You have most likely heard by now that Ric Ocasek — lead singer (along with Ben Orr), rhythm guitarist, and sole songwriter for The Cars — passed away on September 15. Ocasek was, somewhat surprisingly, 75 years old, despite only coming to widespread awareness with the 1978 release of The Cars’ self-titled debut album. Typically, someone with that chronology would now be in their sixties, but Ocasek was roughly the same age as many of the music icons of the ’60s who inspired him, because he had actually been in the music game since the ’60s. In fact, he met Ben Orr, eventual co-founder of The Cars, in 1965, and they formed their first band together in ’68. Certainly one case where persistence reaped great reward!
But you can read up on all the history of The Cars elsewhere. I’m here today to remember Ocasek for his remarkable songwriting and ear for a great hook. If all he had ever done was write the songs for the Cars’ debut album, he still would have held a place in the pantheon of all-time greats, but he went on to write so many more great tunes that became staples of classic rock radio, as well as many others equally good that simply didn’t get the airplay reserved for the singles. In my mind, his greatest songwriting streak ran from that debut album through the band’s second and third albums: 1979’s Candy-O and 1980’s Panorama. Things got a little iffier on 1981’s Shake It Up, but there were still a handful of excellent songs to be enjoyed there. Plenty of people might say that Ocasek hit his peak in 1984 on their 5th album, the mega-popular Heartbeat City — but I would not be one of them. Try as I might, I have never been able to appreciate that album as much as the first three (and maybe not even the fourth!). But “Drive” is certainly an excellent song, I’ll give it that.
Ric Ocasek wrote all the songs that The Cars recorded — don’t hold me to it, but I don’t think they even recorded any cover songs for the actual albums. His consistency and variety was really pretty amazing; even over a wide range of styles, he kept it all interesting and so hook-y. I think a lot of credit should go to The Cars as a band, of course: they were great musicians who brought a LOT to the final versions of those songs, and they brought out the best in Ocasek’s songwriting. He was never quite as inspired when it came to his own solo albums, in my mind — they always felt like the not-as-good leftovers from his Cars songwriting. His physical presence in the band shouldn’t be underappreciated, either: his gawky 6′ 4″ frame and his “New Wave Herman Munster” looks (not to be unkind, it’s simply the best description that comes to mind) always felt like a necessary antidote to Ben Orr’s steely, Rutger Hauer-ish good looks. [Clearly, Ric was handsome enough for Paulina Porizkova — who I never really forgave him for marrying, because I think she looked at me once when she appeared at a Boston department store in the early ’90s to sign perfume boxes or whatever. She was this close to being mine, I just know it!]
I remember first hearing Panorama thanks to one of the mail-order record clubs that were so popular in the ’70s and ’80s — most likely Columbia House. While they would of course have their catalog of existing releases, which is where I would typically look to fulfill my 13-albums-for-a-penny deal, there would always be a featured new album promoted in the latest mailing. I almost never bought full-priced albums through the clubs, but having already fallen in love with the prior Cars albums, when it came time for Panorama to be featured as album of the month, how could I say no? To quote songs from that album, Columbia House was all, like, “Don’t Tell Me No”! And I was, like, “Hey, ‘Gimme Some Slack’…I’m ‘Running to You’ even as we speak!” (Sorry.)
Panorama, in retrospect, seems like a pretty logical progression from Candy-O. It seemed futuristic to me at the time, and it definitely was pretty experimental in the realm of popular rock music, but the Cars had already ventured into similar territory on songs like “Moving in Stereo,” on The Cars, and “Lust for Kicks” or “Night Spots,” on Candy-O. In some ways, though, it did seem like a conscious attempt by the band to defy expectations. It certainly took me a few listens to really start appreciating it, and many reviews at the time of its release were less than kind to it, but listening to Panorama now makes it clear that it’s a pretty fantastic album.
The hit off the album, if my memory serves, was “Touch and Go,” which is a weird, herky-jerky song to release as a single. But then again, the stuttering beat of that song’s verse meets its welcome release in the ultra-catchy chorus; one of Ocasek’s greatest strengths as a songwriter was melding two or more unlikely song elements into a cohesive whole that seemed inevitable once you heard it. There are an assortment of fun songs on Panorama, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be what is arguably the hardest-rocking song on the album, “Up and Down.” Over a pulsating synth, the guitars churn and the drums pound while Ocasek sings with that inescapably quirky voice of his. It makes for a great album closer as it finishes without giving up an ounce of power, simply cutting off mid-riff rather than fading out or tidily wrapping things up. It’s a fantastic final song to wrap up their classic years of near pop-rock perfection.
(For a bit more Cars discussion, check out my post on Shoo-Be-Doo/Candy-O back in 2012.)