Just What I Needed: The Cars’ Debut Album

A tribute to The Cars’ eponymous debut, in memory of Ric Ocasek.

‘This is a very interesting debut LP. The vocals and pacing of the band recall such new wave acts as Television and Talking Heads. And then Roy Thomas Baker’s production rolls over this plaintive-tentative sound with Queen’s megaforce. It could have sounded grotesque but somehow it works. It creates an interesting tension in the music. Similarly, chords bounce against riffs, and sweet vocal harmonies back a Jonathan Richman-like stiffness. What this five-man band has achieved (with Baker’s very able production) is a synthesis of new wave ideas with a commercial pop veneer.’ – Billboard, 1978.

Original album advertising art.

Many years ago, my father had a compilation album called the Best of the Old Grey Whistle Test. It used to compete with the obligatory copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits for pride of place in the car stereo. That was how I was first exposed to the Cars song Just What I Needed. I was hooked right from that punchy intro. When I got to the stage where I was regularly routing through vinyl albums in local stores I was overjoyed to find the Cars debut album and saw that Just What I Needed was on there. And that song was in good company. I was impressed when I learned that it was indeed their first album, and continue to be impressed by it to this day. For an album recorded in 1978 and released on June 6 of that year it has aged exceedingly well. The band themselves used to joke that the album should have been called The Cars’ Greatest Hits.

The Cars had formed in 1975, all experienced musicians from the Boston music scene. Ric Ocasek, who sadly passed away on September 15 2019, and Benjamin Orr in particular had already played in bands together before. Ric played rhythm guitar and sang lead vocals, though bass player Ben would also sing lead on certain tracks. Indeed some of the better known songs like the ‘80s hit Drive were sung by Ben. Ric was the principle songwriter in the band, which also featured lead guitarist Elliot Easton, drummer David Robinson and keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Their experience shines through on this opening effort, which was produced by Roy Thomas Baker, known for his work with Queen.

The album opens with the cheerfully titled Let The Good Times Roll, but don’t be deceived. It may sound like a happy little song, and indeed the music is uplifting, if quirky, but the lyrics tell a different story. They seem to mock other rock songs portrayal of the so-called good times, sarcastically. Whether you are in on the joke or not, it’s a fun track. Right off the bat, the band show their keen sense of dynamics. The song builds gradually, starting with guitar and vocals before introducing the drums and bass, followed by the keyboards. There are some lovely layered backing vocals, which was Baker’s idea and something that Ocasek didn’t originally take to. While such backing vocals are something associated with Baker and Queen, this doesn’t feel like a rip-off. They sit nicely with the band’s sound. Like the majority of the album’s songs, this is a short and sweet number packing everything into three minutes and forty four seconds.

My Best Friend’s Girl is another case of the band building the song up in stages, and starts to showcase lead guitarist Elliot’s ability with some tasty fills and a cracking solo. Cars’ guitar solos always feel very economical to me, short melodic passages you could sing along too. His more flamboyant style, though not too over the top, nicely balances with Ric’s more restrained approach to rhythm guitar. There’s an old school rockabilly riff that kicks into a classic chorus with call and response between the lead and backing vocals. Ric sounds strangely quite happy about his best friend ending up with an ex-girlfriend, but then the lyrics aren’t drawn from personal experience.

After the fade out of track two, we head straight into a full-tilt rocker in Just What I Needed. We get some more of the band’s dynamics with a very distinctive intro. The chugging bass note and stabs really hook you in from the start. This is the first song on the album sung by Ben. There’s a distinct difference between the two lead singers. Ric delivers his lyrics in a quirky manner, very ably, but Ben had a superb voice for rock and the better range. The lyric “wasting all my time – time” is a nod to Sister Ray by the Velvet Underground, but the song has some great lyrics of its own. “It doesn’t matter where you been, as long as it was deep” and “You always knew to wear it well, you look so fancy, I can tell” really leaping out at me. Like Elliot’s lead guitar on other tracks, the keyboards have an immensely singable melody that helps keep you hooked. And just in case you were getting comfortable with where the song is going, they climb up and finish on a major chord where you wouldn’t expect one, with the keys hanging on with a distinctive vibrato effect.

I’m In Touch With Your World is a big shift tonally from Just What I Needed, laidback and idiosyncratic as Ric returns to the mic for lead vocals. Greg Hawkes introduces his saxophone into the mix. There’s a lot of thought clearly gone into the arrangement of bass and guitars here, and again there’s a nice touch of dynamics.

This is followed by another rocker, picking up the pace again with a powerful upbeat guitar riff and driving drums. For a song entitled Don’t Cha Stop, there are a lot of tiny stops and starts as the band present another cleverly arranged track. Halfway into the album and there’s been a range of interesting rhythms, and distinctive chord sequences.

Again, the album switches tempo and provides us with a more laidback affair in You’re All I’ve Got Tonight. It chugs along nicely, more restrained than Don’t Cha Stop, but there’s still plenty of tasty guitar fills and another great solo. The track was often played back to back with the next track on the album, which kicks in virtually immediately after You’re All I’ve Got Tonight stops dead. Bye Bye Love opens with a powerful riff worthy of AC/DC, and really kicks into high gear. But rather than over-use said riff, this song moves on and switches with ease from punchy stabs to frillier arpegiated passages. Ben is back on vocals, and will see us out now for the rest of the album. Furthermore, while his bass playing has been quite unobtrusive to this point, he starts to pepper the intro with some little melodic runs. It seems each member of the band knew how to keep things tasteful.

Bye Bye Love is where the album really starts to feel like it’s building up, with an intense but catchy chorus and solos from both guitar and keyboards. All the main elements of the band are here, with another catchy set of keyboard melodies hooking you in as Ben belts out the lead vocal showing what a great rock singer he was. As the band rock out towards the end, they return to a variation of the intro riff that keeps the listener on their toes trying to guess when it will end.

While the next track, Moving In Stereo is more laid back than Bye Bye Love, it’s moody and intense. Ben continues to showcase some more melodic, though distorted, bass fills, and a swirling filter effect with a ton of reverb really adds to the atmosphere. Like You’re All I’ve Got Tonight and Bye Bye Love, Moving In Stereo and All Mixed Up are often played back to back on the radio in the US. Moving In Stereo continues to ramp things up, and the bands dynamics are in full swing with a slow building instrumental section with a haunting melody from the keys, which are in turn joined by the lead guitar. The synths start to become more layered, and add to the droning bass frequencies. As the band build up the volume the track becomes more tense. It feels its really leading to something special. Greg’s work here is particularly impressive, he was pushing the boundaries of the technology available to him at the time. Suddenly the pressure drops as the section ends in a short but satisfying bass solo from Ben. All this in just over five minutes.

But just as it seems the track is going to fade out, it appears things aren’t over yet. It flows smoothly into All Mixed Up, the closing song of the album. Though the tempo stays the same, some urgent work on the cymbals starts to drive things along more. The rest of the band keep things light, however, until some guitar chords come crashing in between verses. We’re treated to another great chorus, with call and response in the vocals and jangling chord work. And as well as another guitar solo, this song allows Greg Hawkes to step away from the keys and cut loose with his sax. The final chorus swells, building up a crescendo. And although these two linked tracks are slightly longer than the majority of other songs on the album, they certainly don’t drag.

And that’s the Cars for you. Not just the album, but the band. They were able to craft short catchy songs, each member bringing something special to the mix. It’s no wonder that when they released their 2011 comeback album, Move Like This, they chose not to replace Ben. Greg took over bass duties, and they remembered their colleague, who passed away in the year 2000 in the liner notes.

“Ben, your spirit was with us on this one.”

All five musicians were clearly gifted in their respective areas, but knew when to cut loose and when to hold back. This first album is the perfect introduction to a band that knew their strengths and limitations and played to them. It’s an album that holds the attention, keeping things fresh and defying expectations at times, one that I’ve still picked out new things while listening to it for the umpteenth time. Don’t blame me if you listen to it and end up a fan.

❉ ‘The Cars’ was released on June 6, 1978, on Elektra Records. Producer‎: ‎Roy Thomas Baker. The six-CD box set of The Elektra Years 1978-1987 was released on 11 March 2016, with the CD and 2LP editions of Moving In Stereo: The Best Of The Cars released on 6 March 2016.

Richard Green is an experienced musician and songwriter who dabbles with creative writing and fan fiction, amongst other things. He drawa on a wide range of influences from various mediums, be it music, comics, film, books, TV or radio. This is his first contribution to We Are Cult.

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