Monday, 10 December 2012
98 Greatest Hits -The Cars
Purchased : August 1988
Tracks : Just What I Needed / Since You're Gone / You Might Think / Good Times Roll / Touch And Go / Drive / Tonight She Comes / My Best Friend's Girl / Let's Go / I'm Not The One / Magic / Shake It Up
This was my next purchase from Britannia delayed by the national postal strike in the summer of 1988. That had previously entailed sending back a Status Quo album because my "No thank you" card hadn't reached the company in time. It also delayed the goodies from joining the Prisoner Cell Block H Fan Club which had become something of an obsession by this time. I first started watching it for Peta Toppano who'd been the star of the fabulously trashy Aussie supersoap Return To Eden but stayed hooked after she left the series. Remarkably the contagion then spread to my dad, something I can't begin to understand but it was about the only thing we shared in the last decade of his life.
I digress. I was a latecomer to The Cars. Like many of my peers I was more than a little suspicious of the skinny-tied US "New Wave" acts typified by The Knack and this lot. Were they in business to smooth out punk for Midwestern consumption ? My friend Sean told me that Elvis Costello ( not that he was any great hero of mine ) had agreed to work in The Cars's studio with the proviso that he didn't have to meet Cars mainman Ric Ocasek. The record that really turned me on to them was the title track of their 1984 album "Heartbeat City" ( not included on the vinyl version of this but I had it anyway ) and this purchase followed on from that.
The album was released in 1985 and primarily aimed at the American market; less than half the tracks were hits in the UK. It largely sticks to its brief of collecting together the biggest hit singles so that their second and third albums ( both Top 5 LPs ) only supply one track each while the eponymous debut and recent "Heartbeat City" account for half the album.
The album kicks off with their debut hit in the US though it doesn't thereafter follow in chronological order. "Just What I Needed" was actually a bigger hit in the UK reaching number 17 in early 1979. Untypically sung by bassist Benjamin Orr it's a rather patronising sexist song with the protagonist nonchalantly allowing the girl to sleep with him. Typically the lyrics also slip into attempted street jive - "doesn't matter where you've been as long as it was deep , yeah" - despite Ric Ocasek being self-evidently a geek. That said , muscally it's fine with a great synth break from Greg Hawkes where the first chorus would normally be and then again in the middle eight.
"Since You're Gone" comes from their fourth album and made the Top 40 here in 1982 after featuring on one of Jonathan King's first "what's on in the USA " slots ( the success of which in chart terms baffled me but the evidence is there ) on TOTP. It's the first introduction to what I've always assumed to be the limiting factor to their success, Ric Ocasek's voice - a low-pitched hoarse drawl of such limited range he often sounds like he's merely talking. It's difficult to imagine any other band letting him be main vocalist but as he wrote nearly all the songs I guess he called the shots. The song is a straightforward evocation of loss after a break-up and has some interesting elements like the Dave Brubeck-ish drum pattern and Elliot Easton's Heroes guitar solo but it doesn't really go anywhere after that and becomes quite dreary.
"You Might Think" has become very familiar to me over the past year or so as it features ( as a cover by Weezer ) in Cars 2 a DVD on heavy rotation in my household. It was originally the first single from "Heartbeat City" , a massive hit in the USA as the band discovered how to use MTV to their advantage which didn't quite make it over here despite heavy support from Radio One in the autumn of 1984. It was produced by Mutt Lange which isn't normally a recommendation but his trademark brash and bouncy style suits the driving rock of the song and the staccato keyboard riff drills into the ear to great effect. The song is a fairly flippant account of sexual desire with a brazen theft of the hookline from Roxy Music's All I Want is You but it's an exhilarating ride.
"Good Times Roll" is less familiar to British ears being the third single from the debut LP and ignored here. It has a seventies Stones-ey groove with a synth-y veneer , and a sombre melody that suits Ocasek's voice and runs against the straightforward lyric. The key element is the chorus which builds up to a sudden multi-harmonied declaration straight from producer Roy Thomas Baker's most illustrious clients , Queen.
"Touch And Go" is the only track from third album "Panorama" reaching 37 in the USA in 1980. The staccato synth riff on the verses might have influenced The Police's Spirits In The Material World of the following year. Otherwise it's a fairly conventional, vaguely suggestive power pop track with a generous helping of Easton's guitar.
The first side concludes with their greatest worldwide hit "Drive" an FM radio staple to this day. In the UK it was a hit twice, reaching number 5 in November 1984 then re-entering the chart to go one place higher the following summer when it was used as a soundtrack to harrowing footge of starving Ethiopians in a break between acts at Live Aid ( and later performed in The Cars' s own set ). A bemused Ocasek donated the royalties. Michael Hurll then disgraced himself by choosing to show the original video on TOTP rather than spoil his "party " vibe despite the fact that its own images of mental disturbance were hardly condusive to a good times amosphere. Leaving aside the history it's atypical with Orr doing the lead vocal and no guitar on the track. The lyric is a set of pointed questions posed by a man on exiting a relationship cradled in a bed of neurasthenic synths polished up by Lange. It does owe something to I'm Not In Love but is great in its own right.
Side Two begins with "Tonight She Comes" the new track carrot which reached number 7 in the States but didn't chart here. It's one of their best songs , a cuckold's resigned acceptance of his girlfriend's infidelity set to a great tune. Everyone's at their best here, Ocasek's throaty whimper actually suits the theme and Hawkes's synth work underlines the pathos. Add to that a great solo from Easton and a crunching bassline from Orr and it's a little-recognised classic.
"My Best Friend's Girl" was their biggest British hit , a surprise number three in the autumn of 1978. Actually in retrospect it's not that surprising as it's full of pop hooks from the arresting rhythm guitar and handclaps intro to the "Here She Comes Again" refrain on the chorus. Ocasek slyly reveals that l used to be his but it's ambiguous whether he's bemoaning the fact or boasting ( as one imagines David Beckham was tempted to do when his cast-off was picked up by the Premiership's ugliest player Phil Neville ). The chugging organ only underlines that this owes far more to Del Shannon than The Ramones.
"Let's Go" is the only track from second album "Candy O" in 1979. A typical ode to a cool girl in one sense, there are disparate echoes in the music. Ben Orr's whiny voice and the synth tone replicating the Heil talk box both suggest Joe Walsh while the drum break accompanying the title chant could be Bay City Rollers. The circular guitar riff isn't far off a wound-down version of Peter Hook's bassline on Digital .
"I'm Not The One" is a re-recording of a track from 1982's "Shake It Up" to provide a second single from this LP. It's largely a dour synth ballad with echoes of Duran's The Chauffeur with a breakout synth solo that's notably similar to Alphaville's Forever Young. The song is a disavowal of amny responsibility for a partner's troubles with a poignant chorus neatly offetting Ocasek's mopey vocal. My only criticism is that it fails to climax.
That's also true of the album sequencing as the remaining two tracks are pretty mediocre. "Magic" is the least memorable of the five singles taken from "Heartbeat City" ( six if you count the title track's UK release ) , a typical Mutt Lange smoke and mirrors production job with power chords and that trampoline drum sound masking the back of a fag packet lyrics and Hawkes's least interesting keyboard part. Replace Ocasek's hiccups with Joe Elliott's snarl and you've got Animal .
"Shake It Up" is vaguely reminiscent of Lene Lovich's Lucky Number with an aggravatingly banal set of dance slogans for Ocasek to stutter his way through. It's "New Wave" pop at its " quirky " worst, already out of date in 1982 and a poor way to finish a decent album.
Like Blondie and Ultravox before them The Cars found that releasing a "Greatest Hits" mid-career is not without the risk that it will be received as a bookend with the audience snubbing subsequent material. Their next LP did comparitively poorly and they split in 1988 , not coming together again , despite less than stellar solo careers , until 2010 by which time Orr had succumbed to cancer.