Whilst I really like The Cars Heartbeat City, sometimes when I hear it I just think ‘Yuk, too many 80’s synths’ and other times it just spirits me far, far away. I have always been a total sucker for the Cars and their brand of cool poppy new wave kicks, I genuinely don’t think music gets much better than ‘My Best Friends Girl’, but by the time Heartbeat City came along the guitars had taken a bit of a back seat and the synth reigned supreme.
My parents were given a taped copy of this LP when it first came out in 1984 and I soon appropriated it and removed it to my dank lair. Like you do when you only have eight LPs to play, I lived for days in this album along with the likes of Mr Mister and the first Sting LP that friends at school had taped for me – metal, Queen and Eliminator hadn’t hit yet; but unlike all those other contemporary squares, Heartbeat City stuck. Listening again now I think it’s for two reasons, the quality of the song writing and the little flashes of feeling that sneak past Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange’s pristine production sentries.
Right from the off this is precision-tooled laser-guided pop of the highest order, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for opener ‘Hello Again’ with its strident day-glo perkiness being undercut by the lyrics which really seem a fuck-you to a significant other who is in the process of finding out that the grass is not always greener. Ric Ocasek carefully enunciating a certain amount of bile,
You passed on mercy
You tried the rest
You gave your body
You gave the best
‘Magic’ is a track I still reach for sometimes on a sunny day, it had my all-time favourite guitar solo on for ages before ‘Money For Nothing’ came along in 1985, Elliott Easton really getting to let rip (in a really controlled manner). I used to play this over and over, just drinking in the energy of it all, using my own imagination on the lines ‘I see you under the midnight / All shackles and bows’ and just loving the verse about being/getting twisted. I have a fancy that Def Leppard in their pop prime could have done serious justice to this one; Lange’s commitments to Heartbeat City being one of the factors that held up the recording of Hysteria.
It gets even better with ‘Drive’ which like everyone else I know, I can’t divorce from the harrowing footage it was paired with at Live Aid that made me give away the money I’d saved up to buy the AD&D Monster Manual. But it is a really great song in its own right, a telling treatise on dependency and fragility set again to a deceptively sweet tune. The band are just great throughout but Ric Ocasek’s vocals just absolutely ace it for me.
I’ll spare you the whole grisly track-by-track, almost. I have a real thing for the poppy ‘You Might Think’ and the dramatic ‘It’s Not the Night’ – although I will, unfairly and entirely arbitrarily, deduct 1537 bonus points for the fact that the last line of this song is ‘rushing on the run’, and NOT as I thought for years ‘a Russian on the run’, which is a far better line from Reagan America. But I think Heartbeat City saves the best for last on the title track, which was almost called ‘Jacki’*. I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that the cars hit upon an American pop rock motorik on ‘Heartbeat City’, Greg Hawkes synths drive and soundscape it all to perfection. There’s real feeling, real sadness even in this track. I’ve just played it four times through and if it wouldn’t worry my family I’d give it another four spins, easy.
It is such a good album, a bit of a curiosity for me though in that all the rawness and all the passion** I usually rate so highly are notable by their absence. In its place is music which has been polished until its burnished and so slick the notes come laminated. All in all you can listen to it as a bit of an unintentional extended aural metaphor for the decade that spawned it, perfect surface but look closely and it’s not all as it seems at the seams.
*to the point where initial pre-release copies were pressed up with that track name.
**usually manifest through shouting men and, preferably, swearing.