When thinking of the music of the ’80s, most people probably envision some extreme version of new wave squeaked out of synthesizers by a band bedecked in day-glo and with similarly colored gigantic hair. But those who hear The Cars when they think of that decade may have a more accurate idea. The band utilized some of those synthesized sounds, but blended them with what was essentially old-time rock & roll, crafting pop songs with a classic feel but modern veneer. They were like the bridge between Tom Petty and Devo, Journey and Duran Duran, a sound that could fit anywhere on the radio dial. As such, the Boston band had incredibly broad appeal, and beginning with their first single, “Just What I Needed,” they had 13 singles crack the Billboard Top 40 between 1978 and 1987.
That appeal extended to their album sales as well. From their first self-titled album, which went platinum six months after its release, five of the six albums the band released during its initial run (they reunited in 2011 for a new record) sold at least a million copies. (They had to settle for a gold record for 1987’s Door to Door.) All six have been collected for a new boxset, The Elektra Years: 1978–1987 (Rhino Entertainment). While the set is oddly titled as all the group’s records were for Elektra save for the aforementioned reunion album, it’s production has been given more thought, with all the albums’ digital remastering being overseen by Ric Ocasek himself and the discs packaged in nice reproductions of the original sleeves. (It will also be issued this summer on six LPs, with each album getting a different color of vinyl.)
Just taking a cursory look at the tracklisting of the band’s self-titled album makes it easy to understand the record’s quick ascent up the charts. Led off by “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed,” The Cars is rich with guitar hooks that stand out all the more when intertwined with sweet synth swirls. Similarly, the contrast between Ocasek’s hiccupy delivery on tracks like the first two and bassist Benjamin Orr’s more rugged vocals further emphasized the band’s appealing yin and yang.
Released almost exactly a year later, 1979’s Candy-O doesn’t drift too far from its predecessor’s formula. It’s leadoff track, hit single “Let’s Go,” takes just a couple listens before its synth hook is permanently imprinted on your cerebral cortex for decades to come. The album’s remainder isn’t quite so chock full of hooks, but tracks like the Bowie-esque “You Can’t Hold On Too Long” show The Cars continuing to balance artistic ambition with inherent pop goodness.
Of all The Cars’ albums, 1980’s Panorama probably gets short shrift. While calling it “experimental” is probably an overstatement, it’s true that the record isn’t as immediate as those that came before it. That said, even 36 years later, there’s a lot to like here. There’s a moodiness to tracks like “Touch and Go” and “Don’t Tell Me No” that when juxtaposed with the aggressive guitar work that dominates the record makes for a dynamic listen that eschews the sugar-coating of much of the band’s music.
On 1981’s Shake It Up, The Cars expanded on Panorama’s dynamics while at the same time falling back on its pop instincts. Such prowess is noticeable from the get-go, with the slow build of “Since You’re Gone,” another in Ocasek’s long line of top-notch love-lost laments, transitioning into the title track, an undiluted good times send-up whose vivaciousness matches its title.
By 1984, The Cars had already proved themselves as pop-rock masters, but with Heartbeat City they took it up a notch. Having not released a record in three years after averaging an album a year, leadoff track “Hello Again” signaled their return. The record was loaded with hits, with “Magic,” “Drive,” and “You Might Think” all making it into the Top 10. Every element of the record seemed dusted with fairy dust, sparkling with an unnatural gleam that was no doubt the result of the heavy studio processing of producer Mutt Lange. With videos like the Andy Warhol–directed “Hello Again” in heavy rotation on MTV, this record was ubiquitous and will forever be the sound of 1984 to my ears.
Having reached a pinnacle, there was nowhere else for The Cars to go but down when it came to 1987’s Door to Door. The record is largely devoid of the charms that sustained the band throughout its career, and it’s no surprise that it ended up being the band’s last. That said, greater artists have made worse records.
That each of The Cars’ records jump from the speaker with certain liveliness three decades later speaks to the creativity that underlined everything the band did—even when cranking out hits. Those hits and perhaps the shiny gloss of the band’s music has perhaps kept them from being remembered with as much reverence as other artists. This set proves the band’s music to have as much merit as hooks and The Cars deserving of our continued appreciation.