For better or worse, The Cars’ self-titled debut laid out the blueprint for a decade’s worth of radio-friendly rock & roll. Without it, there would never have been a Huey Lewis & the News, a Greg Kihn Band, a Robert Palmer (who reviewed the album for Rolling Stone upon its release), or a Duran Duran—and while those names might not immediately set your toes a-tappin’, it’s difficult to overstate how omnipresent their sound was in the early 80’s, until Guns n’ Roses came along and flipped the script. What’s fascinating about The Cars is how disparate the styles are that the band attempts to weave together—taking cues from psychedelia, bar rock, punk, new wave, Roxy Music-style glam, and proto-punk along the lines of The Modern Lovers (whose Dave Robinson was their drummer), among other things—and how fully formed the band sounds upon arrival, two traits that almost none of their successors shared.
The Cars begins with three stone classics. “Good Times Roll,” while dressed up as a party-starter, is something other than what it pretends to be. Rick Ocasek sings “Let the good times roll” as if he’s been forcibly strapped into an easy chair, made to eat cake until he vomits as the party goes on around him. Synthesizers blast and guitars scrape and scramble, while an army of back-up singers harmonize in the same slightly-icky monotone. The whole thing ambles along in a decidedly un-raging mid-tempo strut. Ocasek’s lyrics almost immediately begin mocking the party: “Let the good times roll/ Let them make you a clown/ Let them leave you up in the air/ Let them brush your rock & roll hair.” The whole thing is, well, totally weird—but the song has been so absorbed into mainstream culture, nobody notices. The Cars might be one of the most subversive bands ever.
“My Best Friend’s Girl” opens with the kind of surgical bass riff that would make Wire or The Strokes wet themselves. Rick Ocasek somehow turns Jonathan Richman’s stuffy-nosed, half-ironic, speak-singing technique into something that could rock a stadium, aided by call-and-response vocals and hand-claps (side note: a man who doesn’t love hand-claps is a sad, lonely man). Elliott Easton makes a case for himself as one of the most underrated guitar players in rock by shoehorning a rockabilly solo into the mix. Then, “Just What I Needed” is all like, “uh-uh,” and tops it. The opening bass notes are more staccato, and punctuated with full-on guitar kerrangs. Bassist Benjamin Orr takes over the vocals and turns a performance even more distant, more sullen, and, somehow, more anthemic; Easton’s guitar work is even cooler.
None of the other songs reach the same iconic stature as the first three, but they’re just as substantial. “I’m In Touch With Your World” is a deconstructed ballad, built on throwaway percussion and keyboard noises. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” begins defiant and turns pleading, while personal favorite “Bye Bye Love” crams an epic amount of feeling into its three-word chorus. And, of course, “Moving In Stereo” later took on a whole new life as the song that soundtracks Brad Hamilton watching Linda Barrett removing her bikini in his imagination in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Yet, “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed” are classics because they follow the blueprint of early rock & roll—essentially, they’re songs for teenagers. The difference being that this was a post-Watergate, disaffected generation of teenagers, and The Cars fittingly tricked out their songs with irony, distance and a healthy amount of cool in order to reach them. Fine, yes, we’ll party all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy about it.
-Martin Brown, 2009