The Cars were the most successful American new wave band to emerge in the late '70s. With their sleek, mechanical pop/rock, the band racked up a string of platinum albums and Top 40 singles that made them one of the most popular American rock & roll bands of the late '70s and early '80s. While they were more commercially oriented than their New York peers, the Cars were nevertheless inspired by proto-punk, garage rock, and bubblegum pop. The difference was in the packaging. Where their peers were as equally inspired by art as music, the Cars were strictly a rock & roll band, and while their music occasionally sounded clipped and distant, they had enough attitude to cross over to album rock radio, which is where they made their name. Nevertheless, the Cars remained a new wave band, picking up cues from the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and Roxy Music. Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr's vocals uncannily recalled Lou Reed's deadpan delivery, while the band's insistent, rhythmic pulse was reminiscent of Berlin-era Iggy Pop. Furthermore, the Cars followed Roxy Music's lead regarding LP cover art, in their case having artist Alberto Vargas design a sexy pinup-style illustration for the cover of their sophomore album, Candy-O. Similar cover art remained the Cars' primary visual attraction until 1984, when the group made a series of striking videos to accompany the singles from Heartbeat City. The videos for "You Might Think," "Magic," and "Drive" became MTV staples, sending the Cars to near-superstar status.
Ric Ocasek (guitar, vocals) and Ben Orr (bass, vocals) had been collaborators for several years before forming the Cars in 1976. Ocasek began playing guitar and writing songs when he was ten. After briefly attending Antioch College and Bowling Green State University, he moved to Cleveland where he met Orr, who had led the house band on the TV show Upbeat as a teenager. The two began writing songs and led bands in Cleveland, New York City, Woodstock, and Ann Arbor before settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early '70s. In 1972, the pair was the core of a folk trio named Milkwood. The band released an album on Paramount Records in late 1972 that was ignored; the record featured keyboards by a session musician named Greg Hawkes. By 1974, Ocasek and Orr had formed Cap'n Swing, which featured Elliot Easton on lead guitar. Cap'n Swing became a popular concert attraction in Boston, but the group broke up in 1975. Ocasek, Orr, and Easton formed a new band called the Cars in 1976 with former Modern Lovers drummer Dave Robinson and keyboardist Hawkes.
Early in 1977, the Cars sent a demo tape of "Just What I Needed" to the influential Boston radio station WBCN and it quickly became the station's most-requested song. For the remainder of 1977, the Cars played Boston clubs, and by the end of the year they signed with Elektra. The group's eponymous debut album appeared in the summer of 1978 and it slowly built a following thanks to the hit singles "Just What I Needed" (number 27), "My Best Friend's Girl" (number 35), and "Good Times Roll" (number 41). The Cars stayed on the charts for over two-and-a-half years, delaying the release of the group's second album, and it eventually sold over six million copies.
Recorded early in 1979, Candy-O wasn't released until later that summer. The album was an instant hit, quickly climbing to number three on the charts and going platinum two months after its release. The record launched the Top Ten hit "Let's Go" and sent the band to the arena rock circuit. Perhaps as a reaction to the Cars' quick success, the group explored more ambitious territory on 1980's Panorama. Though the album wasn't as big a hit as its predecessors, it nevertheless peaked at number five and went platinum. The Cars released their fourth album, Shake It Up, in the fall of 1981, and it quickly went platinum, with its title track becoming the group's first Top Ten single.
Following the success of Shake It Up, the band recorded the soundtrack to the short film Chapter-X and then took an extended leave. The Cars reconvened in 1983 to record their fifth album, Heartbeat City, which was released in early 1984. Supported by a groundbreaking, computer-animated video, the album's first single, "You Might Think," became a Top Ten hit, sending Heartbeat City to number three on the album charts. Three other Top 40 singles -- "Magic" (number 12), "Drive" (number three), and "Hello Again" (number 20) -- followed later that year, and the record went triple platinum in the summer of 1985. At the end of the year, the group released Greatest Hits, which featured two new hit singles, "Tonight She Comes" and "You Are the Girl."
During 1987, the group completed its seventh album and final album with their original line-up, Door to Door. By 2010, the Cars officially reunited for the first time in two decades, with the late Orr serving as the reunion's sole absentee. Working with producer Jacknife Lee, they took up temporary residence in a recording studio in Millbrook, New York, emerging with 2011's Move Like This. Released on Hear Music and greeted by positive reviews, Move Like This peaked at seven upon its release and the group supported it with a brief tour.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine