The Cars ‘Just What I Needed’ at Live Aid

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The Cars

The Cars

From the moment they emerged in 1978, with their self-titled debut album and their first few singles, there was never any doubt that The Cars were on the road to hitsville. Here was a band perfect for its time, presenting no-frills, pop-rock tunes that straddled FM radio mainstream classic rock, the hip new wave, a hard rock edge and a touch of prog and synth-pop; well-crafted, hummable riffs; seriously ace musicianship, smart storylines in their lyrics and compelling vocals.

They were somehow familiar, yet they were different; a bit of a conundrum, in fact. Music critics at first couldn’t figure out how to describe them, or whom to compare them to. The Cars had little in common with the big punk acts like the Clash or Ramones; they weren’t edgy like Elvis Costello or Talking Heads; there was no novelty hook in their appearance like, say, Cheap Trick or Devo. Yes, they were incontestably videogenic—they all had good hair and dressed stylishly, an important factor in those years leading up to the rise of MTV—yet there was something pedestrian about them at the same time; flamboyant they were not. One of their two main singers was tall and gangly and the other a good-looking but unremarkable blond dude who wasn’t exactly the male equivalent of Blondie’s Debbie Harry.

For reasons that seem perplexing today, the band the Cars were compared to most often was Britain’s Roxy Music, who balanced an air of sophistication and suaveness with songs that walked the line between elegant experimental/prog and the glam vibe of the early ’70s. The Cars threw most of their experimentalism into the music: they were undeniably artsy and unafraid to make use of the new synthesizer technology of the day; they could rock hard or soothe with a ballad. As critic Robert Palmer wrote, “They have taken some important but disparate contemporary trends—punk minimalism, the labyrinthine synthesizer and guitar textures of art rock, the ’50s rockabilly revival and the melodious terseness of power pop—and mixed them into a personal and appealing blend.”

Related: The Cars are among the 2018 nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

You may not have even known why you liked the Cars, but chances are you never turned them off when they came on the radio. If you were one of the millions who bought that six-times-platinum debut album, you probably found at least a few of its nine songs—each a gem—doing some earworm damage to your head.

The Cars' debut album

The Cars’ debut album

Whatever they were, they made an immediate impact. Formed in Boston in 1976, the band consisted of singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter Ric Ocasek, the band’s nominal leader; singer and bassist Benjamin Orr; lead guitarist Elliot Easton; keyboardist Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson (who named the band and did the artwork for their album covers). They’d all been in various bands, most notably Robinson, a previous member of the popular local Boston band the Modern Lovers. In 1977 the quintet recorded a handful of demos that led to their signing with Elektra Records, best known at the time as the home of California-bred folk-rockers like the Eagles and Jackson Browne.

Paired with producer Roy Thomas Baker, the group recorded the debut album in London in early 1978, with “Just What I Needed,” written by Ocasek and sung by Orr, chosen as the first single. Released in late May, a week ahead of the album itself, “Just What I Needed,” on its surface, was a love song with a twist: the girl has her quirks and faults, the singer seems to imply (“I don’t mind you hanging out and talking in your sleep”), but in the end, he senses she’s the right one:

“I don’t mind you coming here
And wasting all my time
’Cause when you’re standing oh so near
I kinda lose my mind
It’s not the perfume that you wear
It’s not the ribbons in your hair
And I don’t mind you coming here
And wasting all my time”

The Cars gave the tune a punchy, straight-ahead beat punctuated by regular accents and, between Hawkes’ recurring keyboard motif, Easton’s tough guitar jabs (as well as a solo for the ages), and a convincing lead vocal and call-and-response harmonies, “Just What I Needed” marked them as a band to watch. The single only reached #27 in Billboard and the album #18, but both would have legs, remaining popular for years to come.

In the wake of that intro—Rolling Stone named them the best new band of ’78—the band’s popularity escalated with each passing year. Between 1979-85, the Cars released four straight top 10 albums and four top 10 singles, the biggest being the ballad “Drive,” in ’84.

Related: See where the Cars rank on our list of 10 songs that defined new wave

On October 18, four decades after their formation, the Cars—who broke up in 1988—received their second nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whether they make it this time or not, their place in rock history is assured.

Our Classic Video comes from the legendary Live Aid benefit concert of July 13, 1985, where the Cars performed four songs, including that debut of seven years earlier.

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Best Classic Bands Staff

Best Classic Bands Staff

The BCB team brings you the latest Breaking News, Contests, On This Day rock history stories, Classic Videos, retro-Charts and more.
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