The Cars

THE CARS Myspace Page!

By Caitlin Flynn

WHEN: 1976-1988

CULPRITS: Ric Ocasek (vocals, rhythm guitar), Benjamin (Ben) Orr (vocals, bass), Elliot Easton (guitar, backing vocals), Greg Hawkes (keyboards, saxophone, various percussion, backing vocals), David Robinson (drums)

ALBUMS: The Cars (1978); Candy-O (1979); Panorama (1980); Shake It Up (1981); Heartbeat City (1984); Door To Door (1987) / Additional tracks have been released on Just What I Needed: The Anthology (1995) and the deluxe edition of the first album (1998), and live versions of some songs are on The Cars Unlocked (2006)

HOW: By 2003, I was in a serious musical slump. Granted, most 13-year olds aren’t very musically advanced to begin with, but I was only semi-successfully trying to like top 40 pop, and I almost got into Good Charlotte and Sum 41, which meant that I could have very well become a mall-emo rat … had not what I consider divine intervention occurred. I vividly remember hearing “Just What I Needed” on the radio that fall for the first time I can remember, as my dad drove me home from my piano teacher’s house, and it felt like an epiphany. I had never heard a tune so catchy and immediate, and full of the keyboards for which I’ve always had a weakness. As at the time I only downloaded individual songs from iTunes, I didn’t get a Cars CD (their Complete Greatest Hits, which I played to death) until June 2004, but then a month later, five days before my fourteenth birthday, I couldn’t resist getting their debut album, still my favorite album of all time. Even though I knew six of its songs, the way the familiar tunes fit in with the exciting new ones was nothing short of magical the first time I heard it. Soon it became a voracious addiction, and I snapped up all of their sadly small discography, first on CD and then on vinyl. (Also, after a few months of denial, I realized that I had a serious crush on Ric Ocasek — don’t laugh, nerdy gawky guys are my type!) The year of 2005 was The Year Of The Cars, but even as I became addicted to other bands as well, The Cars, along with Sonic Youth, were the bedrock of my musical foundation. The things I loved about Ocasek & Co. were exactly what I sought in other bands — simple but sharp lyricism, warbly quirky vocals, irresistible hooks, guitar/synth dueling backed by crashing drums and palpable energy. Even while I don’t listen to them now quite as much as when I first discovered them, no other band even comes close to being my favorite, and they’re like a wonderful old friend whenever I listen to them.

WHY: Fun music unfairly gets a bad rap. The Cars aren’t seeking out to make some grand political statement or display the contents of their thesaurus (but don’t get me wrong, I do love lots of bands that do do that!), they’re just looking for a good time in their little vignettes about love, lust, and nightlife. I can’t tell you how many of their songs give me an uncontrollable urge to start dancing wildly around the room like a monkey that’s just escaped from the zoo. At the same time, however, they have a distinct nerd-chic about them that’s detached from usual balls-out macho posturing. As the primary lyricist, Ric Ocasek always had (and has, even though he’s rather more mellow now) a way with a zinger — such as “You mighta been a neon lover/But you didn’t have to advertise” in “Up And Down” — but he also can be romantic in totally unexpected ways, such as “When I was crazy, I thought you were great” in “It’s All I Can Do.” Granted, that time he gave that line to the more conventionally voiced Ben Orr, not toning down his low, idiosyncratic warble down to love songs until halfway through their career. The multi-singer format is one that I’ve grown extremely attached to since discovering The Cars, and though Ocasek has always said, “If a song needed a good voice, it would go to Ben,” I think he’s selling himself short, and their very different yet still compatible voices merely lend different perspectives to the subject matter.

SONGS: One thing I’ve always loved about The Cars is that while I can definitely tell if a band, older or newer, has a Cars-like sound — that is, using a rhythm-guitar intro, a warbly-voiced singer or zooming keyboard sounds — no two Cars songs really do sound alike. You’d be hard-pressed to guess, not knowing who recorded them, that the instantly catchy, rockabilly-flavored “My Best Friend’s Girl,” the soaring, churning epic “Panorama” (my favorite song of all time), and the lush, gorgeously mournful ballad “Heartbeat City” all were the product of one band. Likewise, both Ric and Ben range vocally from sounding sinister (“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and “Moving In Stereo,” respectively) to ridiculously endearing (“Victim Of Love” and “It’s All I Can Do“). But one of the best things about The Cars is their little lost gems, the rarities and live/alternate versions. “Slipaway” is a bouncy send-off that deserved to be a huge hit but didn’t see the light of day until 1995, the live version of “Good Times Roll” streamlines the sound and makes it catchier and the live “Touch And Go” makes it dreamier, swirlier (proto-shoegaze?) and more romantic by changing the last line from “All I need is what you’ve got” to “All I need is you tonight.” The early demo version of “All Mixed Up,” meanwhile, has a heartbreaking vulnerability absent from the album version, particularly since Ric, not Ben, sings the original demo. I’m afraid that I can’t fit all the songs I’ve mentioned in here onto the mix, and there will be some on there that I’ve neglected to mention, but please do dive in and explore their discography, as they have not one bad album — even their much-maligned swan song, Door To Door, is great campy cheesy-80s fun — and they have one of the highest rates of catchy songs per album that I know.

LINK: Click on the list below to hear THE CARS for free on!

Click the list to hear THE CARS for free on!


Caitlin Flynn is a 19-year-old college sophomore, calls both Springfield, IL, and Ithaca, NY, home; which one she is in depends on the conditions of her life and the time of the year. She is perhaps a little too obsessed with both music and linguistics — as the vast majority of her income is spent on something related to one or the other — but that’s just how she likes it. Some of her favorite bands include The Cars, Destroyer, Sonic Youth, Belle and Sebastian, Roxy Music, Stereolab, and the Magnetic Fields.

~ by Patrick Gosnell on November 9, 2009.

4 Responses to “The Cars”

  1. This is a great list – I love the Cars too! I love it when Ocasek shows up on The Colbert Report (“Friend of the show.”) I would have probably added “You Might Think” and “Tonight She Comes”, but great job – thanks for contributing!

  2. Yes! I love it. Great list. How can anyone not love the Cars???

  3. Heck yeah, the Cars! What an excellent selection, nice to see them getting the props they deserve. 🙂

  4. Thank you all for your kind words!! Patrick, by the way, I left out some of the bigger 80s hits to showcase more of their lesser-known tracks—I realized it was a controversial choice, but I think it captures the band’s spirit more. “Drive” may have been their biggest hit, but it doesn’t encapsulate their essence at all!

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