The Cars' Debut Album: 40 Years Ago, Electric Crunch Met Digital Gleam for a New Wave Classic
Metal fans saw their lobbying pay off in the last few years with such long overlooked acts as Kiss, Rush and Deep Purple getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This year, however, it was new wave fans that received sweet vindication when Boston’s The Cars finally entered the Hall after nearly two decades of eligibility.
“The Cars had it all: the looks, the hooks, Beat-romance lyrics, killer choruses, guitar solos that pissed off your parents, dazzling music videos,” proclaimed Brandon Flowers of the Killers in his loving induction speech. “In the '70s and '80s they were able to exist in that highly coveted sweet spot where credibility and acclaim meets huge commercial success. Now, I was born in '81 but I've seen Boogie Nights. And, as I understand it, while everybody else was sweating it up on the dance floor in their polyester suits or fighting it out in the punk clubs, these guys cruised in and made you look like you were working too hard.”
For The Cars, their entrance into the Rock Hall was redemption for an eight year run as one of the catchiest and most innovative bands of their era. Formed in 1976 by Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr, Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes and David Robinson, the group was driven to create thanks to a collective love for the Beatles and an overall affinity for the bleeding edge of music technology. And that hybrid of AOR riffs and synthesized hooks served as the basis for their eponymous debut, released 40 years ago today (June 6, 1978).
"We'd always get the latest stuff from music stores even if it would be obsolete in two months,” drummer Robinson explained to writer Brett Milano in the liner notes to the 1995 double disc anthology Just What I Needed. “It reached the point where I'd have 10 or 12 foot switches to hit during a short set.”
The hybrid of traditionalism and technological advances proved to be a knockout combination for The Cars, as roughly 80 percent of its songs would go on to become classic radio staples, including three tracks that charted on the Billboard Hot 100: ”Just What I Needed” (peaking at No. 27), “My Best Friend's Girl” (reaching No. 35) and “Good Times Roll” (which ascended to No. 41). The side 2 highlight “Moving in Stereo,” driven by the slinky synth work of keyboardist Hawkes, was immortalized in a particularly scintillating scene in the 1982 teen comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High. In his induction speech, guitarist Easton cited the influential Boston rock station WBCN and its lead DJ Maxanne Sartori for helping give The Cars a starting push into the national spotlight.
“Maxanne did an amazing thing: she started playing our demo tape in heavy rotation alongside all the biggest records of the day. The spins got reported in the radio tip sheets,” he explained. “So it would say, The Cars, ‘Just What I Needed,’ and then in the column where the record label would normally be listed, it said TAPE!!! A&R reps for major labels started flying to Boston to check out this local band, The Cars, whose demo tape got so much airplay that it was being reported on a national level. Maxanne did that. We are forever indebted.”
As new wave and punk achieved full flight in 1978, the first Cars album would provide a bold, innovative approach to American guitar pop that helped their country provide stiff competition for their UK counterparts.
“With their debut album in 1978, the Cars created one of the rarest phenomenons of late-'70s rock & roll: a pop artifact that unified many factions of a pluralistic rock scene,” stated renowned rock scribe Mikal Gilmore in his 1980 Rolling Stone cover story on the group. “Conservative radio programmers jumped on it because of Ocasek's consonant pop symmetry and Roy Thomas Baker's polished, economical production; New Wave partisans favored it for its terse melodicism and ultramodern stance; and critics applauded it for its synthesis of prepunk art-rock influences, including Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Brian Eno. By the end of the year, The Cars had spawned two hit singles ("My Best Friend's Girl" and "Just What I Needed") and inspired enough of a flutter for the band to win awards from Creem, Circus and Rolling Stone.”
It wouldn't be until their Mutt Lange-produced fifth LP Heartbeat City in 1984 that The Cars would achieve their greatest success chart-wise. But even 40 years since its initial street date, this first Cars album remains their most definitive artistic statement, one that would go on to inspire not only The Killers, but Weezer (whom frontman Ocasek would go on to produce in 1994), The Strokes, Fountains of Wayne, Car Seat Headrest and countless other American bands hoping to seamlessly straddle that fine line between electric crunch and digital gleam.
"We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars Greatest Hits,” Easton joked in the liners to Just What I Needed. “We knew that a lot of great bands fall through the cracks. But we were getting enough feedback from people we respected to know that we were on the right track."