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The Cars video profile: New Wave fashion sensibility, art-pop design & gigantic power pop hooks
The Cars helped defined the era of the music video with their new wave fashion sensibility, art-pop design, and gigantic power pop hooks. Night Flight’s video profile of the Cars — originally airing on March 12th, 1988 — features an interview with guitarist/songwriter/singer Ric Ocasek and looks back at the band’s biggest video hits from the ’80s and discusses Ocasek’s particular songwriting style and the band’s visual style. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.
In February of 1988, the Cars announced that they were hanging it up for good. In a cosmic way, it made sense that one of the quintessential bands of the Reagan decade would call it quits before the decade was up.
Despite their debut record having been released in 1978, the Cars were one of the bands — arguably slotted right next to Hall & Oates and Prince — who defined the decade of MTV with both their sound and their look, which blended new wave fashion, art pop design, and big power pop hooks.
While some ‘70s artists struggled with the idea of the new medium of the music video, the Cars embraced it and it fueled a ten-year long career and two sort-of reunions.
The road to the Cars has plenty of stops along the way including Rick Ocasek and Benjamin Orr’s folk outfit Milkwood. Future Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes played saxophone on Milkwood’s album before joining the duo in their next project, Richard And The Rabbits.
It was while playing the coffee shops of Cambridge as an acoustic duo that Ocasek and Orr began penning what would become some of the earliest Cars tunes.
After a brief stint as Cap’n Swing, where the duo teamed up with lead guitarist Elliot Easton, the trio got Hawkes to join the fold on keyboards and brought on drummer David Robinson.
Robinson suggested they name the band the Cars and with his eye for design and fashion, influenced the visual style of the band. Robinson is credited with painting the checkered flag for the band’s 1980 album, Panorama.
“The Cars…are special,” wrote Robert Palmer in a 1978 review of the band at Brooklyn’s Bottom Line. “One suspects that they could become a very popular rock band, for they have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends — punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the 50’s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop — and mixed them into personal and annealing blend.”
The band played their first gig on New Year’s Eve 1977, recorded their debut in February and The Cars was on store shelves that June.
“You’re putting together a phrase or words to make people think about something, picture something,” explains Ocasek in the interview about his songwriting style.
The video for “You Might Think” doubled down on the songs lyrics about stalking, featuring an obsessed Ocasek pining for the object of his obsession (model Susan Gallagher) showing up in her bathtub, her bedroom and even under the guise of the Robot Monster.
The Mutt Lange-produced tune off of Heartbeat City shot up to number one on the Billboard Top Rock Tracks in 1984, no doubt thanks to the video which was one of the first to feature computer graphics.
The stylish short went on to win the first MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year as well as five more awards at Billboard’s 1984 Video Music Awards and four at the Videotape Production Associations 1985 Monitor Awards.
If anyone were to doubt just how influential the Cars were on 1980’s pop culture, even Alvin And The Chipmunks covered the tune on their television show.
“Why Can’t I Have You”— the fifth single off of Heartbeat City — is featured briefly in Night Flight’s profile and focuses on the sexier, moodier, side of the Cars, forgoing some of the silliness of “You Might Think” and “Shake It Up.
The clip features neon-noir influenced lighting schemes and visuals with a neo-space age set design. A lone girl dances while the band plays recalling a new-wave Metropolis.
The astute eye can see where Nicolas Winding Refn nicked some of his visuals for his Neon Demon.
Plenty of The Cars subject matter dealt with unrequited love…or just girls, but Ocasek never considered himself a ladies man.
“The women [of Cars songs] would have to be made up because I certainly didn’t carouse. I didn’t have women hanging off of my arm all the time. Maybe they were fantasy things. They weren’t based on real personal experiences on a nightly basis. Maybe they were just things I thought people would think. I also thought a lot of them were comic in a way.”
One of the Cars’ biggest hits was the lush, keyboard drone driven ballad “Drive.”
Perhaps it was simply brilliant marketing, having a band named the Cars finally perform a song titled “Drive,” but the song peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
While both Ocasek and Orr took turns singing lead, the bass player took over on this one. There wasn’t necessarily a hierarchy when it came to lead vocals.
“When we played songs we just went ‘you sing this, I’ll sing that,’ revealed Ocasek in a 2000 interview, “it was pretty casual between Ben and I. We had been playing together since we were eighteen.”
“Although, I did keep in mind that if it needed to have a good voice, it should be Ben.” “We’d talk about it for a minute or two,” added Orr.
The video features model Paulina Porizkova — who Ocasek would go onto marry five years later — and was directed by Timothy Hutton, who was living next door to Cars manager Elliot Roberts and upon listening to tracks from the then-unreleased Heartbeat City, was taken by “Drive.”
“At that time, everybody was making videos. It was the height of MTV, and when you made a record, you were also thinking about the video. I talked to Elliott about how much I liked that song ‘Drive,’ and I started describing all the different ways I thought they could go with it, as far as the video,” Hutton recounted to A.V. Club’s Will Harris.
“He said, ‘you know, everything you’re saying sounds really interesting. Do you mind if… Would you be up for me passing that concept along to Ric Ocasek? ‘I said, ‘Sure!” ‘So he got back to me the next day and said, ‘Rice and I think you should direct the video. We love your idea, your take on it.” ’So that’s how that happened. And about a month later, I was in New York at the Astoria Studios over two days, filming the video.”
“Tim was not about to just do a video. He felt it had to be totally real and the emotions had to be totally real, even if it was a silent movie,” Ocasek explained to Night Flight in 1988.
Andy Warhol’s influence — with his pop sensibilities — can clearly be seen all over the Cars.
The artist was recruited by Ocasek to direct (and appear in) the clip for “Hello Again.” Somehow, this marked Warhol’s fist foray into music video and is probably not as weird as you’d expect.
“Hello Again” features plenty of shots of the band singing and pretty girls in sexy outfits and big hair and a sexy young dude with a big ‘ol snake.
The Cars appear to fit the “new wave” bill with their short, punchy songs, punctuated with synthesizers, guitarist Elliot Easton never necessarily agreed with that description.
“I’m glad that we’re not part of some easy to define category,” explained in 2000. “They called anything that came out that year new wave. I don’t even know what that meant.”
“Magic” features Ocasek as a true God of power pop, walking on water and a bizarre Beverly Hills pool party in a video directed by Tim Pope.
“Magic” made it to #12 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 tracks and #1 on the Top Rock Tracks.
“We like to have singles, and we were surprised that we had them,” Ocasek explained in 2000. “I don’t know if I ever wanted a single. When you’re playing songs live and the singles come up that you’re going to play, it feels funny. You feel like you’re playing a cover.”
“Tonight She Comes” continues the bands penchant for sneaking dirty jokes onto FM radio.
“We had sort of our own humor in the band. We weren’t perceived as a funny band particularly, but we laughed a lot and had a lot of jokes,” guitarist Easton stated in 2000. “There’s probably things in the songs that we know like ‘I’m on top of my nerves’ that we know where they come from but nobody else would.”
The set design is brilliant, like a 3-D Roy Lichtenstein painting come to life, could arguably present a perfect encapsulation of what new wave pop was by 1987.
The video also continues the trend of the Cars only casting the prettiest girls in their music videos, like a Patrick Nagel print come to life in polka dots, red leather gloves, and legs for miles.
“Tonight She Comes” is also another in a long line of Cars songs that take place in the witching hour.
“I just think there’s mystery in the night and lots of different kinds of thinking goes on at night. It’s just a more mysterious time,” Ocasek explained in 2000. “Night crawls into the songs because maybe I don’t like day that much.
The profile also touches on the Cars’ solo albums including Ocasek’s “True To You” and Elliot Easton’s 1985 solo tune “(Wearing Down) Like A Wheel.”
Less there be any doubt that the Cars were ubiquitous in the ‘80s, Easton also appeared on Brian Wilson’s “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car,” which was featured on the soundtrack to Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol.
Wrapping up the segment on the Cars’ solo work is Benjamin Orr’s sultry “Stay The Night” from his solo album The Lace, featuring an American Gigolo-influenced cover and plenty of styling’s cribbed from the neon-noir of Michael Mann.
“Strap Me In” from 1987’s Door To Door wraps up the video profile and was the last music video appearance for the band until 2011’s “Sad Song.”
The band reunited that year to record Move Like This sans Benjamin Orr, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2000.
Ocasek sang all of the songs on Move Like This but admitted to Rolling Stone that, on half of the new songs, “Ben would have done better than I did. But we never wanted anybody from the outside.”