Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cars: An Appreciation

The Cars--"Good Times Roll" (mp3)
The Cars--"Moving In Stereo" (mp3)

The thing about decades is that life does not package itself so neatly and conveniently. Even as we try here at the end of the first ten years of the new century to do various kinds of summing ups, I hope that we still realize that trends and patterns don't necessarily fit the package so well.

Case in point: the Cars.

If decades really worked as decades, then the Cars would have come onto the scene sometime around January 1, 1980 and would have announced at that time: "Listen, the upcoming decade is going to have a distinctive style of music, and here, on the songs from our very first album, are the characteristics of those songs you'll listen to for the next ten years."

But it didn't happen that way. Like the Talking Heads, who provided a jarring coda to the late '70's, straddling the disco beats and rhythms of the dance clubs and the jaundiced sensibilities of a rock music that was dying and trying to reinvent itself, the Cars seemed to come out of nowhere from Boston with a couple of years still to go in the '70's. Boston? At that time, we thought music coming out of Boston was either the biggest guitars you ever heard and songs just as big (from the band named after the city) or the long-admired-but-always-on-the-fringe bluesy bar band sound of J. Geils (who would take a lesson from both Boston and the Cars in creating their commercial juggernaut, Love Stinks, a few years later).

But the Cars? They don't sound like they like they're from anywhere except all of pop/rock music, stealing standard riffs and solos from the likes of Roy Orbison and the Beatles, with some laconic vocals mixed low, as if they don't trust their lead singer, and cheesy, but catchy, synthesizer parts. One might almost be tempted to call them generic. Instead, I call them the template. They sound much more like what was to come than what was going on at the time.

Sometimes, when I hear the Cars, I hear all of the supposedly-revolutionary New Age and the pop music outcroppings that followed. Put on "Let The Good Times Roll" or "My Best Friend's Girl" and see what's there. Think Thomas Dolby copped this one? How about Gary Numan's Tubeway Army? Wang Chung? Soft Cell? The Outfield? Rick Springfield? Marshall Crenshaw? Who else?

The Cars take a lighter tone, rarely deviate beyond the subject matter of girls, and generally capture the self-focused 80's in a way that few bands can, but there's always a sadness there, as well. They've lost a girl, they've settled on a girl who is "all I've got tonight;" even the good times "make you a clown." Ric Ocasek, the principal songwriter, had clearly experienced his share of pain, which became obvious later on when he married a supermodel and the media could not understand the connection between beauty and the beast. The Cars are the geeky music nerds who never fit in in high school, but figured out how to rise above that. Yeah, after them, the pop music got more minor key sometimes, maybe more self-important, but for the sheer fun of being alive at that time, despite personal tribulations, I'm not sure that there was anyone better.

Of course, when I really like a band, even against all odds, there's usually a guitar involved. The Cars are no exception. Eliot Easton's licks and solos are among the most inventive of that time period. No matter how many times I hear "Just What I Needed," I still wait for and enjoy Easton's counter-rhythmic solo that echoes the melody of the chorus while establishing itself as an additional motif for the song. He is a player who is not bounded by a particular style; he's playing what the song requires instead of forcing the song to accept what he can play.

I don't think I appreciated the Cars enough at the time, thinking that what they were doing was too simplistic, too derivative, but paralleling the punks as they did, I see now that they did their own kind of straddling, drawing on the stripped-down ethic of that movement, while embracing the earliest rock patterns and a few of the tricks from the bloated supergroups that punk was trying to counteract. Whether you like synthesizers or not, it is hard to argue against the idea that the Cars used them more infectiously than almost anyone. Usually, the synth adds another, single-note-melody layer to a basic song and gives it almost a depth.

But not really. The Car's music is mostly candy. Good candy. The kind that is so sugary that you can't stop eating it, even if the only taste you're getting is sugar. And their lyrics aren't deep either, but they're just quirky enough that they engage you each time you hear the songs. "Let them brush your rock and roll hair" it says in "Let The Good Times Roll." What does that even mean?

The Cars, and especially this first album that I'm referencing, certainly don't need verification from me. The record was on the charts for almost three years and spawned 6 hit singles. But I'm here as someone who started listening to it all again this week and realizing that, hey, it all holds up thirty years later. There is a lot of music from back then that doesn't.

The Cars are available from Itunes.


Billy said...

First, in total agreement with your early Cars assessment. Once we hit "Magic" and, worse, "Tonight She Comes," they had become a parody of themselves. I mostly blame this on the infamous "You Might Think" video that almost instantly became bigger than the band. Never a good thing.

One of my favorite Cars songs was actually a Ric Ocasek solo: "Something to Grab For."

(P.S. In defense of my boy Rick Springfield, that dude's been making power pop since the early '70s. But maybe "Jesse's Girl" never makes it without a band like the Cars hitting big first...)

jed said...

Rick kinda looks like Paul Westerberg.

troutking said...

I played the crap out of the Cars Greatest Hits---wasn't old enough to get the albums first time around---but didn't think they'd be a Bob favorite. Now don't tell me you like Ric's Emotion in Motion...

Dan said...

Totally agree with you. I was huge fan and saw them a couple of times. After Candy-O though they kind of went downhill or I just became tired of the formula. Whatever though when I listen to their older stuff I still crank it.

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