Ric Ocasek was an unlikely rockstar. He didn’t like touring – he stayed at home in the middle of the last decade while his band, The Cars, toured – with his blessing – with Todd Rundgren in his place.
Upon reuniting with the Boston born group in 2011 to make their seventh, uncharacteristically ploddy final album ‘Move Like This’, Ocasek told The New York Times, “I don’t think I’m an entertainer. I never think, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to get the crowd moving’”. Even in death, Ocasek remains something of an enigma; there is widespread confusion as to whether he was 70 at the time of his passing (as Wikipedia has it), or 75.
Not a born performer, instead Ocasek – born in Baltimore as Richard Theodore Otcasek – was a craftsman. A student of pop. His songs were masterclasses in how to construct perfect power pop via the verse, chorus, verse format. He looked a bit like the High School nerd auditioning for the role of Danny Zuko in an am-dram production of Grease. Joey Ramone if he’d spent as much time in the library as he had CBGB’s. And yet, while he was often uncomfortable with being in the spotlight – while he didn’t especially look the part, or act up like a star either – the songs Ocasek wrote were so filled with hooks, suave charm and brittle new wave crunch, The Cars status as rock ‘n’ roll greats (fittingly they were inducted to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame just last year) has long been beyond reproach.
Ocasek once described his songs as “more twisted than I’ll ever be…” and he had a point. It’s easy to see The Cars – much like how The Police latched onto UK punk in the hope of being heard – as opportunistic, bandwagon jumpers. By the time they broke, with their near perfect self-titled debut in the June of 1978, the band were a good 10-years-older than their new wave peers.
Ocasek had four kids at the time. He’d been writing songs for years; in 1973, he, and future Cars bassist/vocalist Benjamin Orr formed a Crosby, Stills and Nash-style folk rock band called Milkwood. They released an album, ‘How’s The Weather’, though no-one especially cared. (Orr would subsequently front The Cars two biggest songs, perfect power-pop debut single ‘Just What I Needed’ and 1984’s ‘Drive’ – which benefitted hugely by its prominent use in the coverage of Live Aid the following year).
Things would change significantly in 1976 with the formation of the duo’s new group, and, however Ocasek’s songs came to be heard, it’s just enough that they were. The Cars’ aforementioned debut – often wryly described by the band as their ‘true Greatest Hits’ – is 37 minutes of the snuggest, shiniest, leanest pop-rock ever committed to tape.
Produced by sometime Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker – with the sharp, innovative playing of guitarist Elliot Easton benefitting from access to the producer’s big sound – it sounds like it too. Multi-tracked backing vocals; brain bending panned choruses; the use of synthesizers and other emerging electronic music technology, the result was a record that had the hooks and the sheen to appeal to people who often listened to the radio but very rarely hung out in record shops.
They were the casual music fan’s new wave band, a group enjoyed by normo-s as well as hipsters, a vital component to any band breaking big. Polished until the songs shone, ‘The Cars‘ sold six million copies and stayed on the Billboard 200 album chart for 139 weeks.
It says a lot that in the wake of Ric Ocasek’s passing so many influential American musicians are talking about the importance of The Cars within their formative years. “I loved those Cars albums when I was a teenager,” tweeted Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea today.
They were a great first favourite band, as American as diner breakfasts and college football under the Friday night lights. Along with the late Tom Petty – like Bruce Springsteen, like KISS – understanding The Cars popularity means understanding the changing face of how young music fans consumed their music in ’70s and ’80s America. The Cars are perhaps the quintessential US FM rock band, while their ascendancy benefitted from MTV and the emerging importance of music TV during the era. Their song ‘You Might Think’ won Best Video at the first ever MTV Music Awards in 1984. The medium even introduced Ocasek to his third wife, Czech model Paulina Porizkova, who starred in the video to ‘Drive’. The pair were together almost three decades.
Whether with his own music, or his work as a producer, over time Ocasek became the go-to man for shiny, alternative leaning guitar pop. His discography as a producer is remarkable; he helmed the second Suicide album, in 1980, despite the group originally wanting their foray into proto-house music to be produced by Giorgio Moroder.
He did the second Bad Brains record, ‘Rock For Light’, in 1983. Weezer’s seminal ‘Blue Album‘ in 1994 (and ‘Green‘ in 2001 and ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End’ in 2014 – the band speak of the producer as their ‘mentor’). Nada Surf’s masterclass in punk pop ‘High/Low‘ in 1996. ‘I’m So Confused‘, a great Jonathan Richman record from 1998. Guided By Voices’ pitch for the big leagues, 1999’s ‘Do The Collapse‘. The Wannadies forever underrated ‘Yeah‘ the same year. Le Tigre’s swansong, ‘This Island‘, in 2004. 2015’s sixth Cribs album ‘For All My Sisters‘ is his final production credit. A record he didn’t have a hand in was The Strokes’ zeitgeist humping debut, 2001’s ‘Is This It’. But it’s a record that doesn’t exist without The Cars. The New York band even covered ‘Just What I Needed’ live.
The Cars disbanded in 1988, with their career on the wane, but creatively – it can be vigorously argued – some distance from being done. This was proven in the subsequent writing that made up their future projects, which existed outside of the attention ‘The Cars’ splashed onto the record sleeve would have brought.
As well as his solo work, Ocasek wrote some poetry, painting and spoken word. He remained creative; off the road, inhabiting a financially secure space where he could make and do as he liked. What had forced the split was the disintegrating relationship between Ocasek and Orr. Jealousy. A thirst for a bigger share of the limelight. The usual clichés. Sadly neither Orr nor Ocasek re-established contact with each other. In the case of Ocasek, it’s an unsightly blemish on an otherwise remarkable career.