Ric Ocasek: 1944-2019

Ric Ocasek 1944-2019

Well, the big news this morning was the death of Ric Ocasek that had occurred on Sunday morning. Ocasek was one of the odder rock superstars to have mined platinum. He was an quirky looking gent who was possibly one of the latest blooming rock stars ever. He was all of 34 years old when The Cars debut album was released in 1978. That’s a late-bloomer to put even Bryan Ferry [27 when “Roxy Music” hit], John Foxx [29 when “Ultravox!” dropped] and even Ian Hunter [30 when he got his chance with Mott The Hoople] very much in the shade. I guess Ocasek’s relative maturity for a “rocker” helped his focus. But he did not just appear out of the Head of Zeus all cool and angular. Like Debbie Harry or Marky [Ramone] Bell, he had some hippie roots which he shared with a surprising number of his Cars cohorts.

Paramount Records ‎| US | LP | 1972 | PAS 6046

In the same year that “Roxy Music” happened, Ocasek, along with Greg Hawkes and Benjamin Orr had recorded their first album together as Milkwood [“How’s The Weather”] on Paramount Records. It does not sound very far removed from, let’s say, Poco as a point of reference. But the Ocasek/Orr songwriting split was already there with both writers contributing, and Ocasek dominating. The six years that took us from 1972 to 1978 and The Cars debut can remind us of the vast sea change that rock music underwent in that period as hippie-folk gave way to glam, then punk, and finally New Wave. Keeping in mind that it was all ultimately, “pop music.”

Rhino Records | US | 2xCD | 2002 | R2 75700

We were just listening to the DLX RM of “The Cars” on a road trip to Akron with my wife recently. What an embarrassment of riches that album was. Yet it was economical as well. It sported only nine strong songs. The album got so much in the way of FM Rock airplay that there’s practically no deep cuts on it! Hearing a song like “I’m In Touch With Your World” is always jarring to me because every other song on the album was very familiar through FM Rock airplay in ’78-’79. The bonus CD of demos on that DLX RM of “The Cars” was revelatory. Roy Thomas Baker basically cooked the vocal harmonies a little, but really, they had that sound and album down cold before it was ever recorded. This album sold so well, that Elektra Records was concerned with holding back their sophomore album, “Candy-O,” so they wouldn’t be competing with themselves on the charts!

The Cars were never a favorite band; I had bigger and better fish to fry. But they were certainly admirable for a band that popular. It sure made listening to all of the Led Zeppelin and Ted Nugent during my dalliance with FM-Rock go down a little easier before abject disgust set in. In the ’79-’84 period, I duly owned the first three Cars albums on LP, though they fell victim to the Great Vinyl Purge of 1985. My wife bought the 2xCD DLX RM of “The Cars” a few years ago and I was happy to have this fine edition in the Record Cell. Then, they recently got around to releasing DLX RMs of the next two Cars albums a year or two ago, but I’ve yet to purchase, though the intent is there. Like for about 2500 other titles.

I enjoyed the dual lead vocalists they had in Ocasek and Orr. It was especially cool that they managed to have a plethora of hits with each singer. The Cars were cited by Rolling Stone as America’s answer to Roxy Music and as much as I usually look askance at that magazine’s music coverage, I can’t argue with that conjecture. Like Ferry, Ocasek was a Velvet Underground fan who favored dark irony wrapped in a glam pinup wrapper, though the latter aspect can probably be attributed more to drummer David Robinson, who was the visual guy in The Cars. Ferry skewed to R+B. Ocasek to pop, but he was probably a thorn in the side of Bryan Ferry, who looked at them and only saw the platinum that evaded his reach going instead to his followers. This found Mr. Ferry ironically aiming for The Cars sound with “Over You” from the “Flesh + Blood” album… to no significant US commercial avail. But it would have been a great Cars song!

The second act of The Cars was much easier for me to avoid. I had stopped listening to commercial radio and by ’80-’81 my core collection bands [Ultravox, JAPAN, OMD, Simple Minds] were popping and were moving the target much further out than The Cars were doing. The still astonishing Suicide pastiche “Shoo-Be-Doo” notwithstanding. I actually went to a Cars concert once, on their last tour in 1987, but it was solely to see faves Icehouse as the opening act, and we left at intermission. The remaining years saw Ocasek forging a solo career with a single top 20 song to his credit and when The Cars reunited [minus the deceased Orr] in 2011, I was surprised, given Ocasek’s reticence to reform for decades.

More interesting to me were the productions that showed Ocasek was more than willing to give back to the underground community. It’s to his credit that he was basically the shepherd to Suicide and Alan Vega for almost the entirely of their careers. And I loved his production of Jonathan Richman’s “I’m So Confused” in the 90s, but without a doubt, his most amazing production ever was the still insanely powerful “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void. If that was all he did after 1980, it would still carry a lot of weight.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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27 Responses to Ric Ocasek: 1944-2019

  1. slur says:

    Very sad news indeed. As you said above – in his ways mixing underground influences with pop rock he was pretty unique. I loved his lyrics and the music well, who could honestly resist completely even if it was mainstream compatible ?
    So… his final album was actually the Cars Reunion. Afterwards he spent some time overseeing the deluxe remasters to great effect.
    I must admit I listened to his last solo album ‘Nexterday’ from 2005 a lot more and with pleasure..
    Well thanks for all the good times rolling, the witty observations, and for being part of this side of paradise.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      slur – I still can’t figure out how The Cars managed to get such a commercial leg up. There were lots of bands with great albums of catchy pop rock with New Wave elements in the day. Maybe it was all down to the involvement of Roy Thomas Baker? I’m inclined to think that it was the consolidation of radio playlist power in the hands of Lee Abrams who held incredible power in the late 70s as he sculpted freeform FM into AOR® that held the biggest sway over the fortunes of The Cars. If Lee said “play it,” they generally did!

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  2. jsd says:

    Gutted. I grew up in Boston so it was sort of a Hard Requirement for me to like The Cars, which I duly did. They were inescapable thanks to MTV for a year there. After they faded away I lost interest for a long time. About a decade ago I started to re-examine their ouvre and found that it was really fantastic. Since then all of their “imperial phase” albums have never been far from my music player. Obviously the first album is an all time classic but I really love Candy-O as well. I think that’s as close to a perfect album from start to finish as there is. Panorama is a weird misstep, but Shake It Up rights the ship. Heartbeat City unfortunately hasn’t aged as well with the incredibly stiff Mutt Lange production (but, oh man, if Drive isn’t the perfect 80’s ballad I don’t know what is.)

    Drive on, Ric.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      jsd – I consider “Panorama” a misstep only in the commercial sense. I’ve probably only heard it a dozen or so times. And I’ve not heard the album in 39 years, yet can look at the titles and remember each song. That’s got to count for something.

      Mutt Lange made RTB seem like an anarchist! But you’re right about “Drive.” As “I’m Not In Love” was to the 70s, “Drive” was to the 80s.

      Like

      • JT says:

        You guys, Panorama is probably in my all-time top ten records. I just don’t get the indifference toward it. It’s the Cars reflecting on all of the U.K. synth pop and post-punk, not even trying for the mainstream, just being dark and arty and really Euro-New Wave, getting that out of their system before fully committing to the manufacture of U.S. radio-friendly hits with the Shake it Up and Heartbeat City records to follow. We could use instrumentals of nearly any song on Panorama, but add John Foxx or Howard Devoto vocals instead of Ocasek or Orr, and they’d still work. They’d be different, transformed, but they’d work.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          JT – I can imagine Devoto singing “Touch And Go.” Maybe it was down to the cover? Everyone expected a pinup girl by that time. I always thought the back cover was fantastic! I found it to be their take (and improvement) on the band photos of Roxy Music that were on the inner gatefold of “For Your Pleasure” that had the band posing with guitars but in a great heavily retouched composition that screamed to be the artwork on a picture disc version of the album. [checks] Which I can’t believe no record company has ever issued! Especially now!

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        • Mr. Ware says:

          Yes! Panorama sits fine with me following the one two punch of their first two. I completely lost interest from Shake It Up onward, but the first three are still classics.

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  3. Tim says:

    So, uh, Paulina Porizkova is single again?
    Asking for a friend.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – I never followed their story but in reading his obit discovered that they split up two years ago. It’s said that she might have found his body.

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      • Tim says:

        Ah, I always thought that they were a celeb couple that made it, that’s kind of a bummer.
        She seemed to fare better with her 80’s rawk star catch then say, Stephanie Seymour did.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Tim – Who is Stephanie Seymour and who did she marry?

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          • tim says:

            Axl Rose’s ex. In the 80s they all seemed to be marrying models, from Billy Joel to Duran Duran.

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              Tim – I’m well familiar with the tired cliche of Rock Stars marrying Beautiful Models. Even if I don’t recognize the names. It’s a story as old as the hills and coincidentally, Sparks [weren’t we just talking about them?] wrote a song about the phenomenon on their brilliant “L’il Beethoven” album called “Ugly Guys And Beautiful Girls!” At least some of Double Duran could have passed for male models, adding much needed balance to the equation.

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  4. Tom says:

    Nice write up, Monk. I was surprised to learn that Ric was 75, but suppose that is because my memories of the Cars are permanently frozen in the 1978-83 time frame.

    I discovered the Cars listening to WBCN when I was in prep school outside of Boston in late 77, early 78. I was from LA, so at the end of the school year I was able to tell my friends back home, who had never heard of them, that they were going to be the next big thing. And sure enough, they broke big nationally that summer and I was lucky enough to score tickets to their sold out show at the Roxy in LA on their first national tour in August.

    Like you, I loved the first two albums, but they started losing the plot around Panorama. Sure, they had some undeniably great songs (Drive, in particular) on subsequent albums but nothing that matched the overall consistency of their debut and Candy-O.

    All this is to say that when I restarted my vinyl collecting last year, I bought Candy-O and Panorama and went through a Cars re-appreciation phase that affirmed just how great they were and how timeless their music is.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tom – This morning I went to The Cars website and saw an amazing landing page with Ric’s last communication [hwe was a doodler] posted by his sons with their thoughts on his passing. Then there was a longer note, presumably from his wife that revealed that he had undergone surgery recently and his family was keeping a watch on him and Ms. Porizkova was bringing him his coffee when she found him unresponsive. The coroner has cited heart disease in his death.

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  5. Taffy says:

    The Cars (shockingly, NOT Blondie!) were my first ever favorite band, and their debut my first favorite and obsessed over album. Teenage Taffy was just getting into “real” music (as opposed to whatever top 40 AM radio was playing at the time) and the Cars rarely left my newly purchased big-boy stereo system. Candy-O delighted me as much as the debut, and I was both puzzled and intrigued by Panorama. Shake It Up and Heartbeat City brought mega-success, and I was along for the ride. I thank Ric’s name-checking of Roxy Music, Suicide, the Velvets, and other seminal acts for giving me an intro to the origins of alternative rock. Basically, without any exaggeration, the Cars were my gateway into a lifetime of music obsession. Ric was smart, cool, weird and mysterious, and I loved that. To get sappy but grateful, he was just what I needed (when I needed it), and I truly mourn his passing.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Such an eloquent tribute, amigo! We all have to start somewhere! Ric was a great entrée to a larger world. It sounds like you had a similar experience to mine. I also grew up on Top 40 from ’70-’78. I discovered FM Rock at the point in 1978 where I was too sick of nothing but disco as that wave was dominating. Then there were The Cars all over the FM stations. They sounded way more nimble than all of the Who/Zep/Stones (though I now am fine with “Some Girls” – I was definitely not at the time) being force fed to my ears on playlists that were almost as restrictive as the Top 40 I was trying to escape.

      I also got my first stereo in 1978. That changes things! I went from a portable cassette player with built in FM radio the size of a small book as my “sound system” to a Sears all-in-one unit with FM stereo/turntable/cassette/8-track recorders! Heady times!

      Like

  6. Tim says:

    So was he 70 or 75?
    You have to burn through a free article from the NYT if you’re not a subscriber to find out. Fun little piece.

    Like

  7. Peter Kingsbery (Cock Robin) also 32 when their first album dropped in ’85. Icehouse supporting the Cars!? Yeah I probably would have left at the interval too. That said, good write up especially the bit about Ferry, I never thought of Over You as a Cars track, they were never a favoured band for me either though I did like Shake it Up and Heartbeat City (title track) among others, especially Ocasek’s Emotion in Motion.

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  8. diskojoe says:

    I just finished listening to the Just What I Needed compiliation in my car. It’s pretty solid, w/all my favorite Cars songs in it. It’s interesting about the comparisons w/Roxy Music. I think that the Cars were successful in taking some of the elements of Roxy & making them palatable for a mass US audience. Roxy Music was like a Jaguar or Aston Martin, while the Cars were more like a Corvette or a Trans Am.

    Like

  9. I enjoyed the first two albums — like seemingly everyone — but they lost me with Panorama (not that it was bad, I just didn’t “get it”) and judged “Shake It Up” as pablum for the masses. Never heard “Heartbreak City” IIRC. A guy who wrote or co-wrote some really classic songs using — as others have said — some Roxy moves in a more mainstream manner. I’ll probably get around to a re-listen in his honour, but I must be honest and say I never considered The Cars to be a band I would collect. I do recall getting re-interested when they had Todd Rundgren as their leader for a short bit, and was completely unaware until now of the reunion record.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – I swear it must have been the dull front cover to “Panorama” that held it back. You’ll notice that they went right back to the cheesecake cover for the next one! But it’s a great album, even if you haven’t heard the songs hundreds of times on the radio. I’ve never heard any of the album after that. I’ve only owned copies of the first three. I thought that The New Cars was sort of a genius move, myself. Todd Rundgren fronting Hawkes and Easton made a lot of sense to me. I’d love to hear that one.

      Like

  10. diskojoe says:

    I think the second piccy down would have shifted a few more units if it was the cover😀
    http://johanneshuwe.com/the-race-of-gentlemen/

    Like

  11. diskojoe says:

    Speaking of David Robinson, here’s what he’s doing nowadays (Rockport is a few miles up from me):
    https://rockportusa.com/shopping/windemere-art-antiques-2/

    A few years ago I was wandering along a local mall wearing my Modern Lovers T-Shirt when I was approached by an older couple who said that they were related to him.

    Like

  12. Echorich says:

    Ric Ocasek was a music master. He was a student of Rock & Roll History which certainly informed the music of The Cars, but also led him to involvement with and the protection of some important artists. It was his nature to be a character, you could tell none of it was a put on. He was a genuine Rock Star.

    The Cars were a very special thing for me as I formed my musical taste. They were a New Wave band that was broadly successful, yet didn’t get the boot from my attentions. The make music of the now and the future that was educated by music from the past. They were a Rock Band that helped to form the New Wave.
    The first three albums are pretty much untouchable. The Cars is an album firing on all cylinders, with no small part played by Roy Thomas Baker. But you just need to hear Moving In Stereo to know that this band was ready to re-write the rules for becoming Pop Stars in 1978. Candy-O is an album with a New Wave shimmer and sheen that few of their contemporaries could manage. It opens with the New Wave Anthem Let’s Go, with it’s processed guitars, hand claps and pied piper like syncopation and takes the listener on an amphetamine driven joyride. Panorama is full of the experimentation you would expect from a debut act, not a band looking for a hat-trick of successful releases. The title track would sound right a home on a Numan or Foxx album.
    The Cars performed music from a place of confidence and this, as much as anything forced people to listen and take notice. They made music that slotted in so well with what I loved, Roxy Music, Bowie, Talking Heads, Japan, Ultravox. As visible as Ocasek and Orr were, Greg Hawkes set a standard for synthesizers in New Wave that would be a standard within 5 years of The Cars debut.
    But Panorama was the last Cars album that would mean anything to me. The moved in a much more mass pop direction for my taste with Shake It Up. Their music now appealed less to the “Skinny Black Tie Crowd” and more to the “Neon Pink and Purple Crowd” of new music listeners.

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