The debut album by the Cars is their best. Heartbeat City (1984) is a close second, it had as many singles and rose higher on the charts than their debut, but hasn’t sold as many copies. Heartbeat City is a very 1980s album, full of synthesizers, programmed beats and processed vocals. The difference between the albums is significant.
The Cars was fun and had that bouncy vibe that reminded me of the bands of the mid 1960s before music got heavy and serious.
The Cars helped usher in the “New Wave” genre of music that would flow into the 1980s with mullets, day-glo colors and overuse of the synthesizer.
Cars leader and chief songwriter, Ric Ocasek passed away recently. It is his songs you heard and often his lead vocal. He was 75 when he died, but he will always be that guy in his early thirties who delivered the Cars to the listening audience. Ocasek was tall, lean and had a nerdish manner about him. Not who you’d define as your typical rock star, but he had a talent bigger than most stars.
But in the late 1970s, the music style was quirky and the songs had catchy hooks. The Cars also used a lot of guitar but this was at the opposite end from heavy metal. Quite literally, put in a cassette tape of the Cars, roll down the windows and take to the road.
All songs written by Ric Ocasek unless otherwise noted. Lead vocalist listed on each song.
“Good Times Roll” Ocasek 3:44 Ocasek could write an endearing little guitar riff to begin a song, just like here. A good time song, catchy melody, tasty guitar work, just a song that is meant to roll out of your speakers and wash over you. No deep message, just a set of lyrics tied smartly to an upbeat groove. Roll on.
“My Best Friend’s Girl” Ocasek 3:44 This snappy little diddy, upbeat and full of energy, has a slight rockabilly guitar groove on the choruses, although it is straight-up pop. It has an infectious melody, the kind that you can’t shake out of your head.
“Just What I Needed” Benjamin Orr 3:44 From the opening guitar riff to the power-up groove, this is high-energy pop fun. Distorted guitars in the background, ready to shread, the jaunty beat on the verses gets your head bopping till the verses really rock out. A great introduction to the band as a single.
i don’t mind you coming here
wasting all my time
’cause when you’re standing oh so near
i kinda lose my mind
“I’m in Touch with Your World” Ocasek 3:31 An odd little number. The most “new wave” song on the album. I have no idea what the lyrics mean. A song I usually skip over. Sorry.
“Don’t Cha Stop” Ocasek 3:01 My least favorite song on the album. It has a catchy little riff at the end of each verse line, but the song is a bit too cute.
“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” Ocasek 4:13 A wise choice to start the second side, the song begins with a pounding drumbeat, then sails into a chord groove. Ocasek could write those quirky keyboard sequences but he was adept at guitar riffs that make memorable choruses that quality pop songs need to differentiate themselves from the uninteresting ones. Barely noticeable is a really good guitar solo toward the end of the song.
“Bye Bye Love” Orr 4:14 My favorite song on this album, what a nifty groove on electric piano and guitar. The chorus is even better, a very mature shift of mood and melodic progression. A brilliant synth solo by Hawkes in the middle. Orr delivers a full textured vocal performance. This song has those great pop hooks but it not too cute, just enough roughness to make it a quality rock song.
“Moving in Stereo” (Greg Hawkes, Ocasek) Orr 4:41 A more serious rock effort by the group, not all colorful, fun songs. The song pounds out a beat that stays on task through out the song. The synthesized car horn is fun. The lyrics are secondary to the music here.
“All Mixed Up” Orr 4:14 “Moving in Stereo” segues into this song, another serious song musically, a harder-edge and more powerful guitar work. They put their most traditional rock song, with the big build-up at outro as the song to close to the album. Good choice.
The singles, “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” cracked the top forty, but “Let the Good Times Roll” only reached 41. Interesting, these songs are part of our culture now, but had trouble getting onto the charts.
The album reached only number 18, but would sell more than six million copies.
The sound of the Cars was very different for 1978. This was still the disco era and the laid-back L.A. sound were still driving the main charts. The lean, edgy sound of the Cars would contribute to toughening up the sound of mainstream stars like Paul McCartney (Back to the Egg) in 1979, and Linda Ronstadt (Mad Love) and Billy Joel (Glass Houses) by 1980. The punk influence from London and New York cast a big shadow on mainstream rock and pop.