Just What I Needed: The Cars’ debut at 40

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By Jack

The Cars would see Boston radio favourites become one of the defining bands of the early 80s. Combining the brittle riffs and tempos of late 70s post-punk with synth flourishes, this debut would form a vital bridge between art-rock and the fledgling new wave scene. As the album turns forty this week, we look back on a modern classic.

The quintet was led by Ric Ocasek, who was principal songwriter, and did most of the song writing in a basement amongst the dirt and roaches. Surprising then that these songs are so joyously camp, so light-headed and dorky. The Cars is a wonderfully laid-back listen, despite the tightly wound structure of the album and tracks themselves. The album was recorded in AIR studios, London with veteran producer Roy Thomas Baker. This would be the first time the band stepped foot on a plane.

Whilst the band are primarily remembered as a synth band, these are used sparingly on their debut. They break through occasionally, as on the melody of ‘Just What I Needed’. This song would become their signature song, as it still is.

The robotic vocals of singers Ocasek and bassist Benjamin Orr are heavily reminiscent of Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music fame. Their weirdly affected vocals were a turn-off for some mainstream listeners, but fit perfectly with the idiosyncratic, funny and impenetrable lyrics. ‘Moving in Stereo’ is a song that nobody else could have recorded.

The irony here is that The Cars, though definitive, was not the band’s best work. Subsequent releases would trump the original in some way: Candy-O for rock & roll energy, Panorama for dark symphonica, Heartbeat City for pure pop pleasure. The album was essentially a manifesto, a mixing pot, wherein all the elements the band would go on to explore could be found.

The spindly riffs, Moog experimentations and particularly the icy vocals of Benjamin Orr (who would eventually sing their biggest hit, ‘Drive’) are all present, as is the eccentric brilliance of Ocasek. The Cars may pail amongst the gaudy extremes of art-rock experimentation, but it is a fantastic record forty years on.

 

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