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.
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.”
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.
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