Do you remember the first time you heard the band The Cars? It was probably the song “Just What I Needed,” if you’re in your 50s or 60s. You also probably remember that you had never heard anything that sounded like that before. It wasn’t just the song, or the vocals, or the instrumentation, or the sound, it was everything about it that sounded unique. Most importantly, you probably remember loving it and wanting to know who that was. That usually doesn’t happen with new rock and roll bands. It’s rare that new bands come along with a completely new sound that you never heard before. It happened with the band Boston and their unique guitar sound and vocal sound, it happened with the group U2 and that unique guitar sound, and we could probably even count The Police because of Sting’s unique voice. But, with the band The Cars it was just everything about them that sounded unique. My friends and I, as well as many other people also thought they were from England. They sounded British. Yet they were from Boston which anyway sort of makes sense when you think about the history of our nation.
The Cars arrived on the scene in 1978 with their debut album The Cars and their hit single “Just What I Needed,” and they simply just blew everyone’s minds. The musical introduction to the piece and the way the guitars just kept slamming in and out every couple of beats was an instant turn on. Elliot Easton had a powerful sound to his guitar that was so perfectly tuned, yet just dirty enough. Benjamin Orr had this sort of killer sexual groove going on in his bass playing. David Robinson on drums created a pocket that was so easy to land in for all the musicians. And of course there was the unique keyboard sounds of Greg Hawkes filling in the empty spaces with just the perfect synthetic resonance.
The song “Just What I needed,” was written by Ric Ocasek. The brilliant songwriter has said in interviews that he had drew inspiration for the song from the band The Velvet Underground as well as the funk group Ohio Express which made perfect sense in what we were hearing. There was a sort of cross genre punk and funk groove playing out in the song that we didn’t really understand, we just knew we loved it. Because the song was so well written it all just kind of went over ahead which I guess was the initial point of it all.
It doesn’t matter how great a group of musicians are, if the songs are not incredibly well-written than there’s nothing there at all in the first place. The Cars had it all. They had the brilliant songwriting talents of Ric Ocasek and a group of musicians who all were very unique in the way they played their instruments. What was even more interesting about The Cars was trying to distinguish between the lead vocals of Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr. For years I had always thought that Ric Ocasek sang lead vocals on “Just What I Needed,” only to find out much later on that it was indeed Benjamin Orr. Now come on you know you thought that too. There was no MTV back in 1978 so there really was no way to see any of these bands on TV with the exception of a slot on Don Kirshner’s Rock concert on Saturday nights.
While some may have wondered after just hearing that song on the radio for the first time if The Cars were going to be just a one-hit wonder band, those of us who picked up the album right away quickly found out that The Cars were the real deal. The album’s opening song “Let the Good Times Roll,” was another track that was simply outstanding on so many levels. Once again, The Car’s unique sound played out from David Robinson’s drum sounds to Greg Hawkes new use of synthesizers that had not been used like that before in pop music “Let the Good Times Roll,” was the perfect album opener.
It’s important to understand just how vital Greg Hawkes roll was in The Cars. Synthesizes were not really being used in rock and pop music the way The Cars used them. Synthesizers were mostly a product of progressive rock music. We were all used to the sounds of synthesizers in the music of bands Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd. Of course there was also a backlash against them with bands like Queen labeling on their albums no synthesizers used. There were no synthesizers for the most part in punk music . The sound of the synthesizer and the way Greg Hawkes played it on those 70s Car songs was pretty groundbreaking. It also set the tone for 1980s music in which everything was based around synthesizers.
As we all know, The Car’s continued onward releasing a follow-up album entitled Candy-O which further expanded on their unique sound and was incredibly successful both on a commercial and artistic front. They would become one of the most loved rock and roll bands in classic rock history. For a period of nine straight years The Cars released a steady flow of original sounding studio albums including their debut album The Cars in 1978, the follow up Candy-O in 1979, Panorama in 1980, Shake It Up in 1981, Heartbeat City in 1984 and Door To Door in 1987.
Every one of those albums featured the same original five members of The Cars including Ric Ocasek on lead vocals and guitar, Benjamin Orr on lead vocals and bass, Greg Hawkes on keyboards,Elliot Easton on guitar and David Robinson on drums. Five unique musicians who when they performed together created an even more unique sound. It would not have been the same with any one of them missing. After the Door To Door album was released, the band broke up in 1988 and never recorded another album again as the original five members. Saldy, Benjamin Orr passed away in 2000.
The Cars did make a comeback in 2011 with the release of one final album entitled Move Like This. It was a good album but without Benjamin Orr, it still just wasn’t the same, and they knew it. Two years ago in 2019, Ric Ocasek passed away. The band that we knew as The Cars was sadly gone forever. Yet, their unique sound and all their wonderful music will always live on as well as the memories we all have of the first time we ever heard this legendary band and the great joy they have brought us ever since.
Why The Band The Cars Were So Unique article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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