The Cars seldom seem to get enough credit for being a fine band. That of course is because they had the temerity to be too successful, launching hit single after hit single up the charts. Originating from Boston in the wake of the rise and flame-out of the punk movement, they were one of the first of what were labeled “new wave” bands. Bands that were tarred with this particular brush were thought to be playing on the punk image while putting mainstream success ahead of punk principles. The defining fashion statement of the new wave wasn’t torn T-shirts, but rather pushed-up sleeves on sports jackets. The Cars are an object lesson in why we should forget about labels and image and judge the music on its own merits.
In 1978 the first, self-titled Cars album was like a bolt out of the blue. The band had been signed to Elektra Records based on the heavy airplay that their demos were getting on Boston radio station WBCN. Roy Thomas Baker, who had great success with Queen, was brought in to produce. The sound was modern but based on an amalgamation of things that had been heard before. It was the songs that made that first album special. Three of its singles made the Billboard Hot 100, and the album itself peaked at #18.
I was in Sydney, Australia, working in a friend’s recording studio when Candy-O, the Cars’ second album, was released in 1979. I had enjoyed the first album but found myself unprepared for the greatness of the new one. (The sexy Alberto Vargas cover girl won me over before I’d even heard the music within.)
Roy Thomas Baker was behind the desk again, and led by songwriter and guitarist Ric Ocasek, the Cars seemed to be taking more chances, heading further out into uncharted territory with an increasingly ominous, and very chilly, sound. The intensified sonic attitude is evident on the pulsating title track and, at least to me, the greatest of all Cars tracks, “The Dangerous Type.” Candy-O managed two hit singles, with “It’s All I Can Do” reaching #41 on the Hot 100, and “Let’s Go” making it all the way to #14. The album peaked at #3 and was certified quadruple platinum in 2001.
The Cars’ momentum would continue unabated for several years. There were more and bigger hits, until they were one of the biggest bands in the world. I enjoyed a lot of what they did after Candy-O, but for me, they never again reached the summit of their sophomore album.
The band broke up in February of ’88. Reunions were rumored in the ’90s, but nothing ever happened. In 2005, however, guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard player Greg Hawkes enlisted singer Todd Rundgren, among others, and went on the road as something called the New Cars. But the less said about that, the better.
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