Man, this will be a new personal best so far as tenuous obituaries go. Can we make it to the end? Let’s try. Ric Ocasek of The Cars — who was most of The Cars — is dead at 75.
How can a new wave rocker be 75? Boomers, Ys, millennials and Zs: there will be little explanation otherwise we’ll be here all night. This is an X thing, and X is born ’62-’76, and there’s an end to it.
Boomers who listen to The Cars will wonder what the hell, and yearn for Dylan singing about Shiloh and Bathsheba on the Mason-Dixon line or a 30-minute blues jam by Foghat. Gen Ys will wonder where the thudding guitars and Prozac references are. But for Xs, ahhhh, “Just What I Needed”, and that tight, sharp metronomic guitar intro…
The start of the evening, the start of the party, the soundtrack to the dawn coming up on the beach, the smell of Old Spice and hairspray and coconut oil and sea salt, the taste of Stone’s Green Ginger Wine and dry, and Malibu and Coke, and candy-flavoured lip gloss. The feel of chambre and warm skin, carpet tiles under bare feet and bad disco lights from McEwans, LP covers leaning against brown brick walls. The driving fallback of the chorus, and the jump forward of “Tonight She Comes”, the synth cool of “Good Times Roll”, and the UDL portentousness of “Drive”; the sense that some teen party love triangle was filled with a significance that will make itself known.
This is just my reverie of them. There are others. God knows what The Cars sound like to someone who wasn’t 17 when they first hit and, really, I don’t care. For if there was any band that announced that rock music had shifted in the second half of the ’70s, it was The Cars, with their tight and simple tunes, their surprisingly complex arrangements, and the steady build to expressions of pure joy.
Power pop was reclaiming the right of pop/rock to be sweet and simple and fun in the US. In the UK, pub rock was putting back the insistent drive, the dead seriousness of Saturday night. The Cars combined both, and retained enough of the arty accoutrements rock had accumulated after Sgt. Pepper’s, to inaugurate “new wave”, that mysterious, interstitial, half-imaginary genre.
Rock music was barely 20 years old, but already seemed 100. New wave/punk/powerpop rock put the music back in its rightful place — in the evening, after work, in a pub, for people who had jobs. But new wave with its mix of influences could make art as well. The Cars sound a little like Dr Feelgood, a little like Kraftwerk, like Buddy Holly, and Europop, Roxy Music and the Yardbirds. Yeah, and Talking Heads.
That mix was finessed by producer Roy Thomas Moore, but it was Ocasek — the gangly, cartoonish singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter — who had laid the base. He was impossibly old for ’80s rock, 35 by the time of the band’s second album, Candy-O.
Born in 1944, and in bands since the late ’50s, Ocasek’s pre-Cars progression is a Spinal Tap outtake. He met The Cars co-anchor, bassist Benjamin Orr at a Cleveland pop show called The Big 5 Show; in 1965, they became Milkwood, a folk-rock band, then Cap’n Swing, a coffee shop jazz inflected group, before doing a 180 into pop. Their demo got Boston airplay; they signed to Elektra; and Moore, producer of Queen, produced their first and subsequent albums. He went in the other direction from Queen, drawing on his first major production, Free’s third album Fire and Water, with the classic “All Right Now” — a harbinger of new wave, the beginning of a shift after Hendrix and the Doors.
Rock history may be a history of producers. Pop history absolutely is.
The result of all this, The Cars, is utterly unimportant to anyone born more than seven years either side of it. To those in the zone, the songs were a glorious announcement that the world was new and crisp, stylish and smart, quirky and ironic. These were teenage hymns to that most ancient and obscure of perversions: uncomplicated heterosexuality. Pumped out at ‘burban parties, shopping centre discos, full summer days, Cars’ songs promised everything was possible. They lied, but that was their job.
The Cars ran out of gas by ’88 with “Tonight She Comes”, their last real hurrah. Ocasek fell out with Orr and married a supermodel — the one in the band’s videos, not the crazy shiny redhead on the first album cover. He produced albums for dozens of acts, and dabbled in baddish painting, as a rockstar must.
Ocasek appears to have met a sad end, but so did our new wave teenage dreams. Life is nothing like the dozen unimprovable three-minute utopias The Cars delivered. It turns out lip gloss, kissed off, tastes like ass. Requiescat in pace Ric Ocasek, X marks the spot. For the time and place, you were just what we needed.