Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Cars: The Cars

Review # 68
Artist: The Cars
Title: The Cars
Format: LP
Label: Elektra/Asylum Records
Year: 1978
Songs: 9

Many people say that the Cars were basically a cleaned-up, commercial version of early punk, made marketable by stripping away most controversial elements of the form and divorcing it more or less entirely from the subculture. I think that's pretty much correct, but I like the Cars anyway. Even though the Cars were basically selling a safe version of much more interesting music happening at that time, it's impossible to deny that they knew how to write great pop songs, and on no record is that so wonderfully clear than on their self-titled debut LP. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it is really the only Cars album you need.

Side A features three perfect pop gems that are, not coincidentally, three of the band's best known tracks: "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," and "Just What I Needed." I have stories about two of these three. Back when I used to work retail, I worked with a guy who'd been playing rock music for a long time and had toured as an opening act for the Cars way back in the day.  He claimed to have written "My Best Friend's Girl." Not the lyrics, but the music, he claimed, was taken from a song by the band he was playing with at the time. They were never, he said, given credit for writing the song nor payed for their tune. While his story sounded feasible, I'll never know if it was true or not. I can say that even 20 odd years later, he was still bitter about it. I guess if a famous band stole my song and I never made it, I'd be upset too.

"Just What I Needed" is my favorite track from the record, and indeed, my favorite Cars song. This song will forever conjure for me memories of the Hi*Score Arcade on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The Hi*Score was one of my favorite places to hang out between 1998 or so and the night they closed, which I think must have been 2001. It was a video and pinball game arcade that also sold 80s nostalgia items and often had all-ages punk rock shows in an era when those were very hard to come by in Seattle. There was a also a pretty good collection of zines there, and the owners didn't mind if you just came in and sat on the couch and read them. It was a real community space for the punk and DIY music scenes in Seattle for several years. The newspaper I helped found had its first meeting there, and I saw countless shows and spent hours playing pinball over the years that it was open.  And, for whatever reason, "Just What I Needed" always seemed to be playing on the jukebox when I walked in. I came to associate that song with the Hi*Score arcade. I went there the last night they were open, for the farewell party, and for once, it wasn't playing. After playing some games and chatting with the owner for a bit, I put "Just What I Needed" on the jukebox. It was the last quarter I spent at the Hi*Score, and I still feel wistful when I think about it.

So those are my stories.  The rest of the songs are also good. Side one concludes with "I'm in Touch With Your World" and "Don't Cha Stop," both of which are Devo-esque and the later of which has a driving beat and a lead guitar part that I love. Side two has another of their pop hits "Your All I've Got Tonight" and the eerie and synthesizer heavy "Moving in Stereo," which always conjures images for me of driving at night in the city. The only thing I don't like about this record is that it has a pretty weak finish. "All Mixed Up" is the only song on this record that sounds like boring '70s rock. It lacks the herky-jerky feel of many of the other songs on the record and the harmonies just come off a little too smooth and produced. Plus, it's the slowest song on the record. Poor choice for a closing number.

Aside from that though, it really covers just about every Cars song you could want, except I suppose "Let's Go" and "Drive," the latter of which I've never actually cared for, but I guess was a big hit. You can find this album at thrift stores (I did) and you should pick it up if you don't already own it.

Here's "Just What I Needed." If you can remember the Hi*Score, put this on and raise a glass.

Total songs listened: 836

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