The Cars were the most successful American New Wave band in the late 70s/early 80s. With their sleek, mechanical pop-rock, the band racked up a string of platinum albums and Top 40 singles. While they were more commercially oriented than their New York peers (such as Blondie), The Cars were nevertheless inspired by punk, garage rock and Bubblegum pop.
Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr had been collaborators for several years before forming The Cars in 1976. Ocasek began playing guitar and writing songs when he was 10. After briefly attending Antioch College and Bowling Green State University, he dropped out of school and moved to Cleveland, where he met Orr, who had led the house band on the TV show, Upbeat, as a teenager.
The two began writing songs and led bands in Cleveland, New York City, Woodstock, and Ann Arbor before settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early ’70s. In 1972, the pair were the core of a folk trio called Milkwood.
The band released an album on Paramount Records in late 1972, which was ignored; the record featured keyboards by a session musician named Greg Hawkes. By 1974, Ocasek and Orr had formed Cap’n Swing, which featured Elliot Easton on lead guitar.
Cap’n Swing became a popular concert attraction in Boston, but the group broke up in 1975. Ocasek, Orr and Easton formed a new band – The Cars – in 1976 with former Modern Lovers drummer Dave Robinson and keyboardist Hawkes.
Early in 1977, The Cars sent a demo tape of Just What I Needed to the influential Boston radio station WBCN and it quickly became the station’s most-requested song.
For the remainder of 1977, the group played Boston clubs and by the end of the year, they signed with Elektra Records.
The group’s eponymous debut album appeared in the summer of 1978, and it slowly built a following, thanks to the hit singles Just What I Needed (#27), My Best Friend’s Girl (#35) – the first picture disc to be successfully marketed in Britain – and Good Times Roll (#41).
The Cars stayed on the charts for over two and a half years, delaying the release of the group’s second album, Candy-O. It would eventually sell over six million copies.
Recorded early in 1979, Candy-O wasn’t released until later that summer.
The album was an instant hit, quickly climbing to number three on the charts and going platinum two months after its release. The record launched the Top 10 hit Let’s Go and sent the band to the arena rock circuit.
Perhaps as a reaction to their quick success, the group explored more ambitious territory on 1980s Panorama. Though the album wasn’t as big a hit as its predecessors, it nevertheless peaked at number five and went platinum.
Before recording their fourth album, several band members pursued extracurricular interests, with Ocasek earning a reputation as a successful New Wave producer. The Cars released their fourth album, Shake It Up, in the fall of 1981, and it quickly went platinum, with its title track becoming the group’s first Top 10 single.
Following the success of Shake It Up, The Cars recorded the soundtrack to the short film Chapter-X and then took an extended leave, with Ocasek, Orr and Hawkes all recording solo albums in 1982; Ocasek also produced the debut album from the hardcore punk band Bad Brains.
The Cars reconvened in 1983 to record their fifth album, Heartbeat City, which was released in early 1984. Supported by a groundbreaking, computer-animated video, the album’s first single You Might Think became a Top 10 hit, sending Heartbeat City to number three on the album charts.
Three other Top 40 singles, Magic (#12), Drive (#3), and Hello Again (#20), followed later that year, and the record went triple platinum in the summer of 1985.
At the end of the year, the group released The Cars Greatest Hits, which featured two new hit singles, Tonight She Comes and I’m Not the One.
The Cars were on hiatus for much of 85/86, during which time Ocasek, Easton and Orr all recorded solo albums.
During 1987, the group completed their seventh album, Door to Door. The album was a moderate hit upon its summer release in 1987, launching the single You Are the Girl, which peaked at #17.
Door to Door had seemed half-hearted, sparking speculation that the group was on the verge of splitting up, and they announced in February of 1988 that they had indeed broken up.
All of the members pursued solo careers, but only Ocasek released albums with regularity. Sadly, Ben Orr lost a battle with pancreatic cancer and passed away on 3 October 2000. He was just 53.
When Ric Ocasek refused to take part in a “reunion”, guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard player Greg Hawkes invited Todd Rundgren to stand in as lead vocalist and guitarist (together with bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince from Rundgren’s band, Utopia).
In 2010, Ocasek reunited with the surviving original members of The Cars to record their first album in 24 years, titled Move Like This.
Ocasek was found dead on 15 September 2019, by his estranged wife, Paulina Porizkova, at his New York City townhouse, which they still shared following their separation the previous May. He had been recovering from surgery and the Chief Medical Examiner office reported that he died from natural causes. He suffered from both hypertensive heart and coronary artery disease. Ocasek was 75.