You Should Listen To: The Cars, “Heartbeat City”

As a teenager, it’s a rite of passage to rebel against your parents whether it’s actively or subconsciously. I wasn’t too much of bad kid growing up. Sure, there’s the time my friends and I broke into the Pepsi distribution facility and made a fort out of pallets, and all the times putting things on train tracks to see them get run over and flattened (like pennies, apples, bottles or ketchup. you know… the usual). But besides that, model child.

I never disliked the stuff my parents would listen to. I just thought it wasn’t cool to like it. My dad is, and will forever be, a classic rock guy. Springsteen, Neil Young, ZZ Top, Pink Floyd. All the usual suspects on the radio dial. Mom leaned more towards poppier and softer rock stuff. She was more tolerant of the junk I would listen to when I was much younger, but both of them seemed quite indifferent to what I was getting into for the most part.

But while quietly liking what my dad would listen to, and shamefully really digging some of the pop stuff my mom would listen to, I noticed both of them liked The Cars quite a bit. It wasn’t like they disliked what the other would listen to, but they both enjoyed The Cars. So did I. Growing up, I would see the video for “You Might Think” and thinking it was wild. I also remember the video for “Magic” and just being blown away by the special effects. In the days before YouTube, I would have to recall what the video was about. Something about the singer walking on water at a backyard BBQ and everyone else falling in the pool. My misremembering details and realizing no one else had seen the video made things difficult to explain.

Still. The Cars were the first band that I liked that both my parents liked and I was okay with that. It was a personal milestone of sorts. I found The Cars fun to dance and sing along with. I mean, it was something that I was still mortified to admit to any of my friends, since we were getting into punk and metal music at that time.

I mentioned in a previous post that when my parents would be at the Home Depot buying supplies for a home project, I would be wandering the aisles at the record store nearby. On one evening, I purchased The Cars’ Greatest Hits and caught back up with  them as they were making their final purchases. On the ride back home, I had told them of what I bought and my dad told me to pop it in the CD player. A couple songs in, my mom asked which track “Drive” was.

“It’s the fifth song”, I replied.

Track five begins and it’s that song I have heard dozens of times but never knew who did it.

Wait. This is The Cars?! I love this song!

On top of those great songs with the crazy videos, they also wrote “Drive”, one of the greatest ballads of all time. And as I later found out, they were all on the 1984 album Heartbeat City.

To select just one album from The Cars is an undertaking. Their 1978 self-titled debut is practically a greatest hits album onto itself. Seriously. The first three songs off that album are “Good Times Roll”, “My Best Friend’s Girl”, and “Just What I Needed”. Three monumental hits. Never mind that “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, “Moving In Stereo”, and “Bye Bye Love” start the second side of that album. It’s just insane how great that album is.

Then you have Candy-O. 1979’s Candy-O basically picks up right where they left off a year earlier. Songs like “Let’s Go”, “Dangerous Type”, and the title track still sound fresh to this day. “It’s All I Can Do” is yet another perfect song in their catalog. Again, the ability to write hit after hit with ease was on display.

Heartbeat City, however, starts off with the banging “Hello Again“. It’s a jittery song with a ripping synth bass line that will forever be etched into your brain. “Hello Again” remains to be one of my favorite songs by the band. Something about that synth balanced with the heavy percussion, you know? I wrote earlier about the video for “Magic”, and while it’s still great and one of my fondest memories as a child, the actual song is just as enticing. The vocal delivery over the sharp guitar lick and popping bass line sounds like this song could be performed live anywhere from a grimy dive to a state-of-the-art arena. It just fills a room.

Lesser known tracks off of the album, like “Stranger Eyes” and “Why Can’t I Have You” are masterful in their swelling arrangements. Dark and desolate these tracks are, yet still so engaging and interesting. While Heartbeat City houses the some of the band’s biggest hits, the album is rounded out by some great songs, and is absolutely deserving of a listen.

While being quirky and experimental, The Cars knew how to make a song. The structures are rock-solid and the hooks are undeniable. Little things like harmonizing backing vocals and scattered sounds aren’t wasted on any of their songs. We wouldn’t see a formula be duplicated to this degree until Weezer would release their self-titled “Blue” album in 1994. Naturally, Ric Ocasek of The Cars was the producer of that album.

As I grew older, I became much more aware of Ocasek’s indelible mark that he made on the industry. Without him, bands like Weezer or No Doubt may not have found their signature sound. Nada Surf may not have had such a popular hit without him. It was like he defined his sound and encouraged others to take it and run with it.

Another thing I have found so amazing about Ric Ocasek is that he started The Cars well into his thirties. Something that sounds so absurd in modern popular music. Similar to LCD Soundsystem’s founder James Murphy, they found a way to create the thing they wanted to be well into their adulthood. I have personally found much inspiration in these guys. Sadly it isn’t until you know better that you realize that life doesn’t end at 18, or at 29, or at 50. It only begins again and again. It’s something I’m thankful for and a reminder to keep creating and pursuing things that’ll make me happy.

So, with one hand on the ground, one hand in space, you did it all. Thank you for everything you gave to us. You left a body of work that is simply untouchable. May you rest in peace, Ric Ocasek.

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