By Adam Waldman
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the self-titled debut album from The Cars. This is an album that marked a very specific point in time for me, but that’s not the only reason that it’s my favorite album by the band. There is a certain magic that they captured on their debut that (in my opinion) never existed on any of their future albums. Sure, they had a number of great songs, and an album that far exceeded their debut in terms of commercial appeal (1984’s Heartbeat City), but it was with a distinctly different sound.
Even though this album came out in 1978, it always reminds me of the summer of 1981. I can still picture listening to this album over and over again with a group of friends as if it was yesterday. So, what makes this album better than their incredibly popular 1984 release? It’s a collection of songs that all have a similar vibe, which is no easy feat considering that The Cars were blending elements of rock, power pop, punk, and art rock.
The Cars debut album seems to be filled with fairly simple, straightforward songs, but that’s only on the surface. When you pay attention to the nuance of heavy synthesizers seamlessly integrated with crunching guitar riffs, you start to realize that there is much more to these songs than meets the eye (or ear as the case may be). Beyond the musicianship, there is something captivating and unique about Ric Ocasek’s vocal phrasing.
If I’m being honest, the only two albums that I love by The Cars are the self-titled debut, and their follow-up album, Candy-O. While I appreciate some of their more popular radio hits, those songs skewed a bit too far towards pop for my taste.
Candy-O is actually the album that introduced me to the band with the song “Let’s Go.” It is also the source of one of the most memorable moments of my youth. For some reason, my mom hated the idea of me wearing any kind of black shirt with a band or album cover on it. She somehow equated it with being a delinquent I suppose.
Being a rebellious teenager, I went to the local flea market with my older cousins when my extended family was visiting us. Though I knew that it would probably stir up some shit, I came home with two black concert type shirts. One of which featured the album cover of Candy-O. By today’s standards, the album cover is fairly tame, but back then, it was a bit risqué for a tween. My whole family still laughs to this day when we talk about “the black shirt incident.”
I had The Cars debut album on cassette, which made skipping songs a bit annoying, so I used to suffer through the two tracks that I didn’t really like. My opinion was changed about one of the tracks in 1982 when I saw the movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
If you were a teenage boy back then, you probably already know why I became an instant fan of “Moving In Stereo.” The song, which initially felt kind of spacey and strange, quickly became associated with the fantasy scene where Phoebe Cates emerges from the pool and bares her breasts to a fantasizing Judge Reinhold. Again, tame by today’s standards, but back then it was titillating (pun intended).
Even though “Moving In Stereo” went on to become one of my favorite songs by The Cars (and of the ‘80s for that matter), there is still one song on the album that stops it from being perfect for me – “I’m In Touch With Your World.” As I listened to it recently (with an open mind), I still felt like it just doesn’t live up to the quality of the other eight songs on the album. I equate the song to the obtrusive tree that Bob Ross would often add to otherwise beautiful landscape paintings.
The saying “less is more” certainly applies in this case. What makes the song even more obtrusive is that it wasn’t left as a weak closing track, but falls right in the middle of the album after “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed.” It’s like a speed bump in the middle of an open highway for me.
“All Mixed Up” – the actual closing track of the album – was always one that I liked, but not as much as the beginning of the album. That was then…this is now. Listening to the song recently, I came to realize that it is actually the perfect closer for the album. It’s almost like a conclusion of a story. Throughout the album, The Cars showcase a number of different sounds. On “All Mixed Up,” they basically take a little bit of each element of their sound and deliver a microcosm of the entire album. They even throw in some tasteful saxophone parts as the song fades out.
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