured having a girlfriend stolen was probably something that happened to a lot of people.” The second single from the band’s debut LP, it hit the Top 40, offering a slick New Wave twist on classic-rock tropes as Ocasek tossed off playfully surreal references to “suede blue eyes” and “nuclear boots.” As he later recalled, “At some point, I realized my lyrics didn’t include the words ‘My Best Friend’s Girl.’ So I pulled out the lyrics someone had typed up and added a chorus in the margin in pen: ‘She’s my best friend’s girl / She’s my best friend’s girl / But she used to be mine.'” J.D.

“Moving in Stereo” (1978)

Already the sexiest song the Cars would ever record, thanks to an uncharacteristically slithery groove and an insinuating rhythm guitar part, “Moving in Stereo” would hold a special place in Gen-X iconography, after its instrumental soundtracked the infamous moment in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Judge Reinhold fantasizes about Phoebe Cates rising from a swimming pool. It went to reappear, usually in parodic fashion, in various other soundtracks, including a recent Stranger Things trailer. Benjamin Orr sang the lounge-lizard–y vocals, but Ocasek (who wrote it with keyboardist Greg Hawkes, which made it the only song on the Cars’ debut not solely written by Ocasek) took over in live performances after Orr’s death. B.H.

“Just What I Needed” (1978)

 

“Sometimes good time can be the hook itself,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone in July, explaining why he insisted on Weezer using a click track on 1994’s Blue Album, which he produced. “Just What I Needed” (written by Ocasek but sung by Benjamin Orr) is obvious proof of that philosophy, with its chugging eighth-note guitars marching along with crisp perfection; that, along with omnipresent synth riffs, is one of the reasons why The Cars sounds like one of the first album of the 1980s despite being released in 1978. A rawer demo version of “Just What I Needed” — a song Ocasek apparently wrote in the basement of a commune he was living in — broke the Cars in the first place when Boston radio started playing it in 1977. B.H.

“Good Times Roll” (1978)

 

Though it seems to share a sentiment with a slew of vintage rock and R&B tunes, “Good Times Roll” distances itself from the care-free mood of, say, Shirley and Lee’s 1956 “Let the Good Times Roll” with its hard-edged midtempo strut, Ocasek’s stylized singing, and blaring, Queen-like backing vocals. Even at this early stage in their career, Ocasek was already committed to puncturing as many pop clichés as he could. “That was my song about what the good times in rock ‘n’ roll really mean, instead of what they’re supposed to be,” he once said. “It was kind of a parody of good times, really. It was kinda like not about good times at all.” H.S.

“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (1978)

Ocasek and the Cars walked a fascinating line between shiny power pop and total weirdness; “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is in both places at once, with a whole lot going on in its four minutes and 14 seconds, from the Queen-ly backing vocals (thanks, no doubt, to a shared producer in Roy Thomas Baker), a flanged drum intro, a freaky harpsichord-like keyboard part in the first verse, and a monster chorus. Ocasek’s echoey vocals and self-loathing lyrics have a certain nerdy desperation that presaged other unconventional frontmen; Billy Corgan sounded completely at home with the song when the Pumpkins covered it circa 1995. B.H.

“Let’s Go” (1979)

Ocasek didn’t keep all his good songs for himself. He gave this 1979 single, about a free-spirited girl who won’t settle down, to bassist Benjamin Orr to sing. The track, with hand claps, a futuristic synth line, and dual guitar mastery, became their first Top 20 hit, and the first single for their second album Candy-O. The band again worked with producer Roy Thomas Baker, who famously produced Queen’s classics, but Ocasek said they tried for a rawer approach than on their first album. “Well, some of the things on that first album that we thought were a little slick, we toned down on the second, like on the background vocals,” Ocasek said. “On the second album, it was easier to say, ‘Roy, let’s not do the multi-tracked harmonies this time.'” P.D.

“Candy-O” (1979)

“We started out wanting to be electric and straight-ahead rock, and it kind of turned into an artier kind of thing,” Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes once said of the way the band fine-tuned its sound in the early days. Case in point, “Candy-O.” The song takes just a handful of elements — an icy New Wave pulse, a bare-bones, almost blues-like structure, and boldly abstract lyrics — and turns them into two-and-a-half minutes of captivating minimalist pop. Benjamin Orr tells the title character “I need you so” (a line originally sung as “fortissimo”) amid a rush of cryptic imagery (“Purple hum, assorted cards / Razor lights you’ll bring / All to prove you’re on the move …”), as Hawkes’ sci-fi synth arpeggios and Elliott Easton’s squealing guitar leads leap out of the mix. No simple love song, the end result sounds more like the product of a dark fixation, one reason the Melvins’ 1989 cover of the tune seems entirely fitting. Ocasek provided a small clue as to the song’s unsettling mood when he once said of the title, “The ‘O’ stands for ‘obnoxious.'” H.S.

“Dangerous Type” (1979)

Ocasek uses repetition for maximum impact in “Dangerous Type”: He runs through the four-line hook 10 different times in four-and-a-half minutes. Ocasek’s keen grasp of pop-music architecture sometimes gave him pause. “I feel cold sometimes about what’s going on,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980. But, he continued, “we’re not what you’d call a free-form jam band. We try to be precise and tight, but that doesn’t make our music ‘stiff or ‘calculated.’ My way of songwriting — even if it seems overly obsessed with form and structure — is just as emotional to me as soul music may be to someone else.” E.L.

“Shake It Up” (1981)

The Cars took a somewhat more experimental detour with their 1980 LP Panorama, but they were back in their endearingly slick comfort zone with 1981’s Shake It Up, especially its title track. “Yes, the big return to pop,” Ocasek mused at the time. “Shake It Up” is the Cars’ finest New Wave dance-party jam, a simple, irresistible tune gliding along on a bloopy keyboard line.  “I’m not proud of the lyrics to ‘Shake It Up,'” Ocasek later said. Surprisingly, considering how breezy and tossed off the song feels, the Cars actually labored over the tune for years before landing on a version they liked. And it was a good thing they did. “Shake It Up” peaked at Number Two on the charts. J.D.

“I’m Not the One” (1981)

“I’m Not The One” was a deep cut from Shake It Up, never a single, but it became so beloved by fans it was included on the Cars’ 1985 Greatest Hits. It’s the quintessential Ocasek combination: doom and gloom, wrapped up in a pop melody. “My taste was to always go for that mix, even back in the Sixties,” Ocasek told Vanity Fair’s Marc Spitz. “I obviously was a huge fan of Dylan, but my other favorite band was the Velvet Underground. I always went for the left side of the music brain, too. I loved the Velvet Underground and the Carpenters.” “I’m Not The One” also made a memorable appearance in the Adam Sandler movie Billy Madison, in the scene where he gets a valentine from his principal. R.S.

“Jimmy Jimmy” (1983)

While Ocasek scored hit after hit with the Cars, he explored a darker, more personal vibe on his first (and best) solo album, Beatitude. “Jimmy Jimmy” has the experimental edge of the records Ocasek was producing for artists like Bad Brains, Suicide, or Romeo Void. He dropped Beatitude in early 1983, in the lag time between Shake It Up and Heartbeat City. “Jimmy Jimmy” goes for an extremely Suicide-ish electronic pulse, as Ocasek narrates the tale of a troubled teenage boy who doesn’t want to go home and take out the garbage. (“Are you depressed or something? You look spaced out.”) It made only a minor MTV splash, but it’s the finest moment from Ocasek’s solo work. R.S.

“Magic” (1984)

“Magic” was the second single from the Cars’ quadruple-platinum Heartbeat City, and it’s perfectly engineered for radios. Everything here is at once brutal and elegant: A massive three-chord guitar riff and a hammering keyboard line vie for the listener’s attention; a second guitar jangles in the distance; the bass pops cheerfully in support; Ocasek sings staccato, drilling lines, not wasting a single syllable; backing vocals flare softly behind it all. The Cars spent six months in England tinkering over Heartbeat City, perfecting the mix of elements. ”It sounds contradictory that you could work on something for 12 hours to capture spontaneity,” guitarist Elliot Easton said, ”but there you go. We would keep at it until it sounded live — or alive.” E.L.

“You Might Think” (1984)

The first single from the Cars’ 1984 LP Heartbeat City, helmed by AC/CD and Def Leppard producer “Mutt” Lange, “You Might Think” was another immediate smash, with Ocasek turning creepy obsession into MTV bubblegum. The song’s video remains an experimental classic of the form, winning the Video of the Year award at the 1984 VMAs, where it beat out Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Though its clever use of computer animation was striking at the time, the band wasn’t too hot on the idea of a miniature Ocasek appearing in the clip stalking the object of his affection, played by model Susan Gallagher. In Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s oral history I Want My MTV, director Chris Stein recalled taking the idea to the band. “I met the Cars and told them, ‘The band’s in the medicine chest, and then on a bar of soap, and Ric’s a fly,’ and one of them said, ‘Why don’t we all just play on a turd in the toilet bowl?’ That was the prevailing attitude.” J.D.

“Drive” (1984)

The Cars made their name with chugging guitar-pop, but their biggest hit in the States is actually this melancholy synth-laden ballad. Penned by Ocasek and sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, “Drive” reached Number Three on the Hot 100 in 1984. Lange’s production here is swoony and spacious, with sharp drums puncturing a haze of keyboards. All those drum sounds were played into a computer, according to an interview with The Chicago Tribune, and then fed into the tracks as samples. The success of “Drive” was perhaps predictable — this track is masterfully vague, offering up a series of rhetorical questions that made it perfect for, well, anything: “Who’s gonna pick you up when you fall?/Who’s gonna hang it up when you call?/Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams?/ And who’s gonna plug their ears when you scream?” “Drive” had repercussions for Ocasek outside of music: While shooting the single’s video, he met the model Paulina Porizkova, who starred in the clip, and they married in 1989. But the Cars’ biggest hit resonated in ways that Ocasek wasn’t always comfortable with. “I heard the London symphony do [it],” he said in a 1997 interview, “and that was weird.” E.L.

“Tonight She Comes” (1985) 

The Cars had already released five albums and solidified their legacy by 1985, when Elektra released their Greatest Hits LP. The band chose to include one new song with the release, “Tonight She Comes,” a quietly contagious synth stomper that Ocasek had been planning to keep for himself. “I was in the middle of recording my solo album,” Ocasek said later, “and it was one of the songs that I didn’t use in the solo album at that point. That was like a one-off single that we just all came together and did.” Putting it on the Greatest Hits compilation turned out to be the right move: The song became a Top 10 hit, one of their best-charting singles ever. Elliott Easton’s fiery guitar solo impressed Steve Vai so much that he transcribed it for Guitar Player magazine in 1986, and even interviewed Easton about it. P.D.

“Emotion in Motion” (1986)

Ocasek didn’t enjoy as many hits as a solo artist, despite making several strong albums on his own. But this delicate single from his 1986 LP This Side of Paradise, which made into the Top 15., can hold its own with any Cars tune. Spare and pretty, with an openheartedly soulful vocal, it’s a tender, unguarded ballad in which he pledges thanks and devotion to a new love. He was beginning his relationship with supermodel Paulina Porizkova at the time, and the song’s yearning melody and sweet lyrics of devotion reflect a sense of romantic bliss anyone could envy. J.D.

“Free” (2011)

Twenty-four years after their previous album, the Cars reconvened in 2011 for what would be their final one. Bassist-singer Benjamin Orr had died in the interim, a huge loss, but in so many ways, the Cars’ sound was pristinely preserved. Nowhere is that more evident than “Free.” Over hand claps and laser-beam synths, Ocasek delivers quick-tongued lyrics about time travel and stepping outside “your dark world.” The track sounds playful, serious, and sonically impeccable all at once, not to mention deeply catchy. “It took on more life than I thought it would,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke of the Cars’ return that year. “A lot of bands re-form, do stuff, and they’re crap. I know this isn’t crap. And the people are good. They always were.”





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Jon Dolan, Khareem Sudlow