Meat Loaf may have rocked and rolled his 260 pounds while finding Paradise by the Dashboard Light, but the Cars’ spookily gaunt singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek must sense art on a slightly higher plane—say, in the dashboard lights that glow AM and FM. To make sure the band’s slickly crafted New Wave songs appeal to the key market of drive-time listeners, he admits, “We mix our songs on car radio speakers,” to get the sound just right.
That sort of calculation hasn’t hurt the Boston-based quintet. The group struck gold last year with its debut LP, The Cars, on the strength of the 45s Just What I Needed and My Best Friend’s Girl, earning “best new band” honors on most reader and critic polls. This year Ocasek’s distinct pop-futuristic sound averted what could well have been the stall-out of the decade. The Cars’ follow-up, Let’s Go, is speeding up the singles charts, while their Candy-O LP throttled to Top 5 after a month on the streets.
The Cars epitomize the so-called “minimal” school of rock. Onstage there are no between-song raps, no stretched-out solos. Tunes are cranked out like eerie replicas of their studio versions. There is no interpersonal kibbitzing among band members or with crowds—and no introductions of song titles or musicians. Clearly, though, the Cars prove there is a market for such frigid and impersonal restraint. Observes drummer David Robinson, accurately: “It would be easier for the audience to understand it if people jumped around with their guitars on fire. We find we can get people excited without doing anything.”
Offstage as well, Ocasek, 30ish, the poker-faced, sardonic 6’4″ leader, embodies rock’s “I talk through my music, man” anticharisma. Ric and wife Sue have lived quietly in the same tiny carriage house in suburban Newton, Mass. since they married in 1972. They have a son, Eron, 5, and Dad works at home. But he spends many of his waking hours immersed in music and its electronic toys, noodling around with basement tapes like fellow Boston rocker Tom Scholz. He even produces demos for local unknown New Wavers.
The son of a Polish-born NASA computer systems analyst, Ric grew up in Baltimore attending parochial school until he was canned for disciplinary reasons in fifth grade. He was smitten by early rock like Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be the Day but abandoned a guitar his grandma gave him at age 10 in just three weeks. Ric quit college after stints at Bowling Green and Antioch only to rediscover the guitar and begin songwriting and local jamming.
He teamed up with Ben Orr, a Cleveland-bred four-instrument rocker, and the pair harmonized through Ann Arbor, New York and Woodstock before settling near Harvard Square to tap the Boston mixer scene in a variety of bands. Ocasek published a 15-page booklet of poetry and sold clothes during the lean mid-’70s.
By early 1977 the Cars were revved up. The name, Ocasek explains, was appropriately both all-American and meaningless. Drummer Robinson doesn’t even own a car. He and additions Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes were veterans of local bar bands and cut the first LP in a lickety-split 12 days. With their second gold LP just around the bend, what bothers the Cars now is the predictable “no-dues” rap from drowning New Wave rivals. No less an expert than Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh has called the Cars’ sound “unashamed, frightening clone music.” “It’s petty jealousy, more than anything else,” shrugs keyboardist Hawkes. Snaps guitarist Easton: “Look, we’re just a bunch of semi-intelligent lamebrains who made enough mistakes in the last 50 bands we were in to do things right for once.”