“The Cars were the most successful new wave band to emerge in the late ‘70s,” writes Allmusic.com,and indeed they were. With their finely tuned, streamlined brand of pop-rock, the group scored a series of platinum, Top 10 albums starting in 1979 with their eponymous debut The Cars, followed by Candy-O, Panorama, Shake It Up, Heartbeat City and Door to Door in 1987.
While more commercially successful than many of their peers, The Cars were inspired by the avant-garde and experimental music as much as garage-rock and bubble-gum pop, while being just accessible enough to succeed at album rock radio with hits like “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Let’s Go,” “Shake It Up,” “Since You’re Gone,” “Drive,” “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “Tonight She Comes.”
The Cars were perhaps the quintessential new wave band, influenced by the likes of the Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Roxy Music, even if they did start out as a folk band named Milkwood after founder Ric Ocasek (re Richard Otcasek) and Benjamin Orr (Ben Orzechowski) moved from Columbus, OH to Boston, where they met Berklee student and keyboardist Greg Hawkes.
After the demise of Milkwood, Ric and Ben toured in various configurations, eventually teaming up with drummer David Robinson. Robinson brought to the group an artistic style, creating a visual image for the band, and coming up with the name and logo. “It’s so easy to spell,” commented Ocasek. “It doesn’t have a ‘z’ at the end; it’s real authentic. It’s pop art, in a sense.”
After spending the winter of ’76 playing all over New England, developing, honing, and ultimately perfecting the songs that would become their debut album, the band was signed to Elektra Records. The demo version of “Just What I Needed” would turn out to be the first single from the band’s debut album, The Cars, which reached #3 on the Billboard Pop album chart upon its release in 1979, thanks to that single and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” Under the guidance of ace producers Roy Thomas Baker and Robert John “Mutt” Lange, a string of smash albums and singles followed. The 1979 sophomore release, Candy O, went Top 20, producing the hits “It’s All I Can Do” and “Let’s Go.” Panorama, in 1980, cracked the Top 5 on the strength of the hit single “Touch and Go,” while the Top 10 Shake It Up produced the title track hit and “Since You’re Gone” in 1981.
Following the lead of Roxy Music, the band commissioned famed Playboy artist Alberto Vargas to design the sexy illustration for the Candy-O record sleeve. This, as well as other glamorous images were the group's primary visual attraction until 1981 when the group made a series of striking videos to accompany the singles from Shake It Up, and two years later, Heartbeat City. The clips for "You Might Think," "Magic," and "Drive" became MTV staples, sending the Cars to superstar status. Following a tactical misstep with the release of the underwhelming, Door to Door album in 1987, the Cars quietly disbanded.
Bassist Ben Orr, who sang deep, rich leads on several of the band’s biggest hits, including “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Let’s Go,” “Candy-O,” “Drive” and “Just What I Needed,” passed away from on Oct. 3, 2000, at the age of 53.
Rumors continue to spread through the Internet about a possible reunion of the remaining band members, whetting the appetite of fans old and new. Here’s hoping for the latest model of The Cars to roll off the assembly line before too long.
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