The Cars occupy a weird space in music fans’ hearts. They’re often one of someone’s favorite bands but rarely their number one favorite. You don’t play The Cars in moments of elevated emotion. You don’t dramatically weep in times of troubles to the strains of “Moving in Stereo.” The dance floor doesn’t peak when the DJ drops the needle on “My Best Friend’s Girl.” Maybe people are stirred by “Drive. “It’s a ballad but I’d imagine the visions of Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise it conjures from its inclusion on the Top Gun soundtrack places it at a distance from real-life emotions.
With Ric Ocasek’s passing, The Cars have been on my mind. I’ve long been a fan of The Cars but until their frontman’s absence, I never appreciated what he brought to the band.
I didn’t like The Cars for a long time. They seemed too stiff, too divorced from emotion. Soulless. For years, I thought their music was deficient for not offering the freedom and release I valued from pop music. But after resisting them for years, I noticed their artistry. It shouldn’t have taken me so long. If you ever tried to write or record a pop or rock song, appreciating The Cars is inevitable. “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a sequence of inspired musical statements, from the handclaps to the bouncing synth to the shimmering Scotty Moore/Cliff Gallup guitar work. “Moving in Stereo” and “Let’s Go” up the ante with every new sound.
The Cars were innovators. Their debut came out in 1978. The Sex Pistols’ Nevermind The Bullocks and Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Expresswere only a year old but The Cars were finding points of commonality between punk and kraut rock. The Cars sparkling synth, tightly wound power chords and rockabilly guitar flourishes became the pallette for new wave and ‘80s music in general. Their songs were such perfectly polished, immediately appealing pop that the advanced musicality gets obscured.
It’s easy to praise their debut. It’s a tight collection. Almost every song is a hit. But a lot of great Cars songs aren’t on it. You have to play their 1979 sophomore release “Candy-O” to find epic pop masterpieces like “Let’s Go” and “The Dangerous Type.” They didn’t make “Magic” or “You Might Think” until 1984’s Heartbeat City.
Ric Ocasek’s voice pulls the disparate elements together. He’s more of an expressive actor than a technically proficient singer. And that helps make the songs hits. The songs are easy to sing along to. And it highlights the dazzling musical ideas surrounding his voice, which might otherwise be distracting or off-putting. The Cars’ music, with its emphasis on control and electronic sounds, could be in danger of seeming cold and removed. But Ocasek adds just enough warmth to make it feel human.
His voice made The Cars singular. Modern bands from Weezer to Fountains of Wayne broke off small pieces of the Cars’ sound but it lacked the warmth of the original. They were good but nothing animated them.
So goodbye, Mr. Ocasek. Your genius was always apparent and I’m sorry it took so long for me to recognize it.