The Cars Bio
Ric Ocasek's artful pop songs drove the Cars, the new-wave band with the fastest, most consistent success. Their debut and second albums sold more than 6 million copies worldwide, and each album since (except their final group effort, Door to Door) has sold over a million copies. Although the group initially got the critics' nod for Ocasek's coolly detached stance and the smoothly burnished keyboard- and guitar-laced hooks, in retrospect the Cars were essentially the new-wave model of a Top 40 hit machine. That their off-center pop sensibility found expression in a series of original and frequently aired music videos (especially "You Might Think") made them, for a time, one of America's top bands.
Ocasek and Ben Orr had been partners for nearly a decade before starting the Cars. Ocasek took up the guitar at 10 and immediately began to write songs; he started working as a musician after he'd dropped out of Antioch College and Bowling Green State University. He met Orr —who as a teenager had fronted the house band on a TV rock show, Upbeat —in Cleveland, where Orr worked in a studio as a producer and session musician. After working together in various bands in Cleveland, New York City, Woodstock, and Ann Arbor, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late '70s.
As part of a folk trio, Milkwood, they released an album on Paramount in 1972, with Hawkes as session keyboardist. Ocasek and Orr continued to form bands, while Hawkes worked with Martin Mull and the Boston group Orphan, and wrote music with progressive rockers Happy the Man. In 1974 Easton joined Cap'n Swing, Ocasek and Orr's band at the time, which became popular in Boston but broke up when no recording contract was forthcoming. Hawkes rejoined, and Robinson, formerly of Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers, DMZ, and L.A.'s the Pop, completed the Cars in late 1976.
After intensive rehearsals in Ocasek's basement, the Cars made some demo tapes, including "Just What I Needed," which became a top requested song on Boston radio station WBCN. Recorded in just two weeks, The Cars yielded three chart singles —"Just What I Needed" (#27, 1978), "My Best Friend's Girl" (#35, 1978), and "Good Times Roll" (#41, 1979) —and went platinum, staying on the charts so persistently that the release of Candy-O, recorded early in 1979, was delayed. By 1979 the Cars were on the arena circuit; with "Let's Go" (#14, 1979) and "It's All I Can Do" (#41, 1979), ,Candy-O went platinum in two months. On Panorama, the Cars toyed with dissonance and odd meters; it went platinum with "Touch and Go" (#37, 1980), while their debut, The Cars, remained on the charts.
In 1981 the Cars also bought Intermedia Studios in Boston and remodeled it as Syncro Sound, where they recorded parts of Shake It Up. That album, with singles "Shake It Up" (#4, 1981) and "Since You're Gone" (#41, 1981), also went platinum. Ocasek, Orr, and Hawkes started solo albums in 1982.
Three years later Heartbeat City launched the hit singles "You Might Think" (#7, 1984), "Magic" (#12, 1984), "Drive" (#3, 1984), and "Hello Again" (#20, 1984). "Drive," which was used as background music to film clips documenting the famine stricken of Africa during the Live Aid concert and telecast, recharted in the U.K.; Ocasek donated the resulting royalties to the Band Aid Trust. The video for the song starred model Paulina Porizkova, whom Ocasek wed in 1989. The couple's sons, Jonathan and Oliver Orion, were born in 1993 and 1998, respectively.
The Cars' last Top 20 hits were "Tonight She Comes" (#7, 1985) and "You Are the Girl" (#17, 1987). The latter comes from Door to Door, an album recorded as the group was unraveling due to personal conflicts. Ocasek later described it as "a substandard album"; it peaked at #26. A couple of greatest-hits collections were released after the group's 1988 demise, notably the two-CD set The Cars (Deluxe Edition), which included demo versions of early hits and five previously unreleased songs. Throughout the Cars' career Ocasek and Orr shared lead vocals, with Orr singing "My Best Friend's Girl," "Just What I Needed," "Drive," "Let's Go," and "Candy-O." Of the group members' solo efforts, theirs were by far the most popular. Each had a hit single: Ocasek, "Emotion in Motion" (#15, 1986), and Orr, "Stay the Night" (#24, 1987).
Although Ocasek went on to record several more solo albums, including 1997's Troublizing, which featured Greg Hawkes on keyboards, Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, Hole's (and later Smashing Pumpkins') Melissa Auf Der Maur, and Bad Religion's Brian Baker, he largely concentrated on his producing career. His '90s credits include Weezer's eponymous debut album, Hole's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" for The Crow: City of Angels soundtrack, as well as albums for cult favorites Black 47, Guided by Voices, and Jonathan Richman.
Orr formed a band called ORR in the mid-1990s. He died in 2000 after battling pancreatic cancer. Guitarist Easton played in the band the Tiki Gods for a time, did session work with Jerry Lee Lewis and Brian Wilson, toured with ex–Creedence Clearwater Revival members Stu Cook and Doug Clifford in Creedence Clearwater Revisited, and worked as a producer. Hawkes contributed keyboards to most of Ocasek's solo albums.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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The frontman shares memories of his late friend and bandmate Benjamin Orr, and reveals he's got songs for a possible new Cars album