Sunday, 19 July 2009

Pop Art, In A Sense: In Praise Of The Cars

New wave was a nebulous concept established in the late 70s by record companies seeking to cash in on the punk boom, offering a gullible public the same old J Geils Band shit wrapped in a brand new skinny tie and fluorescent socks. That's one school of thought. Another maintains that the terms punk and new wave were interchangeable. Yet another claims that the term was applied to any group whose music didn't already belong to an existing genre, including early synthpop acts. My own interpretation, partly informed by the musical elements that have become associated with the term over the past 30 years, is that new wave is an identifiable musical style involving clipped, angular pop songs bolstered by the use of synthesizers.

By these criteria, you'd be hard pressed to find a more quintessential new wave group than Boston's The Cars. Ric Ocasek (vocals/guitar), Benjamin Orr, (vocals/bass) Elliot Easton (guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards) and David Robinson (drums) pioneered a form of pop music that was nervy, skeletal and linear, experimental yet egregiously commercial. I was initially reluctant to use the same Robert Palmer quote that graces the group's Wikipedia entry, but the Rolling Stone writer nails them so damn perfectly, I couldn't avoid it: "[The Cars] have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends - punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the '50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop - and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend."

It was certainly appealing – in their day, The Cars were
huge. It's perhaps surprising that the band got so big in their homeland. It's often stated, usually by British critics, that the tastes of the American rock fan traditionally incline towards music which makes a feature of the graft involved in its creation, thereby signalling a gritty masculinity (although how the overcooked melodrama of Springsteen's Born To Run fits in here is worthy of a separate discussion). Yet there's something wholly inauthentic about The Cars' music, a glossy, plasticky quality which marks it as a step forward, if not a severing, from the past. In some ways their amalgam of styles reminds me of the pioneering synthesis of Prince; the 50s rockabilly influence Palmer refers to is similarly detectable in Prince's early work, particularly 'Delirious', 'Horny Toad' and "Jack U Off" while the albums Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981) and 1999 (1982) document the tics of new wave as accurately as those of late 70s/early 80s funk. Certainly, the title tracks of the former two suggest that the Minneapolis polymath was cocking an ear to the work of the skinny Bostonites and taking notes. Though The Cars undoubtedly drew on rock tradition, their state-of-the-art production values confound any charges of retro-fundamentalism, as does the ever-present hum 'n' squiggle of the group's Eno figure, keyboard player Greg Hawkes. The Roxy Music reference seems even more apt when one considers that co-frontman and songwriter Ric Ocasek's vocals are essentially an Americanisation of Bryan Ferry's louche drawl and that Ferry's group also administered ECT to early rock 'n' roll with futuristic results.

The artificial feel of The Cars' music has a lot to do with their choice of producer. The band's first four albums were produced by Queen associate Roy Thomas Baker, whose massive stacked harmonies formed a significant part of their distinctive sound. As Baker related to
Mix Online in 1999, "when I did the first Cars record, we purposely did it very sparse, but when the harmony vocals come in, there are as many vocals there as there were in a Queen record. The only difference is it was in and then it was gone. 'Good Times Roll' is a classic one for that. When they sing those words, it's huge and then it's gone, and everything is back to sparse again. I was able to put big vocals on a sparse, punkish background, sort of inventing post-punk pop." Their final two albums, Heartbeat City (1984) and Door To Door (1987) missed the Baker touch, the former featuring a typically airless mix from Def Leppard/Shania Twain collaborator John 'Mutt' Lange - check out the ear-scraping harmonies that open 'Hello Again' - while the latter album fared better, sonically if not commercially, with Ocasek on both sides of the console.

To these ears, the new wave sound pioneered by Baker and The Cars signals a retreat from the orgiastic indulgence and profligate sensuality of rock 'n' roll into a private, emotionally hygienic world of furtive masturbation, the group's use of an Alberto Vargas pin-up for the sleeve of Candy O being one intimation of this (dis)inclination, its airbrushed exaggeration of female sexuality seemingly designed to inspire frantic bouts of teenage self-abuse. Robert Palmer's description of the band's appeal as "personal" is therefore entirely correct; unlike their similarly gynophobic contemporaries Devo (with whom they share much soundwise) The Cars did not have a political agenda, but even when they were letting the good times roll, Ocasek's baritone hiccup and the band's "jerky motion" suggested awkwardness and anxiety. Where Devo contrived the appearance of androids dedicated to dissecting and eliminating rock 'n' roll, The Cars tried to understand and assimilate it. They could never quite escape their own uncertainty, though, and this invests their music with a frail, intimate quality which fully surfaces on quieter tracks such as 'A Dream Away', 'I'm Not The One' and 'All Mixed Up'. Even at their most gregarious, as on 'Candy O', 'Let's Go' and 'Shake It Up', they're still plagued by nagging doubts; when Benjamin Orr whines, "She's winding them down/On her clock machine/And she won't give up/'Cause she's seventeen," the last word is delivered with a mixture of guilt, lust and admiration. There's always something 'up' in The Cars' world, nothing seems to - excuse the pun - come easy. For example, 'Don't Cha Stop' from the debut is lyrically lustful, but its shuddering delivery hardly signals the height of satisfaction. In this respect they differ from many of their power pop/new wave contemporaries, especially the overtly salacious The Knack, whose 'My Sharona' (and entire oeuvre) is a unambiguous, guilt-free paean to the joys of jailbait. The Cars want it bad enough, it's just that getting it only presents a fresh universe of problems for those involved. The Cars closes in downbeat fashion with 'All Mixed Up'.

When he's not essaying sexual alienation, songwriter Ric Ocasek's lyrics are either future-beatnik doggerel, garbled evocations of neon nightlife or melancholic assessments of damaged relationships. His lyrics often achieve a straightfaced poignancy; every time I listen to 'It's All I Can Do' I'm devastated by the line "When I was crazy/I thought you were great." The words are made even more resonant by Orr's plaintive vocal, and by the time we get to "All of a sudden/It all comes to you/Soon as you get it/You want something new" it's all over. This tendency found its ultimate expression in 1984's 'Drive', which became the unofficial theme, in the UK at least, of Ethiopian famine. Yet the song, with its creepy evocation of a failing relationship, is probably one of the least sentimental hit love songs of the decade.

It's been suggested that if The Cars had hailed from New York, they would have been afforded the same credibility awarded Talking Heads, the Voidoids, even Blondie. And there is a New York connection. Suicide are a key reference here – Alan Vega was without a doubt influential on Ocasek's vocal mannerisms and lyrical approach, and "Shoo Be Doo" from Candy O is a bare-assed tribute. Ocasek would later repay the debt by producing several of the duo's albums, starting with their underrated second effort, released in 1980, and a number of Vega's solo efforts, most notably the really quite odd Saturn Strip, a muddled but fascinating bid for mainstream success which also features the input of a young Al 'Ministry' Jourgenson plus a somewhat 'loose' cover version of Hot Chocolate's 'Every One's A Winner'.

Another New York connection is more theoretical; The Cars were what Television might have been, if they'd been jittery TV and junkfood addicts instead of effete monochrome psychedelicists, and nowhere is this more evident than on Candy O, one of the truly great guitar records of the late 70s. The guitars of Ocasek and Elliott Easton twist and mesh like a chain link fence around the songs and while much of the album is as straightforwardly rockin' as they would ever get, the riffs are carefully constructed from modular parts a la 'Marquee Moon' rather than hammered out, caveman garage style. Candy O constitutes a convincing argument for the two-guitar configuration; on the ridiculously thrilling 'Night Spots' and the surging title track, Ocasek and Easton jab and parry at each other like street punks in a knife-fight, trading slashes of sound, ducking and diving each other's blows with impressive agility.

Following Candy O, the group took full advantage of their continuing success, engaging in an elaborate deconstruction of their sound on Panorama (1980) and Shake It Up (1981). Panorama's title track opens the album with a frantic, elongated riff, sounding like something Helios Creed would write for one of Chrome's dirty epics, its spiralling awkwardness conjuring images of a dizzying pursuit through a razor-lined hexagonal corridor, sections of which are revolving rapidly in the style of a deadly kaleidoscope. Quite an opening for a platinum selling pop record – albeit one without a hit single, unless we count the disorientating thud of 'Touch And Go', which reached #37 on the Billboard chart. The following year's Shake It Up is probably my own personal favourite. Considered by some a retreat from the experimentation of its predecessor, in truth it features a couple of fascinating departures from the highly successful template of the first two records. Shake It Up is The Cars' most electronic record, its arsenal of synths, sequencers and drum machines often featuring as prominently as the guitars. This doesn't align the music with the synthpop of The Human League and Flock Of Seagulls; rather, it echoes the twinkling proto-electro of Kraftwerk, Cluster and Harmonia. Perhaps because it recalls a form of electronic music distinct from the dominant sound of the time, Shake It Up has dated remarkably well. 'I'm Not The One' sounds uncannily like a blueprint for contemporary R&B while the wistful, optimistic 'A Dream Away' foreshadows the direction Ocasek would take on his excellent 1982 solo debut, Beatitude.

Beatitude was one of a handful of solo projects from individual Cars and probably the best, despite competition from Greg Hawkes's Niagara Falls (1983) and Benjamin Orr's The Lace (1985). Although it contains some more conventional radio tracks, Beatitude is most interesting when it explores the experimental avenues briefly visited on the band's albums. Here, guitars take a backseat to synths, the beat is mostly flattened to a Moroder pulse and the songs are allowed to stretch out beyond the traditional FM rock format. Opener 'Jimmy Jimmy' is just astonishing, a sincere appeal to disenfranchised Reagan youth in which Ocasek manages to avoid seeming pompous or excessively avuncular, acknowledging that “Nobody's getting' off/We're all in this together.” The song is warm, wise, and marks a significant development in Ocasek's songwriting. 'Connect Up To Me' is just as impressive. A brightly lit cityscape of a song, it's one of the most beautiful, unashamedly romantic tunes Ocasek has ever written and an epic at over 7 minutes long. The feeling of freedom is audible as the song rushes forward through its changes with relentless momentum, sounding carefree and abandoned. The instrumental section at around 2:03 is breathtaking, MDMA-sparkly. 'A Quick One', 'Take A Walk' and 'Out Of Control' recall Berlin-era Bowie and Iggy, the latter two as doomy and imperious as 'Sister Midnight'/'Red Money' and Talking Heads' nightmarish 'The Overload'. 'Sneak Attack' is another of Ocasek's sporadic melodicisations of Suicide, its disturbingly upbeat refrain of “Watch out for rockets” lodging in the brain like Hiroshima footage. The album ends on a down note with 'Time Bomb', a further cold war-ning. As preemptively apocalyptic as Prince's 1999 of the same year, Beatitude is unmistakably a pop album, but it takes plenty of liberties, and it's a pity Ocasek's subsequent solo career didn't continue in this vein.

Benjamin Orr's The Lace is another matter entirely, though equally accomplished. Orr was the 'real' singer of the group, his smooth yet soulful tones and melodic sensibility more conventionally pop-orientated than Ocasek's and superficially at least, The Lace resembles the mid-80s AOR of Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. There are, however, certain qualities that place it on a plateau above those chart-troubling balladeers. For every 'Stay The Night', the album's first single, a power ballad without a great deal of power, there's a 'Circles', an uptempo rocker laden with hooks and cute, unusual sonic details such as a synthesized xylophone solo...! Orr's pop pedigree (he and Ocasek formed a CSNY-style harmony duo called Milkwood in the early 70s) and dedication to formal beauty ensure that the melodies are fully developed, almost Beatlesque, and there's too much going on in the music for it to be bracketed as typical FM slop, whether it's the extended harmonic section in the middle eight of 'Circles', the vocal leap at the end of 'Skyline's pre-chorus or the unexpected lift in the middle of 'Spinning'. It's as though Orr was unwilling to compromise his standards in order to meet US radio requirements, making his album as experimental as Ocasek's, albeit in a more subtle way; 80s AOR rarely came this well-tooled.

Of the other solo albums, I'd love to write about how great Greg Hawkes' long deleted Niagara Falls (a favourite of the canny sorts over at 20 Jazz Funk Greats) undoubtedly is, but I've only heard the fantastic 'Bee System', a hyperkinetic electropop instrumental bearing comparison with Yellow Magic Orchestra circa 'Behind The Mask' and Devo circa 'That's Good'. If anyone owns the whole album in whatever format, please get in touch! And I can't write about how great Elliott Easton's Change No Change (1985) is... because it just isn't. It might feature some typically inventive guitar-playing and a handful of good tunes, but it's also blighted by embarrassing lyrics and a few outright mistakes, including a dodgy flirtation with rap. Suffice to say, Easton's 'skillz' are best restricted to the guitar. The album does at least show that having Roy Thomas Baker at the controls doesn't always guarantee success.

Following 1987's (actually pretty good) Door To Door, The Cars broke up permanently, and Orr's death from pancreatic cancer in 2000 ensured that the original line-up could never reform, although a project cloddishly dubbed The New Cars – Easton and Hawkes plus Todd Rundgren (vocals/guitar), Kasim Sulton (vocals/bass) and Prairie Prince (drums) – sprung up in 2005, touring and releasing a serviceable package of live and new tracks entitled It's Alive. Rundgren's voice may be a dead ringer for Orr's – or vice versa I suppose – but it just ain't the same. While the nerdish Easton, Hawkes and Robinson were always doomed to be overshadowed by their talented leader Ocasek and the charismatic Orr, the groups' chemistry should not be underestimated – the first four albums showcase a band whose tightness did not merely indicate their collective technical ability, but which also became their much-imitated signature, thereby crystallising a subgenre of rock thoroughly deserving of contemporary reappraisal.