80s Music

Artist Profile: The Cars

Formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1976, The Cars were a new wave rock band comprising of Ric Ocasek (rhythm guitar, vocals, songwriting) Elliot Easton (lead guitar), David Robinson (drums) Greg Hawkes (keyboards), and Benjamin Orr (bass guitar and vocals).

The Cars are one of the most successful American new wave band in the late 1970s to mid-1980s oldies music era, with several platinum albums and Top 40 singles under their belt. Some of their albums, The Cars, Candy-O and Shake It Up are now 80s and new wave classics, ensuring their lasting influence and legacy.

Artist Profile: The Cars
The Cars in 1984

History and Career

Roc Ocasek and Ben Orr met in Cleveland in the 1960s when Roc Ocasek saw Ben Orr performed with his band The Grasshoppers on a local music variety program. Since then, the two were involved with different bands in Ohio, Columbus, and Michigan. The two relocated in Boston in the 1970s with Jas Goodkind as their lead guitarist and together they formed the band named Milkwood. They released one album entitled How’s the Weather under Paramount Records but unfortunately, the album failed to make it to the charts. And in 1974, Roc Ocasek and Ben Orr formed the band Cap N’ Swing which included Elliot Easton as their lead guitarist. They had been popular in the Boston music scene but they later broke up in 1975. Ocasek, Easton, and Orr then formed a band named The Cars in 1976 with Greg Hawkes as the keyboardist and Dave Robinson as their drummer.

The Cars made their demo tape entitled “Just What I Needed” in  1977 and sent it out to a local influential Boston radio station; eventually it became one of the station’s most requested songs. The Cars played several gigs at local clubs around Boston before signing a record deal with Elektra Records in late 1977. The Cars’ eponymous debut album was released in the summer of 1978. Slowly but steadily, the band built a fan base because of their hit singles “My Best Friend’s Girl”, “Good Times Roll”, and “Just What I Needed”. The album itself peaked at #18 on the Billboard 200, staying there for almost two and a half years. To date, The Cars album has sold more than six million copies.

It won’t be long before The Cars to become one of the biggest rock acts during the 1980s.

In 1979, The Cars released their second album entitled Candy-O which became an instant hit and climbed the Billboard 200, peaking at #3, and quickly became a platinum album in just two months. The album included the hit song “Let’s Go” which reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. They followed this with a third album, Panorama. Even though it produced only a Top 40 hit, “Touch and Go” (#37), the album still managed to peak at #5 on the Billboard 200.

In the fall of 1981, The Cars released their fourth album Shake It Up, featuring the catchy title track as the lead single. “Shake It Up,” the single that is, shot up to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the band’s most successful and most popular song. Even though “Shake It Up” appeared for the first time on the airwaves, Ocasek actually wrote it a few years earlier. The success of the single drove the album Shake It Up to double-platinum sales. The song “Shake It Up” has remained an ’80s pop and rock classic.

After the success of this album, The Cars recorded a soundtrack for the short film Chapter-X. But after that, they took an extended leave. Ric Ocasek grabbed this chance to release his solo album in  1982. 

In 1983, The Cars got back on the track and recorded their fifth album Heartbeat City which was released the following year. The album’s first single “You Might Think” became a hit because of its innovative computer-animated music video. The song became a top ten hit and sent the album Heartbreak City at its peak position at #3 of the Billboard 200 charts. The Cars released three more hit Hot 100 songs: “Magic” (#12) “Hello Again” (#20) “Drive” (#3), the last being also a big hit and becoming The Cars’ highest-charting single ever. It was during the filming of “Drive” music video where Ocasek met 18-year-old famous supermodel Paulina Porizkova; the two would marry in 1989.

The Cars went into hiatus during the mid-80s; around this time they released their first Greatest Hits album. In addition, Greg Easton and Ben Orr both released their own albums. In 1987, The Cars released their seventh album entitled Door to Door, which became a moderate hit. After this, The Cars confirmed rumors that they had broken up and all of the members pursued their solo careers. In 1988, Ocasek himself stated that a reunion would never happen.

In addition to recording a steady number of solo albums as well as performing, Ocasek also became a producer, having worked with Bad Religion, Weezer, Jonathan Richman, Guided by Voices and other alternative rock and indie rock acts.

In April 2000, Orr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite his illness, he continued to actively perform in one of his side bands, Big People. He died from the disease six months later, aged 53.

Easton and Hawkes formed a new spin-off band, The New Cars, together with rock legend Todd Rundgren. They covered classic The Cars and Tood Rundgren hits plus new material.

Ric Ocasek of The Cars
Ric Ocasek in 2009

Ocasek continued to perform as a solo artist, while ensuring The Cars’ legacy won’t be forgotten. He started work for The Cars’ documentary film. At this point, a lot of reissues and compilations began to surface, which included a live DVD of the band’s 1979 concert in Germany, a double-disc deluxe edition of their eponymous first album, and a second Greatest Hits compilation, among all others.

In 2010, all four surviving members reunited — contrary to Ocasek’s statement in 1988 — to record an album of new material. The new album, Move Like This, was released in May 2011 and was their first album since Door to Door. It was also their first album without Orr and their last album with Ocasek.

Move Like This became a big chart hit, peaking at #7 on the Billboard 200  and #2 on the Billboard rock albums chart — more than just a respectable comeback from such rock legends. The carrier single, “Sad Song,” peaked at #33 on the Billboard rock singles chart.

The Cars soon followed the release of the album by kicking off an 11-city North American tour in spring 2011, where they performed classic The Cars songs as well as tracks from their new album Move Like This. It was also to be Ocasek’s final tour with the band.

In 2018, The Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band performed at the induction ceremony — it was also be the final performance of all of its four surviving members.

On September 15, 2019, Ocasek, aged 75, was found dead in his Manhattan townhouse by his wife Porizkova, who had been estranged from him since 2018. The cause of his death was later revealed to be heart attack. Before his death, he stayed at his home to recuperate following a recent surgery.

Ocasek’s family, fans, friends and supporters were devastated by his unexpected passing, which has generated outpouring displays of sadness, tributes, memorials, remembrances and gratitude all over social media.

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