My introduction to The Cars came during a late Summer concert in August 1978, when they were the opening act on a concert bill that also included Thin Lizzy, Journey, and the Marshall Tucker Band (wrap your head around that combination for a moment). It’s a safe bet that no one was there that day to see The Cars (and I admit, I was there to see Journey), so it wasn’t as if you could hear much of what they were singing and playing. But I liked the few snippets that did slip through the aural haze, and put their debut album on my mental list of records to buy.
1978 may have been the height of what came to be called “New Wave,” but The Cars is a difficult record to classify. I wouldn’t argue too strongly with the New Wave moniker, but there’s also an art-rock element (the band’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, also manned the boards for Queen, among others) and it’s not much of a stretch just to call them a fairly straightforward rock band. The tag line they used in the advertising for their debut, “Top down music for a hard top world,” fits as well as anything else you could come up with.
With the benefit of almost three decades to give it some thought, I’m not entirely sure that their debut record is The Cars’ best (one could also make an argument for “Heartbeat City,” and although I’m in the minority I was always a big fan of “Panorama”), but there’s little doubt that Side 1 of the debut is the strongest side they ever produced. “Good Times Roll” gets things off to a strong start, but is quickly eclipsed by the twin masterpieces, “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed.” After a glimpse of just how odd the band could sound with “I’m in Touch With Your World,” the side closes out with one of their fastest songs, “Don’t Cha Stop.”
It’s on Side Two that the band explores their arty side a bit more, particularly on the album’s closers, “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up.” But even then, there’s much more of a propulsive beat than you would normally hear from what might normally be classified as an art-band.
It’s also worth noting that Ric Ocasek, the main auteur behind the group, may have been the least likely looking rock star of that (or any) era – although that didn’t stop him from landing Paulina Porizkova). But the band also had its teen heartthrob, in the form of the late Benjamin Orr. The two traded lead vocals, and even today it’s difficult (at least for me) to tell the two apart.
Christgau: B+. “Ric Ocasek writes catchy, hardheaded-to-coldhearted songs eased by wryly rhapsodic touches, the playing is tight and tough, and it all sounds wonderful on the radio. But though on a cut-by-cut basis Roy Thomas Baker’s production adds as much as it distracts, here’s hoping the records get rawer. That accentuated detachment may feel like a Roxy Music move in the first flush of studio infatuation, but schlock it up a little and this band really turn into an American Queen.”