The Cars – The Cars (album) – Classic Music Review

The Cars remind me of the guy who begins a fuck with lots of promise but then pulls back at exactly the wrong moment, forcing you to resort to your fingers to finish the job.

The pullback may be a move that falls flat, or a dumb-ass technique he read about somewhere guaranteed to make a woman squirt like a high-pressure garden hose. Sometimes it’s because he’s afraid of shooting too early, so he starts to putz around while trying to regain the upper hand over his wayward member. Whatever the cause, it breaks the connection because now he’s thinking about himself and only himself. There’s nothing worse than a self-conscious lover.

I used to be nice about it, coming up with sneaky ways to get my rocks off manually so the guy wouldn’t feel embarrassed. It was easier when I was on top because then I could slide off and distract him by putting a tit in his mouth while I reached down and took care of business. It was harder when I was on my back or taking it doggy-style, but eventually I learned to wait him out patiently and use the few precious seconds between position changes to relieve the tension.

Once my dominant side took over, being nice became the least of my concerns. If a guy took a wrong turn, I’d push him off or pull away, stand up and jack off while he watched. That was a far more effective technique because men love watching women masturbate and it usually gets them focused. Sometimes I could even get a decent fuck out of the effort.

Unfortunately, I can’t do that with The Cars’ first album, since it has been about four decades since they committed the effort to disc. It’s not a bad record; there are some songs I really like and Elliot Easton is an outstanding lead guitarist. The songs are basic rock songs disguised by cheeky but often nonsensical lyrics and heavy use of a decorative synthesizer. I say “decorative” because like so many bands in the late 70’s and 80’s, the synthesizer was used to make songs sound more important and cool than they really were. Unlike Devo, who managed to use a synth in a way that kept the music edgy, the other bands of the era went for the cheap dramatic flourish instead. The reason I chose The Cars’ first album instead of a greatest hits collection is because their synthesizer-dependence only increased over time, and listening to those songs would cause my sensitive ears to recoil in horror.

I don’t know who chose the track order, but opening with the weakest song on the album isn’t the best way to make new friends. “Good Times Roll” is hardly an original title, and the music hardly evokes good times. The chord structure is simple enough but the choice to use a declining pattern tends to make the song a downer, especially in contrast to the promise of the title. I suppose the dour chord pattern could be a statement of New Wave ironic chic (Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True is full of that sort of stuff), but if irony was the goal, one would think there would be some confirmation in the lyrics. But no, they’re just silly:

Let the good times roll
Let them knock you around
Let the good times roll
Let them make you a clown
Let them leave you up in the air
Let them brush your rock and roll hair
Let the good times roll

Ric Ocasek employs his soon-to-be-overused pouty vocal style to the point of irritation, and the harmonies used on the last line of the chorus are a pale imitation of Queen (the producer was a Queen alumnus). The intrusion of synth-produced strings causes even more damage. When you have as natural an opening song as “Just What I Needed” in your possession, failing to place it in the lead spot is tantamount to criminal negligence.

While the opening is so Tommy James, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is at least a more coherent composition. We get to hear Elliot Easton’s lead guitar more clearly, and he gives a pretty impressive all-around performance on the fills and in the solo. Ocasek’s lead vocal isn’t much better, and his occasional Bolan-esque grunts lack sincerity and seem out of context. The harmonies here are stronger, and the rhythm section of Benjamin Orr and David Robinson keeps things moving at a nice pace. The song definitely encourages you to sing along, so overall I think “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a plus.

Then there’s “Just What I Needed,” a song on a much higher plane. The opening passage is fantastic, with its strong forward movement dramatized by single then double power chords that vanish in the seamless transition to the bass-and-drum drive of the first verse. Though I definitely would have whacked the synth and replaced it with more Elliot Easton, this sucker rocks so hard even the synth can’t kill it, and when Elliot gets his shot in the spotlight, he nails it with a perfectly-arranged solo that ends on an exciting upward run. Benjamin Orr’s lead vocal is outstanding, expressing the contradictory emotions of self-loathing and desire with just the right amount of tension:

I don’t mind you comin’ here
And wastin’ all my time
‘Cause when you’re standin’, oh so near
I kinda lose my mind
It’s not the perfume that you wear
It’s not the ribbons in your hair
And I don’t mind you comin’ here
And wastin’ all my time

The way to read the lyrics is as follows: the guy is lying in six of the eight lines. The only directly-spoken truth is “‘Cause when you’re standin’ oh so near/I kinda lose my mind.” All the other lines reflect the exact opposite of what he’s feeling. It is the perfume, it is the ribbons, and fuck yeah, he wants her to be there. The spot harmonies on “ribbons in your hair” are inspired and always give me the chills. As an exposition of male paralysis when overwhelmed by desire, there is no better song than “Just What I Needed,” and the fact that it kicks fucking ass is a super-duper-sized bonus!

“I’m in Touch with Your World” is the most quirky song on the album, and I rather like quirky. Interestingly, the guitar duet establishes the beat, while the percussion instruments (drums, cymbals, bells and ratchet) make the whole thing sound like a mechanical fun house. Ric Ocasek’s vocal is shoved into deep background by the heavy reverb, adding to the mystery of the sound. Both the narrator and object of his one-sided conversation are virtual shut-ins who have created alternative realities through either psilocybin, science fiction or both, and so the message “I’m in touch with your world” is an attempt by Party A to encourage Party B to air his weird thoughts in a safe space. The closing lines, “It’s such a lovely way to go” could imply suicide but the music doesn’t communicate darkness—it’s “music for those whose inner compasses are out of calibration” or more conventionally, those whose cranial containers are “a few bricks shy of a load.”

We leave the introverts in their artificial cocoon and return to the equally complex world of sexual interaction with “Don’t Cha Stop.” Given my perpetually horny nature, one might think that I would love a song that opened with these lines:

Right here I’d like to melt inside of you
Right here you kiss is totally new
Right here your hands are soft and creamy
Right here your mouth is wet and dreamy

Wrong! Of all the songs on the album, “Don’t Cha Stop” is by far the most irritating, a song that turns sex into the aural equivalent of a Disney tune. Imagine trying to fuck during the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland—anyone who can pull that off is in serious need of long-term psychotherapy. The sickeningly sweet chorus sounds like it was written for pre-teens who have no idea what those funny feelings in the nether regions are all about and are still dumb enough to think people kiss with their mouths closed. I’m also irritated that the opening guitar pattern and flanged tone sounds eerily similar to the opening passage of The Move’s “The Minister,” and it wouldn’t be the first time that an American band ripped off The Move. Their unique combination of musical excellence and complete obscurity in the American market made them an easy target.

Let’s MOVE on to the emotionally honest twin of “Just What I Needed,” a song that exposes the moments of desperation experienced usually by those held in the thrall of mating season (ages 16-30) and gives them legitimacy as a natural step in the rite of passage. The narrator of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is in a real bad way—so horny he has no problem being used, abused and lied to, and he’ll do it anywhere you like—a convenient sidewalk, on a launching pad at Cape Canaveral, the grassy knoll—hell, maybe even Disneyland! Ric Ocasek finally finds some discipline and delivers a performance true to the character, and there’s more than enough excellent work from Elliott Easton throughout the song to make you forget the synthesizer had ever been invented. This album would have been a thousand times better had The Cars realized what a great lead guitar player they had and let him the fuck loose.

“Bye Bye Love” features another unoriginal title, another round of flanged guitar and really annoying synth fills that detract from a comparatively strong vocal from Ocasek. What I notice most in this piece is the outstanding drum work from David Robinson, but underneath all the college-level lyrics, this is really just another song that blames it all on the woman. It’s followed by the darker tones of “Moving in Stereo,” a song about failing to face reality that goes absolutely nowhere. We end our journey with “All Mixed Up,” an odd combination of medieval English folk and off-day Queen.

In the interest of supporting your right to hear both sides of the story, you can head over to AllMusic and read a glowing review of The Cars, where you will see the album described as “a genuine rock masterpiece” and that “all nine tracks are New Wave/rock classics.” What I hear is the sound of a band addicted to the latest toys to the point that they forgot about the real talent they possessed in their quest for trendiness.

Thank fuck for my fingers.

Note: For an extremely well-written alternative view on The Cars, see Greg Cleary’s comment below. 

4 responses

  1. I always thought the Cars were a good but not great band. Their shortcomings are apparent – little stage presence, wooden phrasing by both singers, especially Orr, and you touched on the annoying synths. Still…they have *something.* They knew how to right hooks and that can’t be easy. They won’t make you forget Robert Plant or Donald Fagan but their singers have a kind of personality that transcends the material. To this day I have trouble distinguishing Okasic from Orr. I like bands like Squeeze that have lead vocalist who sound nothing alike.

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  2. Sorry — ‘write,’hooks not right…

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  3. The Cars deserve better than this. Especially the first album. I can’t think of another band that blended New Wave so effectively with classic guitar-based rock. They wrote good tunes and had a distinctive vocal style. I definitely agree with you on a few points, though:

    1. “Just What I Needed” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” are the best songs. The first one is beyond dispute, while I believe there are a few songs that rival the second one in quality.

    2. “Don’t Cha Stop” is the weakest song. The lyric is an expression of pure lust. There is nothing interesting going on there. On the other hand, it has good energy and matches the other songs in terms of style, so it is not a major momentum-killer.

    3. Elliot Easton is a great guitarist. I’ve always thought that he was vastly under appreciated, and it’s unfortunate that his skills were forced more into the background as the band evolved. His solo on “Touch and Go” might be my favorite guitar solo of all time, by anybody, and if I had to name a favorite SHORT guitar solo, that would be the one on “Candy-O,” which clocks in at eight seconds but is carefully constructed, with a beginning, middle, and end, and like so many of his solos, it captures and condenses the spirit of the entire song.

    Where my opinion diverges most from yours is with the first song, “Good Times Roll.” You dismiss the lyric as merely silly, but I think it was very bold of them to begin their first album with a song that not only predicted their success but also predicted how they would handle it. Musically, the song sets the template for everything to follow, and lyrically it conveys that they will not be intimidated by the trappings of fame. The title is highly ironic, because the “good times” that they are referring to are the phoniness and hype of the rock music press: “Let the stories be told, let them say what they want/Let the photos be old, let them show what they want.”

    I can understand how the keyboards would be a turn-off for a lot of people. I often dislike keyboards that are played in a flamboyant style and placed high in the mix. But for whatever reason, I’ve always accepted this as part of the Cars’ musical formula. My fondness for the Cars may be partially due to the fact that I was at an impressionable age when I first heard them. But if it was just that, I would have gotten tired of them by now. They knew how to write great pop hooks, and they had an attitude that was cool and nerdy at the same time. Their songs tend to be narrated by losers and outcasts.

    I regard the first four Cars albums as well-crafted gems, even though each one was not quite as good as the one that came before. With the fifth album, Heartbeat City, things became problematic, and in spite of its mass success, that one has not held up as well over the years. Many people (especially punk rockers) see the Cars as sellouts, but I think they are to be commended for pulling a Velvet Underground/Roxy Music/Television style into the American mainstream, which was no mean feat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I always appreciate well-written, thoughtful opinions that differ from mine. I like yours so much I’m going to add a reference to it in the review itself! Thanks again!

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