Retro Spin: Remembering the hits of The Cars

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With the death this week of Cars’ front man, Ric Ocasek, remembering some of the group’s most iconic songs seems appropriate. The songs catalogued here might not be hits in regard to official charts, but for those who developed an appreciation for the kinetic, synthesizer and guitar blend that would come to characterize the band’s sound.

1. “You Can’t Hold On Too Long” by the Cars

The synthesizer motif stops just short of being haunting. The sound has an up and down feel that is accented by individual notes that seem to point out a change in musical dynamics. The guitar keeps a hollow, yet rather hard-edged sound. The drums kick in most noticeably between verse and chorus. All of the instrumentation recedes into the background during the verses.

The song itself is a description of a woman who appears to keep the company of many men, but perhaps fails at making herself happy. Lines like “You’re feeling cross and wavy/ on the edge of the cuff/you’re pushin’ and poppin’/ you don’t get enough” from verse two, and “You’re surrounded by the laughing boys/they puncture your style” and “you can’t be too choosy/it’s just for fun” from verse three precede the chorus of “You can’t hold on too long/it’s alright.”

If the earlier part of the song is a bit laid back, especially where guitar riffs are concerned, things pick up and the burgeoning hard-edged sound becomes a searing set of riffs toward the end. The sounds begin to layer, and the nonchalance from earlier becomes a rocking series of sound.

“You Can’t Hold On Too Long” is one of the songs that can be used to illustrate the band’s rock ‘n’ roll poetry used to detail sophisticated late night scenes. It is rare that a woman in a Cars’ song is simple. Or at least she is not described with simple language. “You Can’t Hold On Too Long” is found on The Cars’ sophomore album, “Candy-O.”

2. “Let’s Go” by The Cars

“Let’s Go” is also found on “Candy-O.” It is another song sung by bassist Ben Orr (who died in 2000). “Candy-O” reached No. 14 in the US and went as high as No. 6 in Australia. Critics have generally applauded the song that includes a tight, almost terse, New Wave sound, that broke right before the chorus, and a series of heavy drum beats in a suddenly empty soundscape. In addition, critics and fans have mentioned the sarcastic lyrics as part of the song’s fun. For example: “She’s driving away/with the dim lights on” starts the song, which sets people up for the characterization to come. Yet, the narrator declares the young woman “…a frozen fire/she’s my one desire.”

The song is an American New Wave explosion of sound. There are deep synthesizer notes that follow the phrase “let’s go” that lead immediately to the chorus, which is full of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. In multiple ways, the song is a romp.

3. “Moving In Stereo” by The Cars

From The Cars’ debut, self-titled album from 1978, “Moving in Stereo” is moody, atmospheric and a perfect introduction to the sound that the band had crafted that allowed them to fit in with New Wave and rock ‘n’ roll radio station playlists.

The song never builds into the almost frenzy that some Cars’ songs work themselves into. The vocals are deep (by Ocasek), the instrumentation pitch is low, and there is a sound much like rushing night air that is likely created by a synthesizer that adds to the atmosphere.

“Magic” by The Cars

By 1984, The Cars were back and pushing the New Wave boundaries even more by infusing it with pop. “Magic” can be found on the album, “Heartbeat City.” The song is full of synthesizer sounds that are girded by heavy bass guitar notes – – each one seeming to reverberate in its own bubble of sound, as synthesizer sounds pop and sparkle around them. The song sounds like a day at the pool with rock music. Even Ocasek’s intoning “Summer/it turns you upside down/summer, summer, summer/it’s like a merry-go-round,” makes the song feel like summer vacation.

The song’s theme seems simple enough. “It’s magic/when I’m with you,” forms part of the chorus. The band’s vocals are harmonized and sound particularly bright. “Oh-oh/it’s magic…” the backing vocals sing. The song is simply fun, without being too light.

Other songs that people shouldn’t miss by The Cars include: “It’s All Mixed Up,” “Drive,” and “Dangerous Type.”

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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