Car Slick

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.

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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.

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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

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‘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.

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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.

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359 Down.

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*to the point where initial pre-release copies were pressed up with that track name.

**usually manifest through shouting men and, preferably, swearing.

31 thoughts on “Car Slick

  1. Pingback: Quirky Jerk | 1537
  2. For me u can’t beat the first three Cars albums !
    Just loved the quirkiness of there sound I mean while I was devil horning Crue,Dio & others the Cars were a band I would throw on actually them and Cheap Trick for heavier quirkiness …
    Good stuff….

  3. Another thumbs up from here, this stuff is classic. They used to always play that “who’s gonna drive you home… tonight” sog as the last song at roller skating, when we were kids. Haha. The memories.

    Rik Okasek also endeared himself to me forever when he produced a couple of Guided by Voices records in the 90s. GBV! GBV! GBV!

    1. Oh, and I bought some cheap compilation of the Cars because my son loves You Might Think, because it’s in the second Cars movie. Although I think that version in the movie was, um, Weezer? I gave him the original. He’s 4. I respect his education – he deserves the real version first. 😉

      1. I believe the children are our future
        Teach them well and let them lead the way

        Can’t remember if that one was Slayer, or Metallica …

      2. As for the parenting thing, it’s easy: there’s only so much Wheels On The Bus you can stand. So my plan is, while we’re in the house, I put the iPod on repeat, at a low volume, and it’s classical music all day. Mostly Mozart (it’s good for yer brain). Then, when we get in the car, I play a couple of their tunes that they like, and then switch it to my stuff. They get the full education, Daddy doesn’t go bonkers, and then one day my son says to me “Dad, I really like the motorcycle song.” When I asked which one that was, he says “the one where they go ‘whoa yeah!’ a lot.” Motley Crue Kickstart My Heart. He thinks the guitar at the start sounds like a motorcycle. It’s his favourite song in the car. Attaboy!

    2. Roller-disco memories, all manner of, mostly, humiliating encounters with the opposite sex in a cripplingly dangerous environment – wahey! The track I always remember playing, possibly because I like it still was Sly Fox ‘Let’s Go All The Way’, class. Oh and Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’.

      1. Ha, I was young enough not to care about girls when they still had roller skating in our small community (my hometown was 400 people, max). No, mostly we were all about racing, seeing who could go ’round the rink the fastest. We were hockey players, you see, and since this was also our arena in the winter time, it really was just an opportunity to be out on the rink and moving, ice or not.

        I don’t recall those other songs being played. I do remember a lot of Platinum Blonde, though…

      1. It’s called Just What I Needed, and it’s awesome. I only regret I don’t have the version with the sparkly cover!
        RIP Benjamin Orr! I remember I was in the car with T Rev when I heard.

    1. That’s a great compilation, Mike, but as someone who grew up with their individual albums (I was 12 when the debut was released) they’ll always be a “complete albums” band for me. Was it re-released without the sparkly slipcase, or did you just get a copy without that slipcase? I was thrilled with the number of rarities they included in that package, and they did a great job with the expanded version of their debut album too.
      I saw them on the Panorama tour in late 1980. Still one of the most boring shows I’ve ever seen, but I’m still glad I caught them live.

      1. I keep meaning to dig into the complete albums Rich! I know there are remastered versions of many…maybe not Door to Door though. Anyway I think the slipcase was discontinued later on. Bummer.

      2. Mike, don’t let Door To Door’s reputation scare you away. Most people who don’t like it have likely never even played the whole thing. At least half the album is as good as anything else in their catalog, and it features some of their heaviest songs which I know would be right up your alley: “Double Trouble,” “Strap Me In” and “Door To Door” are just three examples. Elliot Easton is on fire throughout most of the record. Had they not broken up right after its release I think it would be more highly regarded.

      3. That compilation has three songs from Door To Door: “You Are The Girl,” “Strap Me In” and “Door To Door,” as well as two 1977 demos of songs that they didn’t record until Door To Door (“Leave Or Stay” & “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo”). Check out “Strap Me In” and “Door To Door” for a good idea of the heaviness I was talking about, but then seek out “Double Trouble” which is my favorite song on the album.

      4. I’m guilty of not giving it a proper go too – I’ve probably only spun it three times since I bought it (when it came out).

    1. Thanks Rich. I never liked much they made after this album, but it was all great up to this point. Like all Cars LPs I think you could have pretty much released any track on it as a single.

      1. Well, they only released one more studio album after this (not counting the semi-reunion album from a few years ago), but that one album (“Door To Door”) is underrated in my opinion. Many of the songs are darker & heavier than they’re usually known for, but that made the album stand out from their others. The reunion album was decent but without the late Ben Orr it came across as more of an Ocasek solo album with two of the guys from the original band playing with him.

        I agree about “Heartbeat City” being packed with songs that could almost all be singles. The combination of Ocasek’s songwriting & Mutt Lange’s production was an inspired pairing.

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