Ric Ocasek, frontman of pioneering new wave rock band The Cars, died on Sunday (Sept. 15) after being found unresponsive in his Manhattan townhouse, New York City police confirmed to Billboard. The Cars’ singer, rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter was 75. The cause of death is not yet known.
Ocasek met bassist Benjamin Orr (who died in 2000) in the ‘60s, and the two performed together in various bands (including a folk-oriented outfit called Milkwood) over the next decade, eventually forming The Cars in 1976 with Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes and David Robinson. Their self-titled 1978 debut was a milestone in the burgeoning new wave scene, melding the sonically stripped down, rockabilly-inflected approach to rock of the punk explosion with the quirky synthesizers of art rock acts such as Roxy Music; but unlike a punk or an art rock band, the Cars were radio catnip thanks to Ocasek’s sturdy, lean songcraft, an abundance of irresistible guitar riffs and producer Roy Thomas Baker’s immaculate production. The Cars went top 20 on the Billboard 200 and produced two top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” The album’s sound would prove massively influential on the next decade of radio rock and synth-pop, and continues to be celebrated by arena-filling and avant-leaning musicians alike.
The band’s next three albums, Candy-O, Panorama and Shake It Up, continued in the same vein. If they weren’t as masterful as the band’s first outing, each still went top 10 on the album chart and produced their fair share of gems and radio smashes, such as “Let’s Go” (No. 14), “Touch and Go” (No. 37) and “Shake It Up” (No. 4).
1984’s Heartbeat City found the band returning to the creative heights of their debut, placing Ocasek’s brilliantly off-kilter turns of phrase over a lustrous bed of polished, synth-heavy rock. It produced five top 40 smashes, including the No. 3-peaking “Drive,” one of the most gorgeous, devastating ballads of the ‘80s, if not all time. Additionally, several of its singles were early MTV staples, with “You Might Think” winning video of the year at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984.
After a Greatest Hits and a weak swan song with 1987’s Door to Door (the only standout being the No. 17-peaking hit “You Are the Girl”), the band called it quits (although the proper lineup would reunite for 2011’s well-received Move Like This album). When all was said and done, the Cars earned 13 top 40 singles on the Hot 100, with four of them in the top 10, as well as five top 10 albums on the Billboard 200. The band received six Grammy nominations, including best new artist, but never won, although the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Ocasek released seven solo albums, two of which came out during the Cars’ heyday, but found his biggest post-Cars success as a producer, helming Weezer’s landmark self-titled debut (the Blue Album) and albums for an eclectic mix of artists such as Guided by Voices, Motion City Soundtrack, Bad Brains and Suicide. He released a book of poetry, Negative Theatre, in 1992, and 2012’s Lyrics and Prose collected the lyrics of his solo and Cars albums.
Having served as a draftsman as a teenager, Ocasek was a prolific drawer over the course of his life. Speaking to Billboard in 2017 about an exhibition of his art pieces, Ocasek revealed he was working on an album that would compile “the best picks of the solo albums” as well as “another 10 or 15 songs that nobody’s ever heard. Some are finished, some are demos. It’s stuff I’ve always liked but never put it on things.”
Ocasek was married three times and has six sons.