Monday, September 16, 2019

The Late Great Ric Ocasek

When it comes to music, nineteen seventy-eight would be a pivotal year for me. I turned fifteen in March, but at that point the majority of my favourite bands all came from the Sixties: The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Monkees, Paul Revere & The Raiders, and so on. That would change in 1978. Cheap Trick had released two previous albums, but it was in 1978 that I took notice of them with their third album, Heaven Tonight, along with the single "Surrender." They have remained one of my favourite bands ever since. It was later that same year that The Cars' self-titled debut album came out. The Cars' blend of pop rock, power pop, and New Wave appealed to me as a teenager, so that they also became one of my all time favourite bands. Their lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and primary songwriter was Ric Ocasek. It was Ric Ocasek who wrote the band's many hits, among them "Just What I Needed," "Let's Go," and "You Might Think." The Cars became one of the major bands of the late Seventies into the Eighties, and their influence is still felt today.

Sadly, Ric Ocasek died yesterday at the age of 75. He was found unconscious and unresponsive in his Manhattan town house. No cause had yet been determined, but he had been recuperating from surgery according to his wife Paulina Porizkova.

Ric Ocasek was born Richard Theodore Otcasek in Baltimore on March 23 1944. He credited his grandmother with spurring his interest in music. She convinced him to sing when he was a child and bought him his first guitar when he was 14. When he was a teenager his family moved to Cleveland, where he graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1963. He briefly attended Antioch College and Bowling Green State University, both in Ohio, before dropping out to pursue a career in music.

It was in 1965 that Ric Ocasek met Benjamin Orr, who would later become the bassist for The Cars. The two formed a folk-pop duo called Millkwood. Milkwood would record one album, How's the Weather, that was released in 1973 by Paramount Records. In addition to Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr, Milkwood's only album featured Greg Hawkes on keyboards. Mr. Hawkes would later become the keyboardist for The Cars. How's the Weather failed to chart and as a result Milkwood came to an end.

Following Milkwood, Messrs. Ocasek, Orr, and Hawkes formed a band called Richard and The Rabbits. Greg Hawkes would leave the band to tour with the comedy act Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture, after which Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr played as an acoustic duo called Ocasek and Orr. They had a regular gig at The Idler, a coffee house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the songs they played at this time were songs that would later be played by The Cars.

Ocasek and Orr then joined forces with lead guitarist Elliot Easton to form the band Cap'n Swing. Cap'n Swing attracted the attention of WBCN DJ Maxanne Sartori, who played songs from their demo tape on her show. Cap'n Swing was rejected by several record labels, after which the drummer and bassist were fired. Benjamin Orr, who had been singing lead vocals with Cap'n Swing but not playing an instrument, took over the bass. David Robinson, who had played with The Modern Lovers, became the new drummer. Greg Hawkes returned to play keyboards. It was David Robinson who came up with the name "The Cars." The Cars played gigs throughout New England in 1977. Early that year they recorded an eleven song demo tape. Their song "Just What I Needed" received airplay on the Boston radio stations WBCN and WCOZ. It was their popularity in New England that led The Cars to be signed by Elektra Records. Their first album, The Cars, was released in June 1978.

The Cars' debut album proved to be a success, peaking at no. 18 on the Billboard album chart. The album produced the hit singles "Just What I Needed" (which went to no. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100) and "My Best Friend's Girl" (which went to no. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100).  The Cars would have even more success with their next album, Candy-O, released in 1979. Candy-O went to no. 3 on the Billboard album chart. It produced the hit single "Let's Go" (which went to no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100), as well as songs that received a good deal of FM radio airplay ("Candy-O" and "The Dangerous Type").

Candy-O established The Cars as one of the premiere bands of the late Seventies and Eighties. Except for Door to Door in 1987, every album they released ranked in the top ten of the Billboard album chart: Panorama (peaking at no. 5), Shake It Up (peaking at no. 9), and Heartbeat City (peaking at no. 3). The band also had several hit singles: "Shake It Up" in 1981 (peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100), "You Might Think" (peaking at no. 7), "Magic" (peaking at no. 12), "Drive" (peaking at no. 3), "Hello Again" (peaking at no. 20), and "Tonight She Comes" (peaking at no. 7).

In the Eighties Ric Ocasek would also begin a solo career. His first solo album, Beatitude, was released in 1982. A second solo album, This Side of Paradise, was released in 1986. His single, "Emotion in Motion," would go to no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also in the Eighties that Ric Ocasek began producing other artists on a regular basis. His first production credit was Suicide's album Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev  in 1980. In the Eighties he would also produce Romeo Void's album Benefactor (1982), Bad Brains' album Rock for Light (1983), Alan Vega's album Saturn Strip (1983), and Suicide's album A Way of Life (1988).

The Cars announced their break up in February 1988. It came following the release of their album Door to Door in 1987, which had only peaked at no. 27 on the Billboard album chart.

The Nineties saw Ric Ocasek release further solo albums: Fireball Zone in 1991, Quick Change World in 1993, Negative Theater (a double album including songs from Quick Change World released in Europe) in 1993, and Troublziing in 1997. He also continued to work as a producer, producing Suicide's album Why We Be Blue (1991), Black 47's album Fire of Freedom (1993), Alan Vega's album New Raceion (1993), Weezer's Blue Album (1994), Bad Brains' album God of Love (1995), Bad Religion's album The Gray Race (1996), Nada Surf's album High/Low (1996), D Generation's album No Lunch (1998), Jonathan Richman's album I'm So Confused (1998), Possum Dixon 's album New Sheets (1998), Guided by Voices' album Do the Collapse (1999), and The Wannadies' album Yeah (1999).

In the Naughts Ric Ocasek released his final solo album, Nexterday (2005). He produced Weezer's The Green Album (2001), Le Tigre's album This Island (2004), and The Pink Spiders' album Teenage Graffiti. In 2003 he was briefly Elektra Records' senior vice president of artists and repertoire. Unfortunately, Elektra rejected all of his choices and he lasted less than a year.

In the Teens Ric Ocasek reunited with the surviving members of The Cars (Benjamin Orr having died in 2000 from pancreatic cancer) to record the album Move Like This. It reached no. 7 on the Billboard album chart. He produced Weezer's album Everything Will be Alright in the End (2014) and The Cribs' album For All My Sisters (2015).

Ric Ocasek also wrote a book of poetry, Negative Theater, that had been meant to be published alongside the album of the same name. He was also an artist, doodling frequently and making photo collages and other mixed-media works of art. In 2009 his work was displayed at an art galley in Columbus, Ohio. He played a role of a mechanic in the 1987 film Made in Heaven and had a cameo in John Water's 1988 film Hairspray.

Given how much time has passed since the late Seventies and the Eighties, younger generations may not realise the impact that The Cars had. In my humble opinion, alongside The Ramones and Cheap Trick, The Cars were among the most influential bands to emerge from the late Seventies. It is not simply a case that they were a sharp break from the progressive rock and blues-oriented rock of the late Sixties and early Seventies. It is not simply a case that they marked a return to pop songs that were only three to four minutes in length. It is a case that The Cars blended the conciseness of New Wave with the basicity of garage rock or punk and the aural density of power pop. Indeed, while many bands in the late Seventies were either synthesiser-driven bands or guitar-driven bands, The Cars were both.

It was The Cars' fusion of rock subgenres that made the band so successful. Punk and New Wave fans could relate to the relative simplicity and brevity of The Cars' music. Power pop fans could relate to The Cars' melodic ingenuity and density of sound. The general public could relate to their hook-laden songs. What is more, The Cars did all of this without any sense of compromise. There was never any sense that The Cars were selling out. What is more, they weren't afraid to experiment. The Cars' album Panorama was both darker and more experimental. While it wasn't as well received as their first two albums, it still demonstrated that The Cars were capable of more than brief, catchy, upbeat pop songs.

Of course, here I have been discussing The Cars, but then it is impossible to separate The Cars from Ric Ocasek. He was the band's primary songwriter, with Greg Hawkes having co-written a few songs with him. While there can be no doubt that the other members of The Cars made their contributions, there can also be no doubt that Ric Ocasek was the primary architect of The Cars' sound. Indeed, his solo work sounds more or less like, well, The Cars. Of course, Ric Ocasek was not only skilled as a songwriter, but as a producer as well. He produced synth-punk duo Suicide, hardcore punk band Bad Brains, and pop punk/power pop band Weezer. Ric Ocasek left an imprint on rock music that will never fade or go away. Years from now there will still be bands showing the influence of The Cars.

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