Why Ric Ocasek’s ‘The Cars’ was the first new wave album you owned

Editor’s note: John Covach is director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music and a professor of music at Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of, “What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History,” and maintains an active career as a performing and recording musician. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

He was at the leading edge of ’80s New Wave, but Ric Ocasek, who died on Sunday at 75, was about the age of Bob Dylan and most of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

When he made his first commercial splash as the lead singer and songwriter of The Cars in the late 1970s, he was already a mature musician and songwriter, more than ready to earn his place in history as the driving force behind the rise of 1980s new wave rock — the music that was pushing past the likes of the Stones and Dylan.

Ocasek had ridden the course of rock history through Beatlemania, psychedelia, the singer-songwriter ’70s and the prog-rock era. His songs offered a return to ’60s pop simplicity while retaining a certain intellectual ambition in the lyrics and production. His songs were smart, sometimes a bit subversive, provocative, even quirky, but always interesting.

“The Cars,” the record that started it all, was released in the summer of 1978 — a year after the Sex Pistols’ brand of punk had stirred up England and six months after Elvis Costello had caused a rebellious scene during his appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” It was maybe the first new wave album that many rock fans owned. It deftly blended the emerging ironic aesthetic of new wave with the established stylistic conventions of ’70s rock.

On the surface, Ocasek’s early Cars songs seemed to hark back to the more innocent, pre-psychedelic years of pop — imagine American AM radio in 1965. “My Best Friend’s Girl” opens with a cleaner, less distorted guitar sound than usual for the late ’70s and uses hand claps that trigger memories of the early-’60s girl groups. The occasional hiccups in Ocasek’s lead vocal conjures up memories of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” and are reinforced by guitarist Elliot Easton’s rockabilly arpeggios that would have made Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore proud. Greg Hawkes’ organ sound is more reminiscent of Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” than stadium rockers Yes’ “Roundabout.”

But there was always more to Ocasek’s songwriting than returning to models from a bygone era. He was an enormous fan of the Velvet Underground, telling me not too long ago with great enthusiasm how influential that band’s 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” had been for him. There is indeed a certain velvet darkness that resides not too far below the seemingly sunny surface of Ocasek’s lyrics. You can hear it in “Just What I Needed”: “I guess, you’re just what I needed; I needed someone to bleed,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”: “I don’t care if you use me again; I don’t care if you abuse me again.”

His take on the 1960s was not a return to innocence, but rather an interpretation of that earlier era as viewed through a lens created by the musical developments of the 1970s.

Ocasek also produced poetry, paintings and drawings, as well as a series of solo albums. But music historians will remember him primarily for the run of six studio albums with The Cars, each of them commercially successful and including four US Top-5 albums and a string of hit singles.

Indeed, the band’s music was a staple of FM rock radio after the release of the debut album and throughout most of the 1980s. In 1984, the innovative video for “You Might Think” was voted MTV’s Video of the Year, giving Ocasek’s music a place in the history of music video as well.

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