Ric Ocasek, Bard of Youth
(Fragments from a Roundtable Discussion)
Charles Bissell (The Wrens)
Ernie Brooks (The Modern Lovers)
John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants)
Gail Greenwood (Belly, L7, Benny Sizzler)
Bruce Handy (editor, Spy, Vanity Fair, author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As An Adult)
John Linnell (They Might Be Giants)
Rick Moody (Wingdale Community Singers, Unspeakable Practices), editor/compiler
Rick Moody: My theory here is that The Cars are not considered a seminal and important rock and roll band in the world of tastemakers because they became too popular. There is no particular way to quantify this theory, to test and assess, but perhaps it can be a point of embarkation.
I first saw The Cars in early 1978, because they came and played at my high school in Concord, New Hampshire. This was before the first record came out. They played two sets that night, separated by a break, and the two sets were functionally identical. There was, it’s fair to say, no hair out of place.
I was, at the time, pondering about, wrestling with, coming to love: punk of the canonical variety, and also the stuff that came just after that. We, the people who really liked music at my old school, were into, for example, Lust for Life and Never Mind the Bollocks and “Heroes” and 77 by the Talking Heads, and The Stranglers, and The Modern Lovers, and these were soon to be followed by Parallel Lines and Give ’Em Enough Rope, and This Year’s Model.
The appearance of The Cars at my high school, however, had a particular, and even greater, impact than these researches. The Cars were very imposing looking, from our point of view. I should say that I was at a high school of the mostly privileged kind, and there was a uniform, corduroys and the Oxford cloth shirt (white, yellow, sometimes pink), and The Cars had that look that they exploited later, which was otherwise in the extreme. There was some black leather and there were some skinny lapels and skinny ties. And they barely moved, and there was a particular vibe, which was both of menace and decadence. It was rock and roll. Also, there were a lot of unusual sounds coming from the band. Though a number of my friends, myself included, had come through a proggy period to embrace punk, we were very unused to seeing actual synthesizers in public, and Greg Hawkes's bank of keyboards, which were being used in ways that I didn't know well, melodic and ominous, were very, very interesting.
Upon first inspection, it was impossible to know anything about the lyrics, of which more below. But the singability of the choruses, and the rockabilly aspect of the rhythm guitar, which was admixed with the weird cool exterior, the creepiness, this all seemed really new. I was very interested. The first album was sort of a gateway drug, in the passage through and beyond a lot of dinosaur rock in the seventies into other more interesting things. I bought that first album, The Cars, at the record store in New London, CT, the one by the Harley-Davidson dealership, not a store known for its international taste or love of the avant-garde, and I remember talking to the clerk about the purchase. He said The Cars had been playing around there too. They must have been all over New England in the van. To every heartbroken port city where once there had been whaling.
Here’s a really early performance (audio only), from a college campus in the same period. And note that they don't appear to have figured out the massed backing vocals yet:
And here is a video from the same period, early in 1978, one which has the unsettling effect that I found more memorable than the purely bubblegum-oriented songs:
The band, in these performances, when considered as a band, seems great to me. Even though they’d made a decision about betraying nothing in concert (a gesture that became popular among other bands of the same period), the parts are so great, so musical, and so potently assembled. Elliot Easton is such an amazing and versatile guitarist, I think. He just pulls out amazing solo after amazing solo, but never in such a way that overwhelms the songs. (I like waiting for the last measure of some of the solos, when he allows himself a very small bit of flash.) Also, Dave Robinson was such a disciplined and incredible drummer. He sounds like Neu or Faust. Very minimalist and in the pocket. And, of course, Ben Orr was among the very effective singers of the later seventies, I think. Sort of like Harry Nilsson, with a fake English accent.
Here’s one last early video:
Which shows how quickly they refined what they thought they wanted to do, never much to alter it in later years.
Bruce Handy: So ... I wish I could remember the first Cars song I ever heard. Most likely their first single, “Just What I Needed.” I know for sure I heard it driving around in the 1969 VW squareback that my parents let me use intermittently in college. (I’m class of 1981, so those who don't know me can place my sensibility in time ... ) Since the VW only had an AM radio and no tape deck, that’s what I listened to when I was driving, 1970s AM radio, literally punching the preset buttons back and forth between the Bay Area's two Top 40 stations to find decent songs. I know that the first time the Cars came on I was thrilled to hear something that sounded akin to the music that was exciting me in 1977-78 — pretty much all the acts Rick mentioned, especially, for me, Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads, and also Nick Lowe.
This would have also around the time of “My Sharona,” another AM song I loved and which I also felt was in my new wheelhouse. So I was grateful that this exciting music was breaking through to commercial radio, but I think I may have also discounted the Cars for their success, as I think I later did Joe Jackson. I think I thought of the Cars as less “serious” or “adventurous” than the bands I truly loved. In fact, beyond the first album, and their subsequent hits, I didn't even really know the Cars’ music that well until Ocasek died and I really dug into their catalog. I didn't even know the song “Drive” was by the Cars — if I thought about it at all, I thought it was by Flock of Seagulls or something.
So much of what I thought about music at the time, about commercialism and “authenticity,” whatever that is, now seems surpassingly silly to me. Listening to the Cars in 2019, I find their sheen and tightness exhilarating. Also, with forty more years of listening behind me, I’m amused by my 1970s self’s notion that punk and new wave were rejecting pop and commercialism when many of those acts are so grounded in ’60s pop — Brill Building, garage rock, Motown. (Did I know that the Ramones’ “Needles and Pins” was a cover song when I first heard it? Probably not. I for sure didn't know it was co-written by Sonny Bono.) In some ways, punk and new wave were a sequel to the 1950s revivalism of the earlier 1970s, only dressed up in new-ish clothes. Or not even. Elvis Costello presented himself like he could have been one of the Zombies. Blondie looked like a British invasion band fronted by Marilyn Monroe. I love the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and for sure they brought a new kind of political consciousness to rock, but did either rock or snarl harder than, say, Paul Revere and the Raiders?
The flip side of this is that a lot of the popular rock, pop, and soul of the 1970s which I disdained at the time, I now either love (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, the BeeGees, the Carpenters) or at least respect (The Eagles, a lot of disco). And what’s this dumb rock-critic trope that rock was moribund in the mid-70s and needed to be revived? Here's a quick list of ambitious, risky, sometimes brilliant, sometimes maybe not entirely successful but interesting albums that come out between 1976-78: Songs in the Key of Life, Hejira, Desire, Aja, Station to Station, Low, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Blue Moves (a pet favorite of mine!), Darkness at the Edge of Town, Rumours, Coney Island Baby, Point of Know Return (okay, joke, but maybe Kansas is someone else’s passion?). I guess my point is, the raw energy of punk and new wave felt fresh and exciting at the moment, and maybe was even needed by rock, but this was hardly a musical wasteland. More to the point, distinctions that once seemed important to me now seem silly. Of course, today the shoe might be on the other foot. As much as I love indie or indie-ish rock acts like Weyes Blood or Ty Seagall or Kurt Vile, I think pop acts like Charli XCX or SZA or even Taylor Swift are more musically ambitious and provocative.
Okay, this ended up being more about the evolution of my own taste rather than about the Cars per se. Here's a question I’d love to see taken up by the musicians here: is Ric Ocasek, along with David Byrne, the father of that yelp-y singing style that became so prevalent in a lot of 1980s synth pop?
John Flansburgh: I saw the Cars at the Rathskeller in Boston. I believe it was their first Boston show. I was seventeen. My friend Jimmy had seen them perform at some very humble venue in an unlikely suburban town days earlier and was completely blown away. As Jimmy had already turned me on to half of the music I was listening to, I was curious.
I had already been to “the Rat” at least a dozen times, thanks to Jimmy’s mom’s Mustang and some fake IDs. We would arrive at doors, drink Cokes, and take in every act. I made a habit of counting the number of people in the room. Even though these were notable and often notorious bands, often no more than 75 people showed. Sometime it was 35. I recorded sets on a Panasonic cassette recorder for later reexamination and passing around. People rarely had to stand.
On the night the Cars hit the stage, it was immediately clear they were working on an elevated level. The room seemed crowded. In an era that sometimes felt like a war on stagecraft, the Cars were clearly zagging where the general punk rock stance was a pretty shaggy zig. They looked like rock stars, played what seemed like a complete album’s worth of songs, and everything was streamlined and muscular. Each song had clearly delineated parts that would spotlight the players, with nimble solos and hard endings. On the Rat stage, where most bands had seemed haunted or terrified, the Cars were all low key and maybe even a bit blasé. They were confident and urbane, and behaved like grown men. I was surprised to find out they weren’t from New York.
Months later, the slightly raw but fully formed demo of “Just What I Needed” appeared on WBCN. From then on the band’s ascent seemed inevitable. It was more than just a natural hit, it was kind of an indication of what must be coming. Then the news came that Roy Thomas Baker was going to be producing their album (“that guy who did the Queen records?”) and that seemed very strange and maybe a mistake.
John Linnell: Regarding the yelp: I would put Ric Ocasek’s vocalizations in a slightly different category, maybe more like the Bryan Ferry school of stentorian sprechgesang. I get Ocasek and Ben Orr mixed up in my head — Orr sang “Just What I Needed” and Ocasek sang “My Best Friend’s Girl” so there’s a little bit of overlap there.
As excitingly modern and stylish as their vocals were, there was also an element of toughness and bluster that I remember finding off-putting, kind of like Jim Morrison’s swagger which was already seeming ridiculous a few years after his death. David Sedaris described Morrison’s singing style as “bossy and conceited” and I got a similar vibe off of both the Car’s singers. Also, Ben Orr looked a lot like the kind of brutally handsome kid I found kind of threatening in high school, and Ocasek could be his weedy partner in crime.
I felt more sympathy for Greg Hawkes, the keyboardist who did as much to define their musical style as anyone. He wasn’t quite on board with the dress code, at least at first. It seemed like the moustache was fully out of fashion in 1977 for heterosexual new wave musicians, but that didn’t stop Hawkes (or, for example, the Strangler’s keyboardist Dave Greenfield). Full disclosure: Greg Hawkes has come to see our band more than once in recent years. I think his son is a fan.
David Byrne and David Thomas and probably Robert Smith seemed to be telegraphing their vulnerability with their yelping, something that drew me in. More like a cri de coeur than a boast. I’m tossing in some French and German phrases so this sounds more scholarly.
Rick Moody: I think Greg Hawkes has a ukulele-based band now. John (L), I feel like The Cars were a big influence on Rhode Island bands, in a way. I feel like Rubber Rodeo, for example, really owed something to the way The Cars used the synthesizer, and their relationship to early rock and pre-rock stuff, and Dean Mundane had that sort of louche rock guy thing down pretty well, the Ben Orr quality. Were you aware of them in your pre-TMBG days? I guess Gail could speak to this too. How much were they in Providence?
John Linnell: Yes, no question, the Cars were big in Providence, at least by 1979 when I got there. Rick, you might remember there was a whole raft of bands with red and black suits and blank affect stares playing around Brown and RISD at that time. But I should add that Bob Holmes of Rubber Rodeo was a HUGE Roxy Music fan and cited them as much as his country and bluegrass influences.
Gail Greenwood: Hello all! I am but a lowly player on an instrument that only has 4 strings (and I only play TWO of them!) and I hope to be able to contribute to this fascinating Cars and Ric Ocasek discussion. I have really enjoyed all of your takes on the Cars so far.
I need to share that I am currently in the crushing throes of grief, exhaustion, and utter defeat after a summer of chasing hope on no sleep trying to find cures and alleviate suffering for my dog, Maurice, who only in the end did we finally learn suffered from collapsed bronchi and later a bacterial infection. We made the very fucked up decision to end his suffering last week after two days of decline in the hospital (too little too late). I know that each and every one of you in this thread know this very special horror and for that I am so very sorry. For those who don't know him he was the hilarious and sweet chihuahua half of the duo “Bear Bear and Maurice” who did shows at libraries and the dementia home (that was my parent’s house) and whose videos opened our Belly shows on our tours in 2016 and last summer. First and last of the dog vids (I promise) but for those that want to see a bit of the majesty, click the link:
When Rick asked me to be a part of the discussion I had no idea what a fan he was and how incredibly knowledgeable about the band he was. I thought, shit, I don't even really know anything about the Cars. But as I lay in bed, utterly despondent over Maurice, I re-listened to the first album and realized I KNOW EVERY FUCKING SONG inside and out. And it came rushing back that I listened to that album on headphones on repeat hundreds of times. And that I also knew every single member's name. And everything about each of them that I could. WAS EVERY SONG A FUCKING SINGLE OR WHAT? Seriously. Was there even one deep album cut that NEVER SAW THE LIGHT OF DAY? NO. And as I listened each song DEPRESSED ME even more. WHY the fuck? I have no idea. Death of Maurice? (most likely) Memories of lost youth? Wishing I could recapture wasted time laying in bed listening to an album? Is there a saturation point where a song should NEVER BE LISTENED TO AGAIN? After 40 years of Home Depot and Walgreen's airplay is that just TOO MANY LISTENS?!
Providence. I didn't discover them until I was at RISD in the early/mid ’80s after I started a girl-oriented new wave band (The Dames — winner of the 1985 WBRU Rock Hunt) with some girls from high school (CLASS OF 1978 BARRINGTON). When they came out in ’78 I was very heavy into funk (Ohio Players, Parliament, etc.) so I missed the entire debut and didn’t buy their first record until four or five years after its release. And of course it was/is genius. And yes, Rubber Rodeo was HUGE and the Mundanes and the Young Adults as well and these bands were so creative and so funny and so original. But I’m remembering that these bands were a little before the Cars ... I think?
I only saw the Cars live once — at the Providence Civic Center — and I thought they opened for Aerosmith during a “fall-off-the-drum-riser-Steve Tyler” period but an internet search did not turn up that they ever played together there. What I do remember is that I was bummed and complain-y to whoever I went with that they “just stood there” (after all I was an Ohio Players fan and Mommy likes herself a nice SHOW). So sadly I don’t have anything to contribute in terms of seeing them live. But JESUS CHRIST did I listen to that first record on repeat for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And of course for forty more years at Home Depot and Walgreen’s.
And of course, they were/are master songwriters and players. So so so super tight. Re-reading my email I’m hoping I don't come off as the contrarian bummer lady. They were GENIUS, of course.
Rick Moody: Probably some of you saw this this morning.
On one occasion I read with Paulina Porizkova (she was reading from her memoir), and I was impressed with her writing, with its thoughtfulness, as I am impressed with her openness and vulnerability in this piece, and I am also moved by the vision of Ocasek as a creative person in recent years. Almost Salinger-like in his commitment to making stuff, sticking around the house, going down to the basement, where the studio was, even as he no longer particularly seemed to believe in a reason to release it. There’s a nobility to the creative act in committed privacy, matched by its desperate poignancy. And: the idea of having a band reunion so your kids could see it is sweet.
The hints that Porizkova gives about the music are revealing too. For example, that Ocasek really liked The Carpenters, and that he understood “Let the Good Times Roll” to be ironic. The irony is mentioned by Greg Hawkes in an interview I read somewhere recently, wherein he observed that when they were starting out they thought themselves an earnest rock and roll band, but somehow the irony started creeping in. The more I try to deal with the problem of opacity in Ocasek lyrics the more I think it’s the only way to understand them.
The other hint of note in the Porizkova piece is the idea of Ocasek’s perfectionism. I find the idea of perfectionism really complex here, because I sort of associate it with, say, Steely Dan, or Giorgio Moroder, not something that emerges from punk. But it is consistent with the idea that Ocasek was down in the basement studio to the end, not playing with anyone else, as if the stuff you could do with machines would get closer to the essence, the perfectly tight. Maybe perfect is the material that makes it impossible to work with other musicians.
I don’t think it’s really fair to speculate about their marriage, and so on. That’s just prying open a lid that deserves to remain shut. But the way that Porizkova talks about taking care of Ocasek in the last weeks of his life after his heart surgery is really moving. The kids came home, she made dinner, etc. They watched television together. And this was a guy from whom she was separated. (I have been listening to Candy-O a bit the last few days, which I purchased, as I recall, and then didn’t play that much, maybe because, as Gail says, it was really easy to hear “Let’s Go” everywhere. But if you dig in a little bit, there are some nice songs, among the filler, like the title song, I think, is plenty good.)
Ernie Brooks: Jumping in late — a bit reluctantly, because, while the Cars were such a looming presence in the Boston of my after-college, post-Modern Lover days, I can’t say that I really kept up with their albums as albums after the first and maybe second — always more than slightly jealous that David had realized his pop apotheosis, that fusion of the bubblegum esthetic with something other that had guided us as a rhythm session. He was so much more of a perfectionist than I could ever aspire to be — and with Ben Orr and Ric, et al., he at last found the perfect machine for his sonic and visual concepts (Jonathan’s hapless calls for “Precise Modern Lovers' Order” notwithstanding). At one point I had just moved back to my native NYC (starting a band with cellist/composer Arthur Russell) and went to see the Cars at CBs. I remember thinking, “That's a hit, that sounds like a record!” and hoping David wasn’t pissed at the modest turnout—not bad considering the Cars weren’t British, had no album out, and weren’t part of the NYC downtown. I think I talked to Ric then but remember more clearly (from around this same time) seeing him at Dave’s apt in Boston, and playing tapes of Flying Hearts, the ensemble just formed by Arthur and me, which, while hardly the lush pop overlaid with New Music experimentalism that we were reaching for, got Ric’s attention. He was funny and amazingly generous, as, given our band’s lack of polish or following, he floated the idea of Flying Hearts opening for the Cars on tour. It didn’t happen because Arthur (always difficult) promptly left for Italy in pursuit of a band that he was hoping to produce, confirming my tendency to throw in my lot with geniuses who find the imminence of good fortune intolerable. Sorry to say so little about the Cars’ music and to talk mostly about myself. Just listen to “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by The 1910 Fruitgum Company or “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin” by Crazy Elephant to see where the intro to “Just What I Needed” came from. Same stark 8th-note pulse that Modern Lovers tried for in “Government Center.” I saw The Cars again at the Garden, after they were stars. Didn’t like the show as much as the earlier one, but it was worth it to briefly encounter the serene tallnesses of Ric and Paulina, sweeping past.
II. Theoretical Positions
Charles Bissell: This week ended up being just as hectic even though most weeks, most people’s lives, etc., are WAY more involved than mine, believe me. But the past few days we had Heir #1’s 11th birthday(s), our 12th anniversary (spent very last-minutely at a motel near Storm King, the best we could do on domestically self-imposed short notice), bought a dog on the way home, which sounds way more impulsive than it was, then spent today at the vet and then returning the dog back to the SPCA in Westchester because it was pooping and vomiting in equal measure (we’ll be back to pick him up later in the week and bestow upon him the name as chosen by our child-kings). So yes, a dog sorta ate my homework.
So because at this point I’ve written more about my domestic goings-on in cars than the actual Cars, I apologize, and I’m pasting in Cars notes as-is (sorry!) …
- By the late ’70s (I’m born in ’64), musically, I had moved from the Beatles specifically to the late ’60s generally (Hendrix, Zombies, etc.) since I didn’t like a lot of what was on the radio, largely Philadelphia radio, at the time, or what friends were always pushing on me (Zeppelin, Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac, etc., some of whom I can only now sorta listen to). And punk, to me in the uncool and removed resort town of late-’70s Ocean City, NJ, was really just a news story, or at most, a Gilda skit on SNL. It probably would’ve changed everything for me but I never heard the actual music until a few years later, largely because no friends were listening to it then (say, ’78-80 or so).
- So when the loosely gathered “new wave” started to appear on radio it was a revelation and in hindsight it’s sorta nifty that one could hear first albums/songs by the Police, Bram Tchaikovsky, Graham Parker, Robin Lane & the Charbusters, the B-52’s, Elvis Costello, etc., all on one of the two major Philadelphia “rock” stations (in that era right before the doors shut and the album-oriented thing cooled off into “classic rock”).
- So I first heard The Cars in freshman year of high school (’78-79), via some skateboarding demonstration they weirdly brought to OCHS as an assembly we got out of class to attend, where the skate team wow’d us mounting small ramps and jumping stuff to “Just What I Needed.” While I was not moved to take up the skating life, I was riveted by, and for the next year or so “to,” the song (and the album, which I bought from hearing that song, the way it used to work).
- Among other things, a bit later when I got a guitar and tried writing songs (so around ’80/’81), along with the Beatles, etc., “Just What I Needed” sparked my fascination/love for finding unusual chord choices that didn’t sound weird unto themselves per se, but just “better” because of their uncommon use (I have a whole ridiculous aesthetic thing worked out which, versus Art For Art’s sake, is basically Nothing For Its Own Sake — so no showy chord progressions for their own sake, not guitar solos, not singing prowess, not overly poetic lyrics, not production values, etc. I’m probably preaching to the other preachers here, I’m sure. I also routinely violate this maxim all the time).
- Anyway, in this case, the nifty choice is the iii chord, esp. as they used it—made into major, so a major III chord, that both the sung melody and the perfect guitar solo bend their lines to accommodate, landing on that B# (C), essentially “making the changes” in jazz parlance.
- Speaking of, the perfection of Elliot Easton’s guitar solos across the board.
- Disappointed at one point in my guitar geekery youth, let’s call them my missing Dimeola Years, to learn that he’d worked out the solos in advance, which at the time because of my jazz major mindset, seemed like cheating, which now is just so telling about where my head was at the time and how wrong that head was.
- All the little arrangement tricks that that they use to create the illusion that the song’s a simple repetitive rocker and what in anyone else’s hands would be:
- The different rhythms of the guitar:
- The Intro hits on 4; then on "4 and”; to straight 8ths for the verses; opening up for last time through;
- the constant variation of the main I | V | vi | III progression:
- I | V | III | IV
- I | V | vi | IV
- I | V | IV |vi (for the Chorus), etc.
- And speaking of David Robinson, so underrated!, the snare switching to 1 & 3 on the 2nd & 4th x of the last verse (going into the last C), which I remembered but listening again now, totally remembered wrong — it sorta uncouples the propulsion of the verse, for that last time through, the better to crack the whip when the chorus comes in.
- It’s funny, I think as I’ve been doing music stuff over the last few decades, I’ve formulated a bunch of dumb theories (maybe we all have them?). But I say “dumb,” yeah, in part to preemptively take the sting out of anyone showing that they’re wrong. But also because I came to think over time that these dumb theories (that this begat/influenced that, or that this is really what’s going on in this other thing or that these disparate other other things are actually the same or related, blah blah), that they don’t actually have to be correct.
- So they can be as dumb as they seem to the outside but if say, equating the just-slightly-lilting 8th-note drive of Velvet Underground on “White Light/White Heat” or “I’m Waiting For My Man,” etc. to the feel of the quarter-note pulse of the walking bass lines of much mid-’60s jazz (at exactly twice the tempo), gets me to something new (to me only, admittedly), then dumb it is!
- So a few years ago, I’d come to think that this is what Harold Bloom was getting at with the thing of misreading strong precursors (I always pictured it done accidentally, unknowingly, not as a deliberate strategy, but maybe I’m wrong). And with the idea that maybe I’m wrong, on both counts, it doesn’t actually matter because per my “own” theory, I’ve merely misread Bloom on what misreading is — a win!
- I was gonna ditch all that above in paring things down, and I know it seemingly doesn’t have anything to do with Ocasek or the Cars, but I just saw earlier today that Bloom died, today I guess, and because I actually have thought about his Misreading book and the Anxiety of Influence a bunch, over the last fifteen or so years since I read them, probably as much as some albums I count as faves, in that spirit, sorta felt right to put here after all.
- So, dumb timeline theory: again, while it isn’t necessarily accurate but is how I think about it, that in one sense art, esp. “popular” art, since at least the 19th c., has been a constant whittling and distilling down to the “good parts,” the hooks — i.e. no need to wait through a whole opera for the “hit” song, Sousa will give you the horn blast and catchy melody right up front! Or that the Beatles did that compared to popular songs of their previous eras (while at the same time expanding their songs formally compared to their immediate ’50s and early ’60s rock predecessors).
- That we now sorta find ourselves at the point where popular songs (as broad as that category could possibly be) are now telescoped down to “all” catchy parts, often hooks exclusively, often looped/copied because it’s technically easy to do so and because done right, it really works. But The Cars, in their own era and version of distilling and “get to the chorus,” are still sort of pre-current, more of a link to where we’re at now: harmonically/formally their songs are simpler, seemingly more repetitive versus say, the Beatles or much ’60s and prior popular song (and so in that way, current) but that the songs are played/tracked top-to-bottom, with variations both in performance & arrangement of section-to-section (i.e., not copied and pasted), in that way, of that earlier time.
- So with that currently standard aesthetic choice of looping/repetition, the reason I bogged that first reply-all down with that listing of all of those small constant changes they did on “Just What I Needed” — to form, the chord progression, the rhythms etc. — is that the lesson I took from him/them when I was starting out is that all of those give structural variation to the repetitions/loops themselves, beyond just the words changing or the dynamics of the singer providing change “over” the repetition. (The loops/repetition in this case being the loop around the block of the (usually) four chords in each section, done four times (henceforth, the “4x4").)
- In that way, unlike a lot of cut/copy/paste of music of the last couple decades (I sound curmudgeonly but I like that too) it makes it more like what I think works in old Warhol: variation and a hand-made-ness even in repetition/loops. And that variations to the repetitive flow/form work, I think, because as animals we evolved to catch variations within repetition and patterns, that our survival depended on spotting the predator pattern in camouflage or the set of leaves that was rustling among millions and that now, with most of that unnecessary, sensory art works by tripping those same ... whatevers. Parts of our brains?
I promise I won’t even get started on the song “Dangerous Type,” which I love, and my own associated jackassery and theorizing, except to say that that long ending, w/ the overlapping of keys/vocals/guitar parts, etc., I copied specifically as a template for a 2nd-rate v. of an ending of a song called “everyone choose sides.” And that one of the best trick intros of all times (rhythmically speaking), “Since You're Gone,” I killed myself on for months to come up with my own version of for a new/current song (that song’s definitely not as good as The Cars but I’m sorta proud of how my intro theft played out). In that way, the Cars have been a big influence for a long time for me.
John Linnell: Charles, thanks so much for the music theoretical perspective. Music theory (and how it relates to culture and ideas in general) is such a compelling subject for certain musicians (like me) and so comprehensively boring for everyone else that it’s hard to find a forum other than the hothouse of the tour bus where one can dig into it.
I kind of wish someone would write a book about the major III chord in rock but I’m way too lazy to do it myself. I’m glad you zeroed in on that part of “Just What I Needed” because it’s exactly the same vibe that Black Francis seized upon and passed off to Nirvana. In particular the III major to IV major transition in the Cars song, which is a completely different III major to, for example the III major at the end of the chorus of “All You Need Is Love” leading into the vi minor. In the Beatles song the III major vibe is poignantly earnest and makes me feel slightly teary-eyed, but The Cars turned it into something more menacing. The Pixies crafted a whole genre out of that vibe, c.f. the III major to IV major transition in “Wave of Mutilation.” My first youthful impression of the III - IV transition was in the form of a cartoonish version of “flamenco” music. You go back and forth between an E major and an F major chord and someone else noodles over an A harmonic minor scale and voila! — Spanish music.
Rick Moody: Hey, by way of some concluding remarks: I really think Panorama (1980) is a great record, and, also, Ocasek’s productions are of very great merit, upon many occasions, not forbearing to mention the Bad Brains (Banned in DC) and Suicide (Suicide, the second album), but also Weezer’s Blue Album and Guided By Voices Do the Collapse.
First, I think Panorama indicates an intended counter-narrative of the Cars as a band, namely toward greater experiment. The opening section of the first song (the title track) opens with a quirky rhythm that I can’t count, then there’s the weird chorus of “Gimme Some Slack,” a similarly creepy chorus on “Don’t Tell Me No.” And then the second side has a lot of mood pieces, like “You Wear Those Eyes,” that are more about texture and menace than the slick pop hooks that we associated with the first two records. For the b-side of two singles from Panorama they used “Don't Go to Pieces,” a song that pre-dates the first album, and which pointedly avoids the Roy Thomas Baker production stuff, no stacked backing vocals, no drum machines, etc.
And my hunch is that all the lyrics on Panorama are allegorical commentaries on the fact of the band’s enormous success, and the attendant challenges thereof. Maybe the internal struggles were already beginning to afflict the band too. (Apparently, there was a bit of a Ben Orr resentment campaign that started later on.) Panorama is the last record where the lead vocals are somewhat evenly divided. But Ocasek’s habit of keeping most of the publishing (there’s one or two Greg Hawkes co-writes on each of the later albums, but that’s it) must have made the bass-player-only stuff harder for Orr to stomach. Ocasek also later made it plain that he hated touring. The “perfectionism” manifested in the studio, and that was where he did what he liked to do.
That Panorama was a failure by the standards of the other albums must have shaken the band quite a bit, because after it came the relentlessly upbeat Shake It Up and suddenly the ironic lyric are less ironic, and the hits are more about being hits, without apology. I too happen to think “Since You're Gone,” which prefigures the Paulina abandonment issue in a startling way (“Since you're gone, I took the big vacation”) is great, and as I have already said I really love “Drive” from Heartbeat City, which is just one of the great pop songs from the early MIDI and gated reverb period of the ’80s, but by then the band was over, in terms of being a band, an enlightened democracy, or a group of guys getting together to make music, having been converted instead into a sort of boutique corporation, a highly successful one, at the cost of any lingering artistic credibility. Who’s going to hold you down when you scream, indeed?
The point from the point of the thread, for me, is that there was and is a lot more going on in these songs than seemed apparent, the early family life of Otcasek (original spelling), for example, which sounds pretty harrowing, including rumors of alcoholism and neglect/abuse, the mixed feelings about success in the band, and then the anguish about life afterward, which comes up a lot of in the solo albums (totally worth investigating), and the fact that even Greg Hawkes, who worked with him on almost every solo album, says he never knew Ocasek in some fundamental ways, while Orr, Ocasek's close friend from early life, wasn't really speaking to him at the time of his (Orr’s) death, had not been for twenty years, makes the story, well, very sad. Paulina, who, see above, Ocasek had already cut out of his will at the time of his death, was the one looking after him in the last weeks of his life. (Porizkova, and various children, are mounting legal challenges now ... )
Our collated remarks seem to me to sustain a resistance to The Cars along lines of fashionability, while nonetheless preserving their music-theory value. Maybe I attempt to rewrite music history by suppressing my own. By the time Heartbeat City came out, I couldn't stand them, and was listening to, you know, Hüsker Dü, and The Replacements, and They Might Be Giants. My contempt was chiefly concerned with the high gloss. But as I was saying earlier in this discussion maybe that is to misunderstand the pathos hiding in plain sight, and that the breadcrumbs of deeper expression were there all along.
Here’s a super creepy solo song from Ocasek’s first solo album, Beatitude (note hipster literary reference). Lots of Suicide influence, and it reuses the “Shake It Up” chord progression, really obviously, but goes to a much deeper place. I think it’s sort of on the list of what-might-have-beens for Ocasek, where a real understanding of loneliness and disaffiliation was much nearer to the surface. Maybe the test of time will make it all clearer, and we can see under the studio perfection unto what lies beneath:
And just in case you want to hear the guy who wrote “You Might Think” being openly political, try this one on:
The Ric Ocasek roundtable took several months. It lurched, in fits and starts. And then while we were not finishing the participants were suddenly thrust into the time of quarantine, when music changed a lot, and certain precepts that might have informed the piece seemed suddenly less reliable. What is it that we want from music now in this time of a public health emergency? A lot of recent songs of note have trafficked in something like the “sincere,” in something like “relevance,” and they have not failed to engage with the human emotions; see, for example, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, by Fiona Apple, and “Living In a Ghost Town,” by the Rolling Stones, to take two recent examples. If you can’t heal the ache at least put your finger on the pain. Such might be the popular song mandate of the COVID-19 time.
So what does Ocasek mean now, as the court fight over his uncompleted divorce, and his estate, trudges on, while music takes a hard lurch back in the direction of honesty, or relative earnestness, at the expense of mood and style? Why do I imagine that I still feel the agony of a person who somehow couldn’t express himself openly or was unable somehow to speak outside of or beyond mood and style? Why do I persist in looking for these things?
And here’s Paulina Porzikova, speaking on the occasion of Ocasek’s recent birthday, the first since his death: “Ric was many things, many of them contradictory. Talented. Jealous. Funny. Driven. Judgmental. Passionate. Vain. Silly. Impulsive. Sexy. Vindictive. Generous. Narcissistic. Gentle. So gentle, in fact, that often people confused it with kind. Which he wasn’t. He was never kind. Today is his birthday.”
—October 2019-June 2020
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