The Cars’ Debut: Just What We Needed

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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: Our coverage of the Cars’ Rock Hall Class of 2018 induction

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).

Related: Ric Ocasek died at age 75, in 2019

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.

Related: Our interview with the Cars

This photo appeared in the Apr. 15, 1978 issue of Record World

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. Issued May 29, a week ahead of the album’s June 6 release, “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.

Listen to two other favorites from their great debut

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Watch them perform “My Best Friend’s Girl” on The Midnight Special a few months after the album was released

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. They broke up in 1988.

Watch the legendary Live Aid benefit concert of July 13, 1985, where the Cars performed four songs, including that debut of seven years earlier

The album—and other Cars’ recordings—is available here.

Best Classic Bands Staff
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6 Comments so far

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  1. Richy
    #1 Richy 9 September, 2021, 08:55

    What a terrific band they were, love them still.

    Reply this comment
  2. Da Mick
    #2 Da Mick 9 September, 2021, 17:57

    The production and musicality of their records can’t be beat, which is all that matters, really. But The Cars level of fame was a problem for them as a touring band, as they just couldn’t bring much energy to the big stages, beyond their music. Their shows were like watching a painting play. a record. TP & the Heartbreakers had much the same problem when they reached the zenith of their fame — their music was great, but on big stages they just didn’t have much in the way of stage dynamics, which is a challenge for all bands when they get that big,

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  3. TyStick
    #3 TyStick 7 June, 2022, 05:25

    Probably the Best band to come from the New Wave era, Ben Orr and the Cars were unique. Their first album was a smash. I was lucky enough to see them at San Francisco’s Cow Palace during the “Shake It Up” tour. They sang hit after hit. I still play they as often as I did back in the day. With the release of their albums on SACD its like listening to the The Cars all over again. Their sound is so fresh and alive.

    Reply this comment
    • Gigi
      Gigi 8 June, 2022, 03:58

      Love my Cars!!! They came out when I was a junior in high school. Remember jamming them as loud as I could in my car playing the cars. One of my all time best favorite bands. Got to see them a few years later in concert. Like you said, hit after hit. Will never forget it. It makes me want to cry that that Rick Ocasek and Orr are gone. I just absolutely love their music and especially All Mixed Up, Candy-o, every single song!!! Forever remember them during my high school and college years and beyond!

      Reply this comment
  4. Da Mick
    #4 Da Mick 7 June, 2022, 22:56

    New wave pop spawned from a rockabilly sensibility, with Bowie-influenced vocals — what’s not to like?

    Reply this comment
  5. Lgbpop
    #5 Lgbpop 8 June, 2024, 06:43

    So many people comment about stage presence, or the lack of it…who cares? I went to Cars concerts to listen to, and get lost in the music. Think about it; people didn’t buy Fords or Packards because of public presence; they bought good cars backed up by excellent service. The Cars didn’t have to be video stars on stage – they let their music do the talking for them. Same with Roy Orbison…this guy with the mousy eyes and double chin came onstage, barely moved about…then opened his mouth and sang, all four octaves of his range, presented so loudly he almost didn’t need a sound system. No falsetto garbage, either. When he’d rear back and hit a note two octaves above high-C, he HIT it. I only saw him twice in concert but the experiences were electrifying. Same with the Cars…they may not have looked like much, but what they performed was magic. Thank the Lord I was from Massachusetts; I saw them dozens of times. They never failed to produce quality music.

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