The Cars Take On Critics

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In spite of the Cars' considerable success, the critical disavowals have left the band feeling hurt and angry. Says Elliot Easton: "If anything sits a little funny about success, it's the feeling that we're doing something creative and expressive, but the people we'd like to see it get through to dismiss it as plastic crap. Yet middle America acclaims us."

Adds Greg Hawkes: "I hardly saw a bad review of the first album, but the second one was a totally different story. And now, with Panorama, we've had reviews saying stuff like, 'What happened to these guys?' It's as if we made one good record and then totally blew it."

Indeed, what did happen?

With their debut album in 1978, the Cars created one of the rarest phenomenons of late-Seventies rock & roll: a pop artifact that unified many factions of a pluralistic rock scene. Conservative radio programmers jumped on it because of Ocasek's consonant pop symmetry and Roy Thomas Baker's polished, economical production; New Wave partisans favored it for its terse melodicism and ultramodern stance; and critics applauded it for its synthesis of prepunk art-rock influences, including Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Brian Eno. By the end of the year, The Cars had spawned two hit singles ("My Best Friend's Girl" and "Just What I Needed") and inspired enough of a flutter for the band to win awards from Creem, Circus and Rolling Stone.

But with the release of Candy-O in 1979, several writers began to question whether the accolades had been premature—and for good reason. Where The Cars had sounded refreshing and offbeat, Candy-O seemed unnervingly formulaic and calculated. Hook-laden melodies lost their momentum in a mesh of textural precision, and the rhythm section never broke free of its static structural function. That sense of reserve also infused Ocasek's lyrics: passionless musings on sultry, insatiable women. It was around this time that reviewers began describing the Cars as "chilly," "arty" and "mannered" — not exactly the sort of adjectives that curried much favor in the year of Graham Parker and the Clash.

With the new album, the rift between the Cars and their critics has widened—though for different reasons. Panorama avoids most of the methodical mannerisms that befell Candy-O, but what it opts for instead is technopop: rigid, electronic rock & roll that favors machine-like exactness over heartfelt expression, and avant-garde minimalism over pop-based tunefulness.

So far, the reviews have been mostly unflattering, with Rolling Stone describing it as "an out-and-out drag." The unkindest cut, though, came in the Cars' own backyard. Writing in the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly that was one of the first publications in the country to tout the group, Deborah Frost declared: "Certainly, some of their fans will think they're really putting their necks on the line this time. Bullshit. If they are, it's not because the music or ideas behind it are so brainy, but because this is a slapdash job." Elsewhere, Frost concluded, "This year's model is a lemon...."

Yet, there's a counterside to this wrangle. The Cars' new music may not have the rock verve of Elvis Costello or Tom Petty, nor the experimental range of Talking Heads or Public Image Ltd., but it does, I think, represent a genuine advance for the group. On several tracks, Ocasek and crew have removed the melodic and harmonic core, paring the songs down to monorhythmic pulses and monochromatic arrangements. On cuts like "Panorama" and "Misfit Kid," the end result can be grating and jerky, but in "You Wear Those Eyes" and "Touch and Go," it proves tense, mordant and chilling.

The question, though, is whether any of this constitutes a bona fide incursion of avant-garde music into the mainstream, or whether it's just an artsy exploitation of other people's innovations. In other words, is the Cars' music merely a high-toned dalliance with art theory or a genuine revolution in rock aesthetics?

For the audience assembled in Indianapolis, an even more germane question seems to be, what the hell do questions about art have to do with rock & roll?

Like most Midwestern crowds I've seen, this is a young, clamorous, predominantly male assembly, more interested in rock's physical than its cerebral side. From the moment the house lights drop and a crossbeam of magenta-pink and powder-blue lights illuminates Greg Hawkes—who, isolated within a stockade of keyboards, is weaving a dense, mesmerizing tapestry of synthesizer patterns — the audience is on its feet, whooping, whistling and generally greeting the Cars like a conquering horde of heavy-metal heroes.

That response intensifies as, one by one, the other band members arrive onstage. After Hawkes, David Robinson sits down at his drum kit and starts to pound out a four-square metric pattern that fits snugly into the implied throb of the synthesizers. Then Elliot Easton bounds out, slicing into their webwork with a blaring, clustery guitar solo. Next Benjamin Orr, dressed in a black muscle T-shirt and black leather pants, takes his place on a central riser, playing a heartbeat bass line that provides a rhythmic anchor. Finally, Ric Ocasek lurches onstage, jigging and shadowboxing like a skeletal but impassioned rockabilly star, barking the opening lines of "Shoo Be Doo": "It's funny honey/but you don't care/you never want to take me anywhere." For anybody who saw the Cars on their first American tours, this entrance comes as a shock: it has none of the stiff stoicism about it that was once this group's stock in trade.

This newfound spirit of animation also carries over to the music. Decked out in their black-and-white, striped-and-checked regalia ("kinetic chiaroscuro," they call it), with their Metropolis-style, high-tech set towering behind them and thousands of rock zealots roaring in front of them, the Cars can prove downright awesome. Easton and Hawkes exchange steely, stormy guitar and synthesizer fills, but as bombastic as their give-and-take gets, it almost never disrupts the plotted inviolability of the rhythm section. Which means that in the Cars, individuals don't interact so much as interlock, turning the concept of a rock beat into a mechanical pulse.

But when, at set's end, they careen into "Just What I Needed," with Orr singing lead, it doesn't matter much to anyone whether this is metallic avant-garde, avant hard rock or glossy technorock. It's compelling, thunderous, indomitable, and it seems to be giving 11,000 kids exactly what they demand of rock & roll: a full-weight sensory assault.

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