The Cars? Really?!!

It’s been a few months since there’s been something new on shadowswriter. I apologize. Between Covid weirdness and the launch of a new online side-gig, (vintage film posters), I took my eye off the ball. Or off the pages or shadowswriter, rather. Thanks to those of you that noticed and cared. So, without further delay…

Actually, this will seem like a delay but it’s related. I promise. I write for a couple of different blogs beside my own. One of those is a project of love by people with a very punk/experimental perspective on music. I essentially got fired from it (actually, just never asked to write for them again) after defending the Beatles and the Stones.

Such defending of the dinosaurs is sacrilege within certain circles. In fact, it’s said that The Sex Pistols fired their original bassist, Glen Matlock largely for the same reason. He had the nerve to openly like the Beatles which was very un-punk of him. So, Johnny Rotten convinced the others to toss him out of the band at the height of their fame.

Unfortunately for the Sex Pistols, Matlock was the only one in the group that could actually play his instrument properly and had a basic understanding of song structure. Something you can hear clearly after they replaced him with a drug-addicted groupie who decided to call himself Sid Vicious. I leave it to you to decide how that move ultimately worked out.

“You said this was related. You PROMISED!” What does any of that have to do with the Cars?” Well, I’m glad you asked. The first is that I am about to admit something which may make me virtually unhireable at more punk-leaning blogs or magazines (even though it shouldn’t). Ready?

The Cars first two albums, THE CARS and CANDY-O, are two of my all-time favorite LPs.

Desert island picks. As in, you can only take five or ten LPs with you, “what would you take?” favorites. So, go ahead, toss me out of the band. Do your worst, I will defend THE CARS and CANDY-O to my dying day.

Alright for those of you not understanding why praising the Cars would be such a thing for some folks, let me try to explain what many people think of when they think of the Cars.

The Cars were a wildly successful band in the eighties which dominated the airwaves. They also ruled (along with a handful of others) this little TV channel called MTV. You could not escape them. Which was awful because, the truth was, they sucked. A lot.

They were so soulless that even their happy songs sounded fake and insincere. The songs were so formulaic that it was easy to image a group men in a corporate boardroom talking about how they were able to distill the latest audience data into an actual formula.

The Cars were emblematic of everything that had gone wrong with radio, the record business and music. Something that would not be rectified, in part, until the angry sounds of Nirvana and Grunge broke through the corporate barriers by still making the corporate overlords tons of money without being formulaic, superficial crap.

“Wait, so you HATE the Cars?” I can hear you asking. “From your desert island statement, I thought you loved them? Make up your damn mind, Psycho!”

The answer is “yes” and “yes.” I cannot think of another band where I listen to some of their LPs to the point of wearing them out, yet tense up in physical pain when I hear even three notes from others. Talk about a love gone bad. Very bad. Murder-your-ex-wife-and-then-kill-yourself-level bad.

So, lets circle back to the days when the Cars were worthy of my undying love. What makes THE CARS and CANDY-O so different? Let’s take them one at a time.

THE CARS LP came out a lot earlier than most people realize, 1978, to be exact. In fact, “You’re Just What I Needed” was recorded and released as a local indie single in Boston back in 1977.

That single was catchy as hell with all the fun and purity of the Ramones or Buzzcocks but with a slick polish and understanding of music and musical skill matching that of the best bloated, prog-rock bands. A crazy combination which, honestly, most people don’t ever think about because they’re too busy humming the damn song. That, and they simply have far more important things to be thinking about.

It’s a sound which makes a lot more sense when you realize that one of their members, the drummer David Robinson, was from proto-punk-indie-alt icons The Modern Lovers and another, keyboardist, Greg Hawkes, was a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music. And on top of all that there was Ric Ocasek.

Ocasek, the band’s main song writer, guitarist, vocalist and producer, was a walking mess of musical contradictions. Early in his career he was in a folk rock band called Milkwood. He was also in an acoustic duo with future Cars member Benjamin Orr. Yet, later in his career he would produce songs and albums for such punk and indie bands as Bad Brains, Romeo Void, Suicide, Nada Surf, Weezer, Guided by Voices and Bad Religion.

This stew of musical influences and abilities can be heard on THE CARS. Its slick, guitar-driven rock cooked and seasoned through a filter of all sorts of other good stuff. The result was a sound that was both catchy and lasting, spontaneous yet polished, classic yet completely new. It hit with you everything from the classic rock n’ roll lament, “Best Friend’s Girfriend” to the trippy, odd and dark, “Moving in Stereo.” It is truly a great album.

The Cars follow-up LP, CANDY-O, came out two years later in 1979. It was less guitars, more synth. Less rock, more New-Wave. Less happy/catchy, more dark and weird. And it was equally as awesome. It featured songs such as “Let’s Go,” “Candy-O” and “Double Life.” It also boasted a spectacular illustrated LP cover by Vargas featuring a pin-up girl and some of the most seriously creative (and sometimes creepy) lyrics Ocasek would ever write for the Cars.

Out of the two LPs, there is no doubt that CANDY-O is the darker of the two, which may explain the huge turning point that the band was about to take. The band released PANORAMA, in 1980, just a year later. It was also massively popular and a commercial dynamo. It was also unlistenable, trite garbage to anyone with a set of ears.

It was followed up in 1981 by an even more commercially successful and vile LP called SHAKE IT UP. The Cars had clearly made a deal with the devil. More power. More success. More radio wave domination. All for the simple cost of their creative soul and integrity. They would produce nothing of value the rest of their existence. I mean, other than the many, many millions of dollars they would make for themselves and the record companies.

However, the change in sound wasn’t just about greed. What happened to the Cars was basically what has happened to many other bands before them. A key member left. Think Brian Eno leaving Roxy Music. Or the aforementioned Glen Matlock being tossed out of The Sex Pistols.

What’s so disturbing is that the the physical line-up of the Cars remained exactly the same: Ocasek, Hawkes, Orr, Easton and Robinson. What happened was this: Rick Ocasek, essentially, took half of himself out of the Cars.

In 1982 Ocasek released his first solo album, BEATITUDE. It is low-key, synth-driven and dark as f*ck. Almost every song is about alienation, isolation and loneliness. “Jimmy, Jimmy,” a song about a depressed teenager on the edge, went the likes of “Hey, Jimmy, what was that they found in your drawer under your Hustler magazine?” and got more unsettling from there. It was all the darkness and weirdness of Candy-O carried to the next level. Carried there without the power pop/punk/rock energy that propelled those early Cars songs from ear to brain to shit you just couldn’t get out of your head.

BEATITUDE is not a great album by any stretch. But it marks a very clear and painful divide in the same way PANORAMA does. Things were never intermingled again in the same way as they had been on those first two Cars albums. It became an unsatisfying choice of soulless corporate pop or low-key introspective brooding. Neither of which was very rewarding in the same way THE CARS or CANDY-O had been.

Which sucks.

Those first two albums are something really special and, as a fan, I wanted more. Not only that, it would be nice to be able to say that THE CARS and CANDY-O are two of my favorite LPs without being attacked by self-appointed music critics. Or worse (by a lot, actually) someone going “You too? I love the Cars. “You Might Think” is one of my favorite songs, ever!”

Oh, God, just writing about it makes me depressed.

But fear not or worry too much for my well being. If I can’t shake the somber mood, I know I have a secret weapon. I can put on a certain LP from 1978 and the first few notes will instantly make me feel better. “Let the Good Times Roll.”