Ric Ocasek and The Cars Led Rock’s New Wave into the MTV Era

Memories and Chart Synopsis by Rick Hiduk

The rock band The Cars came along at a time when “disco backlash” was reaching its zenith. In addition to their outward appearance, which was everything that disco wasn’t, they rocked hard without a syncopated rhythm. That’s not to say that they didn’t lay down irresistible beats under their guitar rifts, which were part rockabilly revival and not so dissimilar to those of their contemporaries.

The Cars were decidedly New Wave, while not being as “out there” as Devo, the B-52s and Talking Heads. You could dance to them, party, make out, or pop in their cassette and take them on a road trip.

I probably first heard a Cars song on Casey Kasum’s American Top 40 in the fall of 1978 when “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friends Girl” made fleeting appearances within a few weeks of each other. I was also starting to listen to Rock 107 (WEZX Scranton) with more frequency, where the Cars were ripping up the airwaves. I quickly bought “The Cars” debut lp and the “Candy-O” and disappeared into my bedroom, not to be seen for weeks.

“Panorama” came out after I started college, and it became a staple of my Penn State/Wilkes-Barre college radio show on WPSU, when it was hard for me to get ahold of my esoteric alternative music because record companies didn’t a lot us low-watt stations many demos.

The apex of my fandom came in 1981 when I dropped the ‘k’ from the end of my first name in honor of Cars’ lead singer Ric Ocasek. I had a T-shirt made with my newly modified name on the reverse. My father saw it and said “What the hell happened to the ‘k’?!” My stepmother responded, “That’s the queer way to spell it.” (That bitch always had such a way with words.) I eventually put the “k” back on my name, but a number of people met me then and still spell it that way.

The Cars became the darlings of MTV with the release of “Shake It Up.” But there was something about the song that I didn’t like. It almost seemed that the track was a caricature of their music that had preceded it. There were certainly gems on both the “Shake It Up” and “Heartbreak City” albums, but “You Might Think” also gave me cause for concern. Would The Cars, like so many great bands that got their start in the 1970s water themselves down with overt commercialism?

Nonetheless, I managed to pick some favorites off each new album and did my best to like the solo efforts by Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr, though I also feared that their “projects” would bring the band to an end. During this stretch, Ocasek’s “Emotion in Motion,” Orr’s “Stay the Night” and The Cars’ “Drive” burned their way into my collective memory. I loved “Touch And Go,” with it’s spaghetti-western guitar, even though my DJ friend Nancy Faye thought it was the worst song they ever did.

To this day, I know that “Best Friend’s Girl,” “Just What I Needed” and “Good Times Roll” will get toes tapping and generate some requests from audiences for who I am DJing in bars and at parties. They are truly among the rock classics of all time and literally define that era for many people.

The Cars were an extremely difficult band to measure by their chart success, however, because they were a true ‘album rock’ band. We listened to their lps from beginning to end, pausing our lives to flip the disc and then listen to the other side in its entirety. Many of their cuts also segued, creating medleys. The thought of putting the tracks on “random,” as we can do so easily today, would have been a sacrilege. That said, the lists that follow adhere first to Billboard Magazine’s references to The Cars’ greatest hits based on their single or track performance on various charts.

So. What was The Cars’ biggest hit?

The group’s fifth studio album, “Heartbreak City,” produced five Top 40 hits, including the bands’ biggest pop hit, “Drive,” a ballad that reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit #1 on the magazine’s Mainstream Rock Chart. It also hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, giving the song the greatest crossover appeal and therefore making it their biggest hit.

Billboard did not have a rock chart prior to 1981, so the undoubted success of many of their early album tracks and the higher positions that would have been logged by singles that had meager chartings on the Hot 100 make it nearly impossible to guess as to what might follow as The Car’s other Top 5 biggest hits of all time. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest #2 You Might Think; #3 Shake it Up; #4 Just What I Needed, and #5 My Best Friend’s Girl. (In the UK, My Best Friend’s Girl was The Cars biggest hit, followed by Drive.)

Biggest Pop Hits on Billboard’s Hot 100

Title Pk Wks Date

  1. Drive 3 19 Oct 84
  2. Shake It Up 4 22 Jan 82
  3. You Might Think 7 17 May 84
  4. Tonight She Comes 7 17 Jan 86
  5. Magic 12 17 Jul 84
  6. Let’s Go 14 15 Jul 79
  7. Emotion in Motion (RO) 15 19 Nov 86
  8. You Are the Girl 17 8 Jan 88
  9. Hello Again 20 15 Dec 84
  10. Stay the Night (BO) 24 20 Jan 87
  11. Just What I Needed 27 17 Aut 78
  12. I’m Not The One 32 11 Mar 86
  13. Why Can’t I Have You 33 17 Spr 85
  14. My Best Friends Girl 35 15 Dec 78
  15. Touch And Go 37 11 Oct 80
  16. Good Times Roll 41 10 Apr 79
  17. All I Can Do 41 10 Nov 79
  18. Since You’re Gone 41 9 Spr 82
  19. Something to Grab For (RO) 47 9 Spr 83
  20. Coming Up You 74 5 Feb 88
  21. True to You (RO) 75 8 Jan 87
  22. Strap Me In 85 4 Dec 87

(RO) Ric Ocasek solo

(BO) Benjamin Orr solo

Biggest Mainstream Rock Hits (from 1981 on)

  1. You Might Think 1(3) 14 Apr 84
  2. Tonight She Comes 1(3) 14 Dec 85
  3. Magic 1(1) 20 May 84
  4. Emotion in Motion (RO) 1(1) 12 Oct 86
  5. You Are the Girl 2(3) 8 Nov 87
  6. Shake It Up 2(2) 21 Jan 82
  7. Drive 3 21 Aug 84
  8. Strap Me In 4 11 Oct 87
  9. Something to Grab For (RO) 5 17 Mar 83
  10. Stay the Night (BO) 6 14 Dec 86
  11. True to You (RO) 9 17 Dec 86
  12. Why Can’t I Have You 11 14 Mar 85
  13. Rockaway (RO) 11 8 Jul 91
  14. Breakaway 19 8 Apr 85
  15. Hello Again 22 24 Sum 84
  16. Since You’re Gone 24 4 Apr 84
  17. Too Hot to Stop (BO) 25 8 Feb 87
  18. Jimmy Jimmy (RO) 25 1 Feb 83
  19. I’m Not The One 29 5 Mar 86
  20. It’s Not the Night 31 16 Aug 84
  21. Sad Song 33 2011
  22. The Cruiser 37 13 Jan 82
  23. Victim of Love 39 2 Feb 82
  24. Double Trouble 42 3 Dec 87

Modern Rock Tracks (from 1988 on)

  1. Rockaway (RO) 19 5 Jul 91

Biggest Adult Contemporary Hits

  1. Drive 1(3) 19 Sep 84
  2. You Are the Girl 12 12 Nov 87
  3. I’m Not The One 24 8 Mar 86
  4. Tonight She Comes 36 6 Dec 85
  5. Coming Up You 37 3 Feb 88
  6. Why Can’t I Have You 38 2 Mar 85

Popular Non-Charting Album Tracks

1978: Moving in Stereo/All Mixed Up, You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, Don’t Cha Stop, Bye Bye Love

1979: Candy-O, Double Life, Shoo Be Doo, Night Spots, Lust for Kicks, Don’t Tell Me No, Dangerous Type, Nightspots/You Can’t Hold on Too Long

1980: Panorama, Gimme Some Slack, Down Boys, Up and Down

1982: Think it Over, Maybe Baby

1983: Heartbeat City, It’s Not the Night

My Favorites:

I find that listing my favorite Cars songs is even more difficult than my attempt to rate Tom Petty’s music. But I relistened to dozens of tracks today as I composed this story. This is my best attempt. Your experiences probably vary:

  1. Moving in Stereo/All Mixed Up
  2. My Best Friends Girl
  3. Good Times Roll
  4. Let’s Go
  5. Just What I Needed
  6. Touch And Go
  7. Candy-O
  8. Don’t Tell Me No
  9. Drive
  10. I’m Not The One
  11. Since You’re Gone
  12. Emotion in Motion (RO)
  13. All I Can Do
  14. You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
  15. Bye Bye Love
  16. Magic
  17. Don’t Cha Stop
  18. The Cruiser
  19. Double Life/Shoo Be Doo
  20. Why Can’t I Have You
  21. Dangerous Type
  22. Heartbeat City
  23. Lust for Kicks
  24. Panorama
  25. Maybe Baby
  26. Gimme Some Slack
  27. Think it Over
  28. Nightspots/You Can’t Hold on Too Long
  29. Down Boys
  30. Up and Down

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