To review: I rank singles on a “I like each one better than the previous one” basis. I define “singles” in a fairly broad way – I use the term both to describe individual songs that were released for sale in the hopes that they’re chart, songs that charted even though they weren’t pressed as actual singles, and promotional singles (singles sent to radio stations). I also include certain songs that were turned into videos or released as “teasers” for albums.
General Thesis: The Cars get no respect.
And so we continue…
20. Gimme Some Slack
From 1980’s Panorama, Third Single
Panorama is the second least loved Cars album (after Door to Door) and that’s kind of a shame because its a complicated and fascinating album. Stung by criticism, they sought to break with rock traditions and focus a bit more on atmospheric guitar and keyboard work and an overall darker tone. “Gimme Some Slack” is built around a meaty Elliot Easton guitar riff, some Devo-esque keyboard interjections from Greg Hawkes and an unusually raw Ric Ocasek vocal. Ocasek’s vocal, in fact, sounds like its pushed further forward in the mix than on some of The Cars’ previous songs. Its also just a little bit distorted which sometimes suggests the production quality of Raw Power era Iggy and the Stooges. Not that The Cars sound like Iggy Pop just that it seems like The Cars are attempting (and succeeding) to sound raw (to the extent that studio perfectionists can sound raw).
From 1984’s Heartbeat City, Third Track
The late Benjamin Orr sang a significant portion of The Cars’ greatest hits. However, if The Cars get no respect, Ben Orr was The Cars of The Cars. While his clear and steady voice never had the nervous hiccup quality of Ric Ocasek, it was close enough to Ocasek’s voices that its sometimes hard to tell which of them is singing. He always looked like the legit rocker in pictures of The Cars – like he’s the one who should be in a metal band or something. As it happens, he was the one who seemed to sing the band’s best pop ballads – including this huge hit from Heartbeat City. My friend John has this concept called “zombie funding.” This is when one person’s presence keeps the memory of another person alive (even if that person isn’t dead). For example, Stephen Tyler sort of zombie funds Mick Jagger. “Drive” zombie funds 10cc with its sighing backing vocals and subdued build in the final verse. It sounds a little bit like Benjamin Orr is singing while being accompanied by a quiet dream – like maybe one where you’re sort of floating/flying through your house surrounded by clouds. You don’t hear that? Just me? Ok.
18. Don’t Tell Me No
From 1980’s Panorama, Second Single
Orr sings this great Ocasek tune from Panorama as well. David Robisnon, The Cars’ drummer, is clearly playing around with some electric drums here (though I don’t think the drums here are drum machines but I could be wrong). Easton provides some great little guitar stings, but the highlight of the song for me is the chorus – the backing vocalists handle most of the work and Orr provides color commentary. I love this effect in choruses. When I was rediscovering The Cars in the mid-90’s, this was one of the songs that I felt I’d lost and rediscovered since the 80’s. Its a classic.
From 1981’s Shake It Up, Second Single
A third Orr song in a row! When you experiment with new sounds, you don’t usually get it right the first time. You spend a few years figuring out what those new sounds mean and how to use them effectively in your songs. After stretching on Panorama, The Cars took what they learned about atmosphere and refined it until it eventually took the form of Heartbeat City. In between those two albums, they created some refreshingly original sounding rock tunes. “Cruiser” is a Shake It Up highlight that sounded right at home on both college radio and rock radio in 1981. I think one of the things that maybe hurt the long-term respect level of The Cars was their immediate first album success. They weren’t able to develop a loyal cult of snooty alternate rock geeks (people like me) because their success made them easy to reject as sell-outs right out of the gate. Compare this to U2 who became much huger but who spent nearly ten years bubbling under ginormous success and cultivating a fanatically loyal group of supporters. Success is great and all but the timing of a group’s success often dictates how the group is perceived in the long run.
16. Double Life
From 1979’s Candy-O, Third Single
Ocasek sings this one. This is the first track from The Cars sophomore effort, Candy-O. Man, they surely loved their cheesecake album covers. Is that a Vargas drawing on the cover of the album (see the still on the YouTube video)? Let’s google that. Ah, yes, indeed, a very late period Alberto Vargas pin-up. I don’t think The Cars appeared on the cover of one of their albums until Door to Door. Anyhow, faced with the choice of putting the not-ready-for-Teen Beat-rockers on the cover or an attractive woman, somebody in the Elektra A&R department opted for attractive women almost every time. As it happens, The Cars proved that you don’t have to be a poster boy to be a video star (take that Buggles!). Oh, yes, the song. “Double Life” is particularly notable to me because of the shuffle-like section that leads into the “its all gonna happen to you” chorus – you know, the “Well, lift me from the wonder maze/Alienation is the craze” (yes, he really sings that – yes, he really wrote that) section? The Cars were so good at tight melody construction that a shift to double time followed by some classic “ahhhhs” could become a supreme moment of aural satisfaction.
15. Hello Again
From 1984’s Heartbeat City, Fourth Single
As I started writing about The Cars, one thing I knew for certain was that this was going to be the last song on the list. Bottom of the barrel. What on Earth were they even thinking when they recorded it, much less selected it as a single. The song hasn’t changed since I was in my mid-90’s Cars fanatic phase much less since 1984, so its got to be me because now I think this is one of their best songs from Heartbeat City. The song is much moodier than I remember it being and if the lyrics are still nonsense to me, Ocasek’s vocal is committed and expressive. The band manages to strike a nigh-perfect balance between their gift for creating tight little pop songs and their desire to experiment with sound. Many of the tracks on Heartbeat City are so far removed from their previous sound that they may as well be a different band. “Hello Again” sounds like The Cars taking their brand of power pop in an exciting new direction – a direction they didn’t really follow up on. Oh – the video was made by Andy Warhol.
14. Blue Tip
From 2011’s Move Like This, “Promotional” Single
I wonder which songs on Move Like This would have featured Ben Orr on vocals? When Ben Orr died, I remember being profoundly shocked and surprisingly moved – more so than when other better known celebrities have passed. I remember thinking “wow, if the bassist from The Cars can just die suddenly in his 50’s, what hope do any of us have?” I mean, when it comes to death, of course, none of us have any hope. Each of our deaths is out there waiting for us, patiently. “Blue Tip” makes me think of Orr because of the strong, throbbing bass keyboard that opens the song. The band decided not to replace Orr but, rather, to allow the other musicians to pick up the bass parts. “Blue Tip” sounds to me like The Cars decided to ignore Heartbeat City and record a song that sounded like what might have developed if the band had just kept developing its signature sound all those years. It really fits in well wit their classics and its not even the best song from that album.
13. Good Times Roll
From 1978’s The Cars, Third Single
“Let The Good Times Roll” is every director’s first choice for a song to play right before a mass murderer starts killing people. Ocasek might be singing about having a great time but its pretty clear from the tone of the music that his idea of a great time might be a little sinister. The Cars’ debut album is an absolute embarrassment of riches. Every single track is radio worthy. I’ve probably put every single track on a mix tape or mix CD at some point in my life. Plus, it sounds killer good while you’re wearing headphones. Try it if you haven’t. As soon as Hawkes’ keyboards kick in you’ll be transported to wherever I am right now. Elliot Easton’s riff at the top is one of the great classic rock moments of my youth. The production on this song is just so tight and clean that you can hear every single thing any member of the band contributes. Crazy good.
12. Since You’re Gone
From 1981’s Shake It Up, Third Single
OK, I have to ‘fess up to something. I spent a week mocking New Order for their lyrics and have left The Cars (who have their share of clunkers) pretty much alone (On Facebook when this was originally published, my friend Paul called me out for this on the last note but I swear I was going to address this point here with or without a call-out). This is because I wanted to give focus to what I sincerely believe is the worst couplet in the history of modern pop music:
Since you’re gone
I missed the peak sensation
Since you’re gone
I took the big vacation
What? What is that? What does any of that mean? Is “peak sensation” some kind of orgasm reference? Or referring to the high of love? And does anybody use the phrase “Big Vacation” to describe anything? I mean, it sounds like he means death. Did he commit suicide? No, that’s too literal. I just… this is… What? This is slightly redeemed by the wonderfully understated “Since you’re gone the moonlight ain’t so great” a few seconds later. But I literally cringe the way I cringe when I wade waist deep in ice cold water when that lyric comes on.
And the weird thing is, I still love this song in almost every other way. Without that lyric, it would be top 10 – maybe top 5 – but I can’t get over that couplet.
From 1984’s Heartbeat City, Second Single
“Magic” was a big summer single. It was intended to be – Ocasek even makes sure you know this by saying the word “summer” like five times in the first ten seconds of the singing. Its my favorite song and favorite single from the Heartbeat City album. It opens with a keyboard drone – like a single long held note – and then its anchored by this deliberately plodding rhythm. It sounds like the band is playing slowly because they think we might be too stupid to understand what they’re getting at. This is The Cars’ big dumb song and – as you’ve all surely learned by now if you’ve been reading these lists – I love big dumb songs to death. Good big dumb songs. There are also bad big dumb songs. This good dumb song, not bad. Hit you over head with club-like melody. Make you dance have fun. That real magic. Ocasek not look like caveman but maybe he caveman at heart.
Coming Soon: No surprises. None.