FM rock was a delicious mess in the late 1970s, heavy on the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, lots of Aerosmith and Eagles, so much “Dust in the Wind,” Boston and Styx, ad nauseam, especially on twofer Tuesdays. Your friend’s big brother — shirtless, restless, washing his car in the driveway, pausing for air guitar, threatening if you got too close. Some other soundtrack was called for here, new but also broadly appealing.
Cheap Trick was almost it. But the band that prevailed and filled this gap would arrive with a sound so essential that it would simply call itself the Cars. Their first hit’s refrain late in the summer of ’78 went “I guess you’re just what I needed.” The ambivalence there (“I guess”) underscored the perfect fit. Off we go, to the sound of a zillion Friday nights. (Let the good times roll, let them knock you around.)
Ric Ocasek, found dead in his New York apartment Sunday afternoon at the presumed age of 75, co-founded the Cars with Benjamin Orr in Boston in the mid-’70s, after the two had tried on other sounds and guises. As the Cars, with Ocasek out front, they landed on a trademark interpretation of what was being termed new-wave, something that was neither too angry-punk nor too synthy-romantic, a tight reductivist rock that was strangely palatable to stoners and homecoming queens alike. The Cars spoke to freaks as well as geeks.
Preening jocks loved to blare the Cars from their car stereos, yet the sound of it was somehow acceptable to the outliers, too — inviting, even. Right away, the sound was hormonally male, yet the lyrics called out poetically for female acceptance, for wild romance (“Let’s Go”) and lost loves (“Since You’re Gone”); for missed opportunities (“It’s All I Can Do”) and pangs of jealousy (“My Best Friend’s Girl”). Billy Joel, spooked by what the Cars and other skinny-necktie/checkered-sneakers acts were selling, issued a chart-topping defense in 1980, part bafflement, part shrug: “It’s still rock and roll to me.”
Ocasek and his bandmates served as a solidly constructed bridge between the narrowest chasm of what could be considered a then and a now — “then” being the last of the grandiose ’70s rock and the “now” being the commercially cognizant sights and sounds of MTV in the early to mid-1980s. You’d almost have had to live through it to pick up on the shifts in posture, fashion and haircuts, how the Cars and a few other bands (Devo? Talking Heads? U2? The Fixx?) helped stamp out the ’70s, for better or worse.
The Cars, to me, sound like a six-pack of beer, in the wooded park off the lake road, eyes peeled for patrolling cop cars, someone’s car stereo providing the music. I hear the Cars as the backdrop to our privileged adolescent drama and gossip: Someone got busted drinking before the football game. Someone dumped the quarterback and now he’s making out with some chick from a rival school. (She’s a lot like you, the dangerous type.)
From movie lore, the scene (or one of the scenes) everyone remembers in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), still wearing his pirate outfit from his job at the fish-n’-chips restaurant, comes home to find his kid sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with her friends in the backyard pool. Among them is Linda (the forever luminous Phoebe Cates). Brad retreats to the bathroom and peers through the window at Linda, in her red bikini. Brad’s fantasy takes over while the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” provides the soundtrack, as Linda rises from the pool in slow-motion, confesses her desire for Brad and removes her bikini top in a lawn-sprinkler spray . . .
Ocasek and the Cars may have tapped into something crucial to the thrumming ’80s teenage psyche, but they never were really singing about us or to us. Seen in the pages of Rolling Stone and Interview magazines, their songs conveyed an altitude of nightlife that may as well have been taking place on another planet, where Andy Warhol lived, and where bony 40-year-old lead singers with MTV sensibilities (Ocasek) married Czechoslovakian supermodels (Paulina Porizkova).
During a lull between albums, when the hits tapered off, we shamefully cheated on the Cars with a here-and-gone band called the Outfield. Same lake, same beer, same vibe. But nothing ever sounded the same. Some of us went to college, and some of us went back to Led Zeppelin.
The sound of the Cars played out; the band broke up in 1988. Hipster indie bands in the early 2000s tried to replicate the sound, and then it really began to fade away. Now you hear all those Cars hits playing on an endless loop in the grocery store, and teenagers today say they hate driving. Where are the heartbreak songs about ordering a Lyft? (Where is the band called the Lyfts?)
Once in a great while (if the illusion is real), Ric Ocasek and the Cars appear in your car, when it’s only you and the radio, and you don’t have anywhere to be, and you’re driving around to your heart’s content. Is it still just what you needed? Sometimes, yes.