Hello rock music scholars, historians and aficionados. You, of course, know everything there is to know about music. But what do you remember about The Cars? Because The Cars, as it turned out, were one of the most important mainstream rock bands of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Combining elements of more traditional guitar-based rock with the synthesizer-heavy beats of late 1970’s pop, The Cars helped to define New Wave music for a generation.

Who Were The Cars?

The Cars consisted of singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter Ric Ocasek, singer and bassist Benjamin Orr, lead guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, and David Robinson on the drums. The seed for the band was planted when Ocasek met Orr in Cleveland during the 1960’s. The two, after relocating to Boston, would go on to form a folky, harmony-rich band in the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash called Milkwood. After attempting to find success with Milkwood and several other rock bands, Ocasek and Orr would finally join up with Easton, Hawkes, and Robinson to form The Cars.

The Cars Rick Ocasek Ben Orr

Lead singers with the American group ‘The Cars’. Left to right Rick Ocasek and Ben Orr. 16th November 1978. Photo courtesy of Alamy.

Where Did The Cars Come From? The Punk – New Wave Connection

If you turned on your radio during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, chances are pretty high that you heard New Wave music. A lot of it. Where did this strange musical beast come from, you ask? To fully understand New Wave, you have to look back to its roots in punk rock music. Punk rock developed in English speaking countries between 1974 and 1976. Punk rock was an anti-establishment reaction to the perceived excesses of mainstream rock music. Whereas mainstream rock was chock full of elaborate arrangements and lengthy guitar solos, punk rock shunned such techniques to return to a back-to-basics, do-it-yourself approach to rock. Pioneers of the punk rock movement included The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash, though its roots could be seen in earlier artists like The Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges.

When the term “New Wave” was introduced in the musical language in 1976, it was essentially interchangeable with the term “Punk”. But as time went on it grew to designate a specific outgrowth of punk music that contrasted with what was called post-punk. Post-punk tended to be darker, more brooding, and at times even atonal. New Wave was brighter, more pop, synth-heavy and very dance-able. Other bands of the movement included Blondie, the Go-Go’s, The Talking Heads, and The Police.

What Songs Do I know?

Probably quite a few. “Just What I Needed” received heavy airplay in the band’s hometown of Boston before spreading to the national airwaves on the radio. The song was the first single from the band’s debut album, and “Just What I Needed” is easily one of The Cars’ catchiest songs. The lead vocalist on the track is Orr. The opening stop-time staccato guitar riff is instantly recognizable and the song features the band’s trademark combination of synth-goofiness and guitar edge. Orr’s vocal delivery is distinctively new-waved, playing fast and loose with the notes and infusing more than a little bit of Bob Dylan / Lou Reed sneer. 

Also from the band’s debut album The Cars, which was released in June 1978, were the additional singles “Good Times Roll” and “My Best Friend’s Girl”. “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a wryly funny tune about the singer’s unending crush on his best friend’s girl – who used to be his. Like “My Best Friend’s Girl”, “Good Time Roll” is emphasized by the band’s layered vocal harmonies. The band would go on to score more hits on their later albums, including their first top 10 hit, the title track from the band’s album Shake It Up. But the band wouldn’t have their most successful hit until 1984, when they released “Drive”. “Drive” made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard charts in the United States, and #4 in the UK. The Cars’ music undeniably optimistic in spirit; bright, confident, straddling the line between past, present, and future. With this admirable spirit, it is not at all surprising that the band found so much success when it did. The energy of The Cars is cheerful; this is party music more than rock suitable for quiet reflection. 

So Why Do You Care About The Cars?

Because not only did The Cars make good music, they were one of the main faces of the New Wave movement in rock and therefore an essential piece of rock history. Robert Palmer, in his review of the band for The New York Times, wrote, “they have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends—punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the ’50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop—and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend.” In 1978, The Cars were named “Best New Artist” in Rolling Stone Magazine. They won the video of the year award at the first ever MTV Music Video Awards, and became an MTV staple. In the United States only they have sold more than 23 million albums. And just last year, they earned a nomination for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – most likely, they will eventually get in. So go give The Cars a listen and enjoy the forefront of the new wave revolution in rock. 

– Brian M. Reiser,
J&R Adventures / Tribut Apparel

Tribut Apparel now sells a brand new authentic 100% licensed The Cars t-shirt. The shirt features an image from their tour in support of the hit album Shake It Up. You can pick up the shirt by clicking on it right here:

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Want more from The Cars? Check out Ultimate Classic Rock’s List of the top 10 songs by the band.

And here’s a good article from Music Radar on the band’s comeback album from 2011, Move Like This

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