The Cars Take on Their Critics
This article originally appeared in the October 30, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.
“That’s true, we did have a certain view of the world: sort of cold but hysterical,” says Ric Ocasek, the Cars‘ lanky, lean-fleshed lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and songwriter. “Actually, as I look back on it, I think it was probably a protective shield more than anything else. We had abruptly moved from a point in our career of being told, ‘You’re worthless,’ to, ‘You’re everything.’ So it wasn’t coldness so much as cold anger: we were angry at the people who had failed to understand us before, and angry over what they suddenly expected from us.”
Ocasek is stretched out on a settee backstage at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. The Cars are scheduled to take the stage in about thirty minutes, but right now he is content to pass the time discussing a troublesome matter: the Cars’ widespread notoriety as a troupe of dispassionate, artful technorockers. To a large extent, that image has been reinforced by the stark, borderline-abstract mood of Panorama, the group’s soon-to-be-platinum third album. But in Ocasek’s case, that air of coolness has made for a character who seems frequently mysterious and impenetrable — a man who, given the option, would probably rather stare down an audience than accept its applause.
I tell Ocasek that while the Cars were recording the final tracks for Panorama in Hollywood, I used to see him shopping late at night at a neighborhood supermarket. On each of those occasions, it was evident that other shoppers also recognized him; towering well over six feet and outfitted in futurist black-and-white garb, Ocasek’s hardly the sort to go unrecognized. But I never saw anyone approach him for an autograph, or even so much as offer him a smile. In fact, people seemed downright leery of him.
“That’s because I was cold-looking, right?” Ocasek asks with a disarming smile. “I probably would have said hello to anybody, but I know what you mean. People tell me all the time that I look forbidding or aloof. That doesn’t bother me much—I am fairly private, withdrawn and…distant, I guess. But, um, I think that’s okay.”
Ocasek pauses to light a cigarette. “It’s funny, but when I wasn’t a so-called star, I still used to get recognized a lot, although for other reasons. I’ve felt rather like an outcast for most of my life, and I became comfortable with it at a young age. But it’s not easy sometimes telling yourself that there’s hope for your future, there’s a reason to go on.” Ocasek sits quietly for several seconds, staring down at his long, bony hands. “I used to think about how it would be turned around someday.”
Read Rolling Stone’s Review of the Cars’ ‘Move Like This’
And now that things have turned around?
He shrugs casually. “That’s the joke of the whole thing: you can’t be loved by everybody. I know that, and I’ve really come to accept it. That denial of love, in fact, eases my mind.”
“Because now, when I put my work out for the” — Ocasek hesitates, then chuckles— “for the dogs, I’m well aware that some will like it and some won’t. It’s a tough thing to do, but I don’t always like to give people what they expect.”
The Cars Open Up to David Fricke About ‘Move Like This’
It’s only fair to note that when Ric Ocasek refers to “the dogs,” he’s not talking about the Cars’ audience — that amorphous but immense body of fans that, in slightly more than three years, has parlayed the group from a Boston-based bar band to one of America’s preeminent progressive rock acts. (The band’s first two Elektra albums, The Cars and Candy-O, have sold in excess of 6 million records worldwide — The Cars, in fact, is still on the charts—while Panorama vaulted into Billboard‘s Top Five just four weeks after its late-August release.) Although Ocasek, like the group’s other members—bassist Benjamin Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton, drummer David Robinson, keyboardist Greg Hawkes — may not yet understand what it means to have an audience of that size, he certainly would not insult its intelligence.
Instead, Ocasek intends his canine epithet for some former allies who have recently become the Cars’ flat-out opponents: the rock press. The fact is, few other bands have enjoyed the almost unanimous critical praise that the Cars received upon their debut only to watch it turn into stinging repudiation soon thereafter.
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.
I’m reminded of a comment that Jon Pareles made about Panorama in a recent Village Voice: “[These] new songs seem designed to separate Cars’ fans from the pop crowd: they use odd meters and desperate-sounding chords….The Cars’ audience may be loyal enough to follow them this far—who knows if that’s what the Cars want?”
This sounded pretty good to me at the time. Now, as I leave the auditorium, I turn the question around in my mind: does the Cars’ audience have the Cars by the nose; and, if so, how far will the Cars follow them?
“I don’t think we should be that concerned about keeping an audience,” says Greg Hawkes, in reply to a moderate version of that last question. “In fact, our overriding aim is to make music that pleases us.
“I mean, we could put out records that are a lot stranger—droning, one-chord dirges that nobody would buy. It’s just that we happen to like pop music as well as avant-garde electronic music. That’s the idea: to be an innovative pop band and, at the same time, remain entertaining. No question about it, though—the first priority is to be innovative.”
It’s the morning after the Indianapolis show, and we’re seated in a DC-10, en route to Boston, where the Cars have a few days off before journeying to Los Angeles for a guest appearance on ABC-TV’s Fridays. In keeping with his role as the Cars’ synthesizer technician, Hawkes is fascinated with futurist art styles and science-fiction films. The latter interest, in fact, seems to furnish him with his onstage persona: in concert, Hawkes looks like a diminutive alchemist trying to whip up a new amalgam out of music and electronics.
It’s precisely that flirtation with technological images that has subjected the Cars to increasing criticism. Does Hawkes feel that this is a valid gripe?
“Not at all,” he replies. “I think we do have a commitment to keep up with technology. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — actually, it makes us sort of a state-of-the-art band.” Hawkes smiles wryly at his pun. “At the same time, it doesn’t mean we have to buy or utilize every gimmick that comes out. But we should be aware of the possibilities. In my own case, I’d like to start working more with smaller-format stuff.”
I ask him what he means. Hawkes leans forward and pulls a Casiotone M-10—a miniature two-and-a-half-octave-range synthesizer—out of his travel bag. He turns the select switch to the “organ” mode and plays a fragment of Bach’s “Air for the G String,” then flips it to “flute” and plays the haunting prelude from “Strawberry Fields Forever.” For several moments, he stares at his pet portable wonder with undisguised veneration. “The whole point about machines is that you need humans to interact with them; it’s people who play or program a synthesizer.”
Hawkes packs up his toy, then turns back to me. “I think it’s perfectly valid to incorporate new forms of technology into music,” he says. “I think of the Cars as an alternative band—an alternative to the stock rock and pop that still dominate radio. We’re definitely not a tradition-based band. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason to stick with any rock & roll traditions. What’s the point? Traditions exist so we can go beyond them.
“So, who knows: maybe as we go more and more beyond traditions, our audience will get smaller and smaller.” Hawkes ponders that possibility, then shakes his head. “But probably not.”
“It’s taken two years for the Cars to come out of their shell — or maybe shell shock is a better expression,” says Benjamin Orr. “But what we’re doing onstage now is as much us as what we were doing two years ago. It’s just that we developed at a pace that felt comfortable, without having to contrive any shows of emotionalism.”
Orr pauses to take a sip of liqueur, then trades a quiet glance with Elliot Easton. Originally, Orr explains, he had intended to have me over to his house, which he bought after his downtown Boston apartment was recently gutted by a fire that destroyed nearly everything he owned. But the new place is still in disarray, so he and Easton have showed up at my hotel room.
Like everyone else in this group, Orr and Easton make for as unlikely an alliance as one could hope to find in a rock band. Orr, who recently changed his hair from platinum blond to mousy brown — making him look remarkably like a punk version of William F. Buckley Jr. — is probably the Cars’ most streetwise member, a by-product of his upbringing in Cleveland, where he teamed up with Ric Ocasek roughly a decade ago. (None of the band members divulges his age voluntarily; Orr and Ocasek sheepishly admit to being somewhere over thirty.) Easton, who recently trimmed his moppish bangs into a sort of punk shag, is one of the Cars’ most voluble and articulate members. Yet, for all their surface dissimilarities, Orr and Easton share some strong sentiments about the purpose and destiny of the Cars. In fact, both bristle when asked if they’ve felt uncomfortable with the magnitude of the Cars’ success.
“Magnitude?” asks Orr with mock surprise. “That’s a hard concept for me to grasp. I never think about things like that. Magnitude.” He laughs and shakes his head.
But, I point out, as groups and artists become more successful, their margin for error seems to decrease. For example, a lot was riding on Candy-O; if it had failed to live up to the commercial standards set by the first album, the Cars could have ended up a one-hit fluke.
Easton fields the question. “What do people expect—for a rock & roll band to be totally uncaring about whether it reaches people, or gets paid for what it does? I mean, look at the Sex Pistols, who swore they would never sell out to the same success scheme, but they were so full of shit. Malcolm McLaren had nothing in mind if not to make them the biggest band he could. The only way you can negate the impact of success is if you want to work for free. And the only way you can do that is if you’re subsidized.”
But the Sex Pistols broke up over that very predicament.
“True,” nods Easton. “But obviously a band working toward longevity isn’t about to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes and slip out the back door. And all the Cars ever wanted to do was carry on.” He leans forward, warming up to the topic. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never laid awake at night thinking, ‘My God, we’re getting overpaid for this!’ I don’t think we’ve really experienced the conflict that when a band becomes successful, it loses its substance or importance.”
Is Panorama, then, an attempt to stretch the Cars’ boundaries?
“Well,” says Easton, “it’s definitely not a rehash of the first two albums, nor is it just some reply to all those fucks who said the last album was nothing more than detached love affairs and hollow relationships. The first time Ric played the new songs for us, I thought they sounded plain weird—like inside-out music.
“Part of the problem for the Cars is defining where we fit in rock & roll. But if a band hopes to make some inroads in radio for new music, then somewhere along the line, you have to reach millions of people. Deep down inside, it’s a satisfying thing that our music is at all controversial or disturbing. That means it’s a signpost—a point of departure from the rock mainstream.
“And how many times in an artist’s or group’s career do you get to hit a new plateau?”
David Robinson’s fifth-floor town-house apartment is a veritable self-made shrine to a bygone era of calendar-girl art. From every wall, vivid, prismatic portraits of nude and near-nude coquettes — painted in painstaking verisimilitude by pulp realists like Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas—stare out at visitors like a bevy of voracious tarts. But the prize attraction here is the finished original copy of Vargas’ Candy-O painting that hangs at the far end of a central hallway.
Standing in front of it, Robinson beams. “Unfortunately, when the record company reproduced it for the album cover, they fucked it up. You can see,” he says, pointing to the woman’s flowing red tresses, “how they turned her hair into a gaudy orange and made the brush strokes on her torso stick out more.”
He turns to lead me back into the living room. “When Candy-O came out, I remember hearing that some women’s group was complaining about that painting. I wish they’d come up to me. I’d love to confront somebody who’d call an eighty-five-year-old man’s painting of a girl sprawled on a car sexist.“
I hesitate for a moment, then tell Robinson that the picture did seem to portray the woman as something of a hood ornament.
“Oh, yeah?” he replies with a grin, then lets the subject drop.
It’s been said that Robinson, a former art student who’s won several awards for his work in graphic design, is largely responsible for the Cars’ modernistic image-consciousness, and in fact, bestowed the group with its name. (“The concept,” Ocasek once said, “was to deface the value of an all-American symbol.”) In addition, Robinson also enjoys the most illustrious background of any of the Cars: around 1970, he was the original drummer for Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers — a vital, incredibly influential link between the Velvet Underground-Stooges era and the punk-New Wave movement.
He was also a founding member of Los Angeles’ the Pop and then Boston’s DMZ before accepting Ocasek’s offer to join the Cars.
But, he says, beyond being able to hone his drum style down to metric precision — plus being able to feed his appetite for pinup art—the Cars’ success hasn’t fazed him much. “I guess it is a fulfillment of some sort,” he says, “but it’s so far after the fact that it’s hard to remember what I really wanted when I started drumming. I mean, I can’t even recall half the reasons I got into rock & roll.” He glances at one of his nude beauties and shrugs contentedly. “At the same time, I’m perfectly happy. If it ended tomorrow, I’d figure I did great.”
But, like Hawkes and Easton, does he feel that the Cars represent a force for change in rock music?
“Um, I suspect we’ve already had whatever influence we’re going to have on mass taste. I agree that rock & roll is an art form, and that to some extent its basic theoretical structure is changing. Yet, when I see that the mass audience accepts a record like Panorama, but still hates most anything that sounds avant-garde or weird, I realize that we probably don’t do much to affect the average person’s ear. Actually, for its time, I think our first album was one of the most progressive things around.”
What, then, does he make of Panorama?
Robinson hesitates, then laughs shyly. “It sounds…eerier, slightly more depressing than I remember it sounding in the studio. This might sound crazy, but I don’t always know what Ric’s songs are about. In fact, there are some that I have no idea what they’re about. Still, when I play my drum part, I have to feel it has something in common with the lyrics. Either I have to imagine what they mean, or I have to start by looking at the words on a page. Sometimes even then they don’t mean all that much to me.
“With Panorama, it does seem that a lot of the lyrics are pretty murky. At least I know,” he says, chuckling, “I had to play some pretty murky parts.”
Maybe it’s because of the hour — nearly one a.m. — or maybe just because it’s a rare night off from the road — but Ric Ocasek’s in a buoyant mood. Dressed as usual in basic charcoal apparel, he greets me at the door of his split-level house, located in a woodsy hamlet north of Boston, and immediately escorts me to his art-nouveau-cum-cubist recording lounge in the basement. “You might find this fun,” he says as he pops a cassette into his video recorder.
What appears on Ocasek’s television screen isn’t a video of the Cars, but instead a performance by Suicide—a contentious, New York-based avant-garde rock duo, infamous for provoking audiences’ hostility and, on occasion, violence. Sure enough, something like that is happening here. Lead vocalist Alan Vega jerks and struts around stage like an electroshock equivalent of James Brown, intoning phrases like “America is killing its Jews” in a thick-tongued, soulful voice. Meanwhile, straight man Martin Rev accompanies him with trance-like, droning synthesizer. From my vantage point, it looks like a sometimes hilarious, often riveting experience, but judging from the beer bottles, shoes and expletives being hurled at Suicide, the audience doesn’t seem quite so enthralled.
Ocasek, who produced Suicide’s second album, Suicide, for Ze Records, is exuberant about the group. “I think Alan Vega is one of the few real artists I’ve ever met—but he is sort of scary. I was petrified when I first met him, until I realized that he’s just this really gentle soul with a tough, Harlem-bred exterior. Actually, what he’s doing is more jazz and R&B than rock & roll, though he’s instilled it with a punk-minimalist aesthetic. It’s monotonous, which I like, because monotony can be soothing. Except Alan’s lyrics really aren’t soothing at all.”
After that, Ocasek plays a cassette of his original, home-produced demos of the songs from Panorama, before the other band members and producer Roy Thomas Baker sleeked and expanded them. These recordings are far stranger and more obsessed-sounding than anything the Cars have yet released. I tell Ocasek, in fact, that I prefer them to the album versions.
Ocasek smiles demurely and drops his limber frame into a small sofa. “I have to admit, in my heart of hearts, that sometimes I do, too. But the band can’t always play this stuff the way I envision it.” He shrugs resignedly.
This raises an inevitable sticky question: given that Ocasek writes all the material and also sings the bulk of it, are the Cars Ric‘s band?
“I wouldn’t be in a band if I couldn’t write all the songs,” Ocasek says without a moment’s hesitation. “But I respect the abilities of everybody in this group—highly — and they’re more or less free to arrange the songs however they like. No matter what people think, the Cars are a democratic band.”
But some of the other members, I say, don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of what Ocasek’s lyrics are about.
He sighs deeply and leans forward until his chin is almost draping his knees. “I feel like my lyrics are pretty plain and straightforward in their language,” he says in a slow, quiet voice. “The idea behind them is just to set up images that convey an impression or picture, and I don’t feel like I should modify my language to fit the expectations of the people who listen to them.
“But,” he continues, “that doesn’t exactly make my songs evasive or devoid of meaning. Some critics have said that I write about romantic detachment from a cynical perspective. Well, I am concerned about love. I think people play around a lot with each other’s heads and hearts, and I really don’t witness much love or emotion between people. In fact, in all the situations I see, relationships come apart easily. So I don’t think there’s any reason for me to write in warm tones about the hope that love offers.”
But does that make love any less of a necessity?
Ocasek pauses for several moments. “No. No, love’s a necessity, if for no other reason than just to combat loneliness. It’s just that people should only expect what they can give themselves, and not what others can give them, in a relationship. ‘Love’ is such a loose term that I would never invest it with any meaning beyond simply being compatible in a relationship.
“A lot of my songs, like ‘Double Life,’ are about that act of not expecting. That probably seems like a cynical or detached point of view, but then it is.”
Is that refuge in detachment what gives the Cars’ music its air of dispassion?
“It’s important, I think, that the music complements the lyrics, but I don’t believe that either the music or the lyrics are emotionless. I think coldness is an emotion. I feel cold sometimes about what’s going on. Other than that, we’re not what you’d call a free-form jam band. We try to be precise and tight, but that doesn’t make our music ‘stiff or ‘calculated.’ My way of songwriting — even if it seems overly obsessed with form and structure — is just as emotional to me as soul music may be to someone else.”
Ocasek stretches out his long frame and fixes me with a serene expression. “To me, music’s a powerful emotional force. It can make people cry, feel happy or feel sexual. But more important than all of that, it’s a way to communicate without alienating people, a way to get beyond loneliness. It’s a private thing people can have for themselves any time they want. Just turn on a radio and there it is: a sense of belonging. Without having to surrender to anybody else’s needs.”
I come away from my visit with Ocasek feeling both impressed and befuddled. It’s hard to tell if the Cars’ music—an edifice of opaque lyrics, cool-to-the-touch textures and mathematical rhythms—is designed to keep intruders on the outside or emotions on the inside. Either way, Ocasek, the architect behind it all, seems strangely secure in his declaration that rock & roll is both a forum for aloofness and a means beyond aloneness.
These thoughts take a final turn when I visit the ABC studios in Hollywood to watch a dress rehearsal for the Cars’ Fridays appearance. The largely teenage audience is so anxious to see the band, and so indifferent about the show itself, that many in attendance repeatedly interrupt the warmup monologuist’s routine with plaintive yelps for “Ben!” and “Ric!”
Finally, exasperated and a little testy, the comedian snaps: “Geez, don’t be so impatient — how many other places do you get to see the Cars for free?”
As if they’d been hoping for that kind of straight line, a pocket of girls yells back: “Out in the parking lot!”
When the Cars finally come on, they seem tense and edgy. During the opening measures of “Touch and Go,” Greg Hawkes’ high-tech synthesizer fizzles, then quits, leaving Ocasek’s vocal adrift in an expanse of bass, drums and sparse guitar. Yet, by the end of the performance, Ocasek seems to have come to new terms with the song, transforming it from a statement of unassailable solitude to an assertion of desperate need. In this time and place, there’s nothing off-putting or unfeeling about the Cars’ music. In fact, it comes across as what Ocasek described it as: “A way to get beyond loneliness.”
There is, though, one item of unfinished business: the matter of whether Ocasek’s music is progressive art or pretentious entertainment. Well, I don’t have any easy answers—but then the Cars don’t occupy an easy position. On one hand, their music represents the accumulation or synthesis of a venerable lineage of art-rock purveyors (including David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, et al.), though in a diluted, glassy form. On the other hand, compared to the truly radical innovators—mainly English Brave New Wavers like Public Image Ltd., Joy Division (now called the New Order) and Cabaret Voltaire—the Cars probably seem like a tame, irrelevant tip of the iceberg.
But at the same time, the Cars symbolize, perhaps more popularly than anyone else, the notion that rock & roll is undergoing radical change: a burgeoning movement of art theorists and musicians is trying to transmute the form and content of popular music — to the very degree that form supersedes expression.
For Ric Ocasek, that movement comes as a godsend: “I believe that for a lot of artists today, including myself, the creative or visionary process is the same for rock & roll as it is for painting or literature. But there’s also a clear line between art and no art. To me, it’s evident which bands are significant and which are not; which are mimics and which are originals.
“I believe the Cars have something to contribute. You have to remember that we’ve only been together for three albums. I’d be really ashamed if we didn’t go way beyond where we are now. I wouldn’t offer anything we’ve done so far as an indicator of what we may sound like later.”
Which means that slowly but steadily, Ric Ocasek may be steering the Cars to some unfamiliar destination in the hinterlands of rock & roll. And for better or worse, a lot of us are going along for the ride.