The Cars: The Cars. Purchased July 1984.
In this latest installment of the Albums that Shaped Me Microblog, the debut album by The Cars, released in 1978.
The band began playing in Boston nightclubs in 1976 and was an iteration of bands started by principal song writer Ric Ocasek that included bassist and co-lead vocalist Benjamin Orr. The addition of Greg Hawkes on keyboards, Elliot Easton on lead guitar and David Robinson, late of Modern Lovers, sealed the classic lineup.
The album was a greatest hits package disguised as a debut. Songs that were crafted and shaped over hundreds of live shows came together under the skillful production of Roy Thomas Baker, who at the time of recording this album was most notable for the production of several Queen records.
What was The Cars style? Influenced by the times, The Cars were a straight ahead rock band that began to veer in an art house direction by Ocasek, who was already 34 years old at the time of the debut. It was an interesting time in music: Disco was popular, the titans of the sixties were losing sway, and the burgeoning punk rock scene wasn’t yet popular in the US, with NY Dolls and The Ramones the only real entrants. The Cars were precursors of New Wave/Art House with the use of Hawkes modern keyboard sound and the band’s avoidance of cliche, at least until 1987’s album finale with the classic lineup, Door to Door.
Dance swingin’ and rockin’, these songs were classic teenage anthems. I fell in love with The Cars driving around in my parents 1978 Ford Thunderbird, a land yacht, and singing away to these as they came on the radio. It was a cross over band, a rare one, played on the classic rock station in Buffalo as well as the alternative station in Toronto.
The star of the band is Ben Orr. Ben was a celebrity in the Cleveland area long before The Cars was released as he appeared as “Benny 11 Letters”(owing to his full last name, Orzechowski) while performing in the house band, The Grasshoppers, on local television. Orr met Ocasek in the late 60’s in the Columbus Ohio area before the two went off to Boston together.
What can I say about Orr? Handsome, masculine voice, a gifted musician and performer. While not a writer, he brought many of Ocasek’s songs to life and while best known for his vocals on the mega smash hit, Drive, to me it was his work in the early Cars that is an absolute treasure as well as his back up vocals when Ocasek took the mic.
Orr is a tragic figure. After reaching dizzying heights with the sucess of 1984’s Heartbreak City, his star turn on Drive and finding himself on stage at Live Aid in Philadelphia, the band fractured internally. He had a falling out with his long time buddy, Ocasek. Perhaps it was women, perhaps it was ego, perhaps it was alcohol, or maybe all the above. The final album was recorded, and while a return to a more organic sound than the computer driven and overproduced 1984 Heartbreak City, it was dead inside. The magic was gone, and the band ceased to exist by 1988.
I believe they would have reunited, perhaps the 1999 release of remastered albums might have done it, but Orr, the rock and roll soldier he was, playing hundreds of shows per year in malls, small bars and anywhere else, got the bad break of his life, pancreatic cancer. The last time The Cars appeared together was for a promotional video for the release of their remastered works. Orr was near death, and the rest of the band, especially Ocasek, who had yet to make things right with his best friend, were all shell shocked at the prospects of his demise. Reunited, old feelings and grudges settled, but death awaited. Ocasek joined Orr in heaven in September 2019. It would have been pretty cool to see these old friends embrace again.
As good as this album was, watch the live videos. The expressions on the bands face as they tightly tear through these songs is pure, raw and unadulterated passion. This is what infected me at 17 and still gets my foot tapping at at 53.