Legendary musician and producer Ric Ocasek passed away on Sunday, and the whole rock world mourns his loss. Greatly respected not only by fans but by fellow musicians (and Stephen Colbert), Ocasek achieved a very rare position in the music business—one almost unheard-of: an international superstar in the 80s with his band The Cars, formed in Boston in the late 70s, he thrived in the era of the video star, at the dawning of the music video age alongside 80s juggernauts like Van Halen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson.
Ocasek was also one of the most revered producers in 80s punk and 90s alt-rock, with as much credibility in such circles as producers like Steve Albini and Butch Vig. (His credits include Bad Brain’s Rock for Light, Weezer’s Blue Album and Green Album, and records by Suicide, Hole, Bad Religion, Jonathan Richman, Guided by Voices, etc. etc.) He had a daunting work ethic, but he also had a great deal of humility and an enduring sense of what recorded music does for us.
He may have mastered the art of making hit records and slick videos, but as he told Rolling Stone in 1980, “music’s a powerful emotional force” that is, most importantly, “a way to communicate without alienating people, a way to get beyond loneliness. It’s a private thing people can have for themselves any time they want. Just turn on the radio and there it is: a sense of belonging.” That’s what The Cars gave their fans.
They created a sense of familiarity, blending synth pop, punk, and New Wave with classic rock and roll moves; five ordinary-looking joes who’d paid their bar band dues. They also sustained an air of alienation and intrigue. Willing to be silly, yet unapproachably cool, with the most weirdly oblique of pop radio hits. “With their debut album in 1978,” writes Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore, “the Cars created one of the rarest phenomena of late-Seventies rock & roll: a pop artifact that unified many factions of a pluralistic rock scene.”
“Conservative radio programmers jumped on it because of Ocasek’s consonant pop symmetry and Roy Thomas Baker’s polished, economical production; New Wave partisans favored it for its terse melodicism and ultramodern stance; and critics applauded it for its synthesis of prepunk art-rock influences, including Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Brian Eno.” The band’s reputation with critics would suffer with their sophomore album, Candy-O. And what Gilmore called the “technopop” of their third record came to define their sound in the 80s.
The Cars in 1978 were raw and edgy, even as their debut album spawned some of their most radio-friendly hit songs, including “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed” (the first three tracks on the first record, and some of the biggest songs of their entire seven-album run). See them play the early hits and more at the University of Sussex, Brighton in 1979 in the full concert film above, and let the good times roll.